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Invisible Cities: The Choreography of Union Station

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Artbound provides an exclusive look at the avant-garde opera, "Invisible Cities." Watch our one hour special focused on the making of "Invisible Cities." here.

Several people are walking briskly, briefcases and backpacks in tow. Others are slumped in seats, dozing, oblivious. Yet others, sneaker-clad with determined gazes, are marching in unison, individuals occasionally breaking apart from the line, executing crisp turns and making elaborate hand motions before dipping and writhing in full-bodied spasms.

It's an ordinary night in the big city. Or is it?

Welcome to Los Angeles' fabled Union Station -- the largest railroad passenger terminal in the Western United States -- where one feels that time, instead of marching irretrievably forward, with travelers scurrying (or not), to parts known and unknown, has come to a kind of glorious stop. It's here that Yuval Sharon, artistic director and founder of the three-year old, avant-garde opera company, The Industry, is staging "Invisible Cities."

Billed as the first "headphone" opera, the work features music by Christopher Cerrone, who also wrote the libretto based on Italo Calvino's 1972 novel of the same name. There are eight singers, an 11-piece chamber orchestra (harp, strings, percussion, horns and winds), led by music director Mark Lowenstein, and eight dancers from L.A. Dance Project, a co-producer of the work. The terpsichorean octet is moving to the savvy choreography of Danielle Agami, a former Batsheva dancer who helms the recently transplanted troupe Ate9. (Agami's work could also be seen on Melissa Barak at the Broad Stage recently in a solo she made for the director of the fledgling Barak Ballet.)

But about those headphones...

Credit the audio firm, Sennheiser, with supplying state-of-the-art wireless equipment (E. Martin Gimenez is the lead sound designer), to the 200 or so audience members expected at each performance. (The show opened Saturday, October 19, and is presented twice nightly on various dates through November 8). These comfy-to-wear headphones allow viewers/listeners to hear everything sung and played as they move freely about the station, choosing which performers to follow in and out of the various rooms.

Explains Sharon, 34, whose last year's hyper-opera, "Crescent City," by Anne LeBaron and librettist Douglas Kearny, was a critical success: "We're blown away by the technology. It's a new adventure for the singers, and definitely for me, too. It's unlike anything any of us have done before, and it's thrilling to be with a group of artists who are also excited about that. It opens up the field of possibilities for the future - not just opera and dance -- but performance in general."

Sharon, of Israeli descent, moved to L.A. in 2009 to be Achim Freyer's assistant director on L.A. Opera's controversial production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle. He says that the Sennheiser technology serves as a crucial story-telling device. "What could come across as a gimmick," he points out, "the wireless technology, the headphones, the space, is actually connected to the concept and content of the piece. It's a perfect way to hear it!"

And the perfect venue. Opened in 1939 and partially designed by the father-son team, John and Donald B. Parkinson, Union Station combines Dutch Colonial and Mission Revival with Streamline Moderne styles, the result a reflection of the city's then obsession with both Spanish Revival and Art Deco. Although this may sound like an architectural mash-up, it works, and is, in fact, a stunning monument to the past, the key word being, 'past.'

Sure, you can catch an Amtrak train or connect to the MTA Red and Gold lines -- as some 60,000 passengers do each day -- but Union Station, the last of the great train terminals built during the peak of rail travel in the States, seems like a destination unto its own. Here, extravagant travertine marble walls and terra cotta tiled floors conjure ghosts of old Hollywood and then some, their secrets yet to be uncovered -- seemingly an ideal backdrop to Calvino's 165-page novel.

An elegiac musing on the yearnings of the human soul, "Invisible Cities" concerns the aging emperor Kublai Khan (Cedric Berry), who asks the intrepid Venetian voyager, Marco Polo (Ashley Faatoalia), to regale him with tales of the wondrous cities he claims to have visited in Khan's decaying empire. What better place than Union Station, then, and what better format than opera, where artistic elements come together in order to elevate emotions.

For Agami, 28, who was recommended to choreograph the site-specific work by mutual friends of Sharon and L.A. Dance Project's artistic director, Benjamin Millepied (married to Natalie Portman, he decamps to direct Paris Opera Ballet next year), "Invisible Cities" is a good fit.

"I have choreographed for open spaces in museums and galleries in Israel and Germany," the shaved-headed Agami explains, "and I enjoy taking dance off the stage and out of the studio. I was also very curious about the music, because a lot of times when I create dance, I like to choose sometimes not to use music at all. But I listened to the music, and I love it. It creates more time and more space.

"A lot of people looking at the dancers will not be hearing the music at all, so in a way, whoever's going to be watching it, it will be very relevant and meaningful even if they don't hear the music. It has to co-exist with silence," adds Agami, a powerful performer in her own right, "which gives me so much freedom to enjoy both."

As the singers, assuming various guises and in costumes designed by E. B. Brooks (janitors, masked-ball goers, an exotically-garbed Khan), croon, and the dancers slink, slither and sidle about from room to room, entire worlds are created -- visually, aurally, viscerally. But it's the dance element that seems the most extreme, with the performers, all ballet trained, including Charlie Allan Hodges, Anthony Bryant, Aaron Carr, Julia Marion Eichten, Morgan Taylor Lugo, Nathan B. Makolandra, Rachelle Ann Rafailedes and Amanda Kramer Well.

