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The shape of the script. (Dance Theater).

OVER THE LAST TWO DECADES, with choreographers inserting text into their works and theater directors adding abstracted movement to their plays, dance and theater have been moving closer together, and musicals no longer have a monopoly on choreographed movement. Exhibit A this season is Mary Zimmerman's story-theater adaptation of some of the mythical Greek tales in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Presented at the off-Broadway Second Stage some two and a half years after its premiere in Chicago, Metamorphoses is neither a musical nor a straight play nor a dance work. It fuses elements of all three kinds of theater in the service of bringing to potent stage life the Latin poet's retelling of myths both familiar and obscure. But the night I went, when it ended--with the magical restoration of a daughter to her father and the snuffing of dozens of flickering lamps to bathe the stage in its mystic dark--the sigh that floated through the audience was the exact sound you hear at dance concerts after a particularly gorgeous pas de deux: that involuntary exhalation made of longing and pleasure and, yes, pain.

When I asked Zimmerman why her piece elicited that physical response so familiar to dancegoers and so alien in the theater, her first instinct was to back away from the question. But she ended up backing into an answer: "It treats very large themes," she suggested, "and dance, in its own way, is often concerned with those same large themes: love, separation, union, and death."

Indeed. Orpheus and Eurydice, the doomed lovers familiar from treatments by composers and choreographers, are once again torn apart as they ascend from the Underworld. King Midas inadvertently turns his daughter into a golden statue. The virginal Myrrah is destroyed when Aphrodite fills her with a carnal passion for her father. Philemon and Baucis, having been gracious to the gods, are granted the secret wish of all happy couples: to die simultaneously at a ripe old age.

Zimmerman and her troupe, the Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago, tell these stories in and around the twenty-seven-foot-wide rectangle of water that dominates Daniel Ostling's spare set of boxed-in sea and boxed-in sky. Zimmerman says she'd been wanting to do a piece in water for a long time. And looking at the set and the staging and trying to decipher which came first is indeed something of a chicken-and-egg proposition. The raked pool edged with wooden catwalks appears to impose its geometry on the staging, since characters can't always reach their destinations by the shortest route. But Zimmerman says she works very closely with her designers so that the sets for her works remain open enough "to inspire and accommodate the shape of the script," which doesn't exist until she begins rehearsing with the actors. Even when the set isn't interrupted by all that water, she says, she tends to ask her actors to move in right angles. "I don't like it when people just wander," she says. "I try to make it very clean."

Zimmerman's kind of theater has always been "very physical," and "has a certain amount of precision to it," she says. So the actor playing Orpheus stretches out for Eurydice as she is whisked back towards death over and over and over again. And Philemon and Baucis entwine for a final, eternal kiss as they turn into trees. Like a choreographer, Zimmerman is dependent on the physical capabilities of her performers, many of whom have circus training. The ballet-like lifts and intricate acrobatics in the sex scene between Myrrah and her father, Cinyras, might be very different, she says, if not for the fact that Anjali Bhimani, who created the role of Myrrah and played it in New York, "is much more flexible than most people." And, like many choreographers, Zimmerman incorporates her company's improvisations into the final product.

"I'll be busy with one part of the stage," she says of her rehearsal process, "and I'll tell another group, `Just do something in tandem and coordinated.' And often, when I'm supervising the `lifty' moves, the really important interaction is between the two people in the scene and what they can do together, what's right for their bodies."

BUT OTHER DIRECTORS use such methods without coming up with the kind of formal, distinctive stage pictures that define Zimmerman's narrative pieces. And she concedes that the dance performances she enjoys going to, and the dance classes she took as a girl (and still sometimes attends as an adult) may in fact have influenced the kind of theater she chooses to make: "Maybe I learned something from dance in terms of the idea that you're choosing everything that's seen. That form means something, that the shape of things communicates something."

Even the transitions between the myths in Metamorphoses take place in full view of the audience--"I don't like blackouts," she says. And when there's so much splashing around that the catwalks around the pool need to be dried, she deploys actors with mops to do the work in strict unison. "If you've got an opportunity to make a decision about how something is going to look, you should take it," she says. Zimmerman, who was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998, doesn't want anything "accidental" happening on the stage. Sounds a lot like choreography, no?

Sylviane Gold has written about theater for the Boston Phoenix, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, The New York Times, and other publications.
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Title Annotation:Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses"
Author:Gold, Sylviane
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Words:905
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