IGOR STRAVINSKY was known for building his music according to strange laws. Dancers move silently on stage while in the pit soloists deliver their lines: one speaking character amid a troupe of dancing nymphs; sliding harmonies that arrest the ear, and which created an almost hysterical outrage back when the composer's works first were mounted on the public stage. All these techniques make Stravinsky ideal for a festival aiming to redefine the audience's approach to musical works. The two idiosyncratic sketches presented in the Agassiz exemplify such experimentation; more important though they present it sweetly and undidactically, washing the lesson down with strikingly tuneful music and a structure whose bizarreness only adds to its charm.
Renard, the first and lighter of the two showcases the skills of some talented dancers and displays the work of choreographer Decborah Wolf. Wolf's challenge is to project convincing illusions of a fox a rooster a cat and a goat through the bodies costumed only abstractly of four human dancers.
In the 20 minutes Renard encompasses the troupe not only meets the challenge but converts it into a delightful tour de force. The story involves a gullible rooster who is lured twice from his perch by the fox, but escapes and triumphs in the end with the help of his friends the cat and the goat. While the dancers silently cavort, a quartet of soloists in the orchestra pit sing the tale.
The voices two tenor and two bass are tolerably strong the orchestra disciplined and subdued; the only touch that proves more distracting than ingenuous is the "Creative" black tie of the soloists, which includes a woven Indian style smock along with the cummerbunds and so forth. But what happens on stage necessarily leaves them pale by comparison. Carlo Rizzo who dances the rooster is astonishing as is Susan White as the Fox; the latter in a scarlet body stocking attacks and "dies" with a sinuous grace while Rizzo does best in the rooster's moments of sweaty panic. In one such attack White flips Rizzo to the ground where his black satin coattails fall over his face. His hands the only part of him left unconcealed poke out in coxcomb shape and proceed to dance as strikingly as if his whole body were alert.
PERSEPHONE THOUGH LONGR AND MORE SERIOUS, does nothing to dissipate the warm cloud of pleasure left by the appetizer. In this piece the soloists are replaced by a chorus flustered around the piano; more interesting Persephone herself speaks as she walks through her part, though the dancing nymphs around her remain silent. Unfolding on the same simple, two tiered black framework as Renard; the scene for Persephone shifts only through the lighting which poignantly points the difference between Heaven and Hell.
Set to a haunting text by Andre Gide the piece tells a variant of the old seasonal myth: In this version, Demeter's daughter sees in a vision the sadness of Pluto's Shades and descends to comfort them. Deceived by Mercury into eating six pomegranate seeds, she is bound forever to the Underworld but then seems another vision the sorrow of Winter brought about by her absence. The poem's reaffirmation of cyclical obligations shines through in the last scene, as Persephone miraculously returned home descends again to Hades to fulfill her eternal responsibilities.
As in Renard the choreography this time by Richard Dickinson is simple and sure. Its few gestures toward stylization sit a trifle uneasily on Jeanne Jones as Persephone, who looks exactly like a China shepherdess; she also looks a little time like she's watching herself in a minor and her voice errs by a fraction of a timber towards stiffness. But Gide's beautiful words gradually enable her to relax her delivery and precise ensemble work by the nymphs further softens the effects.
The chorus of 13 clings nicely to some beautiful and delicate atonalities to match the movements of the dancers notable Paul Garland as Mercury, whose control and coordinator could send a shiver up the spine. Dark and light wash the stage in successive stages of mind. At last the ensemble unfolds in one amazing effect all the nymphs of Shades encircle Persephone go droop like the fronds of a dead flower and all stylization evaporates in a transport of pure and true musical emotion.