Act one of a new dance opera is coming to Main Campus the first weekend of spring semester. It’s one of the most enormous projects to be constructed by creator Christopher Williams, the opera’s director and choreographer.
“Wolf-in-Skins” is a dance opera about Welsh culture and is set in the medieval era. Stripped to its basics, the story is about a kingdom with a curse on it, where there are no women in the kingdom, so the king makes a group of men dress up as women for a mock court. Incorporating themes that focus on sexuality and gender, it follows the journey of a central, mythical hero and his various bouts with transformation. The audience watches as he passes through the underworld and grapples with issues of identity.
Williams said he got his ideas from medieval literature and ancient Welsh culture. He was interested in early written records and he could see the glimmers of early mythology that predated them.
“I’ve always been interested in the idea of ritual and the idea of ritual performance,” Williams said. “It’s been a way for culture to embody their mythology.”
As for his inspiration for the choice of dance and opera, Williams said the story begged for the combo.
“Over time, I realized that opera was a format that could actually express these different genres of performance in the same context,” he said.
Williams said he also felt inspired by Ballets Russes — a 20th-century ballet company directed by Sergei Diaghilev — where there was collaboration between the choreographer, composer and the visual designer to create a complete work.
“A complete work of art is attractive to me because I like to deploy various types of performance genre to express my ideas,” Williams said.
The dance opera features professional dancers alongside Temple dance students.
“[‘Wolf-in-Skins’ pushes] the expected vision of what a medieval court would look like,” said Beau Hancock, one of the professional dancers in the play. “It’s looking at what’s expected. [There are] very clear gender roles, calling into question what we assume.”
“It’s really cool, really interesting,” said Alec Moss, a junior film and dance major, who is one of the dancers in the dance opera. “It’s something that a lot of people haven’t seen before. It’s kind of new and inventive.”
In addition to the theme of gender roles, there is the whole aspect of myth and folktale.
“We can see ourselves in some of the relationships,” Hancock said. “I think that’s what myth and folktale is about on some level. How we make our own choices.”
Music does not take a backseat to the dance in the opera as it is filled with musicians playing live, opera singers giving words to the action and several dozen dancers. The way they move is graceful throughout the play, dancing to each other’s steps. It is a massive production, also featuring dancers from New York.
This is only the first act of a larger production. Williams said he is very interested in how people will respond to his opera, considering this is the first time he is showing it in full production.
“I encourage people to come to this production with an open mind because a lot of opera goers come into a piece expecting to be told a story and have a really succinct piece of theater,” Williams said. “On the other hand, dance operas tend to go into a production with an open mind allowing themselves to experience something and allowing it to sink into their subconscious mind and have their own interpretations of it.”
Williams said he is very interested in how people will respond to his opera, considering this is the first time he is showing it in full production.
Hancock said he decided to be in “Wolf-in-Skins” because it was helpful to be a part in a variety of creative processes.
“I think Christopher’s [piece] is quite unique in its scale that there’s so many elements and so many participants,” Hancock said.
“I hope they enjoy it, I hope they enjoy themselves,” Moss said. “I hope they become enlightened to the different ways that dance can be applied to the forms of art and entertainment.”
“Wolf-in-Skins” will be presented on Friday, Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 26, at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Conwell Dance Theater. Tickets are $5-$20 and can be purchased at DanceBoxOffice.com or by calling 215-546-2552. For more information visit PhilaDanceProjects.org.
Matthew Hulmes can be reached at email@example.com.