l’Histoire du Soldat
Jody Oberfelder Dance Project /Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra
Updating a classic (even a Modernist one) is tricky business; with l’Histoire du Soldat, the reinvention of Stravinsky’s iconic 1918 chamber work by East Village envelope-pusher Jody Oberfelder and her collaborators is a tour de force from beginning to end. Stravinsky was always an innovator, and l’Histoire was his first try at putting his own spin on the sounds of the jazz and ragtime he was dipping into in 1918. Its libretto, by his friend Charles Ramuz,was Ramuz’ own spin on an old Russian story Stravinsky had shared with him. And so the two conceived a piece that combined the influences of African-American music, Russian folk tales, and a whiff of Faustian legend that originated somewhere in central Europe around the 16th century. In other words, a universal morality play: soldier with violin deserts army to return home to mother, encounters the Devil (lusting for the violin) who offers, in exchange, a magic book containing the secret of enormous wealth. Devil gets violin, soldier gets rich, marries a Princess. Complications ensue.
In the same spirit of innovation, Jody Oberfelder got permission to create a new version of l’Histoire’s libretto, and shaped it into a contemporary morality tale for dancers and narrator, in which the villain plays a number of authority figures, all danced by Rebekah Morin. In other words, this Devil is Woman! And that’s only for starters. Brilliantly performed by Morin, Jake Szczypek as the Soldier, ChristinaNoel Reaves as the Princess, and spoken (and sinuously danced) by Narrator Christian Coulson, the collaborative heat remains turned up high, and includes the orchestra (led by Gary S. Fagin).
But the technical and artistic wizardry of the production team matches the live performers every step of the way. Because there is a strong and viable concept behind the entire enterprise, the tricky business of updating succeeds by creating verbal and visual metaphors in very contemporary terms, without twisting the original sensibilities out of shape. (Having lived through some monstrous “updates” that never should have left the drawing board, I am grateful for the pleasures of Oberfelder’s ideas, and for the skill with which they were presented.) Projections treated us to costumed performers marching to the theater on our familiar mean streets and a host of the technical “musts” without which we cannot exist. And a
stunning erotic duet for the Soldier and the Princess (suspended from the ceiling by a harness and dressed in an enormous fabric violin “played” by the Soldier) was defined by lyrical sizzle. Projections were also employed for the ending: a fast rewind of l’Histoire’s images, closing with the superimposition of a computer’s “start” button. Sad, and funny, but the temptation to press it remained.
There was, however, one additional element not part of the concept: about 20 minutes into the piece, a voice from the control booth broke the spell by announcing an imminent fire event; we all filed out to the street until the emergency was over and the troupers could pick up the threads and began weaving again. No one dropped a stitch.
When Stravinsky and Ramuz devised the original version of l’Histoire, they made it as a production modest enough to tour towns and villages in the straitened economic climate of post-World War One Europe. Sound familiar? Oberfelder’s version requires a bare stage, a few props, a screen, a small cast, and a chamber orchestra. It’s had three performances at Pace University’s Schimmel Center, and would make a nifty package for other venues. Imagination, talent, art, craft. Let’s get this show on the road!