at Mandel Hall, University of Chicago

July 16

The Artist in the Park program is a unique project sponsored by a large apartment building in Hyde Park. Each year since 1984, the managers of Regents Park, assisted by a knowledgeable jury, have chosen an outstanding young talent as their artist in residence for a year.

The resident artists have received rent-free apartments and other emoluments that freed them from financial stress and allowed them to hone their art. In return, they have arranged programs for the apartment complex’s residents and have planned one large program in conjunction with the University of Chicago’s Summer Nights Festival in Hutchinson Court.

This year’s resident artist is clarinetist Janice Murphy. For her festival program, she planned an all-Stravinsky program that would contrast his 1923 octet for wind instruments with his 1918 L’histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), a “narrative ballet” that he based on an old Russian folktale. The performance of this theatrical ballet on Saturday–coordinated by Murphy, conducted by Michael Morgan, the assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and choreographed by Ron DeJesus, the 1985-86 artist in residence at Regents Park–deserves the highest praise.

L’histoire is the story of a soldier on leave who is seduced into selling his violin, and with it his soul, to the devil in return for riches. The end, of course, is an unhappy one. The complex ballet is in five scenes, with a libretto written by C.F. Ramuz, and was first produced in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1918 with Ernest Ansermet directing the cast as well as conducting the small–seven instrumentalists–orchestra. There are four principals–a narrator, the soldier, the devil, and a siren princess–all of whom should be able to act and dance.

L’histoire has been presented in various styles over the decades–as theater, as pure ballet, as pantomime, as a lavish fantasy for a large cast, and as a modest piece set on a bare stage. It continues to challenge choreographers, dancers, mimes, actors, and musicians, but somehow it has never quite fit into a ballet troupe’s permanent repertory, as Stravinsky’s Firebird or The Rite of Spring have. L’histoire is a little too offbeat, and it makes too many demands on its performers. It is therefore rarely produced, although several seasons ago, Momenta and the Loop Troupe made a very respectable presentation.

But Saturday’s performance was better, even though rehearsal time was limited because DeJesus was on tour with his current company, Hubbard Street, and even though the production, planned for the outdoor Hutchinson Court, had to be moved into Mandel Hall because of a shower. One can’t readily find a conductor of Morgan’s talent to conduct the piece, or such accomplished musicians, or such a gifted cast, including Anthony Graham-White as the narrator, Jim Tenuta as the devil, Frank Chaves as the doomed soldier, and Shannon Mitchell as the princess.

But it is DeJesus, whose choreographic talents were also on display last Friday night at the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble’s New Dances program, who is the real find, for he is a major choreographic talent. He is intensely sensitive to music, and his understanding of the complex Stravinsky score was extraordinary–especially considering that he has little if any background in classical music.

For the Dance Ensemble’s program, for instance, he chose the first movement of Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso to accompany a balletic and passionately romantic pas de deux. Frankly, I can’t think of any other local choreographer who has even listened to either Bloch or to Stravinsky’s L’histoire. DeJesus also has an almost intuitive feet for creating interesting movement designs that, forward the plot, line intelligently, and he has that wonderful, rare gift of building on a dance pattern inventively and creating a choreographic arch that peaks in intensity and power.

If by any chance DeJesus could someday do L’histoire again, he would undoubtedly tighten the action up and conclude with a more provocative action. Trying to burn the soldier’s fiddle only left the audience wondering whether that was really the end. And an up-in-the-air finale can spoil a production, no matter how skillfully and seamlessly the rest of the work is stitched together.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Weinstein.