Wolf-in-Skins, opening Friday at Temple, mingles grand opera and dreamy dance in a mythic saga.
By David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Classical Music Critic

January 20, 2013

Before the dawn, in a barely civilized netherworld where animals and humans change into one another, Wolf-in-Skins begins.

The new theater piece, opening Friday at Temple University’s Conwell Dance Theater, revives ancient legends in a modern hybrid of dance and opera. Violent witchery is a frequent plot point. Characters’ names have the barbaric, guttural sound of old Welsh.

“Grotesque monstrosities juxtaposed with the pure and holy” is how choreographer Christopher Williams describes his fascination with the mythology that drew him to create the first installment of what is projected to become a six-part saga.

The legends seem to demand all the resources modern theater can offer – on an operatic scale. “I don’t see much work being made in my field of contemporary dance that encompasses the grand sense of spectacle that is more typically associated with opera,” Williams says.

Seen, among other places, as a work in progress at the 2011 Opera America New Works Forum, Wolf-in-Skins has created considerable buzz within the industry. In the version to be presented in Philadelphia, only the completed Act I and part of Act II will be staged.

But even in its unfinished state, the piece pushes Philadelphia Dance Projects, which is presenting the weekend-long run, to its limits – “Thirty performers in one show,” says executive director Terry Fox. But she believes that Williams, whose experience includes acrobatics, puppeteering, and gymnastics as well as dance, may be “on the edge of really creating … a new genre of some sort.”

Dance and opera certainly have been blended over the centuries, but not often with the sort of intensive interaction demanded by Williams and composer Gregory Spears, both in their mid-30s and seemingly fearless about striking out in new directions.

“Sometimes Christopher will say, ‘I must have more time there.’ And Greg will say, ‘But it changes the whole structure. I can’t do it.’ Then one of them realizes that they’re wrong. This has happened at least 10 times,” said countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who plays the title role.

Ethereal creatures, animals, and humans all intermingle, the humans singing in English and the nonhumans often in sonorous Welsh, employed partly because of the exoticism of its sound.

The young human hero of the title has been cursed to roam the world as a wolf cub until he is discovered by a wizard king with a peculiar condition: His physical pain can be assuaged only if his feet are held by a virgin creature – like Wolf-in-Skins, who becomes semi-human again after a ritualistic triple stabbing.

Operatic elements tell the story while dance explores the dreaminess of the mythology. What that looks like, at least on a recent evening at a Manhattan studio rehearsal, is a series of meticulously composed, stylized stage pictures. Some movements suggest archery, frozen strides, or chevrons – all slanted with a sense of impending motion.

Medieval tapestries and manuscripts, which appear static at first glance, were Williams’ inspiration. “There are always hidden symbols, beasts lurking in the shadows, interweaving threads, dangerous and strenuous forces at work,” he says, in what could easily be a mission statement. “All of this leads us down a path to the hidden three-dimensionality of the image.”

Opera settles comfortably into this setting. “So much mythology was sung, whether Homer or with others, and that underlines that this is not real life but a symbolic acting out of some deeper theme that unites us all,” says Spears, whose operas have been performed at the Philly Fringe and by Opera New Jersey. “That’s why you can take a Welsh myth and have it mean something anywhere – if you do it right.”

His musical answer to inventing an ancient world is drawn from the dawn of opera, invented in the late 16th century to recapture the sung theater of the ancient Greeks. Such music was simple and not bound by a lot of rules, and thus can feel contemporary. Spears’ goal is to create something “at some third point between the two,” he says.

Cutting across so many genres, though, requires a producing mechanism that doesn’t fall easily into any typical, established institutions. The casting alone presented the challenge of finding singers who can dance.

Costanzo, who as a child toured in the Broadway show Falsettos, says give-and-take is necessary on both sides. “If I twist all the way around, it’ll be difficult to sing,” he says. “But a good choreographer like Christopher will say, ‘Let’s find a different shape that looks as good but allows you to sing… .’ ”

The piece’s development has been shouldered by several organizations, including New York-based American Opera Projects, a coproducer accustomed to developing unconventional work.

Financing for something unimaginable can be elusive. “It’s been hard,” says Philadelphia Dance Projects’ Fox. “Christopher has done a lot of fund-raising. Conwell Dance Theater really stepped up to the plate.”

Might the other parts of the saga – each utilizing an archaic Celtic language – also be developed here? Yes, Fox says, if the idea “can generate that kind of excitement.”

Williams’ fantasy budget for Wolf-in-Skins is $200,000, more than what the show now has but tiny by operatic standards – in part because less-than-elaborate production values, like the animal costumes, keep the production from looking Disney-esque. Williams says it’s more important, however, that “images are layered with meaning. When a dancer wears stag antlers, they’re also fashioned to resemble crab claws.”

At this point, the full premiere at the 2014 New York Live Arts festival might seem like a mirage. But Williams has a history of works both large-scale and mythological, among them Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins and The Golden Legend.

The way he talks, he can’t stop himself. “It’s in my body and blood. It’s what I do. I just dream of things and imagine them onstage. It’s literally what I do every morning … lying in my bed wondering what could exist. My biggest battle is between what I see in my cranium and the physical logistical reality that’s out there with bodies and space.”

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