Opera and ballet have been bedfellows since the beginning. Kings, princes, and dukes commissioned the early works, and royal theaters were home to opera and ballet companies as well as orchestras. Because of their proximity, they often worked together. "It was quite common to have dance numbers in opera," says Graham Lustig, artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet (ARB), "to give the ballet company something to do on nights that the opera was performing."
Even today large opera companies usually have an in-house dance company to perform the dance numbers. But when a smaller company like the Boheme Opera sets out to perform a large-scale opera like "Aida," which they bring to Patriots Theater on Friday and Sunday, November 4 and 6, the question of how to handle the dance becomes an artistic challenge. Joseph Pucciatti, Boheme Opera’s artistic director, decided several months ago that his company was ready to tackle a major work like "Aida," but he had some real thinking to do about the dances in its score. The first is a triumphal march by the Egyptian army after it defeats the Ethiopians and the second is a temple dance, where the priests consecrate Radames’ sword as he prepares to go fight the Ethiopians.
"What makes ‘Aida’ difficult," he says, "is the grand march." This triumphal victory march requires extras and has even included chariots and elephants. In the Metropolitan Opera’s production of "Aida," he says, "it seems like they bring in the National Guard to do the scene. That’s a lot of work for three-second march across the stage."
Pucciatti has always imagined doing something different with the march. His idea was to change the focus from the triumphal march of a victorious army to a reenactment of the battle between the Egyptian and Ethiopian armies – a pyrrhic dance. He muses that 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, when the events of the opera took place, the story of the victory would have been told through a storyteller, using song and dance. Although the opera’s notes indicate a grand march, Pucciatti believes that a pyrrhic dance reenacting the battle is more authentic, more entertaining, and certainly more doable.
Pucciatti broached his concept to Lustig, then only an acquaintance, in September, 2004. The two companies had been sharing advertising space in each others’ playbill for the last few years, and the time seemed ripe for an artistic collaboration. Lustig was immediately interested. "Graham is such a wonderful artist himself that he visualized it right away," says Pucciatti. "It was an instant marriage."
In addition to the victory march and temple dance, Lustig has choreographed an original solo to be danced in the background to Aida’s plaintive aria, "Mia Patria," which will be sung by soprano Othalie Graham. Aida, a former Ethiopian princess, is now a slave, her father has been captured, and her lover has been claimed by the Egyptian princess. While Aida longs for her homeland, 15-year-old Yasmeen Davis will dance a quiet solo of a younger Aida, living the life of a free girl in Ethiopia. Davis is a scholarship student in ARB’s Dance Power program, which trains New Brunswick grade-school children in dance and provides scholarships for promising dance students to continue their studies.
Lustig says that as choreographer, "my job is to interpret the style of the period and the music and to create something that adds another visual and emotional dimension to the production." He listens to the music until he knows every note, every bar, and every chord change. "I visualize an emotional landscape – up, down, and around, until it begins to take a shape," says Lustig. "I shape a dance that follows that emotional thread."
To choreograph the dances for "Aida," Lustig faced certain artistic constraints. The first is the story itself and the musical context. For the temple dance, he began by reading and studying about ancient Egypt. He looked in particular at the forms of Egyptian art, "taking inspiration from them." He says: "The musical structure, the emotional line, and the narrative eventually draw down into the physicalization of the movement." For example, he looked at the image of Osiris, the Egyptian bird goddess and gave the dancers movements where the bottom halves of their bodies do a step like a water-wading bird, as the tops of their bodies mirror the long, curved beak of the stork. They tiptoe down the steps into the temple dance, link their thumbs together and extend their other fingers to flap like wings.
Another challenge was accommodating the dance to Pucciatti’s concept of a very simple set – a platform reached by rows of steps on three sides, mounting up to four large Egyptian columns and a screen onto which images of Egyptian gods will be projected. His dancers will have a 15 x 30 foot performance space, not the normal 25 to 30 foot depth. Undaunted, Lustig says: "Limitations help you to make choices, hopefully the right choices." The dance, therefore, will spread out and be wide.
