I was going to write a compendium of reviews and audience comments for this post. There’s been a great outpouring of praise for Approaching Ecstasy, which makes gratifying reading for everyone concerned with this choral/dance collaboration (choral music composed by Eric Banks to the love poetry of Constantin P. Cavafy and performed by The Esoterics and St. Helen’s String Quartet plus harp; choreography by Olivier Wevers, Whim W’Him’s artistic director, danced by Whim W’Him).

As I say, I meant to share a sampling of reviews and audience comments in this post.
But since all those I’ve read were highly complimentary; there were few quibbles worthy of note; only the mildest of controversy arose (was the choreography for Kaori the best or the least original part of Approaching Ecstasy?); and in any case, much of this commentary is readily available in the Whim W’Him email blast, I’ve decided to jot down instead some of my own observations on the making of this unusual collaboration and to share some wonderful dance rehearsal photographs by Bamberg Fine Arts (Kim & Adam Bamberg, and Molly Magee, who works with them).

Although Olivier and Eric first discussed this project four years ago, and the music and Eric’s singable translations of the poems were finished by early in 2012, the entire project was choreographed, rehearsed by singers, instrumentalists and dancers, costumed, lit, provided with sets, and put together in just a few weeks.

A few highlights of that process for me:
My first conversation with Eric. His description of composing music for the Greek versions of the poetry, often completing a section a day, in Paris in the dead of winter, on a topsy turvy schedule of night work and day sleep. His detailed characterization of the elaborate, intricate, symmetrical musical structure, the Arabic scales he used, the complex rhythmic and melodic patterns he developed in writing Approaching Ecstasy.

Watching the dances emerge into being. Before going into the studio, Eric and Olivier had discussed the essential mood or tiny story that each vignette would develop. At early dance rehearsals, Olivier came into the studio with all sorts of ideas teeming in his head, but with few if any specific steps or sequences of movement worked out in his mind. He works best spontaneously, he says. With 39 vignettes to come up with and teach to dancers who often were not available as often as would be ideal, he created with whoever had free time on any given day. Several of the pieces were set on Tory Peil, who later taught the others. Shane Ohmer came into town from another engagement only in the last few weeks and learned his group parts from the others. His solo was invented the week before the opening.

In rehearsal, after a poem was read, perhaps a few words said about the sense of it, and sometimes though not always, some of the music played, Olivier would demonstrate for the dancer(s) a short sequence of movements. He was always very specific about what he did or didn’t want, pointing out what was “interesting” about this gesture or that step and what not to emphasize. It was a slow process, because he couldn’t just reel off a list of known steps—very many of the movements have no recognized names. Often they were described with an analogy or a little description of a sequence of motions—dialing a cell phone, putting something in your pockets, stepping over a barrier. Sometimes, Olivier would pause at the end of what had been choreographed so far and wait, absolutely still for some seconds, as if playing a reel of the finished dance in his mind, and then show the dancers how to move next. Sometimes, as in Andrew Bartee‘s much lauded table duet, the entire process took less than a couple of hours.

In later posts, I’ll write about various aspects of Olivier’s innovations in partnering,
but for now I’ll just say that seeing this process unfold day by day—as bit by small, patient, intent bit, he and the dancers built each coherent sequence of movement—
was endlessly fascinating, like watching a photograph appear like magic out of the developer in an old-style darkroom.

I was also extremely impressed by Olivier’s sureness and civility as he directed the staging. (For all his talking about, and apologizing for, “yelling” at everyone, the most I ever heard was a certain tautness in his voice, and an extra politeness in his requests.)
It’s not that at every given juncture he knew ahead of time the precise final form the show should take, but when he saw what worked, he recognized it, and he bestowed praise where praise was due. In dance rehearsals, he had spent many minutes on small details, heeding the dancers’ difficulties with some of the more outré movements he proposed, but needing to get it exactly right. In working with the singers, he included them in the activity on stage, but kept alert to cutting clutter and advancing forward momentum.

Always Olivier’s principle of choice seemed to be less is more—whether in opting for highly sensual but not explicitly acted out love duets; in deciding in favor one 8×8 not three 10×10 movable boxes; in dropping his original idea of costuming Kaori in all sorts of pieces of clothing in favor of a single striking garment constructed of men’s neckties; or in vetoing most of the possibilities for projections on the back wall. Because of the complexity of Approaching Ecstasy’s structure, this desire for spareness, this willingness to pare everything down to its core, was essential to the ultimate lucidity—the musical, visual and emotional melding of sound and movement—that so many views have admired.

And most of all, throughout everything, I was struck by the way in which all parties to Approaching Ecstasy cooperated. There were differences in temperament and style (e.g., Eric loves symmetry, Olivier regards it with a baleful eye), changes up to the last minute in various aspects of the production, and a large number of bodies and personalities to co-ordinate (there are 53 people up there on the stage during the performance and several large moveable set pieces). Even so, the intelligence and lack of pettiness on the part of virtually everyone involved was quite astonishing. Often, over the past few years, I have heard people remark on Olivier’s generosity of spirit. It’s a quality he and Eric share. Their eagerness to make something extraordinary together was shared by this entire enterprise.