TO DAMASCUS – a new opera by Walter Braxton

TO DAMASCUS: The World Premiere of a New Opera by Walter Braxton

A Theater/Opera Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: Thu, 1/18 – 7:30pm (preview); Fri, 1/19 – 7:30pm (press opening); Sat, 1/20 – 7:30pm; Sun, 1/21 – 4pm (post performance panel/talkback); Thu, 1/25 – 7:30pm; Fri, 1/26 – 7:30pm; Sat, 1/27 – 7:30pm

Ticket Prices: Tickets $15 – $40
Info: ​​ (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

If you’ve never seen or heard an opera, and the very thought of attending an opera sends shivers up and down your spine, you must understand that To Damascus is not your everyday opera. If you are an opera aficionado, To Damascus may be pushing the envelope over the edge (yes that’s a mixed metaphor, but so appropriate for this occasion). I think I heard someone describe Walter Braxton’s new postmodern musical as an “anti-opera,” but if you chose to use that definition, please think of it in a positive way.

What is To Damascus about? Well, it has no story in the traditional sense. But, as the title suggests, it has a deep spiritual foundation. In the New Testament, in Acts chapter 9, the Damascus Road is where Paul (then Saul) met Jesus and was converted. A Damascus Moment has come to refer to a turning point in one’s life, a sudden interruption in the day-to-day rituals that define one’s existence and often sets one on the way to living life with purpose and meaning.

There are many rituals in To Damascus. Act One begins with the five vocalists cleaning, wrapping, and packing shoes. Stacks of vintage suitcases and trunks fill the stage, and many of them hold shoes – everything from stilettos to brogans. Shoes are important when traveling. Act One ends with the cast members circling the stage in a ritual that has them assembling BLTs – yes, sandwiches.  There is a toaster and a hot plate, a bag of Wonder Bread, and all the fixings. A traveler needs sustenance.

Act Three begins with water rituals: hand washing; rinsing apples; pouring water from a bottle to a glass and back again. Each act is repeated over and over, not unlike the daily rituals repeated by people with OCD tendencies. During the water rituals, there are no words, just instrumental music.

Mr. Braxton’s music is beautiful, mesmerizing. Oddly, it tends to stay on the same level, with gentle swells and rises, like the gentle hills of an urban park, rather than the rolling hills of wide open acres. A sixteen-piece orchestra was crammed onto a raised platform above the stage, filling the space with the pastoral strains of Braxton’s score – a score that, at times, was in stark contrast to the carefully choreographed postmodern confusion taking place on the stage.

In his pre-show curtain talk – which took place in the theater’s lobby, instead of inside the theater proper – Firehouse Artistic Director and the show’s Director, Joel Bassin, shared that To Damascus” is not your ordinary opera, that there is no traditional story line, and that it is best to focus on the sounds rather than the words.

Mr. Braxton takes many of his words directly from the bible. There is no libretto in the traditional sense, nothing to clue the audience as to what is happening, no synopsis as would be provided for an opera written in German.  Excerpts included in the program include the words of Psalm 121 and a variety of poems and prose.

Michele Baez (soprano), Michael David Gray, and Chase Peak were the de facto lead singers, with Imani Thaniel (a VCU theater major) and Elisabeth Carlton Dowdy (a VCU Music Education graduate) in supporting roles.  Ms. Thaniel’s staging sometimes kept her partially hidden from the audience; this was true whether she was positioned stage left or stage right. She was often hidden by stacks of luggage.

Ms. Baez and Mr. Gray had the most commanding voices, but the performers had little direct interaction. While they rarely looked at or communicated directly with one another, they had plenty to do, interacting with a wide and wild assortment of props that seemed to appear out of thin air. It was almost as if the director had incorporated subtle magic tricks. Mr. Braxton’s music and Mr. Bassin’s direction were a perfect fit for The Firehouse, and if some left the theater wondering what happened – at least they left relaxed rather than agitated. To Damascus does not assault the senses, but somehow amplifies them.

Leilani Fenick is the Musical Director and Vocal Coash, and Michael Knowles deftly conducted from a raised platform in a downstage corner. Rather than a set designer, To Damascus has Environmental Design by Isabel Layton, and the production team also included Lighting Design by Bill Miller and Costumes by Kathleen O’Connor.

As for Walter Braxton, he is an African-American composer born and raised in RVA. He was a child prodigy – while attending Mary Scott Elementary School, he wrote the class song. To Damascus is an opportunity to learn about and appreciate the work of a local artist who may be unknown to too many of us.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Photos by Bill Sigafoos

Facebook CBS 6 News Post:

Walter Braxton was Richmond’s child prodigy – composing symphonies before he was even out of high school. A mental breakdown at age 18 ended his promising career. January 19 at 7:30pm, the Firehouse Theater presented Braxton’s opera, TO DAMASCUS, for the very first time, followed by Mark Holmberg’s story at 11.

