For the first time since it premiered in 2012, contemporary dance company Whim W’Him is reprising “Approaching Ecstasy.” But, the performance of this audience favorite, happening this weekend and next at Cornish Playhouse, won’t be a repeat by any means. Award-winning choreographer Olivier Wevers, also a former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer, is approaching his work with new vision.
“Approaching Ecstasy” was the first evening-length piece choreographed by Wevers when it premiered, and a formidable artistic collaboration. Lauded for balance among different disciplines, it featured the company's dancers performing alongside more than 30 singers from Seattle's The Esoterics, as well as five instrumentalists — a quartet and harpist. The Esoterics director, Eric Banks, set the poetry of Constantine Cavafy, a closeted gay man who lived in turn-of-the-century Egypt, to music. Cavafy’s poems, only published posthumously, were sung in both English and Greek.
This week, Wevers and I spoke about his reasons for revisiting “Approaching Ecstasy,” how the work has changed, and what’s ahead for his company as it heads into its ninth year. Whim W’Him now regularly presents three programs every season with two of them at Seattle Center’s Cornish Playhouse. It has seven highly-trained, versatile dancers on contract, including Jim Kent and Tory Peil, who danced in the first iteration of “Approaching Ecstasy.”
When did you decide to revisit the piece? Did you have a specific reason or reasons for doing it now?
Wevers: Two years ago. A lot of people were asking for it. It’s also a nice work to finish the season with. I said [to Eric] let’s make it stronger, richer, more sophisticated. I wasn’t satisfied with it and wanted to challenge myself.
What major changes have been made?
Wevers: I asked Eric to send me the music. He cut what I wouldn’t cut, so we went back to the original, changing some tempos. The music is rhythmical, even, but I like asymmetry, so we had a tendency not to agree. In the original version, the dancers didn’t dance while the poems in English were sung — only dancing when they were sung in Greek. It was predictable. I wanted to kill the symmetry. Now the dancers perform throughout the singing for the most part.
On Whim W’Him’s blog, Victoria Farr Brown writes that you’ve delved deeper into Cavafy’s poems. What were you able to extract? What did that produce?
Wevers: There’s more coherence [to the choreography] and a start and an end, rather than being fragmented — a series of segments — 18 pieces on 18 poems. Every dancer presents Cavafy, except for Tory Peil. She inspires and drives him crazy.
It’s not the same work. I don’t even work the same way. The original work was an embryo of my vocabulary and voice. It showed me where the seeds of my idea were. Five years later, I’m further along my way. There’s a kind of blessing in remounting this. It’s shown me where I was and reassuring me about where I’m going.
In the poem “Obstacles,” Cavafy writes, “In the future, in a more perfect world, Some fortunate man, created just like I am, will find himself Able to live without shamefulness or hesitation and be free.” We’re not there yet, are we?
Wevers: Exactly. We want to move forward, and yet we’re at a standstill. We were in a better position six months ago. Look at what’s happening in Chechnya. Yet, hope [as found in Cavafy’s poem] keeps us moving forward.
The clothing in the piece offers a way of hiding, protection or a burden. Cavafy, as a repressed, gay man, wore a suit every day to work, so the dancers are dressed in suits.
You personally will be presenting two new works next season. Cavafy’s poetry was the inspiration for “Approaching Ecstasy.” Where have you found inspiration?
Wevers: Life. I get inspired by the people around me. For January’s program, I’m going back to a brighter side after a dark period, looking at love letters by French poets, composers, Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” and their themes from the sensual to the intellectual.
Whim W’Him will present "Approaching Ecstasy" with The Esoterics, Skyros Quartet and Melissa Achten Klausner at Cornish Playhouse, June 2-10. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit whimwhim.org