Dallas — A silent film, a chamber ensemble, projections and a dance ensemble onstage. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, actually, but wrongness was not onstage at Dallas City Performance Hall on Tuesday. Instead the integration of all of these elements served to whet the anticipatory energy in the audience.
The opening night of the 28th annual Dallas VideoFest and the Dallas Chamber Symphony’s fourth season was one of celebration and pride. That Dallas is home to the country’s oldest and largest continually running video festivals is celebratory but also challenging because with each successful season comes the realization that next year will have to be even better. The Dallas VideoFest keeps meeting this challenge and raising the ante. Their collaboration with the Dallas Chamber Symphony under the direction of Richard McKay has been exciting because of the introduction of a commissioned symphonic composition to the mix. Ausstin-based film composer Brian Satterwhite created the musical score for DVF 28.
This year the DVF/DCS collaboration broadened to include SMU Meadows School of the Arts’ dance department, in a work choreographed by faculty member Christopher Dolder. Together these three connected to support and extend the storytelling of the Fritz Lang film Metropolis to a contemporary audience.
Metropolis, set in a large city, tells the futuristic dystopian story of a population separated into classes as a result of income inequality. The protagonist, Freder, is the son of the wealthy ruler of the region. He falls in love with Maria, a woman from the impoverished working class. They join forces to try to improve conditions for the workers by finding a way to bridge the divide between the classes. Stylistically Metropolis is noted in part for its visual angular contrasts between the upper city of the wealthy and the lower city of the poor, exaggerated movements and gestures of its characters, and its depiction of Metropolis as a city fraught with tension and chaos.
The success or failure of Dallas VideoFest 28 depended upon the group’s response to one question: how do we present live music and live dance with projections without distracting the viewer from the silent film onscreen? The film score needed to be contemporary yet reflect the texture, themes and language of the film. The symphony needed to become a partner in the storytelling without giving sound dominance over the impact of the silent visual. The dancers needed to embody the expressionism of the characters in a way that extended the wall from the screen onto the stage but not intrusively. Essential was the representation of angularity, tension and chaos. Responding to that “how do we” question was a gargantuan task.
Staging was critically important because the music and dance had to effectively support the silent film. Situated center stage directly beneath the screen was the 12-piece ensemble of violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, piano and percussion. To the conductor’s left was a unit set that Dolder described as “Tetris blocks,” and to the right, an angular and irregular pentagonal rake. The assemblage of the “Tetris blocks” was such that the film projections aligned and created a 3D architectural look and feel. As a result, the open composition of the film’s story spilled out onto the stage in a surprisingly natural way. Visually, rakes are interesting but they can be very demanding surfaces upon which to perform. The SMU dancers made that look easy. Memorable were the movements during the Legend of Babel, which occurred on the rake.
Metropolis was created during the stylistic period of German expressionism. This movement strove to emphasize the emotional experience as more interesting than the suggestion of physical reality. The dance choreography found that center where physical reality resides and brought it to life in this project. This captures the essence of creating the inner movement outwardly, which was the core of the expressionism in dance. The dancers’ movements complemented the movements and gestures onscreen, creating a physical space for the interior monologues and conversations in Lang’s film.
They were costumed very similarly to the characters onscreen in a monochromatic palette that an early 20th century black-and-white film demands. For the majority of their time onstage the dancers were either dimly lit or in silhouette. This enabled the audience to experience the dance through awareness rather than distraction. However, there were a couple of moments where the lighting pulled the audience’s eye away from the film and to the dancers, but the distraction was momentary and did not last long enough to negate the overall effectiveness of the dance. One of the more beautiful moments occurred after the flooding scenes.
Like the dance, the musical score was attentive to the tensions and undercurrents in the film story that were not aesthetically obvious in the film. German Expressionism is not a separate style in music. Satterwhite met the “how do we” challenge by composing a score that is simultaneously contemporary and texturally true to the film story. Of note were nice contrapuntal passages that created tension and reflected the more complex development within the narrative. One wanted to hear the secondary thematic material more clearly. Stronger dynamic contrasts from the ensemble could have helped achieve that balance within the developmental material that was in the score. Not doing so resulted a muddled sound during the section where false Maria was created instead of one that underscored chaos, which requires order. Satterwhite succeeded in giving us expression and emotion while avoiding romanticism, which was important yet tricky to achieve. The solo violin passages were gorgeous, well written and beautifully performed.
In an earlier interview, Dolder expressed a desire to insert enough movement to effectively enhance the story but not so much that the overall production became too busy. Goal met. What could have been disastrous was instead understandable, entertaining, and pleasing. The audience loved the program, springing immediately into a standing ovation that lasted for a good while. Overheard during the audience chatter as they were exiting the space were the words “amazing,” “wow,” “great,” “loved it,” and perhaps most meaningful of all, “arts.”
It was a fascinating opening to what promises to be an exciting Dallas VideoFest 28.