 

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SPITTING IMAGE: A Collaboration of Dance and Photography Featuring Choreography by Starr Foster

“Saltwater Bones,” a voluminous skirt solo, turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the evening.

SPITTING IMAGE: A Collaboration of Dance and Photography Featuring 8 Works by Starr Foster Dance Project with Music by Joey Luck

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLAB’s The Basement, 300 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Performances: Friday, January 12th @8pm. Saturday, January 13 @3pm, 5pm, 7pm. Sunday, January 14th @ 3pm, 5pm.

Ticket Prices: $15 General Admission. $25 Opening Night Performance and Reception with Artists. Order tickets @ http://www.browpapertickets.org

Info: (804) 304-1523 or http://www.starrfosterdance.org



As part of an ongoing mission to collaborate with other artists, Starr Foster Dance Project (SFDP) has started the new year with a unique collaboration with eight photographers whose work inspired the eight short dances that share their titles. Eight intriguing and very different photographs by photographers both local and long distance hung in the lobby of TheatreLAB’s The Basement, and on opening night six of the eight lens artists were on sight to share their work and experience with the dancers and audience.

Undulating Reflections, a work for six dancers, was inspired by a photograph by Dennis Lieberman.  Set to the somewhat anxiety-provoking music Surveillance by Canadian industrial band Noise Unit and with gorgeous deep blue costumes (tank tops with briefs for the men and ruffled skirts for the women) designed by Johann Stegmeir, Undulating Reflections lingers sumptuously in weight sharing, leaning, moments of touching and almost touching.

Elizabeth Whitson’s single flower, Beauty in the End, was the inspiration for a duet, performed Friday night by Erick Hooten and Heather Rhea O’Connor, to an original score by Joey Luck. Hooten, large and muscular, and O’Connor, deceptively delicate-looking, sustained an ethereal, floating quality throughout, supported by what I think was a cello that anchored Luck’s somewhat somber score. They remained connected and intimate, even with people watching from two sides as the black box space was set up as a traverse or corridor stage. The final image was of the two dancers stretched out on the floor, Hooten’s face hoovering slightly over O’Connor as the two seemed to share the same breath. The blue theme was continued with O’Connor’s long, soft dress and Hooten’s matching tank with solid long pants, both designed by Foster.

The mood changed considerably with Find the Light, a work inspired by Clare Midock’s photo, which featured a chair and her young daughter. Anna Branch, O’Connor, Angela Palminsano, and Brittany Powers initially took turns dancing on and around a sturdy wooden chair, each revisiting and modifying the phrases of her predecessor.  They draped themselves over the chair, hung over the back, slithered under it, sat near it, focused on a mysterious mission as a blinding bright light focused on them. Find the Light is set to a hauntingly beautiful cello solo by Peter Gregson, and Johann Stegmeir designed the orange ombre jumpsuits.

The first half of the program closed with the delightful, somewhat humorous Searching, inspired by Henrietta Near’s optical illusion photograph of people taking pictures in Maymont Park under the watchful eyes of a superimposed cat. Returning to the blue and black color scheme (with costumes by Foster and original music by Luck), the six dancers explored variations of searching. One moved a chair close to and stared directly at a member of the audience. Others sought out new spaces, sitting in chairs along the wall with the audience in the all-too-brief snippet of choreography.

A brief intermission provided a welcome opportunity to revisit the photographs for the upcoming choreography. (It would have been helpful to have a moment of lighting between each dance to give the audience a chance to check the titles and connect them with the photographs as well.)

The second half of the program began with what turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the evening, a voluminous skirt solo, Saltwater Bones, inspired by the underwater photography of Cristina Peters. O’Connor’s white skirt, designed and constructed by Foster, performed doubly duty as costume and prop. Sometimes it billowed out gracefully, other times it appeared to entrap her. At the end, I found myself releasing the breath I did not realize I had been holding. Luck also created original music for this solo.

Angela Douglas’ photograph Flock (yes, it is a photograph of birds) manifested as a bouncy quartet (Davis, Hooten, Palminsano, and Powers) filled with quick, sharp movements in stark contrast to the sustained phrases of preceding dances. The accompanying music is, somewhat ironically, titled Nature Fights Back, performed by prepared pianist Hauschka (nee Volker Bertelmann). Foster designed the black tank tops and blue/teal pants for this delightful dance thin which the rhythm and flow was briefly interrupted by somewhat awkward preparation for a group lift.

Pas de Doe proved to be a delightful play on words, a duo inspired by Mike Harrell’s photo of two deer. Branch and O’Connor (who appeared I six of the eight dances on the opening night program) started off like two bulls sizing up one another in the glaring side lights, but by the end they were dancing in unison and looked as if they were about to take flight. Stegmeir designed their soft salmon-colored tunics and white pants, and the pounding music, Hephaestus, was by Chris Cutler and Thomas DiMuzio.

