Dances With Birds

A Powerful Drama of Self Discovery in Movement

Amber Stephens portrays the “Beggar” | Photo: Laurent Ziegler

Amber Stephens portrays the “Beggar” | Photo: Laurent Ziegler

Amber Stephens

Amber Stephens portrays the “Beggar” | Photo: Laurent Ziegler

It was a chilly Thursday night at the Odeon Theater in Vienna, as the lobby thrummed with anticipation. Nearly 250 people had turned up for the premiere of  The Beggar and the Bird, a Dance and Music performance created by New Zealand choreographer, Amber Stephens. Together with musician Natalie Jean-Marain, and dancer Albert Kessler, Stephens has produced an original story that entwines soaring vocal improvisation with pyrotechnic displays of Modern Dance energy.

Upon entering the grand portico of the Odeon Theater (formerly an agricultural trading exchange, complete with fluted marble pillars and elegant staircases), the audience found themselves viewing a broad stage, flanked on either side by two mysterious seated plaster figures – apparently the chrysalises from which some strange female figures had recently emerged.

A tall banner of newspaper clippings of an actress’ life hung at stage left, while a wheeled mirror waited in the wings. A small group of musicians huddled silently at the rear, accompanied by an elegant singer, seated on a tall stool.

From her first moments on stage, Stephens led us into the interior life and feelings of each character she played. First on stage was the Diva, so upright in posture, silently miming her daily superficialities, while allowing us to glimpse the loneliness beneath the mask. Clad in a simple cocktail dress, she conveyed through gestures and facial expressions the reality of the unreflected life, diverting but shallow.

The story introduces a range of characters, in a transformative journey that leaves each affected by their interactions. The Diva is world-weary, a woman of ambition and power, capable of art, yet selfish and sometimes cruel. In an impressive display of on-stage metamorphosis, the Diva then changes into the Beggar. Initially restrained, the dancing becomes more frenetic, arms gyrating, with twirls, rhythmic breathing, dips and falls, as an insistent drumming begins to be heard.

Events begin to take a darker turn, when the Beggar meets its Shadow – Albert Kessler – who leads the Beggar down paths of power and control, which culminate in obsession, and the total abjection of the Bird, cast down into an emotional well, from which only the newly-awakened compassion of the Beggar can rescue it.

The Shadow mirrors the darker side of the Beggar, engaging in a physically demanding pas de deux of puppetry and power, with great leaps, rolls, martial jabs and lifts, as well as much floor work.

Amber Stephens

Amber Stephens portrays the “Beggar” | Photo: Laurent Ziegler

Some loss of self seems to be a prerequisite for the classical journey of self-discovery, charting unknown territories of one’s internal world, to discover its deeper meaning. This journey is not without missteps, as we learn when the Diva meets the Bird – played by Jean-Marain – who wings materialize in subtle vocalizations and static poses, aided by a costume of silver and feathers.

Like Kate Bush’s Aerial, Jean-Marain invents a language of birds, with its “Kirikeeks” and “Kurruuuuu” cries, evoking the lilt of a forest-dwelling bird-of-paradise.  The Beggar, dances to these songs – as Stephens dances patterns that mirror the soaring voice of Jean-Marain.

This interaction between Beggar and Bird is the core of the performance, as the Bird sings and the dancer reflects them in motion, a sound-driven marionette.  Soon, however, the flow of influence is reversed, and the Beggar delights in exercising control over the Bird’s song – with disastrous consequences for the Bird.

At the climax, the Shadow is reintegrated, the Bird redeemed, and the Beggar arises, transformed – ready for the next stage of a journey reflecting the labyrinth of our own life changes. The stunning finale, sung with English lyrics by Jean-Marain, lifts the energy and leaves an impression of serenity and self-acceptance.

Written and choreographed by Stephens, who remained throughout on stage, incorporated elements of modern dance, Brazilian capoeira, floor work, hip-hop, and allusions to classical ballet, all performed to a high technical standard.

The music, performed live on guitar, piano and extensive percussion, hinted at Shamanic drumming, Arabic motifs and Spanish flamenco themes, emphasizing the different stages of the story, and deftly supporting the high-energy levels of the two dancers. The sparse staging included a curious mirror through which the dancer passed parts of her self in a mysterious gimmick that defied nature.

The mystery was only resolved at the end of the performance, when a large screen behind the musicians showed the process of applying plaster to the dancer, which hardened and then was shed as if emerging from a cocoon – an apt metaphor for the transformation which we had just witnessed.

The performance had been a huge challenge, the creative team acknowledged later, with hundreds of hours of rehearsals, and the management of extensive details of costume design, staging, musical composition, choreographic research and improvisation.

In the end, the work seemed more than justified, and was well received by the audience of several hundred. The team plans to take the show abroad, to Dance and Arts festivals around the world over the next few years, as well as producing variations of the story in other media, to retell the modern myth of the Beggar and the Bird in different forms.

Disclaimer: The writer contributed the Website design for this performance, but has no beneficial connection with the performers.

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