Neither summer’s heat nor winter’s chill keeps choreographers Cleo Mack and Stuart Loungway from their appointed tasks. Their persistence mimics that of Orpheus, hero of their new full-length dance drama, "Orpheus and Eurydice." Orpheus is the musician who follows his beloved Eurydice down to the underworld in the hope of reclaiming her, and then fails because he flouts the gods’ prohibition against looking back at her.
During three summer months of 2003, Mack and Loungway spent 40 hours a week developing their contemporary dance narrative. And by the time the paralyzing snowstorm of early December arrived, they were still at work perfecting every last movement in their retelling of the Greek legend. As I learned when I arrived at Loungway’s Highland Park studio on my cross-country skis, one of the things these two dance company directors admire about each other is their work ethic.
Cleo Mack is artistic director of the Cleo Mack Dance Project and Stuart Loungway leads Terra Firma Dance Theater. Their collaborative "Orpheus and Eurydice," featuring seven dancers from both companies, premieres at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick on Friday December 19 at 8 p.m., and Saturday, December 20, at 2 and 8 p.m.
Bringing the ancient myth up to the present, the collaborators’ intent is to tell their story solely through the language of dance. The Orpheus of this dance drama is a writer, and Ertebes, a shepherd in the original story, is an editor. Eurydice does not have a vocation as such, but is described as "the backbone" of the loving couple’s relationship. Three Furies act as a kind of Greek chorus and are onstage throughout. Adding vertical dimension to the normally grounded art of dance, the production features hanging fabric, sometimes twisted into ropes, which dancers ascend, descend, and even use like a trapeze. The composite score for the innovative, full-length work features music of Philip Glass, Chet Baker, and Speedy J.
Featured in the premiere production are Rafael Ferreras as Orpheus and Melanie Kramer as Eurydice, with Gabriel Chajnik, Heather McCoy, Denella Vecchio, Courtney Viar, and Mary-Beth Eibler. Mack and Loungway choreographed all the movement on themselves before teaching it to their dancers.
Interviewed at Loungway’s Terra Firma studio, Mack and Loungway separately and together stress what Mack calls their "seamless collaboration." The choice of narrative was their most difficult challenge.
"We wanted to tell a love story, but didn’t want to go with traditional fare," says Loungway, a six-foot dancer who could readily be cast as a Greek hero. "Most love stories have been beaten into the ground, and we wanted a story in which we felt both lovers started on an equal footing. The story of `Orpheus’ has a strong appeal with its bittersweet optimism. It has a certain level of hope, a kind of optimism, the sense that you can’t look backward."
The fact that the story stems from Greek myth, also offered the collaborators a host of movement ideas. In some passages, motifs from Greek friezes and pottery are recreated, albeit abstractly, in dance.
Despite their story’s long history in music, dance movement came first for Loungway and Mack. "The movement came first," Loungway says. "That’s good for flexibility, it provides a platform, and it makes for more negotiating room. It streamlines the process. If you hear the music first, it can be limiting."
There are many musics that Mack and Loungway might have used. The earliest of the 80 known musical versions of the Orpheus story dates from 1600 by Jacopo Peri, the first true opera to survive to the present. Monteverdi followed seven years later with his better-known early opera, "La Favola d’Orfeo." Gluck’s "Orfeo ed Euridice" (presented by Opera Festival of New Jersey in 2001) dates from 1762. The latest opera version, from 1986, is by Harrison Birtwistle.
"We considered using a set composition," Loungway says, "and decided against it. If you choose one piece the onus is on the choreographer to do the whole score justice and to adhere to what the composer intended. Choosing several different pieces is better as a story-telling device. That way each section has closure, and we have more autonomy as choreographers."
"We set all the steps on our bodies first," says Mack, a slender, vigorous dancer who stands at least four inches shorter than Loungway. "We’re both very open. We’re not afraid to look foolish in front of each other. We had to let go of `This feels really weird on me.’ It was mastery through mistakes. Now, at this stage I couldn’t look at any of the steps and say `Stuart did this,’ or `I did that.’ Four months ago I might have."
"When we started the collaboration, we were both adamant about it being a true collaboration, not just splitting up the workload," says Loungway. "We became better dancers through this collaboration, and it made our individual organizations stronger," they say. "And pooling resources makes it possible to do things not possible for either company alone."
