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Friday, December 9, 2016

Watery Magic Onstage

Lothar Odinius and Olga Peretyatko in The Nightingale and Other Short Fables. Photo: Jack Vartoogian

By David Hsieh

L’Amour de Loin, the first opera by a female composer presented on the Metropolitan Opera stage in over a century, will be shown at BAM Rose Cinemas this Saturday (Dec 10) as part of the Met: Live in HD series. The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, with librettist Amin Maalouf, drew from a 14th-century troubadour legend as a source. It tells of two lovers pining for each other across the vast ocean, which in this Robert Lepage production is embodied by 28,000 LED lights.

In a New York Times interview, Lepage explained why he went for the illusion of water: “Water is like doing a show with young children and animals and insects. It will do what it wants, and you don’t have any control over it.”

We at BAM know that Lepage speaks from experience, because this recognized theater wizard and BAM Iconic Artist (coming back this Spring!) has put real water on our stage before. That was The Nightingale and Other Short Fables (2011 Winer/Spring Season), an opera production consisting of several short Stravinsky music theater pieces. For The Nightingale, a fairy tale set in ancient China, Lepage adopted a Vietnamese water puppetry tradition with performers immersed in a pool of 12,000 gallons of water. The custom-made water tank was sunk in the orchestra pit. What the audience saw was a luminescent surface where small boats glided by, a puppet fisherman hauled in his nets, and birds darted above it—an experience that The Wall Street Journal called “spell-binding.”

Other directors have also harnessed the power of water. In Woyzeck (2008 Next Wave) by Iceland’s Vesturport Theatre directed by Gísli Örn Gardarsson, seven interconnected plexiglass water tanks lined the apron of the Opera House stage. Scantily-clad actors frequently swam through the water tanks in plain view of the audience—human beings being gawked at like zoo animals.

Onstage water has taken other forms. The Chichester Festival Theater presentation of King Lear (2014 Winter/Spring) starring Frank Langella had a spectacular rain storm effect. For the three minutes of “rain,” 55 gallons of water were stored backstage. It was heated to 94º and cooled for 30 minutes. Seven different “channels” were fitted above the stage to create the varying rain patterns. A specially designed waterproof pit hidden under the floor was lifted right before the rain began to allow for drainage. It took a great actor like Langella to be not upstaged by this special effect!

Harry Melling, Frank Langella, and Steven Pacey in King Lear. Photo: Richard Termine.

Choreographers are even better at making water a spectacle. In Eiko & Koma’s River (1997 Next Wave), there was a shallow stream of water in which the duo slithered with their trademark slow movement, while Kronos Quartet played Somei Satoh’s haunting music upstage. In Cloud Gate’s Moon Water (2003 Next Wave), the curtain rose on a lone dancer standing on stage looking at a water pattern drawn on the black Marley floor. As the dance proceeded, water slowly accumulated on the stage, until at the end, every step the dancers made splashed water, its ripples reflected on the giant mirrors hanging above. Choreographer Lin Hwai-min illustrated the Buddhist philosophy that reality and illusion co-exist with this stunning staging.

But when it comes to creating magical water effect, no one can beat the high priestess of tanztheater, Pina Bausch. One of the legendary performances in BAM history was when her “stage as a swimming pool with a giant Hippo”—Arien—came to the Next Wave in 1985. It had never been performed outside West Germany and the technical side was touch-and-go. To allow proper preparation of the 5,000 gallon of water needed, BAM stagehands built a “backyard swimming pool” underneath the Opera House stage, recalled Jimmy D’Adamo, now the head electrician at BAM. “It was the summer of New York City drought and we couldn’t just turn on the fire hydrant like we had planned,” said D’Adamo. So they bought water from a New Jersey supplier.

Harvey Lichtenstein and Pina Bausch inspect plumbing for Arien in the Opera House basement in 1985. Photo: Johan Elbers

But that water turned out to be contaminated. (D’Adamo found out when the thermometer he sank down the pool to monitor the temperature dissolved!) So a second load (clean!) was brought in. But by then there was not enough time to electrically heat the water and the Brooklyn Union Gas and Con Edison (now National Grid) had to be persuaded to run a special gas line to the backstage. Still, the opening had to be delayed for 90 minutes. Then President Harvey Lichtenstein sent the full-house audience to the lobby to wait with complimentary drinks. By the time the show started, half of the audience was in very jovial spirits and ready for anything!

And that "anything" indeed presented itself. Because the dancers constantly ran through the three-inch deep water on stage and splashed it all over, the front row audience was given giant plastic sheeting to hold up whenever water flew their way! Talk about immersive theater!

Bausch would create another water spectacle with Vollmond (2010 Next Wave). The staging required a five-inch-deep “river” across the stage. And it needed to circulate. A separate overhead rain effect was also called for. If it sounds more complicated than Arien, D’Adamo said “Don’t worry!” because by that time, the know-how was greatly improved. The company knew how to create that effect, using what equipment, how to pump it, how to design costumes to allow maximum flexibility and durability. The company even knew that because every stage has a different height, they had to adjust the water pressure for it to come down to the dancers at the same velocity. All D’Adamo needed was to find the right way to power up the European equipment with its 220 volts and 50Hz cycles.

Rosas in Rain. Photo: Stephanie Berger
This seasoned practicality is similar for most recent shows with water elements. For instance, the Canadian Opera Company (The Nightingale) had it in writing how many people and how long it would take to fit together the water tank, how many hours were needed to fill it up at what volume per minute, and how long it would take to heat it up to 78 degrees for the performers' comfort and safety.

Theater artists continue to create water effects, with or without real water. In Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas‘ Rain (2003 Next Wave), she simply hung a bunch of strings from the fly space, and with the clever use of lighting, created a shimmering effect. It was no less bewitching or effective. Same goes for the snowflake scene in Mark Morris' The Hard Nut, which starts its one-week run this Saturday. The snow may be fake, but the smiles and applause it elicits from the audience is every bit genuine. After all, theater is a world of illusion, where “make-believe”—dry or wet—happens!

David Hsieh is a Publicity Manager at BAM.

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