New York's Big Dance Theater delves into the powerful writings of the ancient Greek playwright Euripides for its new work, Supernatural Wife, which runs at the Walker Art Center through Saturday.
Using Anne Carson's translation of Alkestis, the company has crafted an invigorating mix of movement, dialogue, video, and music that attempts to unravel the central mysteries of Euripides' work. The play centers on a great king who has been offered the tremendous gift of eternal life, but in return for the life of another. In the end, his wife, Alkestis, takes on the duty, leaving the ruler heartbroken and searching for a way to bring her back.
"The big draw of this play was that the ending is completely ambiguous," says Annie-B Parson, one of the key creators of the work. "It synched up with my own sensibility that a piece does not neccesarly have to have an answer or a single meaning. That's something that is central to dance -- the body is complex."
The ending's ambiguity has left the company to continue to tinker with the final moments of the work. Just this week, while taking advantage of a day of rehearsals at the Walker (who commissioned the work), a new ending was put in place. "We made the ending even more bleakly unanswerable," Parson says.
Much of this has been centered on how to portray Alkestis on her "return" to earth. "She's back, but she's mute; she's both present and absent at the same time," says Paul Lazar, the co-creator of the work. "We've had to work out how she should be seen at the end. If she's incorporated too neatly into the action, it makes for too much of a happy ending. If she's not present at all, it implies that she hasn't returned. The ending has been in flux throughout the tour, but here at the Walker, we may have found it."
The play's shift from comedy to tragedy also appealed to Lazar. "When it starts out, it is almost broadly comic and camp. It's like Moliere, and how he could create these fabulously extreme hypocrites. Then this Molierian hypocrite comes to earth, and by the end, he really understands something about life and death. A play that could encompass both the comedy and that tragic story is unique."
Musically, several different artists and composers are utilized, including David Lang. "It's a piece of music that has a lot of the properties of the play," Parson says. "It's airless, tight, dense, and almost claustrophobic in nature."
So what makes these ancient plays work today? "They are completely primal," Parson says. "You have people who fall from great heights to terrible, terrible depths. These are plays where you can contemplate your own life."