"People sometimes shy away from collaborations because of ego," Loungway says. "But our egos caused us to work through problems. You can be envious of others’ skills, or you can absorb them."
"It’s not important that my background is in ballet, and Cleo’s is in modern dance," he adds, noting that the work encompasses both barefoot modern dance and ballet pointe work. "Dance must be viewed as dance, not as something ideological. There should be no labels and no pigeonholes. That way there are no boundaries. If we do have boundaries, they’re fiscal ones."
"As a choreographer, it’s important to set limits, as far as structure is concerned," says Mack. "When you have a large imagination it’s important to establish parameters. In `Orpheus and Eurydice’ the limiting factor is the narrative. We had to tell the story. Then the steps seemed inconsequential. In this piece we created a brand new kind of dance, our own special brand of dance, reinforcing the idea that it’s unnecessary to label dance. What we did shows that it’s possible to find completely new dance vocabularies."
This is the third year that Mack and Loungway’s companies have shared the George Street stage, but the first time they have worked collaboratively. The catalyst in bringing them together was Kim Barkhamer of the American Repertory Ballet, a co-founder of Mack’s company.
Mack, 28, grew up in Minnesota. She comes from a non-dancing family, and started dance at 16 (a relatively advanced age for her profession) while she was a student at the Perpich School of the Arts, an innovative co-ed boarding school in suburban Minneapolis. The school is named after the far-sighted Minnesota governor and his wife, who helped establish the state-funded center for the arts. At Perpich, Mack began to choreograph at the same time she began her dance training.
Mack earned a BFA in dance from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts where her prizes included the Turner Prize for Choreography. A resident of Edison, she been a teaching artist for American Repertory Ballet and Dance Express, and in 2002 was selected by Dance Magazine as one of "25 to watch in 2002." Her work has been produced at Joyce SoHo Presents, Dance Theater Workshop’s "Fresh Tracks," at the Kennedy Center, and at P.S. 1. She is presently director of dance at the Purnell School in Pottersville, a girls’ boarding school that specializes in the arts.
Loungway, 32, grew up in Los Angeles. His grandmother danced with Britain’s Royal Ballet. Loungway started ballet at 4 or 5, and began performing professionally at 16, the age at which Mack began her dance studies. He won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, the teaching arm of the New York City Ballet, and soloed with the San Francisco Ballet before becoming a principal dancer for American Repertory Ballet. Disillusioned about creative opportunities after performing for 10 years, he established Terra Firma studio in Highland Park, which offers "classes for people of all ages at all skill levels" (U.S. 1, June 20, 2001). He taught at Mason Gross School until 2001 when the demands of the studio required his total attention. Married to dancer Gianna Russillo, also a former dancer at American Repertory Ballet, he lives in Highland Park.
Mack and Loungway are articulate about what they admire about each other as collaborators. Loungway says, "I admire her talent, consistency and work ethic. She has the dedication, willingness, and perseverance to see something through. Talent, dedication, and perseverance, they’re the big three."
"I admire Stuart’s ability to find an end point," Mack says. "It’s always hairy till the end. Stuart manages to pull everything together. His talent and inventiveness are admirable. As a dancer, he’s technically wonderful."
At a studio rehearsal, Loungway fills in for Rafael Ferraras, the Orpheus, in a run-through of a pas-de-deux with Melanie Kramer as Eurydice. The dimensions of the performing space at George Street Theater have been taped out on the floor. Twisted cloth sheets hang from the ceiling. In the Orpheus role, Loungway scrupulously avoids eye-contact with Kramer. Failing to look at his dance partner amplifies the uneasiness of Orpheus’ situation and magnifies the peril of his undertaking.
Also under the microscope at the rehearsal is a pas-de-deux in which Eurydice loses her life. Mack and Loungway, with help from the dancers, refine gestures so that the details of the violence are vivid, lean, and unmistakable.
The choreographers know that they are developing an exceptional performance and that their collaboration is out of the ordinary. "Our working together is a model for the dance landscape in New Jersey," Loungway says. He hopes that the model will be imported by organizations throughout the nation. Yet a dose of skepticism may be in order on exporting their model. It takes a very special amalgam of grit, flexibility, technical smarts, and esthetic intelligence to create as Mack and Loungway do.
Orpheus and Eurydice, Terra Firma and Cleo Mack Dance , George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-247-4462. $20 & $35; students $15. Friday, December 19, 8 p.m., and Saturday, December 20, at 2 and 8 p.m.