Picture Cleopatra, Empress of the Nile, Queen of Egypt, and eminence of the Ptolemy Dynasty, and it's likely another member of royalty will spring to mind. Yes, Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor, she of the violet eyes and slightly patrician accent. Who could forget the entrances she made as Cleopatra, the jewels she wore, the way she worked over her well-coiffed lovers? This glamorous image need not diminish the true story of a woman who assumed her grip on power using all the ruthless politics and tactics at her disposal. The real Cleopatra directed massive armies, bumped off family members when necessary to secure her position, constructed a mausoleum where she could spend eternity, and died under mysterious circumstances. And, of course, her passions were no less epic: Both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony swooned in her arms. For one whose existence on this earth may have been no more than 30 years or so, it most certainly can't be said that Cleopatra didn't know how to fill her days.
More than two thousand years have passed since Cleopatra's demise, but her story remains as formidable and fluid as the woman herself. It's natural that any artist would be taken with her accomplishments, and Kristen Freya, the founder and artistic director of Vox Medusa Dance Company, counts herself among Cleo's fans. Freya's Cleopatra: Ambitious Child, opening Friday as part of O'Shaughnessy Auditorium's Women of Substance series, approaches this singular essence through several outlets, namely dance, computer animation, painting, video, and spoken word. The result is a timeless exploration of what it means to be an icon for the ages. Burden or blessing? Judging from Freya's perspective, the answer is both.
A recent Sunday afternoon found Freya and some 20 artists of various leanings filling Apple Valley's Heartbeat Studios with a frenzy of activity. In one corner, husband and producer Paul WonSavage sets up a video camera while the eight dancers work on perfecting a position without sagging. Visual artists John Reischl and Neil Johnston have arrived with a set of photos documenting their scenic design, and Carlos Abler, his face wrapped in white tulle, is trying to move a chrome pyramid across the room as methodically as his detailed training in corporeal mime and butoh dance will allow. Stage manager Jennifer Roos coordinates the changing sets of instructions as poets e.g. bailey and Desdamona hone their verses. It's chaos for sure, but constructive and exciting chaos. Freya, surprisingly calm, travels from collaborator to collaborator, dispensing advice and answering questions. A subsequent run-through goes relatively smoothly, and the director, after responding to another round of last-minute queries, settles into a sofa to discuss the concept behind this creative convergence.
"I've always been interested in Egypt. It's still a mystery even though we know a lot about it," she explains. "As for Cleopatra, I admire her role in female history as the first military leader we know of in a time when women had no rights. She had to climb through men to do this. She rose through the ranks to be feared as a woman and created a lineage for us now. We're still in awe of the way she went about it: a combination of crassness and elegance."
Strong women have always held a fascination for the 30-year-old Freya. Last year's Sirens, for example, explored the notion of personal and shared heroines. "I made a personal commitment a long time ago to female archetypal imagery," says the lifelong Minnesota resident, who first hit the dance floor at the age of three. "Four years ago I was really hell-bent on it. I'm a Sagittarius, so I like to explore the shit out of everything. Cleopatra is a release of that focus, and now I want to move on, take some time to explore how video animation and dance affect each other."
Hints of Freya's burgeoning interests abound in her latest work, but she has nurtured a fondness for multidisciplinary viewpoints in many endeavors, including her efforts with husband WonSavage in creating the performance cabarets Ricochet Kitchen and the writer/musician project Universal Tongue. Technology intrigues her, too, and she laughs at the contradictions and possibilities that come from working in 21st-century media to tell the tale of a woman who lived in antiquity. Many of Michael Browne's lovingly rendered computer animations evoke a feeling closer to the city of the future portrayed in Blade Runner than ancient Egypt, and Reischl and Johnston employ black-light paint to manipulate the Victorian-style portraits of Cleopatra's doomed siblings that will hang from the proscenium. An electronica soundtrack propels the movement. As it turns out, Freya's take on the great queen is all about a continuum--images of greatness and shame that transcend the ages. It's a bold tactic to place history in the future, and in this case, it works.
In Cleopatra: Ambitious Child, Freya divides the title character's life into sections: her rise to power, her independence, and her ongoing physical conversation with "Echo" (portrayed by Abler) as she recovers from her traumatic relationships with her lovers and her turbulent family. It is important to Freya that Cleopatra come to terms with her actions, and in the end of the piece she winds up in the presence of the goddess Isis at the edge of "the pleasure fields."
"Isis is judging her in between life and death," says Freya. "Cleopatra must weigh what she had done and what she was growing towards. But can she balance this with what she did to survive? Her younger brothers were just in the way as co-regents..." Freya trails off then. While Vox Medusa's dancers and technicians buzz around the room, the choreographer who has set them all in motion sits still, absorbed by Cleopatra's decisions and their bloody consequences.