It’s interesting and rather amusing that, of the two Approaching Ecstasy collaborators, the expansive and gregarious composer Eric Banks, is strongly committed to a balanced and symmetric musical undergirding , while the choreographer, long time ballet dancer and Whim W’Him’s artistic director Olivier Wevers has a positive allergy to symmetry and stretches his dancers way out beyond the usual boundaries of classical dance. The contrast makes for a vibrant and healthy tension in their partnership.

A nice case in point: When Eric came to observe a dance rehearsal last week he was, he said frankly, a bit shocked and put off at first by how Tory Peil, as Cavafy’s muse, teased and cajoled the poet. At certain moments of greatest gravitas, as in the poems ‘Obstacles’ and ‘Shadows,’ instead of showing the care and reverence one might expect, she “seemed impish, almost disrespectful.” Eric’s frisson of shock didn’t last long, as he observed, especially when Olivier explained in words his intention to show the delicate counterpoint between the somber, pensive emotions of the poet and the hectic, teeming thoughts coursing through his own brain.  “I love it now,” added Eric with a grin, after his initial reservations. “I trust him to create.”

And quirks of personality and differences of artistic style aside, Eric and Olivier have much in common, as shown by the website descriptions of their respective organizations, both of which are devoted to artistic cooperation and to the bringing of new work to Seattle audiences.

Eric is the Founding Director of The Esoterics which, as its name implies, “presents often obscure and almost always challenging choral works, many of them composed by Eric himself. In its 24th year, The Esoterics is, as described on its website, “a Seattle-based vocal ensemble dedicated to performing and perpetuating contemporary a cappella choral settings of poetry, philosophy, and spiritual writings from around the world. While cultivating artistic expression and cultural understanding among its singers and audience alike, The Esoterics aspires to reflect the beauty, power, and significance that are inherent in the music of our time.” 

Olivier seeks out “new works by local, national, and international choreographers, that engage and challenge audiences. The mission of Whim W’Him is to provide a platform, centered on choreography and dance, for artists to explore their craft through innovation and collaboration.”

I find it captivating to watch the careful, exacting, passionate attitude of the two directors in rehearsal, their respectful, easy-going relationship with each other and toward their groups, both separately and together and even under the strain of theater week. The deep knowledge and wide-ranging sensibilities they bring to Approaching Ecstasy, combine with the skills of all the participants to bring depth and nuance to its multi-layered themes of secrecy and exposure, ecstasy and regret, speechlessness and exquisitely articulated poetry.

Sunday before last, Olivier came on his own to an Esoterics music rehearsal, to block out the lineaments of the choir’s movements during the show. It was the end of a long day. The choir had already been in rehearsal for over 3 hours, and it was the first time many of the singers had done the piece, while Olivier had just been at a rehearsal followed by a Whim W’Him performance and a dinner for Music of Remembrance at Benaroya’s Nordstrom Recital Hall. Yet the intent of everyone involved to understand each other and contribute whatever was needed to the common enterprise was manifest, as Olivier instructed the singers to “try to measure how far you have to walk when we get on the stage, so you’re using muscle memory not sight.”

This past Sunday, when the dancers came to rehearse with the Esoterics for the first time, all 5 musicians (the Skyros Quartet plus harpist Melissa Achten Klausner), half the 33 member choir, and Eric as conductor were crammed into a small, hot alcove off the downstairs rehearsal hall at Queen Anne Christian Church. A carpeted floor challenged the dancers, who had been advised by Olivier to wear sneakers instead of their usual socks. Despite close quarters; a lot to remember for the other 16 singers (4 quartets), who also mingle and interact with the dancers, sometimes while singing; and the prospect of 2 full run-throughs of this 83 minute piece after blocking was done, the hall bubbled with intent curiosity and sudden bursts of laughter.

For all the cramped and unprepossessing physical circumstances, nothing, not even seeing it all put together on the stage, can beat for me the combined thrill of dancers moving to live music and of singers watching their sound turn into visual images for the first time.