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Merilyn Jackson
Brooklyn Academy of Music
United States
New York City
New York
Brooklyn, NY

Violet Fire - Flights of Fancy on Alternating Currents

by Merilyn Jackson
October 17, 2006
Brooklyn Academy of Music
30 Lafayette Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 636-4111

If you swoon over the story of a man falling in love with a swan, then you may also be enthralled by the story of a man who falls in love with a dove, or, if you like, a pigeon. But while Swan Lake is a fairy tale, the tale of revolutionary inventor and thinker, Nikola Tesla and his love for a pigeon which became his muse is real. His story, as told by librettist Miriam Seidel, composer Jon Gibson, director Terry O'Reilly (co-artistic director of Mabou Mines) and choreographer Nina Winthrop, in a multi-media opera called Violet Fire is the stuff of fairy tales. When it opens at Brooklyn Academy of Music Wednesday evening you'll find yourself enchanted.

In a workshop performance at Temple University two years ago, Gibson's music, ably performed by Philadelphia's Relache Ensemble, was already a marvel of intellectual and sensual ecstasy and ethereal vocals. Gibson is known as a multi-instrumentalist and a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble.

There were, however, problems with the choreography, the set and the costumes, all of which were addressed by the time the work received its much-lauded world premiere on July 10 at The National Theater of Belgrade. It was the 150th anniversary of Tesla's birth in Croatia to Serbian parents. He eventually emigrated to the U. S. and lived in New York. Without him, we might not have the wi-fi world we are living in now. Of course, he is known most famously for inventing the radio and for making the worldwide electric grid possible with his alternating current dynamo.

Giving coherence and credibility to a work like this is not easy and Gibson, Seidel and O'Reilly were ready to slash and burn to get the right collaborators. They were happy with their media designers, Sarah Drury and Jen Simmons, whose atmospheric video projections give the work its enigmatic quality. But for other tasks they sought out Boris Cakširan, designer of the new set and costumes, Ana Zoran Brajovic conducting the Belgrade National Theatre Orchestra, Jorge Cousineau for sound design, Mary Louise Geiger for lighting and Winthrop, who worked with Joanna Kotze (of the Wally Cardona Quartet) to create what promises to be an alluring and possibly alarming pigeon.

Winthrop has had her own company in New York, Nina Winthrop and Dancers, since 1992 and also is curator of Dance Conversations at The Flea. She's performed with Wendy Perron, Kei Takei, Deborah Hay and Cunningham and has collaborated before with Gibson.

"About three months after the Philadelphia workshop, I heard from Terry (O'Reilly). He invited me onto the project," she said in a recent phone interview. "I had been to the workshop and was drawn to the work at first because of Jon's music." But when given the chance to choreograph for it she said, "From the beginning though, Miriam's libretto was really my guiding force."

"I knew it was going to be a solo and Terry asked me to create movement for specific scenes following the story line, although the Dove is always onstage when the singer is."

Once she cast Kotze in the role, the two went out to study pigeon movement. "I work from improvisation with my dancers and a lot came from Joanna. I would give her floor patterns to follow. We worked with [the patterns of] alternating currents, the infinity sign and circles in the dance phrases. The dance phrase in the first scene is the infinity sign," she said.

"The music is almost romantic, rather than minimalist, and Joanna goes off of beats but not all the time. It's more of a mood setter and a general timing setting."

At one point she has another dancer, Kristen Hollinsworth, do a very similar flight across the stage a second after one of Kotze's, "But they are never on stage at the same time," adding that she hopes it contributes to the mystical qualities of the work.

The title, Violet Fire, is taken from a book by Margaret Storm (a principal character played by Ana Lackovic, mezzo soprano) who refers to Tesla as "the prince of the violet fire" — the color of his alternating currents. Get ready for an electrifying experience in the theater.

Violet Fire
October 18, 20, 21 at 7:30 PM
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
Tickets: $20, 30, 40
Bamdialogue with Jon Gibson, Terry O'Reilly & Miriam Seidel
October 20, Post-show
(Free for ticket holders)
Joanne Kotze in Violet Fire

Joanne Kotze in Violet Fire

Photo © & courtesy of Nenad Milosevic

Joanne Kotze in Violet Fire

Joanne Kotze in Violet Fire

Photo © & courtesy of Nenad Milosevic

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