Choreographer David Bintley’s run-in with Fate in the cantata “Carmina Burana” changed his own.
Circumstances surrounding his dance production pushed him to blend ballet tradition with pop culture imagery for a story that feels as contemporary as Wall Street shenanigans.
Atlanta Ballet’s staging of the North American premiere of Bintley’s ballet opens with a statuesque woman on stage, blindfolded, in a black mini-dress and stiletto heels. Carl Orff’s full-chorus “O Fortuna” swells in volume and force as she advances with imperious strides. Long-limbed, angular gestures seem unforgiving. She stops, folds praying hands which then unfold outward, flat like the scales of Justice. Then closing one fist, she strikes, justice delivered.
Ballets set to Orff’s cantata are almost as common as “The Nutcracker,” Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall said. But Bintley’s version is definitive, he said, because it captures the music and the intent behind the bawdy and satirical medieval poems that inspired it.
“It’s old, but of today,” McFall said. “It’s kind of carnal; it’s a situation where people take vows and make commitments. They struggle; they buckle. It’s about passion, seduction, manipulation and corruption.”
These struggles are central to the story of three seminarians who reject their faith to pursue pleasures of the flesh, exploring love, gluttony, drink and lust, all with a modern veneer of violence, edginess and sexiness.
“It’s really about what can happen if you abandon your spirituality and seek gratification in temporal appetites,” Bintley said.
Bintley vivified this morality tale through a mix of medieval, 1930s and pop-culture imagery, showing that its story is as relevant today as it was in the Middle Ages.
“It’s such a strange mixture,” Bintley said. “You couldn’t possibly plan something like this. “You couldn’t.”
He had wanted to choreograph to Orff’s score since he was in his teens. He worked his way to a position to do that after a 20-year career that began as a dancer, then resident choreographer with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, and later as resident choreographer with the Royal Ballet.
“Carmina” marked Bintley’s 1995 debut as artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet — the Sadler’s Wells company restablished in a new city.
When creating the piece, he opted for the least likely opening image, one woman on stage.
“I immediately thought Fortuna, or Justice, is blind,” Bintley recalled. The taut, black blindfold suggested to him a little black dress and heels.
He collaborated with designer Philip Prowse, known for a slinky, sexy style. But Prowse “is not the kind of designer who ever gives you what you think you want,” Bintley said. “It became quite scary because it was really off the wall.”
The two came up with a scheme like graphic novels, which share the simplistic, two-dimensional aspects of medieval art. Characters became cartoon-like. Images of pregnant woman cavorting around in tunics evoked the Virgin Mary. Gluttons eyeing a “roast swan,” served up as a fan-dancing showgirl, were influenced by George Gross’ steamy 1930s pulp magazine covers. A giant tattoo-styled heart set the tone for a passionate encounter; bleeding crosses symbolized the seminarians’ spiritual folly.
Prowse responded to the music’s strong, simple rhythms and folk-ish values, qualities the Nazis approved when the work was first performed in Germany in 1936.
Bintley described the singing as “yobbish” — “just beer-ed up guys hitting each other and drinking,” Bintley explained. “The Nazis were about as yobbish as you get.”
English drinking culture brought the updated scenario into focus: the story would take place on one Saturday night. Orff’s “Village Green” setting turns into a 1960s youth club. Orff’s “Tavern” became a strip bar, where the second seminarian joins a group of corpulent gluttons. Orff’s “Court of Love” became Bintley’s prostitutes’ haven, where the third young man finds Fortuna in disguise. She entices then dominates him.
Like medieval morality plays, “Carmina Burana” ends with a sobering moral lesson. But Bintley has a lot of fun getting there, referencing everything from the Twist to Riverdance to Madonna in “Vogue.”
“It’s about everything that’s unimportant, everything that passes, everything that’s transient.”
“But it’s fun, it’s entertaining and it’s surprising,” said Bintley. “It’s definitely adult. But there is a dark side to it. A glittering dark side.”
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