After the research and preparatory thinking, Lustig starts to create the dance itself. "As much as possible, having done all of the research, I try to let go of it and let my imagination soar." Although he usually has a good idea of 99 percent of the dance when he starts to work with his dancers, he also collaborates with them to develop their movements on stage.
Boheme and ARB only rehearse together for the last couple of weeks before the production opens. For the temple and pyrrhic dances, there is not much integration with the opera company. But with the "Mia Patria" solo, Lustig says he has to mold the dance around the placement of Aida on the stage.
Lustig hopes to continue working with Boheme Opera in the future, on an as-needed basis, and he is open to collaborations with all sorts of New Jersey arts organizations. "If we collaborate, we are all stronger. It helps us share audiences and do cross advertising, and it’s wonderful for artists from different mediums to share their work."
Regarding collaboration, Lustig clearly puts his money and artistic creativity where his mouth is. This year ARB is working on two major collaborations in addition to that with Boheme Opera. This spring the company will collaborate with Douglass College’s women’s studies program through "Dancing Through the Ceiling." They will commission a new work from a young female choreographer and invite a female photographer to record the creative process. The photographs will become a reportage exhibition that will be on display in the library concurrently with the performances.
The third collaboration is with the Princeton Symphony and the Princeton University Art Museum. The Princeton Symphony has invited ARB to dance scenes from Stravinsky’s "Petrouchka" at the symphony’s 20th-anniversary celebration. Lustig himself once danced this role, coached by Nikolai Beriosov, and he will be staging highlights from the work. Stravinsky worked on the ballet with Diaghalev, an impresario who brought Russian ballet to Europe for first time in 1906. The museum will host an exhibition from its own rich collection of images from the era of Diaghilev. His work "caused a surore (an outcry) in the arts," says Lustig, with people booing, cheering, walking out, and standing there screaming. It was a time of tremendous energy and creative thrust for all performing arts, including ballet.
As a tiny boy Lustig remembers dancing to music on the radio. He was the youngest of three boys in a family that was not theatrical; his father was a civil engineer and his mother a secretary. When Lustig started school at age five, he heard about "dancing schools," and he begged his parents to send him. "My parents said no for six months," he says, "but at five-and-a-half they relented."
Lustig enrolled in a West London dancing school, where he also discovered choreography. When he was 10, his dance teacher asked him to create a dance, and he did. By age 14, he was choreographing for the younger students at the school. His teacher still teaches – this year is the 60th anniversary of her school, and Lustig says she was an inspiration. He adds that he tries to "appreciate, value, and support my students in their creative endeavors."
When he was 16, Lustig decided to apply to the Royal Ballet School’s full-time professional program. Applying was a big decision, because it meant leaving high school. When he was uncertain about whether to start the process, he remembers his father telling him, "Who knows if you’ll get in" and "You don’t have to say yes if they accept you." But his parents were also very concerned about his pursuing a career in professional ballet. He remembers them asking him time and again, "What happens if you don’t make it? What will you fall back on?"
But after three auditions, a two-hour physical exam (including X-rays), he was one of six applicants accepted, and he says, "I felt very lucky to be offered it and never thought of saying no." Although he didn’t regret leaving high school at the time, he says that since he stopped dancing, he has missed the formal education and that now he would love to study the history of art. But he is too busy. "Now that I am in a track as director of a company, it is hard to get free time to go to college and study." Directing is a 24/7 job.
Two years after his acceptance by the Royal Ballet School, he was offered a job at the prestigious Dutch National Ballet, where he danced and choreographed for seven years. At 25, he became a soloist at Sadler’s Wells Ballet, where he also did choreography. When he retired as a performer, he became the choreographer-in-residence for the Washington Ballet, and in June of 1999, Lustig he was named artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet and ARB’s Princeton Ballet School.
Lustig has been working in the field of ballet for 33 years. "It’s a great thing to do that which speaks to your heart," he concludes. "Then you’re doubly blessed."
Aida, Boheme Opera, Friday, November 4, 8 p.m., and Sunday, November 6, 3 p.m. Patriots Theater, Trenton, 609-581-7200. In collaboration with American Repertory Ballet. In Italian with projected English titles. $28 to $68.