August 14

Embodying Florencia’s Journey

​by Kelley Rourke

Marcela Fuentes-Berain has said that nature is the eighth character in Florencia in the Amazon. In Washington National Opera’s reworking of the original production, the world of the Amazon is made present, in part, by the addition of video projections, but it is the five dancers who truly bring the natural world to life. “It boils down to theatrical interaction,” says choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, whose work was seen in WNO’s recent productions of The Force of Destiny and The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me. “The dancers allow both the audience and the principal singers to connect with the environment on a more personal level.” Like nature herself, the dancers are hard to pin down—one moment, they suggest members of an indigenous tribe, the next they are swarming piranhas or mating birds, says Fogel: “They also show us the constant, unpredictable motion of the waters, as well as the spirits called forth by Ríolobo.”

“I looked for dancers who had the ability to embody distinct aspects of the natural world,” says Fogel. “The original production used an equal mix of male and female dancers. This time, we started with the idea of all male dancers, because we wanted a very powerful, almost aggressive depiction of the Amazon. We also liked the idea that Florencia could see Cristóbal in any one of them. But as our ideas about the production evolved, I found that adding a female dancer allowed us to soften the energy. It also gave us the opportunity to explore and parallel Florencia’s journey in, for instance, a mating dance for the birds. I’m thrilled to be able to feature Alison Mixon; she is a very strong dancer who can hold her own with the men, but who can also introduce a different quality.”  

“Casting was interesting because I wanted to have as many different body types as possible,” continues Fogel, who compares the process to solving a puzzle. “Because of the array of beings and ideas they have to personify, I needed different things within the group—one dancer with more athleticism, one with more ballet experience, one more modern. Each choice informed the next. Alison brings incredible strength, much like the character of Florencia; she’s also not afraid to be vulnerable on stage. Matthew Steffens is like the Captain in that he is a strong partner and leader. Christopher Pennix is sinewy and delicate—you might even say aquatic. Durell Comedy has unlimited flexibility while Ricardo Zayas is a technical wonder; both of them can transform their bodies to represent anything a production requires.”

Before rehearsals at Washington National Opera begin, Fogel will spend two full weeks of studio time with dancers, improvising and developing the movement vocabulary to serve the story and the music. The process will be rich and challenging: “I did a lot of research because I wanted to honor the indigenous tribes the dancers sometimes represent. At the same time, there is a magical quality to the storytelling, which gives us a lot of leeway. Ultimately, it is more like a dream than a documentary.”

—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera

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