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

by Francesca Horsley / 09 March, 2018

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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

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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.

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