Ryan Fish

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.”

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