The program closed with Hanakapai Falls, inspired by a stunning painting of a Hawaiian waterfall. Rachel DeFrank’s deep colors, marked by shades of blue, green, and purple, were printed on a metal plate.  Branch, Davis, and Hooten resurrected Foster’s tilting movements, seen earlier in Undulating Reflections, with hints of classical lines and use of space in the partnering. Stegmeir’s blue gray pallet and the music, Sequence (four) by Warren Zielinski Magdalena Filipczak, Laurie Anderson, Richard Harwood and Peter Gregson, both supported and enhanced the concept of waterfall, making for a beautiful and satisfying conclusion to an evening of contemporary dance in Richmond.


Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.


Photo Credits (clockwise, starting at top left):

  1. Dancers Erick Hooten, Anna Branch and Ryan Davis leap in a new work Inspired by Rachel DeFrank’s photograph of “Hanakapai Falls” Photo Credit: Doug Hayes
  2. Dancers Heather Rhea O’Connor and Erick Hooten in a duet inspired by Elizabeth Whitson’s photograph, “Beauty in the End” Photo Credit: Doug Hayes
  3. Dancer Kate Neal descends in a new work inspired by Cristina Peter’s photograph “Saltwater Bones” Photo Credit: S. Foster
  4. Dancers Heather Rhea O’Connor and Erick Hooten share an embrace in “Beauty in the End” inspired by a photograph by Elizabeth Whitson Photo Credit: Doug Hayes

‘THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2018’

This is the post excerpt.

‘THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2018’

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Where: The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, VA, 23192

When: January 7-10, 2018

Ticket Prices: Children 6 years and younger FREE; Military/Seniors/Students with ID $15; General Admission $20

Info: (804) 356-3876 or http://www.latinballet.com


Many of us have holiday traditions. For some it is a special meal, or a decorating ritual. For others it is a trip to see The Nutcracker ballet. For a growing number of Richmonders, it seems to have become an annual trip to see The Latin Ballet of Virginia’s annual production of The Legend of the Poinsettia. A nearly full house on a cold winter day when the temperature remained stubbornly in the teens bears witness to the lure of this production.

I have seen several incarnations of this annual feast of dance, music, pageantry, and cultural immersion, but did not realize that 2018 marks the seventeenth year of this uniquely Richmond gem. Under the direction of Ana Ines King, the choreography, costumes, and setting have been somewhat modified or tweaked over the years, and of course the cast has changed, but some things – especially the sentiment – remains the same.

The Legend of the Poinsettia tells the story of Little Maria (portrayed on Saturday afternoon by a very confident Emery Velasquez, and to be played on Sunday afternoon by Daniela Wheeler), who, after the sudden death of her mother, finds herself in need of a gift to present to the Baby Jesus on Epiphany Day. [NOTE: January 6 is Three King’s Day or Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos, which celebrates the 12th day of Christmas and the legend of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ Child.] It is also the story of “the true spirit of giving,” as well as a history, of sorts, of how the poinsettia came to be a symbol of Christmas.

In the hands of King and the performers of The Latin Ballet, The Legend of the Poinsettia is an all-inclusive festival featuring the dances, music, and costumes of Mexico (the origin of the legend and of the poinsettia plant), Colombia (King’s birthplace), Venezuela (the home of the gaitas or festive songs), the Dominican Republic (home of the bachata, a mixture of Cuban bolero and son), and Spain (home of flamenco and the Christmas novenas).

This year, performers ranged in age from 4 years old to 98 (special guest artist Frances Wessells, Professor Emerita of VCUDance, appears in her recurring role as Abuelita/the grandmother). Antonio Hidalgo Paz, of Spain, and artistic director of Flamenco Vivo, has become a staple figure, partnering King in a flamenco duet and taking on the role of Papa. Marisol Betancourt Sotolongo, currently the director of the LBV Junior Company, first appeared in The Legend of the Poinsettia at age 4, has appeared in every production – meaning all 17 years!

It is always a treat to witness the chemistry between King and Paz. This year, the company also boasts a quartet of strong male dancers: DeShon Rollins; Nicolas Guillen Betancourt Sotolongo, who, like his sister, has practically grown up in the company; Roberto Whitaker; and Jay Williams. Each has a distinctive style, with Whitaker and Williams coming from a hip hop infused background and Rollins exhibiting the strength and technique of Joffrey Ballet training.

The Legend of the Poinsettia is a family-friendly production that offers something for everyone. During intermission, I overheard two women chatting about the beauty of the production and the stamina of the dancers. They had some kind words for Wessells, who embodies my personal motto (borrowed several decades ago from the Urban Bush Women): I don’t know, but I’ve been told, if you keep on dancing, you’ll never grow old. Personally, I was struck by the color, the energy, and the genuine joy.  I could put on my critic’s hat and note that the music could have been louder, and sometimes the chorus of village children were not quite in sync, but none of this dampened the fire. As an added treat, the cast lines up in the lobby to greet you after the show. If you get a chance, catch the final performance on Sunday afternoon. It will warm your heart, and the constant smiling and clapping along might even warm the rest of you.


Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.