Devilish Doings

Director, dancers, choreographer and conductor offer perspectives on this weekend’s University of Oregon staging of Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Story’

by GARY FERRINGTON

A young enlistee trades his fiddle to the devil in return for unlimited riches, a princess — and ultimately loss and grief. The Russian folk tale The Runaway Soldier and the Devil, which Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer C.F Ramuz adapted and premiered during the brutality of World War I, is a metaphor for its time as a struggle between good and evil. The Soldier’s Story (L’histoire du soldatwas first performed in Switzerland 100 years ago on September 28, 1918 at the Theatre Lausanne. This weekend, a century later, a cadre of students and faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance called Pacific Artists Collective (PAC) stage a theatrical revival of the Faustian tale that retains the original’s scale while providing contemporary approaches.

The Soldier’s Story has been staged in many different ways over the years, including jazz, ballet, orchestral, and even Inuit versions. But when PAC Artistic Director Bronson York approached Associate Professor of Dance Shannon Mockli about a possible production of Stravinsky’s chamber musical theater piece, he wanted to make it much like it was originally conceived: a simple and transportable hour-long theatrical work that moved from village to village, and not necessarily performed on a stage or in a theater. “So with that in mind I really brought it back to the essentials,” York says. “It has no backdrops or even really a set, with one exception in the second act.”

Minimal set design with trio of dancers in the role of soldier, devil and princess. Photo: Luke Smith

The ensemble includes a story narrator, musicians, three actors, and three dancer-characters —a soldier, a devil and a princess who, Mockli says, are “not relegated to acting these parts. Rather, they all participate in each of the dance sections, sometimes representing their characters and sometimes more poetically expressing an image or idea [or] the emotion … of a scene.”

Mockli notes that “a trio in dance always expresses a kind of dynamic tension in its asymmetry.” The dancers interweave with one another and change partnerships throughout, each affecting the shifting experiences of the others and creating dynamic tension in the narrative. Ultimately, the trio of characters are implicated by each other’s changing actions and choices, as they are “woven in a kind of eternal web,” Mockli says. “The choreography lives in this sort of liminal space of being purely poetic or impressionistic.”

Contemporary dance allows her to skirt between literal and abstract representation and for this project, Mockli found new ways to express ancient ideas and stories. Similarly, “contemporary music often serves an atmospheric purpose, which can lead to less attention given to external time signatures. In this case, one would be absolutely fighting the music to ignore it. This gives me a new limitation to expand my creativity. As a choreographer I have taken some liberties in order to really get inside of Stravinsky’s music. I have loved choreographing intricacies of the dancers in relationship to each other to bring out a musical visualization in the dance.”

Dancers Ryan Fish, Zach Dunlop, and Lucia Lind rehearse character roles in Stravinsky’s ‘L’histoire du soldat.’ Photo: Bronson York.

Bringing Mockli’s choreography to life on the stage has been a challenge for the trio of graduate dance students, who frequently must transition out of their individual character roles and into ensemble dance routines reflecting the situation and story. Ryan Fish, who performs as the devil, notes that his role demands “the right embodiment of evil and trickery, mixed with cunning and wit.” Zach Dunlop, who is a military veteran, brings that experience to the role of soldier Lucia Lind, playing the princess, says Stravinsky’s music, with its complex layers, sharp accents and fast pacing, has proved most challenging for her.

Devilish Score

Those musical complexities excite conductor Joseph Vranas. “Changing meter is one thing,” Vranas explains, “but Stravinsky not only changes the meter, he changes the accentuation of the pulse.” And with a septet of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion, “everyone is exposed, and as opposed to a 100-piece orchestra. If one person (including myself) makes a mistake it could derail the rhythmic integrity of the entire scene. No pressure!”

Joseph Vranas rehearses members of the Pacific Artists Collective with dancers. Photo: Luke Smith

Vranas regards Stravinsky, whose musical career was cultivated by collaborative ballet, as the most influential figure in the development of his own vision as a young composer. His music “incites imagination and storytelling and his compositional identity is so unique, yet somehow offers a familiar, relatable, and digestible experience for listeners.”

Staging the Story

As this show has so many elements, two of York’s primary jobs as director are maintaining continuity and avoiding confusion. How, for example, do you stage a double cast, in which both an actor and a dancer plays each of the same roles of soldier, devil and princes. To avoid audience confusion, York has limited the time that all are on stage together. “This is done intentionally as the dancers represent the forces of the characters,” he says, rather than the characters themselves.”

Dance happens outside the story being told, almost like a “reflection of the story, simplifying the narrative to the forces represented by the characters.” York sees these “forces,” or emotions, being “the devil as corruptor, the soldier as the corruptible, and the princess as innocence.” The challenge, Mockli adds, will be exchanging of spaces between the actors and dancers on stage — without entirely breaking the flow of the narrative.

Artistic Director Bronson York provides direction to actor and dancers. Photo: Luke Smith

The UO production is a collaborative effort between between the School’s Department of Dance and the recently formed Pacific Artists Collective (PAC), a student-run interdisciplinary chamber orchestra founded in order to provide opportunities to perform pieces, like The Soldier’s Story, that extend beyond just music. The project is funded, in part, by the UO School of Music and Dance’s first annual Innovation Contest award.

Both performances feature a pre-concert lecture by UO graduate musicologist Holly Chapman. After the shows there will be a reception featuring an art gallery (featuring work by Kailie DeBolt and Shannon Knight), a talk from choreographer Mocklin, and Varnas conducting a performance of his own Music for Winds. York thought this octet of four woodwinds and four brass, influenced by Stravinsky’s abstract music (no story, purely music) would make a nice close to the PAC’s Stravinsky celebration, showing how Stravinsky’s music, as well as the perennial story of war, greed, and corruption, remain relevant a century later.

Coming Up

More theatrical Stravinsky chamber music returns to the UO in February with PAC’s staging of Renard (1916), a Russian folk tale about a fox trying to get a meal out of a cocky chicken. Stravinsky’s score features four male voices who share the story-telling roles of the barn animals accompanied by a chamber ensemble that includes an Eastern European folk instrument called the cimbalom. The program also includes Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint-Saën’s Carnival of the Animals for a — you guessed it — Concert of Animals.

Pacific Artists Collective’s L’histoire du soldat runs Friday, November 16 at 7:30 pm and Saturday November 17 at 2:00 pm at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance’s Dougherty Dance Theatre, 1484 University Street. A pre-concert lecture will be held 30 minutes before both concerts. $10 General Admission, $5 students and seniors.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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