The Delicate Balance of Beauty and Pain

Photo by Bamberg Fine Art

Approaching Ecstasy is not a light, happy ballet. The music is slow and haunting, the dancers’ movements are furtive and low to the ground. Weaving through the moving bodies onstage, a somber choral group chants 100-year-old poems about fate, sex and unrequited lust. This powerfully dark but ultimately uplifting multi-media performance, a collaboration between contemporary dance company Whim W’Him, choral group The Esoterics, the Skyros Quartet, harpist Melissa Achten Klausner and composer/conductor Eric Banks, closed among “wows,” “ohs,” and one whispered “goddamn” from the opening night audience last weekend at Cornish Playhouse.

Whim W’Him’s seven company dancers and all the singers and musicians remain onstage for most of the production. Rather than compete for the audience’s attention (which sometimes happens in less carefully crafted multi-media productions) the artists skillfully create a singular experience that pays homage to the work of Greek-Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy. A closeted gay civil servant living in Alexandria at the turn of the 20th century, Cavafy wrote about his romantic experiences, real and imagined, in a series of poems that largely remained unknown until after his death in 1933.

At the beginning of Approaching Ecstasy, a diagonal path of light cuts across the stage between a string quartet, two rows of seated choral singers and a gigantic metal cube. Seven dancers move one by one along the path in a series of slow lunges, their arms reaching out to the sides and then snapping back in as if they were afraid to be seen. Dancers, musicians and singers wear identical black suits with derby hats with the exception of dancer Tory Peil, who wears a short dress made of vibrantly colored men’s neckties that poofed out in the back like peacock feathers.

As The Esoterics chant the words to Cavafy’s 1915 poem “With the touch of his hands,” Peil enters the stage carrying a metal cafe table, joined by dancer Liane Aung for a wistful pas de deux:

Someone next to me mumbled something softly
And caused me to glance over toward the door of the café
There I saw someone so beautiful, it was as if
Love himself had created him on his very best day

Choreography and language sometimes converge into literal illustrations of poem stanzas, such as the wiggling of Aung’s toes under the table near recitation of the line Shaping his symmetrical limbs with pleasure, and Peil running her hands around Aung’s waist while the words Measuring his well-sculpted frame with patience hung in the air.

Throughout the production, the subject matter and emotional energy of all 18 poems are closely matched by deeply lyrical movements. This lyricism, along with the lunging, reaching movements and profound emotional longing of each pas de deux is common to Whim W’Him artistic director Olivier Wevers’ choreography and works well to meld the music, poetry and dancing into a single artistic entity. Each poem is sung in Greek accompanied by the onstage musicians and then chanted in English by a roving group of choral singers. Sometimes dancers and singers interact physically or work together to manipulate a giant glass cube across the floor. The cube illustrates the poems and associated metaphors well, but sometimes distracts from the delicacy of the music and choreography.

In a later section, a huge frame hangs at an angle from the ceiling while Patrick Kilbane and Karl Watson dance face to face precisely mirroring each other’s movements. Their quick glances over the shoulder, reaching and pulling away from each other without touching, mime the scene in which Cavafy describes “a magnificent mirror” that attracted the gaze of a beautiful young man who in turn attracts Cafavy’s attention and becomes the object of a romantic fantasy in the poem “In the Vestibule.” At the end of the pas de deux, the mirror cracks and Kilbane and Watson embrace through the divide. Cafavy’s longing for love and connection is a theme that threads throughout the piece. Wevers’ choreography leans heavily on the metaphors in both the present and the original 2012 production of Approaching Ecstasy, but there is a deeper symbiosis between his dancers this year that counteracts any triteness. Indeed, that symbiotic rhythm exists between all artists onstage as they move around each other, a metaphor itself for the relationship that love, lust and loneliness played in Cavafy’s life: a single entity made up of many parts. 

It’s possible that this imagery means more today than it did in 2012, considering the present divergent political and cultural mood in the United States. Wevers spoke to the audience before the start of the performance about the “power of the individual voice,” which in Cavafy’s world was small and self-damning. Yet Cavafy’s poems gave hope to many, and proved prophetic, as in his 1908 poem “Obstacles”:

In the future, in a more perfect world
Some fortunate man, created just like I am, will find himself
Able to live without shamefulness or hesitation, and be free.”

Approaching Ecstasy runs through June 10 at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center.