Carmina Burana is a work that demands spectacle: big score, big voices, and big dancing. Composer Carl Orff intended his 1936 work to be more than just the music: a scenic cantata every bit as theatrical as it was musical. Dance-based productions—and there are many (PNB performs Kent Stowell’s next month)—often take the maximalist approach, and it’s hard to imagine anything else matching the dramatic excess of the opening “O Fortuna.” But spectacle can take place on different scale, as Donald Byrd’s latest version of Carmina shows. Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater teamed up with Seattle Theatre Group for a co-production of the work, April 23-26, at the Moore Theatre. Using Orff’s own reduction of the score for two pianos and percussion, a small group of singers shared the stage with the dancers to provide a very theatrical version that fulfills the tenets of Orff’s vision.
Byrd’s Carmina assigns a narrative and a 1940s setting to the cantata, which puts music to medieval Latin poetry about fate, love, sin, and, when all else fails, drinking. The central figure is a singer (baritone Jose Rubio), and the dancers and other singers fill in around him, occupying different roles as the scenarios shift. Rubio portrays a monk, who, disillusioned, leaves his duties for a new community of average folk, the kind of people who live it up on Saturday night but come to church Sunday morning. After giving Rubio a taste of debauchery, the community also shows him its wholesome side—children, a listening ear, acceptance of outsiders—that ultimately sends him back to his robes. It’s a theatrical work where music and dance share the stage equally.
With a singer at the center of the story, the Spectrum dancers became the background and abstract expression of the narrative, the ensemble that drove the story forward. They writhed as restless patients in a hospital, calmed by Rubio before he goes on his journey. They strutted and seduced in various states of bordello undress before stumbling merrily through a tavern scene. They roughed up an outsider (a tenor with a falsetto and a woman’s dress) before later accepting him as one of their own. And throughout it all, they danced Byrd’s demanding choreography with both technical precision and a sense of their character. Veteran company dancers Alex Crozier, Jade Solomon Curtis, Davione Gordon, and Shadou Mintrone stood out among the dancing cast, embodying the depth of their feeling with a calm and present self-assurance. The newer dancers possess these qualities as well, though time will help them find their own levels of depth.
For all Carmina’s timeless themes, the production didn’t offer as much to dig into as other of Byrd’s works. Or rather, it asked the audience to dig in a different way: into one world of ideas—faith and doubt, which, to be sure, is a topic even bigger than Orff’s score—rather than a multiplicity of worlds. Byrd is a versatile choreographer and master of his form, but it’s when his work unifies disparate, jarring elements in unexpected ways that it resonates most. I think of Heinrich Heine’s poetry paired with an autopsy theater in Autopsy of Love, or putting blackface on a 21st-century stage in The Minstrel Show Revisited. In Carmina, he unified song and dance into a near seamless work of theater, but nothing cut the story and took you out of it in order to bring you back in.
Opening night had its share of technical bumps: a false start, an external distraction, and off-balance sound levels where the music overtook the singers (this got better before the halfway point). Perhaps these contributed to a distracted experience with the narrative, but perhaps not. The production was driven by Byrd’s strong, cohesive vision—a vision that was almost too cohesive. Nevertheless, Carmina was the product of a fruitful collaboration between Spectrum and STG and offered a kind of theater seldom seen here: at once straightforward and based in the classical arts, but multidisciplinary in a way that, at least in Seattle’s current scene, seems to be more common among dance productions that take an avant-garde approach.