Kimmel Center presents Christopher Williams and Gregory Spears’s ‘Wolf-in-skins’

A wolf in man's clothing

In Welsh myths, the heroes often have half-human and half-divine characteristics. The most original dance and music event of this season, the second installation of choreographer/librettist Christopher Williams’ six-part dance/opera Wolf-in-Skins is certainly more than human. As Philadelphia Dance Projects (PDP) celebrates its 20th year, founding executive director Terry Fox partnered with American Opera Projects to produce it as an “informance” at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts/SEI Innovation Studio Wednesday evening for a two-night run.

Wolves in their own skins. (Photo by Andrew Jordan)

The first part was a full set-and-lighting production at Temple University in 2013, also produced by PDP. As I noted back then, even without the puppets and additional acts, Williams already realized his intention to create a Gesamtkunstwerk: a total synthesis of the arts. Much like the heroes in the Welsh myths upon which this story is based, these artists may also have magical powers.

While an informance is not a fully staged performance, it goes deeper than a lecture or demonstration, and here included the 10-member period instrument ensemble, New Vintage Baroque, conducted by Wolf-in-Skins composer Gregory Spears. Spears’s Fellow Travelers premiered at Cincinnati Opera in June 2016. I can only compare his music for Wolf-in-Skins to the disquieting beauty of some of Gavin Bryars’s scores.  

Over the hills and far away

The show opened with low rumblings of distant thunder created by Dylan Greene on timpani. Baritone Marcus DeLoach, who thrilled audiences last year in Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, sang a gorgeous solo made arduous by the clipped syllables of Williams’s old Welsh verse. Spears’s score contained leitmotifs that reached back through the first part and insinuations that foreshadowed the coming sections.

Both Williams and Spears are making this narrative work of mythology Wagnerian in scope and Bauschian in tone. If it ever gets a full showing (and what a coup it would be for the Kimmel to present it upstairs in the Perelman Theater before the Brooklyn Academy of Music gets the idea) it will challenge all the current norms of dance, opera, and staging. 

In the pre-Arthurian Welsh wilderness, one of a netherworld king’s wives whelps three children with a mortal man. The king banishes her and bewitches her young boys into wolf cubs. One is found asleep by a wizard who turns him back into a young man: Ywen or Wolf-in-Skins.

Delicious style

That’s Anthony Roth Costanzo, a captivating actor and countertenor of growing renown, whose voice is rich as Belgian chocolate and his fluid and fearless performance style even darker. His first album for Decca Gold, to be released in 2018, will include Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten,” which will have its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 2019, with Costanzo in the title role.

As the wolf-in-skins, Costanzo dances like a wounded animal, looking far into the distance as he sings in English, “High above the apple tree, cuckoo, cuckoo” and makes it sound profound. Three “fay” (a race, not an adjective) milkmaids lure him into the depths of an enchanted lake.

Bare-breasted and whitened with rice powder from head to toe, they wear horned black-braided wigs, and raggedy loin wraps under what look like giant upturned clear plastic salad bowls for tutus. But designers Andrew Jordan and Ciera Wells soften the plastic look with an underlining of diaphanous material marbled with blue and red lines that could be veins.

The male wolfhounds had the best and most demanding choreography. Bounding and bouncing along on all fours in their wolfish half-masks while grunting, they looked and sounded bestial. Eric Wright, Jamie Bressler and Williams designed the giant puppet, “the bewitched bull of the deep, Ludd Carn Eraint.” Wright and Drew Kaiser, who manned it, comically assembled it onstage as it would not fit through the doors of the studio.

Pina Bausch used an astonishingly huge blue whale in her 1996 Nur Du, and I imagine this bull will engender the same shock and awe when it finally lumbers onstage in the full-scale production. The heroes in Welsh myths may have magical powers and, I believe, so may these artists.

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