Despite the warm weather, Dylan Ward’s Melody Nelson drew a large crowd to Velocity’s Founders Theatre on Saturday, July 12. Based on the 1971 concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier, the evening-length work explored a fantastical parallel story structure, utilizing many monologues and discussions between characters. The speakers directly addressed the audience and executed Ward’s movement in a relaxed, almost nonchalant manner, lending a postmodern aesthetic to the work as a whole.
Program notes revealed a structure broken up into five acts, a prologue, and an epilogue. Each part had a title matching a track on Gainsbourg and Vannier’s album that was inspired by a “Lolita-esque” affair between an adolescent French girl and her 30-year-old lover. This formal structure introduced a through-line that took the audience on a journey with the characters, keeping viewers guessing as to what plot twist would come next. The work’s ten dancers, wearing brightly-colored shirts, shorts, and different kinds of shoes, were already onstage as the audience entered. They spoke to each other, stretched, and went over material—a window into Ward’s rehearsal process.
In the original story of Melody Nelson, a young French girl dies in a plane crash and shortly thereafter her lover, Tristan, commits suicide; it was his journal, the standout performer Jan Trumbauer explained, that inspired the musical score. The dancers discussed the way this popular album reflects society’s fascination with, and possible condemnation of, the affair as pedophilia. Long segments of spoken word were interspersed with dance interludes, which, while containing varied and well-developed movement phrases, could have been much longer. The choreography ranged from an adagio arm section in unison, amusingly referred to as the “tripping out” phrase, recognizable movements from tap and ballet, and all kinds of pedestrian gestures with accompanying facial expressions. Performed with commitment and clear intention, the piece would have benefitted from a greater ratio of pure dance to spoken word.
In the parallel narrative structure, the dancers explored the love affair of Melanie Shelton as active characters within the story. This time the gender roles were inverted, with Melanie as the seductress of a boy half her age and the cast members as Melanie’s pupils in a strange and silly school of magic.Over the course of this complicated story, the piece’s through-line began to wander. While the work posed many intriguing questions about the ethics of loving someone much older or younger, the folly of youthful decision-making, and the disastrous effects of reincarnation on the universe, the piece’s overall meaning became muddied by the end. One method for viewing interdisciplinary works of dance theater involves merely noticing what there is to notice and not worrying about “getting it,” but this work made great effort to neatly tie up its disparate plot threads. Devoting so much time to the convoluted plot left the audience with the impression that they might have missed the point.
Highlights of the work included funny moments that dancers and dancemakers in the audience could enjoy—Trumbauer giving stage direction to the others in a loosely-structured improvisation or screaming “You just want to dance around?!” to her fellow performers. The movement vocabulary, thoughtfully structured with pleasing spatial patterns and repetition, was mostly upright, lacking integration in and out of the floor. Just prior to the epilogue, (an upbeat section with handheld flashlights reminiscent of a rave scene), creator and director Dylan Ward provided a captivating nugget and possible takeaway from the piece. “It feels like the end of the universe,” he explained earnestly, “when your heart is broken.” Ward’s skill as an actor and director were evidenced by the delivery of his lines, his intensity during dramatic interchanges, and the way he brought out natural dialogue from his cast. If this ambitious work is any indication, Ward shows promise as he continues to train as a dancer and choreographer.
For more on Dylan Ward, visit dylanfward.com.