Peter Sparling Dance Company

November 9, 2001

The Peter Sparling Dance appeared in Orfeo.
Courtesy Peter Sparling Dance Company

Orfeo ed Euridice

Choreography and direction by Peter Sparling
With the Peter Sparling Dance Company

The Michigan Theater
Ann Arbor, Michigan

November 9?11, 2001

Reviewed by Susan Isaacs Nisbett

Lost souls are at the heart of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s revolutionary 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice: The bereft Orpheus, pining for his beloved bride, Euridice, wrenched from his side by death; Euridice, lost in the underworld until her husband descends to brave the Furies and find her among the Blessed Spirits. To express their love and longing, Gluck relied on words and music of telling simplicity, but also, to an unprecedented degree, on dance, the song of the body.

And so, when choreographer Peter Sparling and pianist-conductor Martin Katz, two local luminaries with international reputations, proposed a dance-opera production of Orfeo to Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society, the presenting organization bit. It became a producer for the first time in its 121 years, signing up three spectacular opera singers (contralto Ewa Podlés as Orfeo; soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian as Euridice; soprano Lisa Saffer as Amor) to complete a cast that included the Peter Sparling Dance Company, the Ann Arbor Symphony, and the UMS Choral Union. University of Michigan School of Music singers, who starred in a workshop performance last May, formed an alternate cast of soloists for the November shows.

Sparling’s company of eight dancers were the main attraction in Orfeo‘s two big back-to-back dance pieces. In the Dance of the Furies, they whipped about like gargoyles in motion, trailing the red flames of Nephelie Andonyadis’s costumes. In the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, they wafted on the soothing billows of Gluck’s score, led through set designer Graceann Warn’s sunlit Elysium by the willowy, chiffon-clad Julianne O’Brien Pedersen.

But as director, Sparling’s role went far beyond these dances; so, too, did his company’s participation. Turning his experience of dance theater and Greek myth to his advantage, Sparling, a former Martha Graham Dance Company principal, moved the singers about expertly and created dance doppelgangers for Orfeo and Euridice. They trailed the singers, reinforcing in gesture the meaning of words and music?often to the orchestral echoes of the singers’ phrases. As Orfeo’s shadow, Lisa Catrett-Belrose took Podlés’s hand in sympathy, mourned with her, and as Podlés sang of losing Euridice, gave her a white cloth that recalled Euridice’s shroud. It made for effective and moving theater, without a trace of confusion or self-consciousness. An early scene likewise made for riveting theater: Euridice’s mummy-like “shade,” O’Brien Pederson, was released from her winding cloth to dance behind it, pressing her body into it.

Indeed, Sparling’s sole misstep as director came early, in a setting of the overture as a danced prologue. Here, efforts at humor and the introduction of characters extraneous to the opera failed for lack of context and a frame in which to situate them.