On Stage: A chance to preview ‘Wolf-in-skins’

By Denny Dyroff, Staff Writer, The Times


Years ago, Broadway shows would frequently open “out of town” prior to heading to New York. The productions would have week-long runs in Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington D.C. – sometimes even in Hartford, Wilmington or Baltimore.

The productions were in “partially-finished” stages — presented on stage to gauge audience reaction and show the producers what adjustments needed to be made.

There is a presentation coming to the SEI Innovation Studio at the Kimmel Center (Broad and Spruce streets, Philadelphia, 215-731-3333, www.kimmelcenter.org) on November 29 and 30 that has a somewhat similar vibe.

Philadelphia Dance Projects, in partnership with American Opera Projects, presents an “Informance” presentation of choreographer Christopher Williams’ “Wolf-in-Skins.”

It will be an informal showing of excerpts from Williams’ dance-opera “Wolf-in-Skins,” which is being co-created with composer Gregory Spears and visual designer Andrew Jordan.

This “Informance” is a work-in-progress featuring dancers, singers and musicians performing sections from the work and then participating in a conversation about the work with the audience.  Philadelphia Dance Projects presented the first act of “Wolf-in-Skins” a few years ago.

“I presented a work-in-progress, fully-staged version of the first act at Temple University’s Conwell Dance Theater in 2013,” said Williams, during a phone interview Tuesday evening — moments after the final pre-show rehearsal.

“It was also presented later in a rehearsal studio at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris via the Arts Arena. Small excerpts have also been presented through the Opera America New Works Forum and by America Opera Projects.”

The event features performances by Christiana Axelsen, Breckyn Drescher, Kyle Gerry, Justin Lynch, Aaron McGloin, Jordan Morley, Stuart Meyers, Collin Ranf, Chelsea Retzloff, Sammy Wong, Eric Wright and Drew Kaiser, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, baritone Marcus DeLoach, soprano Nina Berman, mezzo Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, tenor Owen McIntosh, and period instrument ensemble New Vintage Baroque.

“Wolf-in-Skins” is a true multi-media show with dance, visuals, classical musicians, opera singers and even a puppet.

“I work extremely closely with my visual designer,” said Williams, a choreographer, dancer, and puppeteer who has created more than 30 original and collaborative works in New York City and abroad since 1999.

“This has been a true collaboration. I throw an idea at him and we work together to see what develops. It could be anything – maybe a new sculptural costume element that alters the human form. My collaboration with Andrew is close. My fingers are in all the pots except music composition. When I work with Gregory, the composer, he creates music in response to my libretto and then I set the dance to that resulting music.

“There is a puppet in this show – a bull…a supernatural bull. Much of the opera is sung in the Welsh language and there are legends of lake-dwelling cattle in Welsh folklore.”

In “Wolf-in-Skins,” kings, foundlings, wolves, hounds, fay milkmaids and other mythical characters fill the dance opera that draws inspiration from a cycle of Welsh romance tales.  Preserving pre-Celtic and pre-Christian elements, it views marginalized or outmoded cultural relics through a contemporary lens.

Welsh lore such as the legend of Llyn y Fan Fach includes “ladies of the lake” and special white cattle known as the Gwartheg-y-Llyn. The bull in “Wolf-in-Skins” is a character all his own.

“This bull is a very large puppet – life-size with proportional differences,” said Williams. “The bull is a catalyst in the show. The bull is a key plot point – but you don’t get a full sense of the narrative with this performance.

“This is not a presentation of Act I or Act II. It features a smattering of excerpts from the entire opera. A few entirely new selections from Act II are being presented. This show will allow me to see how movement-based experiments for these scenes read on stage.

“The supernatural characters are physically represented by dancers on stage and aurally by singers singing in Welsh. Beasts are represented by puppets and humans are represented by opera singers.”

Williams earned a diploma from the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris where he studied physical theatre, acrobatics, and mask traditions and received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College where he studied choreography with the late Viola Farber and puppetry with Dan Hurlin. Europe has always played a big role in his creative endeavors.

“Studying in Paris deeply influenced me,” said Williams. “It is said that it takes at least five years after graduation for Lecoq students to fully realize their craft. That is what happened with me.

