Tom Strini

Danceworks and Friends revive “Facade”

Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra join Danceworks in Sitwell and Walton's 1920's avant-garde entertainment.

By - Apr 24th, 2013 04:00 am
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Danceworkers Kim Johnson and Christal Wagner, in their vintage-style “Facade” swimsuits outside the Milwaukee Theatre.

Danceworks, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra will get together Thursday through Sunday to add to the already confusing history of Façade.

That history in a nutshell: In the early 1920s, young British composer William Walton, son of a moderately successful musician in Lancashire, essentially won a singing scholarship as a youth at Christ Church, Oxford. That allowed him to hang around and become educated at Oxford, which finally sent Walton on his way without a degree in 1920. But at Oxford, he’d hit it off with Sacheverell Sitwell, a poet and brother of Edith Sitwell and Osbert Sitwell. Thus Walton came to be invited to live in the attic of the London home the three siblings shared. He remained there for about 15 years.

And thus came Façade, an “entertainment” involving the recitation of 21 Edith Sitwell poems combined with music by Walton. Sitwell, a flamboyant and eccentric character, was a prominent figure in the London avant-garde and was often involved in aesthetic feuds. The first public performance, in London in 1923, was a scandalous success; Sitwell read her poems through a megaphone while hidden wither shrouded by a cloth or hidden behind a screen, depending on the account. Façade’s poems skirt the edges of narrative or descriptive sense; sound is about as important as meaning in these works. (You can read most of them here.)

Just to further muddy the waters, many know Façade primarily as a ballet score without text. Choreographer Frederick Ashton took it up in 1931, and his ballet of the same name was a smash hit. Sitwell, however, wanted nothing to do with it and forbade Ashton to use her poems.

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Danceworks rehearsing in the Milwaukee Theatre Rotunda. View from the standing-room balcony, shot by Ross Zentner.

An antic, satirical quality and references to popular music and ballroom dance pervade both Ashton’s ballet and Walton’s music. The music abounds with clever quotations of everything from Stravinsky to Gershwin (whom Walton met through the Sitwells). Danceworks choreographer and artistic director Dani Kuepper and her collaborators are picking up on that spirit. She imagines the piece at British seaside resort hotel in the teens or early 1920s and has dressed her cast accordingly.

“It has an absurdist quality,” said Richard Hynson, music director of the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra. “Sitwell just pulled together familiar elements and put them together in strange ways. Walton did the same thing. A waltz, a la Johann Strauss, is the longest piece. You have this elegant waltz with these absurd words.”

Hynson joined Kuepper and Jill Anna Ponasik, artistic director of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, in a joint interview about the show.

“Rick calls it ‘Dr. Seuss for adults,” Ponasik said, referring to both the original and upcoming productions. “It’s a cross-disciplinary frivolity. Sitwell tinkers with the sounds of the English language. She makes music of it. She was of her time, the time and James Joyce and the surrealists. The words start to lift off the narrative.”

They’re all taking a cue from Sitwell’s attachment of the word “entertainment” to her project with Walton.

“As soon as Jill Anna said the words ‘leisure games’ — ding!” said Kuepper. “I thought badminton, croquet, swimming, kites — Jazz Age lawn party.”

Edith Sitwell, Roger Fry portrait from 1918. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

Edith Sitwell, Roger Fry portrait from 1918. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

William Walton in 1928. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

William Walton in 1928. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

Dancing, naturally, would be among the “pleasure activities.” at the resort. Sitwell sprinkled the terms country dance, march, gallop, hornpipe, mazurka and tango into the titles of the poems. Despite all that, she did not want her poems attached to dancing on the stage.

“Yes,” Kuepper said, cheerfully, “we are doing this against the express desires of the creator.”

The’ll do it in the vast, lovely Rotunda of the Milwaukee Theatre. In the lower level, an arcing shallow stairway forms something like a natural amphitheater; chairs will be set up around it. But for $10 standing room, you can watch from the balcony and get a birds-eye view of the show, which runs for about an hour.

Ponasik booked four singers to recite the words, play characters and interact with the 13 dancers. The singers will wear microphones, but the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra will go unamplified. The goal, of course, is intelligibility.

They wouldn’t want all that absurdity to be misunderstood.

For tickets and further information, visit the Danceworks website or call 414 277-8480. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 4 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25-27.

Categories: Classical, Dance, Music

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