Ancient Greece meets the ’50s in Orpheus production

Orpheus does not normally wield an electric guitar, but this weekend’s performance at the Whitney Theater is no traditional adaptation.

This year’s season of the World Performance Project — a three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — culminates in “Don’t Look Back,” a dance-musical interpretation of the Orpheus myth. The show, performed by the theater-studies-production seminar titled The Actor and the Text: Project O, transposes the popular Greek myth onto 1950s and 60s America. It is produced in conjunction with the more classical production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, directed by Richard Lalli and sponsored by the Yale Baroque Opera Project, which is being performed Friday and Saturday at the Trinity Lutheran Church.

Joseph Roach, professor of the seminar and director of the performance, said “Don’t Look Back” preserves the essential elements of the traditional opera. In the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, after the lyre player’s wife dies from a snake bite, Orpheus travels to the underworld. Hades and Persephone allow Eurydice to return to the world of the living on one condition: Orpheus must lead the way and cannot look back. As expected in Greek tragedy, Orpheus does look back — and thereby dooms Eurydice to the netherworld for good.

Co-choreographers Emily Coates ’06 and Bronwen MacArthur and dramaturg Joseph Cermatori DRA ’08 co-taught the seminar alongside Roach. The class involved the study of the Orpheus myth and the adaption of it to the 1950s framework. Over the semester, the four professors and 18 undergraduate students collaborated to develop the theatrical piece. Although the students brought their individual strengths and backgrounds to the project, they “stepped outside of their core,” Coates said.

Roach added that “everyone has contributed something to the conception of the project.”

The initial process involved discussing the Orpheus myth and sorting through its various versions. Students also studied the 1950s and ’60s for context, specifically the American Bandstand tradition. Coates said the seminar focused on the racial atmosphere of the early ’60s, as bandstand shows were segregated until these years. To many Americans it was “startling to see a mixed dance floor,” Roach said.

“Many of the ideas [of rock n’ roll culture] came from African-American artists, and we’re honoring that,” he said.

Another key aspect of the creative process involved the theatrical elements of the eventual performance. The professors and students had to determine how they were going to adapt the myth for the stage.

“Is text going to carry the weight of the final scene? Or is dance?” Coates remembers asking.

The story is performed largely through dance with text used as “ornament,” Coate said.

“We didn’t have the script when we started,” Roach explained. “We made that up as we went along.”

The first half of “Don’t Look Back” takes place in an American Bandstand setting, with the performers in costumes appropriate to the time period. The second half moves to a mythic underworld where movement takes over as the driving narrative force. Taking some creative freedom, the performance features three different Orpheus characters opposite three different Eurydices.

“I think we’ve been interested in the look-back myth and how that can be applied to looking back in history,” Crematori said.

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