Robynne M. Gravenhorst and Debra Levasseur Lottman

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

March 28-30

By Carol Burbank

The Crow bows to the audience, doffing his top hat, strutting across the ominously darkened stage. His ragged black suit makes his glittering red eyes bright as he repeats rounded gestures of lifting, cradling, and carrying so abstract he sometimes seems to be begging or inviting us to dance. But these are the gestures of a grave robber, one of les corbeaux (“the crows”) at the turn of the century pilfering bodies to be used in illegal dissections. Robynne M. Gravenhorst’s dance-opera Les Corbeaux is not only his story, but the story of Charlotte DeVoux, a young woman whose passion to understand anatomy has led her to a mysterious death.

Gravenhorst and her collaborators have created a haunting, visionary, symbolically charged morality tale shot through with mythic irony. Charlotte’s journey from naive girl to woman destroyed by her obsession to know “the mind of God” is not solitary or simple. Leanne Vancil as Charlotte is accompanied by her conspirator/lover the Crow (Kirk Nathaniel Nowak) and three flayed cadavers (Jennifer Gallo, Christian Gochenour, and Lisa Feuer) whose exposed and interlocking muscles provide a constant reminder of the grisly work of knowledge and science. The cadavers (whose nude bodies have been painted with visceral reality by Creative Makeup Design Studio) are witnesses, stagehands, clowns, companions, and interpreters for the pantomimed story of Charlotte’s moral decline.

The cadavers are the ones to sing the arias in light opera style and voice Gravenhorst’s dialogue, articulating the irony behind a horror tale that evokes the best of Edgar Allan Poe. Sometimes limp or dead, sometimes fluidly linking arms and legs to form a set piece, like a bookshelf, or other characters, they force us to look at the results of Charlotte’s work. Being dead and past their own narratives, they literally serve the story, even chaining one of their company to a table for better viewing by the audience–and better cutting by Charlotte. The sight of a bloody, striated hand rising over a tilted dissection table to secure a limp corpse with chains is a spare, thrilling image informed by centuries of zombie tales.

Gravenhorst’s simple set and careful research form the visual and intellectual backdrop of her fable. With a simple change of drape a magician’s cabinet becomes a table, and a table a street vendor’s stand (selling freshly butchered meat, of course). A cart draped in white rolls across the stage, tragicomically transformed from the Crow’s delivery wagon to an operating table. The mechanics of death are everywhere. On an almost bare stage, Gravenhorst manages to explore the complicated questions (Where does the soul reside? Or God? What can science do?) at the heart of the sacrilegious horror depicted.

In this simple but rich visual context Charlotte’s journey is a fascinating coming-of-age story in which maturity brings fulfillment through madness. When we first meet her, Charlotte’s reading a book on anatomy she found in her father’s study, legs akimbo, completely absorbed. When her disapproving father forbids further knowledge of her own or any other body’s mysteries, the pair pantomime an argument sung by two of the eviscerated corpses: Charlotte’s future experiments. As in the Crow’s dance, the gestures are simple and abstract, creating narrative through cycles of movements repeated and transformed as the characters move forward in time. This pantomime also reflects the actual performances Charlotte might have enjoyed at a local theater or drawing-room gathering: Gravenhorst’s dance/opera twists the conventions of melodrama and mime, balancing the past and the present. At times I felt I was neither dead nor alive, a witness as helpless and captivated as the corpses who interpreted the drama for me.

When Charlotte continues her studies after her father’s death–simply evoked by a black veil pinned to her hair–she begins her spiral into obsession. Trading sex for corpses to dissect, learning to overcome her revulsion at the sight of a corpse, she becomes coldly scientific. Like Dr. Frankenstein, she struggles to catalog and activate the seat of life but is frustrated by the emptiness of the corpses, which yield facts of biology but no insight into greater truths. Her dissections became more and more intense, her gestures of cutting transformed with a brash, tangolike sensuality that marks her loss of innocence. Finally, she and the corpses subtly mirror one another: as the blade moves down the cadaver’s arm, she passes it lightly over her own, not cutting, but wondering–how am I different? Because the voice-overs and songs are carefully spare, the story is told primarily through these gestures, which intensify the mythic feeling of horror.

Charlotte eventually becomes a resurrectionist, working to bring one of her flayed companions back to life. When she succeeds–whether in reality or dream I wasn’t sure–the shocked corpse stabs Charlotte. As the dead sing Gregor C. Kramer’s aria set to a text by Poe, Charlotte literally dissects herself, revealing in an ecstasy of wonder and despair the black viscera and beating heart beneath her own breast. The remarkable chest mask that folds back to reveal her organs (designed by Dontien Ingram-Moore) is only part of the forceful ending, however. While the resurrected woman sings the tale of a “conqueror worm” that claims the worldly stage of the Apocalypse, consuming all the sorrowful beasts and jesters gathered as if at a “gala night,” two cadavers helpfully place the flaps of Charlotte’s skin on her breasts and break her sternum with a quick gesture familiar from previous dissections. The Crow stands behind her, raising the heart in the air. And Charlotte stares, still alive, at her own heart, her back arched and her face locked in the bland, orgasmic moment that statues of saints and martyrs always seem to evoke.

Whatever Charlotte may feel, the apocalypse of her knowledge is complete, and it’s haunted me. I quickly got over the brief postperformance visual hangover of expecting waiters or shopkeepers to be flayed corpses. But questions of faith and death have pursued me. Les Corbeaux is a morality tale taken from history and dissected for our entertainment and edification. Wherever life begins and ends, Gravenhorst has captured its fragile, nightmarish anatomy in this remarkable work.

Sharing the program with Les Corbeaux were three dances choreographed by Debra Levasseur Lottman. These earnest, pedestrian explorations of nature, police work, and relationships were surprisingly generic considering the extensive research behind them. Their almost random combinations of extensions, turns, and contractions lacked emotional and kinetic momentum, although the movements themselves required discipline and technical artistry.