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Alceste and Ana Yepes at The Santa Fe Opera

by Judith Fein
August 14, 2009
Santa Fe, NM
"The first time I heard Gluck's music for Alceste, it was so inspiring and beautiful that I was in tears," said choreographer Ana Yepes. "Once rehearsals started, we only had two weeks to pull it all together, so it was a lot of pressure. But I loved working with Francisco Negrin (the director) and I had a great team of dancers from Chicago, Paris and New York. Did I work it out all in advance? I'd have to say that nothing came totally prepared and nothing was totally improvised."

In a sense, you can say that Yepes has been preparing for Alceste all her life. Born to a Spanish father and a Polish mother, she started out as a musician, playing piano, recorder and viola de gamba. She went to study music in Holland and kept wondering how all the pieces she played were actually danced. No one in the specialized music department could tell her, so she kept on wondering.

In a history of music class, more than 20 years ago, when Yepes was 22, the teacher mentioned a l6th century book of Renaissance dances by Thoinot Arbeau called Orchesography. Yepes ran to the library to get the volume. As she read it, she started "jumping around on her own." She began taking dance classes in classical and modern dance and moved to London to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She moved to Paris, continued studying with a specialist, undertook her own research into Baroque dance and began choreographing.

She has since choreographed at the Paris Opera, BAM, Covent Gardens, the Royal Danish Opera, the Geneva Opera, the New York City Opera and, currently, the Santa Fe Opera. Her background as a musician as well as a dancer has prepared her well for the world of opera, where music, singing and choreographer must work in tandem to produce a meaningful and aesthetically satisfying whole.

Alceste is a difficult opera to direct and choreograph. The story — about Admete, the King of Thessaly, and his wife Alceste — is about the triumph of love and how the gods are exacting, heartless, and ultimately sympathetic to love that is true, enduring and eternal. The opera begins with Admete on his death bed. Alceste, grief-stricken, goes to the temple of Apollo to plead for the king's life. Apollo decrees that Admete will perish unless someone is willing to take his place. Alceste vows to sacrifce her own life for her husband's.

When Admete, fully recovered, finds out that his wife has volunteered to die so that he may live, he insists on killing himself instead. Alceste refuses to let him die, and they go back and forth about who will live and who will expire. With the veil of death ready to envelop one or the other, and the spirits of the underworld ready to drag the victim to Hades, Hercules intervenes, Apollo is moved to change his mind, and the noble duo are both allowed to live and love each other for the rest of their lives.

How can a director and choreographer make the mythical, god-studded, intensely emotional story with its sublime music work for a contemporary, sophisticated audience?

In Yepes case, she listened to what the director wanted to represent in each scene and allowed herself to be inspired by the meaning, music and emotions of what was unfolding onstage. From the audience, it looked as though Yepes was calling upon dance styles from around the globe—Egyptian, Balinese, court dances, flamenco, ballet, modern dance. But Yepes insists that she was not trying to recreate any of these styles nor did she set out to use them; she was, rather, allowing herself to be vaguely inspired by them. She had once choreographed Julius Caesar with Egyptian gestures, so she used some of those. Her specialty is Baroque dance, so she plucked ideas from that. And flamenco? Of course. She grew up in Spain.

"I approached the opera scene-by-scene," she said, "but overall I'd say it's modern, contemporary, my style—with some tricky rhythmic difficulties, using counterpoint with the music. As I am a musician, I can play with that. There are a lot of shaking movements, big gestures."

Yepes said she works with the five basic movements: vertical, frontal, lateral, torsion and central. Each of these has two directions—i.e. back and forth, up and down, closed and open. "These basic movements correspond to body function and the spontaneous movements of humans. I am interested in the expression of emotion through human beings' movements."

In Alceste, the queen (Christine Brewer) and king ( Paul Groves) are often onstage for long periods where all they do is sing magnificently as they express grief, pain, love, sadness, anger. Yepes choreographed the dancers and the chorus to keep the stage alive and vibrant with movement. At the beginning of the opera, the gestural system of the chorus is highly stylized. At the temple of Apollo, where a sacrifice is made to the god, the movements become ritualistic. When the king is healed and the couple is spared, the movements become more naturalistic, expressing a return from grief to the quotidian.

It is in the choreography of the Fates (the spirits from hell who weave the destiny of humans) and the gods that Yepes really shines. In ghostly apparel and makeup, the Fates do a daring Danse Macabre on a series of chairs placed at different levels. When Hercules draws his sword to battle the infernal gods, he fights in slow motion against their furious, acrobatic movements. And the incorporation of l7th century French court dances was surprising and delightful; not only is Baroque dance Yepes' specialty, but it's clear that she is passionate about the graceful, elegant, courtly dances like the bourreé, gavotte and minuet that originated in the court of Louis XIV and paved the way for the development of classical ballet.

"Spanish Baroque is totally different," Yepes explained. "It doesn't have the same steps or styles. Unlike French Baroque, it doesn't have a system of notations and it is a bit of a puzzle to reproduce. You have to read plays of the period, tales of travelers from that time and search out any clues that will help with recreation. I did three years of research in the 90's and I still do it. It's the archeology of dance."

High-energy Yepes paused for a minute and added, "Baroque dance is my specialty, but I don't want to be put in a drawer and only known for that."

Her work on Alceste clearly demonstrates that no one can put the eclectic Yepes in any one drawer for long.
Matthew Morris (Apollo) & Ana Yepes (Dancer) in the Santa Fe Opera's <i>Alceste</i>

Matthew Morris (Apollo) & Ana Yepes (Dancer) in the Santa Fe Opera's Alceste

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

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