Michael Parmenter's OrphEus makes a bold move away from traditional renditions

by Francesca Horsley / 09 March, 2018
Dancers in OrphEus: a dance opera that addresses modern dilemmas. Photo/John McDermott

Dancers in OrphEus: a dance opera that addresses modern dilemmas. Photo/John McDermott

RelatedArticlesModule - OrphEus

Rather than creating a traditional version of the underworld, Parmenter has set OrphEus in a refugee camp.

“Let your movement flow like calligraphy when the pen does not leave the paper.” Auckland master choreographer Michael Parmenter is entreating his dancers as they slowly begin a day’s rehearsal for his new work, OrphEus: A Dance Opera.

Working in pairs, one dancer lightly creates a movement on the fellow dancer’s limb or body with scooping, fluid strokes. The companion dancer, with eyes closed, develops the movement crafted by the lead dancer, following the stroke’s trajectory. They create mesmeric poetry.

As they travel around the studio, the pairs are perfecting the radical choreography improvisation technique called “Piloting’’ and its staccato movement counterpoint, ‘‘Tactics’’, that Parmenter has developed over the past 10 years. This exchange between the “pilot”, who creates movement signals, and the “passenger”, who responds, is the mainstay of the work’s creative process.

It is also the metaphor for the work. In the Greek and Roman legends, Orpheus could move mountains, people and animals through the vibrations of his lyre and his song. Revisiting these myths, Parmenter has adapted the action to address modern dilemmas of how we are moved, and how we resist if the movement is not leading us in a positive direction.

Says Parmenter: “The fundamental thing about Orpheus that attracts me is the way people are moved. The political question that intrigues me is, how are we, as voting people in a political society, seduced or enticed to follow a certain way of thinking, particularly as the alternative is very confusing? There is no doubt the new multi-religious, multicultural global world is going to be messy and difficult. Certain voices are trying to seduce us into saying that the new order is wrong, that we have to go back to Christian Europe and a white, male-dominated society.”

Michael Parmenter. Photo/Helen Mitchell

A co-production with the Auckland Arts Festival, the New Zealand Festival and the New Zealand Dance Company, OrphEus is epic in both concept and design. It involves nine dancers; four singers, including Aaron Sheehan, one of the world’s leading early-music singers; and the baroque ensemble Latitude 37. There is also a movement chorus of 25 volunteers, drawn from a range of ages and nationalities.

Parmenter has woven two legends together: the voyage Orpheus makes with Jason and the Argonauts, and his journey to the underworld to bring back his beloved wife, Eurydice. As a member of the Argo’s community, “Orpheus is there to calm the storm so the boat can get through, to keep the rhythm so that the oarsmen can row in time. So he represents the ordered, structural element in this society. His traditional role as tamer of beasts is there, too, because he plays his music and sends to sleep the dragon protecting the Golden Fleece.

“I have taken advantage of the fact that there are different sources of the legend from which to draw on – poetry, vase paintings, lyric poetry – and that gives me permission, I suppose, to configure the narrative in the way that I want. I have constructed a narrative of Orpheus that is as much political as it is personal, and relational with Orpheus and Eurydice.”

Parmenter says the idea in the legend of the temptation to look back is interesting.

“Today’s Siren voices are wanting us to look back. I think we have to acknowledge we are going into this messy and dangerous territory, but we have to stay with the difficulty. This is where Orpheus becomes a positive symbol, because he is the person who is able to turn the loss of his wife the first time into this incredible song. He is the only mortal who can get into the underworld to convince the gods to let him bring her back. It is his ability to transcend tragedy and turn it, through an imaginative use of sound, into a way of moving forward. His story highlights the things that have to be negotiated.”

One of Parmenter’s great passions is dancing to the voice – and for Orpheus the score is taken from two 17th-century French composers, Antoine Boësset and Étienne Moulinié.

Both wrote music for the court ballet when there was a political role for the choreography and narrative to represent the proper order of society, which revolved around Louis XIV’s court.

The tale of Orpheus is enjoying an international renaissance, with musicals, contemporary dance companies and opera all mounting versions. But rather than creating a traditional version of the underworld, Parmenter has set it as a refugee camp, such as on the Italian island of Lampedusa or the area where groups of rough-sleepers wait by the wall at Calais.

“A holding place for stateless citizens. They have no power to go forward or to go back, because they are coming from a war zone.”

OrphEus: A Dance Opera, by Michael Parmenter, New Zealand Dance Company, Auckland Arts Festival, the Civic, Auckland, March 9-11; New Zealand Festival, Opera House, Wellington, March 16 & 17.

This article was first published in the March 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Excavated cult-horror film Suspiria is an ambitious failure
98994 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Movies

Excavated cult-horror film Suspiria is an ambitiou…

by James Robins

Released in 1977, Dario Argento’s campy Suspiria was a landmark in cult horror. Now, director Luca Guadagnino has remade it in a new style.

Read more
Scottish-Bengali crime writer Abir Mukherjee on his 'cultural schizophrenia'
98517 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Books

Scottish-Bengali crime writer Abir Mukherjee on hi…

by Craig Sisterson

Abir Mukherjee uses India’s painful struggle for independence as the backdrop for his Sam Wyndham detective stories.

Read more
Lunchtime legends: 5 hospo stalwarts on Auckland's restaurant evolution
93848 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Lunchtime legends: 5 hospo stalwarts on Auckland's…

by Alice Neville

Restaurant veterans Chris Rupe, Krishna Botica, Tony Adcock, Geeling Ching and Judith Tabron reflect on the Auckland dining scene.

Read more
Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is good too
97751 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Best Auckland BYO restaurants where the food is go…

by Metro

Head to one of these Metro Top 50 Cheap Eats and 50 under $50 restaurants for BYO dining that won't break the bank.

Read more
Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La Fuente
99033 2018-11-14 00:00:00Z Auckland Eats

Get a lesson in mezcal at new Snickel Lane bar La …

by Jean Teng

Mezcal was once regarded as a tipple for the lower-class – now it's the hero at new bar La Fuente.

Read more
Forget the love trysts, our relationship with China is a much bigger affair
98673 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Forget the love trysts, our relationship with Chin…

by Bevan Rapson

Ross’s tape didn’t stand up his allegations of electoral fraud, but it helpfully drew renewed attention to questions about Chinese influence in NZ.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man walking
98830 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z Politics

Bill Ralston: Simon Bridges looks like a dead man …

by Bill Ralston

The National Party’s ongoing ructions suggest a long spell in the wilderness lies ahead.

Read more
The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Facebook generation
98735 2018-11-13 00:00:00Z History

The history of NZ newspapers would shame the Faceb…

by Karl du Fresne

In the 19th century, there were more newspapers in New Zealand per head of population than anywhere else in the world says writer Ian F Grant.

Read more