By Merilyn Jackson
FOR THE INQUIRER
A full moon soared diagonally across the stage backdrop at Temple's Conwell Theater Friday night for the opening of "Wolf-in-Skins." Hounds and wolves bayed; the hair on my neck prickled. The animals loped in on all fours, knuckles fisted like paws. From the opposite fly, three consorts of the prince regent of Annfwin (Gwyn ap Nudd, a stag) danced across in vertical contrast, often in relevé. Their breasts were cupped loosely in petals, their diaphanous empire-waist tutus flared by acrylic. This tale, drawn from pre-Christian Celtic mythology, takes place when man and beast mated and procreated, if only in myth.
"Wolf-in-Skins" is the brainchild of choreographer Christopher Williams in collaboration with composer Gregory Spears, and this was but a preview — Act I, and a short excerpt of Act II. Terry Fox, director of Philadelphia Dance Projects, laudably brought this huge project to Philadelphia on her shoestring budget.
As a child, Williams danced the myths he read and locates the work in Prydein, yet it does not seem based on Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles even though it uses similar names.
Not since the gang rape by antlered men in Tomasz Wesolowski's "Rite of Spring" in Warsaw have I seen costumes and movement this primal and erotic. Williams staged an equally savage disrobing of Bleiddwen, Kira Rae Blazek, by the hounds of the stag, Burr Johnson. Johnson (reviewed here last year for his poignant role in John Jasperse' Fort Blossom)is a peerless Gwyn ap Nudd, his anguished, serpentine torso undulating in conflicted seduction of Bleiddwen even as he is banishing her for loving "the flesh of men." Bleiddwen has whelped three bastard sons by Gwydion, the nephew of King Math; now she is turned into a she-wolf Gwydion cannot recognize.
Geoff McDonald conducted Spears' postminimalist, early music-influenced score for a small ensemble and a four-voice "Greek chorus" singing in polyphonic harmonies, with soprano or countertenor breakouts.
Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Anthony Roth Costanzo gave voice to Bleiddwen and her son Gwrgi. Matthew Flatley danced Gwrgi until he changed into a human who serves the king as a footman, at which point Costanzo took the role in a tour-de-force of movement, acting, and singing.
The great Caitlin Scranton, seen here in 2010 in Lucinda Childs' "Dance", and again in excerpts of Williams' "Saints" project in 2011, is one of Gwyn ap Nudd's consorts. Six Philadelphia dancers danced the roles of courtiers and mock courtesans in this cast of 30: Gabrielle Revlock, Gregory Holt, Beau Hancock, Drew Kaiser, Stuart Meyers and Alec Moss.
Even without the puppets and additional acts to come, Williams has realized his intention to create a Gesamtkunstwerk — a total synthesis of the arts. With lighting by Joe Levasseur, set design by Michael Wang and Tom Lee, and sensational costumes by Ciera Wells, Carol Binion, and Andrew Jordan, it's a visual feast. If dance is looking for new directions, I say one way to go is on this lush, sensual, and primal path.