The Love of Mars and Venus: myth, love and lust
The Barefoot Opera Company is not one for standing still. In its aim to make a theatrical/operatic experience open to everyone, the company brings in music and dance – and sometimes food and drink – to create atmospheric evenings to stir the senses of sight, sound and taste. Lauris Morgan-Griffiths writes.
The latest development in their purpose of producing ensemble, physical theatre is the recreation of the very first ballet by John Weaver in 1717; the play melds ballet, music and theatre.
Catching up with Director Jenny Miller before she went on holiday, I wondered if this was a departure for Barefoot Opera or is this the birth of the Barefoot Ballet Company? “No”, Jenny laughed, “it is much in the vein of what the Company does: a combination of opera, theatre, movement and accessible story-telling.”
The idea for this production was, in fact, initiated by Evelyn Nallen, a virtuoso recorder artist well versed in authentic, baroque ensemble music. Fascinated by music from that time, Evelyn also began to explore the history of its dance. It was one thing loving and playing the music, but she was mystified that no one seemed to know anything about the fusion of the music with dance. “It would be a little like playing tango or salsa music and having no idea of what was danced to it.”
She discovered in 1717 that John Weaver had created the first ballet, as we know it today, with a story embellished by symbolic gestures conveying intention, feelings and meaning. Evelyn explains: “It was the first dance with meaningful gestures and no words.”
Prior to this, dance had been purely a series of steps; no narrative, no emotions. John Weaver, who is now described as the ‘Father of Ballet’ worked with the extraordinary woman and super star of the time, Hester Santlow to create The Loves of Mars and Venus. Miller in fact described him as ‘the Father of Pantomime’ – not in a derogatory way: “It was a new vocabulary of dance, using body with work with text to try and tell a story and is recognised for what became pantomime.”
Evelyn had the idea of recreating this play in spite of the fact that no music or choreography survive from the 18th century. Over several years, she discussed the project with baroque dance scholar, Moira Goff, but did not know how to move the thought out of her head and realise it into a 3-D art form.
Then, serendipitously, pieces started to fall into place.
One afternoon, Evelyn heard a BBC radio play about Bach which seemed to have a theme and style that could be translated to her embryonic scheme. She contacted the writer, Stephen Wyatt, and got him on board. He started a script bringing together John Weaver as the dance master with Hester Santlow, the first dancer in the first modern ballet, The Loves of Mars and Venus.
The first act is about Hester, the theatrical superstar of her time; the second re-enacts the love affair between Mars and Venus cuckolding Vulcan, Venus’ husband and god of fire and metalworking, who catches them in flagrante and traps them in a net he has forged himself.
The perceived impression of opera singers are that they are somewhat …. ample – and not known for their acting and balletic talents. But Evelyn remembered seeing soprano and Ballet Rambert trained, Chiara Vinci in a Barefoot Opera and thinking “There is my Venus.”
Evelyn has also worked with Jenny Miller and Barefoot Opera in the past, so another piece of the jigsaw fell into place. Jenny Miller directs and Vinci plays the sexy Georgian theatre star, Hester Santlow, as well as Venus.
Soprano Chiara Vinci is well known on the Hastings music scene and, judging by her photograph, clearly demonstrates that she is not bulkily, earth bound. Michael Spenceley, known nationally as a choreographer and actor, creates the role of provincial dance master John Weaver.
However, although those pieces fell into plays easily, rehearsals have not been seamless. In fact it will be extraordinary if it all comes together on the day. Even though it is a small cast, it has been a bit of ‘a seat of the pants’ affair. The contributing dancers and musicians are busy, professional people with other work commitments as well as geographic divisions. French dancer, Romain Arreghini, who trained in Baroque dance, is Mars, choreographer, Gilles Poirier who has recreated the original choreographies, and Chiari Vinci have got together to rehearse both in England and France. Evelyn has rehearsed the musicians in small groups and director, Jenny Miller jetted off on a pre-arranged holiday.
Consequently, the first time the cast and musicians will all be together in the same space will be for the performance. Knuckle biting. But in true theatrical tradition, the show must go on. And ‘it will all be all right on the night.’
The Loves of Mars and Venus: Sunday 26 February 2017 at 6 pm at St Mary in the Castle. £15 in advance online from www.barefootopera.com or £18 on the door.
Then tours: 2 March at The Fitzwilliam College Auditorium, Cambridge and 5 March at The Cortauld Institute, Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 0RN.
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