“And, choreographing for large Baroque opera productions gave me a sense of how works like this come together. My dream with this production is to show it at the Welsh National Opera.”

Video link for “Wolf-in-Skins” — https://vimeo.com/78657571.

The shows at the Kimmel Center’s SEI Innovation Studio are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on November 29 and 30. Tickets are $10.

Other upcoming Kimmel Center shows are Hillary Clinton Live on November 30 (Academy Of Music); John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous on December 1 and  2 (Academy Of Music); Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia: Monk’s Dream – Celebrating the Music of Thelonious Monk on December 2 (Perelman Theater); The National on December 4-6 (Verizon Hall); and Jazz Residency Artist Luke Carlos O’Reilly: Residency Kick-Off on December 5 (SEI Innovation Studio).

There will be another show in Philadelphia on November 29 that could be considered a work-in-progress and/or a trial run.

Alice Merton

Alice Merton, a resident of Berlin, Germany, just released her first single in America. She is now touring America performing shows featuring songs from a Europe-only EP and a yet-to-be-made album.

Merton’s maiden tour of the United Staes will bring her to the area for a show tonight at Johnny Brenda’s (1201 North Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, 215-739-9684,www.johnnybrendas.com).

The title of her single, which was released on Mom+Pop Music, is “No Roots.” Her life to date can be described well by the song’s main refrain – “I’ve got no roots, but my home was never on the ground.”

Merton was raised in Canada, finished high school in Germany and then moved to England with her family. With her debut single “No Roots,” she describes the life of having had many different homes and comes to the realization that her home was never in one place.
“I was born in Frankfurt, Germany,” said Merton, during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon from her record company’s office in New York.

“Our family then spent three years in North America and five years in Munich, Germany. The family’s next move was to Bournemouth in England.

“I’m living in Berlin now. It’s a great city. There’s something going on every day. I really enjoy Berlin. But, I also like visiting my parents in Bournemouth. It’s right there by the beach and is really peaceful.”

Music has been a part of Merton’s life since she was very young.

“My dad introduced me to music,” said Merton. “I began taking piano lessons when I was five and started singing when I was nine. When I was 16, I picked up acoustic guitar and started writing songs – a lot of singer/songwriter stuff. My main instrument was piano and Regina Spektor was a big influence.

“I continued on with my writing. That’s when I switched to a band sound. It gave me a wide vision. When I got serious with my songwriting, I met my band. I met them at the University of Popular Music in Mannheim.”

During her studies, Merton started working with various producers and, when she was introduced to Berlin’s Nicolas Rebscher, she knew she had found her match. Creating an analog and organic pop sound and going back to the basics of drum-and-bass driven music, they combined their individual styles to develop a style of their own.

“I switched to band mode with my songwriting,” said Merton. “I liked incorporating electric guitar riffs and bass lines. The Killers were a very big influence. Now, I write with a band sound in mind. The change has come from my experience of performing live with my band.”

Merton has been building her career steadily.

“I don’t have an album out yet,” said Merton. “I released my first EP in Europe back in February. It was a four-song EP that included ‘No Roots.’ In the states, ‘No Roots’ was released in August and the EP will be out in the next few months. I’ve definitely been writing a lot lately and there will be stuff coming out in Europe soon.”

Merton’s introduction to the American audience has gone extremely well.

“No Roots” has climbed into the Top 20 on the Billboard Alt Radio Top 40, AAA Radio and iTunes Alternative Charts. The single has already captured an immense amount of attention with over 60 million global plays on Spotify and YouTube and over 400,000 streams in the U.S. alone last week.

“This is my first U.S. tour,” said Merton. “Most people just know that one song. It’s kind of like jumping into cold water. I don’t know how people will react to the new music. I have a live repertoire of 15 songs and I’ll play 12 or 13 in each show.”

Video link for Alice Merton – https://youtu.be/PUdyuKaGQd4.

The show at Johnny Brenda’s, which has the band joan as the opening act, will start at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15.

Other upcoming shows at Johnny Brenda’s are Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on November 30 and December 1, Beat Street Jam with Killiam Shakespeare on December 2, Whose Hat Is This? (members of Tedeschi Trucks) on December 5 and Cold Specks on December 6.

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