A rather daunting prospect. Dances for eighteen sung poems of poet C.P. Cavafy,
to create, teach/learn, and refine in five short weeks. This Wednesday morning,
Whim W’Him artistic director/choreographer Olivier Wevers, along with dancers Chalnessa Eames and Tory Peil jumped in, with all six of their feet…

It’s the first day of dance rehearsal for Approaching Ecstasy, set to premiere May 18-20 at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. The three stand together in the studio. Olivier explains how the piece is organized with alternating English and Greek versions of each poem, only the latter to be danced. He talks a bit about the physical stage setup, the set elements by Casey Curran, a stationary choir of 24 along the sides, a 16-voice choir moving around the stage, hanging lights, the stands “like a piece of sculpture” each dancer will have.

Then he introduces the segment they will start with, a duet for Tory and Chalnessa to the seventh of the poems:


                                    Return to me often, and take me,
                                    O beloved senses, return and take me –
                                    Then my body’s memory will awaken,
                                    And the old cravings will flow again in my blood,
                                    Then my lips and my skin will remember,
                                    And my hands will understand how to touch once more.
                                    Return to me often, and take me, in the night,
                                    When my lips and my skin will remember…

“It’s about touch,” he tells them, “his relationship to a lover and the feelings he hopes will come back again.” Starting in a perfect fifth position, arms en couronne, spine upright, Olivier skews his body. “There will be shapes,” he remarks, “but pulled out of straight, more personal. Putting yourself off to one side on the hips.” He notes, as he often has before, that he is deliberately avoiding named steps, evading preconceptions.
“Try to remember by the disproportion of it, not the forms.”

Then he turns to the music that has been playing in the background. In the score,
by Eric Banks, “Senses” is marked wistfully, yearningly. The harp plucks a mournful descending line of nine notes per measure, again and again, some two dozen times. These groupings of nine define the phrases of the movement. “This is the sound,” says Olivier. “There will also be voice. We’ll start where we’re hearing the harp come in.”

The rehearsal has an improvisational quality to my eyes. Oliver says, “Let’s start exploring,” and seems to be inventing on the spot (more so than in the glimpse I caught of today’s rehearsal, where he appeared to have something quite definite in mind from the beginning in a solo for Chalnessa to a different poem).

Now he shows how Tory is to touch Chalnessa’s shoulder with her hand.
“Touch, not push,” he instructs, and later in the rehearsal adds, “Before you touch her, can you feel something with your fingers?” he says, demonstrating. That gesture,
the touchstone movement of this piece, sets Chalnessa in motion, away. Tory remains, looking down at her hand still cupping a shoulder no longer there.

New movements are added to the sequence, like beads on a necklace. “Can you keep both hands attached to her?” he asks, “like you’re tying her in a knot?” The two women react to each other’s touch, sliding along together, intertwining, tangled up like a game of Twister, moving apart. The mood seems at once sensual and abstract, as much about memory as a present encounter.

Despite the oddity, even awkwardness, for Chalnessa especially, of partnering with another women—a combination Olivier hasn’t choreographed for much either—there is a good atmosphere in the studio. The work is concentrated and serious, but light-hearted banter helps through the frustrations of a turn or shift of weight that doesn’t quite work. Olivier is skilled at analyzing what is missing or an extra bit that is throwing things off. He talks about resistance, and shows how Tory and Chalnessa can use each other for support and to generate forward momentum. A dynamic equilibrium.

At one point, they all back up and redo. “It’s like we’re trying to make the mechanics work and losing the connections.” But by the end of the two hour rehearsal, when perhaps half the music for the poem has been filled with dance, Olivier is saying, “Yes, yes, yes! This is cool. We’ve discovered some cool things today.”

Next up, on Tuesday: The disciplined dancing life of Kaori Nakamura