By Michael Seidel
(Want a second helping of Michael’s writing? Check out his yummy food blog.)
In a sleepy valley hamlet, a troupe of artists gathered as the sun set. This band was charged with preserving and performing the myths and stories of peoples long since vanished but whose superstitions, mysteries, and traditions inexplicably still resonate with us today. On this particular evening, the troupe used their talent for aerial acrobatics to resurrect the forgotten gods of the Slavic and Rus people.
First to be summoned was the creator of the universe, Svarog, who hovered above our heads with outstretched wings. He in turn summoned his son, Svarozhich, and shot him a glittering orb of light that became our world. Narrator Dina Trageser, opened her large storybook to recount how humanity was born—how Svarozhich blew life into us—how we played with the gods—how the elder gods, Chernobog and Veles, isolated us—how Slav, the promethean child, brought us wheat for food—and, ultimately, how the mortal and the divine were separated once and for all.
Morgan Houghton and Charly McCreary
(photo by John Cornicello)
Choreographer Catherine Cabeen used clear archetypal gestures, folk-inspired motifs, and various apparatuses to create a first act that was beautiful to behold. Each god used his or her apparatus to extend their performance and powers. Charly McCreary as Priapelga performed beautifully on the silks, giving life to humanity. Katrina Alston and Jeremy Hale as the dark gods, Veles and Chernobog, were suitably creepy on their trapeze. Jon McClintock as the god Perun and Amy Shuster as Fire performed a thrilling duet on the rope. A look of wide-eyed wonder lit each human’s face as John Murphy (as Svarozhich) blew life into her. She would then, in turn, take up a universal, pan-cultural folk movement. Among these dancing humans was Morgan Houghton as Slav, our promethean bringer of food from heaven. His youthful air of heroic naiveté was simply delightful and infectious. When the gods, realizing they were too attached to humanity, withdrew themselves, Slav climbed on the backs of his fellow humans to reach up to heaven in a particularly effective (and affective) sequence. In their isolation, the gods grew more attached to humanity and when they returned, the entire stage lit up in a frenzy on and around each apparatus. The humans danced their archetypal folk motif around each god, including the dark ones who found themselves being drawn into the rapture. While it was hard to know where to look, this chaos served the story well. Upon seeing this, Svarozhich descended in his hammock to put an end to it and separated the divine from their mortal playthings. Everything about this first act was top notch and engrossing: the choreography, the costumes and Kane Mathis’s original music. You could not help but be turned into a child again with eyes full of wonder.
After an intermission that was way too long, the troupe returned with a second act of five vignettes that illustrated aspects of everyday ancient Slavic life. The first was an ode to the moist mother earth. Again, Charly McCreary was stunning with her aerial feats.
In the second, Jon McClintock donned the frightening mask of Chernobog, the dark god. This mask was constructed by master puppet maker Rob D’Arc and was primordial and alien and absolutely stunning. How McClintock was able to do his dance up in the silks in this mask is a testament to his talent. This vignette, choreographed by John Murphy, was very effective in every way.
The third vignette was a lighter romp into domesticity with the Slavic house imps, the Domovoi. In this segment, the Cabiri had the most effective use of an apparatus. The shaggy, Muppet-like, house imps bounded and jumped around, causing havoc for the poor mother; but when a robber breaks into the house, the Domovoi loyally fight to protect the family.
The fourth vignette was a calm scene of the Bannik, the famous community bathhouse. Jeremy Hale and Morgan Houghton beautifully depicted the Bannik spirits in wispy steam-like costumes from Gretchen Frederich with choreography from Jill Leversee.
In the final vignette, we were told of the three birds who fly from the east, bringing visions of paradise or madness to those that await them too eagerly. With aerial choreography by Sam Alvarez, Charly McCreary, Amy Shuster, and Brenda Stevens took to flying hoops as the birds, while a quartet danced Adrienne Krieger’s choreography to a very fitting electro-atmospheric piece by the German band Qntal.
The performances in this second act were all fantastic and clearly continued the quality of the engrossing first act. Sadly, at this point the venue itself became a problem. These problems, however, could have easily been mitigated. First, each vignette ended too abruptly with seemingly no warning and no cadence, the curtain simply closed in the midst of the action. It was like turning the volume down on a concerto five bars before the end. Then, between each vignette we had to wait while theatrical magic happened behind the curtains, most likely the taking down of rigging and putting up of the next. Why take us out of the moment like that? Why lose the momentum of an engrossing story to have us wait in the dim house lights. Entertain us! You have a captive audience, so keep us captivated! We want to be there. We want to learn about this. You had a gifted narrator: Why couldn’t she tell us another story during the interludes? Or perhaps a solo dance in front of the curtains to more of the fantastic music? Sadly, I noticed some people leaving during these interludes as they got progressively longer and the ambiance-killing chatter of the audience made the evening drag on. And lastly… where was the curtain call? Did I miss it? The curtain closed on the birds of paradise, then the curtain opened for an epilogue of people walking off the sides of the stage, barely lit. Was that a curtain call? I didn’t get the chance to applaud your hard work, or recognize the soloists or the company as a whole. Line up on stage and let me clap for you! I am frustrated by these issues, because I hate to see a great company sabotage themselves by making easily fixable mistakes.
Group shop, with Houghton in the center (photo by John Cornicello)
The problems with the second act aside, the Cabiri presented a loving and researched tribute to a forgotten people (indeed there is even a bibliography on the website for the Anunnaki Project, the Cabiri’s parent organization). The music accompanying the action was unique and fitting. I was even introduced to some new groups I need to explore, most notably, the local women’s Balkan folk ensemble, Dunava, which was played as the house music. I was heartened to see a full and eclectic audience of young and old turn out (in Auburn no less) to see this potentially esoteric concept of reenacting long-dead mythology. This performance, however, was far from esoteric, but rather very engaging, accessible and entertaining. I believe the Cabiri’s mission an important and touching one, and I would recommend going out of your way to catch a future production or program.
In our time, when the horizon’s edge no longer elicits wonder and thoughts of paradise beyond, it is nice to sit in a dark theater and remember the time when the world was a vast steppe—when gods toyed with humans—when steam spirits whispered fortunes into bathers’ ears—and when a good story was all you needed to send you to sleep.