The octet executes an array of moves that range from rigorous solos and duets to trios, their vocabulary ranging from improvisational and hip-hop-like explosions, to glacially slow stances reminiscent of Robert Wilson.

Then there is the Gaga factor, which, contrary to pop culture fandom, has nothing to do with the Lady herself. Israeli-born Agami not only was a member of Batsheva Dance Company, but also was educated in Gaga and teaches Ohad Naharin's signature discipline. A kind of corporeal multi-tasking that trains the body and also helps the performer gain self-awareness by responding to verbal cues ("See if you can swim with your bones inside of your skin"), this distinct movement vocabulary punctuates the opera.

Explains Agami, whose Ate9 troupe is performing at Venice's Electric Lodge and at Café Club Fais Do-Do in November: "Practicing Gaga first thing in the morning changes how you approach your movement. It changes why you want to move or where you start moving. The images and sensations are not like standing in front of a mirror, making sure that your lines are still high and tight and fine and right -- it's a different morning.

"I come to the studio and tell them that it's okay to be a little ugly and messy and raw, rather than so tuned and polished and self-aware," continues Agami. "Being self-aware is a great thing, but not if the only thing you care about is how you look like. I feel that a lot of the movements I give the dancers I attach to them a little fantasy or story that is nothing to do with how the movement looks like. It's still very much about form, to create form, but I don't tell them this is the most important thing. I find another way to achieve that form by using imagery or story. While they're dancing they're thinking about this texture that they're supposed to achieve and not how it looks like."

Heady stuff, but for the viewer, it's more about those fantastic bodies moving through space -- in this case, Union Station -- and through time -- the reason people are at the Station, a quasi-Einsteinian concept that we're all going somewhere, even when we're standing still.

The dancers are also listening to the live orchestra music via earplugs, which, Agami, says, "takes you apart a bit from what's going on around you, so you can be creating a world that is different than a casual world. It was my decision that the dancers have the music in our ears, because it would help us maintain the small gap between the performers and the pedestrians, the audience. I felt it could help the dancers have a different experience and still be connected to the heart of the creation, connected to music."

Hodges, who has danced with, among others, Twyla Tharp, including in her Broadway show, "Come Fly Away," is a member of L.A.D.P. The diminutive but commanding performer also studied architecture, which makes being inside Union Station even more meaningful for him.

"The architecture is so specific -- the design, the aesthetic and the quality of the building -- has made this a lot of fun. To pull out all those grand and different eras in our material - the 1920's, 1930's, 1950's - it's been wonderful. In L.A.D.P., we're always grateful to collaborate with other artists, choreographers and people -- in this instance, it's with Danielle -- and it's been informative, positive and progressive. She has beautiful analogies and can tap into a concept or idea that changes how you can present the material."

Hodges admits that the dancers' relationship to the microphones is complicated. "It's nice to hear the music, but it's hard to work with the mikes, so when we're rolling on the ground -- it's very physical, the floors, the marble -- you don't want to break the microphone, you want to be cautious with it. You also would like to throw it away and just dance. But," adds Hodges, "it is cool to have that kind of silence. When the headphones are in and you can't hear anything but the music, that creates a performance even though you're in the middle of a public space."

As to interacting with the innocent passersby en route to their lives elsewhere, Hodges says the dancers are aware of them, "in as much as they're dancing in our space, and we are to move around them and with them, but it isn't meant to be hammed up as a performance."

One person's ham may be another person's caviar, with the performance, literally, taking place everywhere in the Station, including on the walls. That's where Jason H. Thompson's projections of the libretto reveal themselves in meditative and intriguing ways, the text adding another tier to the already multi-layered production.

At one point, two women in white (Delaram Kamareh, Ashley Knight), walk stealthily, in stilettos, down the main entrance's cavernous hall, with these words appearing, almost magically, overhead, painting a picture of Venice: "Did you ever happen to see a city resembling this one? Bridges arching over canals, palaces with doorsteps immersed in water..."

Existential, poetic, organic. The opera has everything, including an exquisite finale performed in a room where a row of ticket booths, not used for decades, serves as a catwalk for the dancers, a recessional of arched backs, flat backs, backbends, that mysteriously morph into a parade of souls, hungering, searching, listening, perhaps, for departure times to destinations unidentified.

The last words one sees -- and hears, linger long after the final bows.

"And I hear from your voice the invisible reasons that cities live."

The voice of Yuval Sharon -- and his very talented collaborators -- far from invisible, brings to Los Angeles yet another reason that cities, and all of us living in them, need -- and thrive on -- art.

Read more about Invisible Cities:

Invisible Cities: The Dematerialization of the Opera
Artistic director Yuval Sharon details his inspiration for "Invisible Cities," and the endless possibilities opened up by the use of headphones. The presence of wireless technology in the experimental work creates a new operatic experience -- and maybe even expands the definition of opera.

Invisible Cities: The Science of a Silent Opera
Sound designer Martin Gimenez explains the challenges of getting wireless technology to deliver the extraordinary sonic experience that befits the unconventional opera.

Invisible Cities: Composing an Opera for Headphones
In composing the music for "Invisible Cities," Christopher Cerrone created many levels of orchestral detail that would evoke the elaborate and fantastical places that Calvino

Finding Space in the Inferno: Observations on Calvino's 'Invisible Cities'

Union Station is an ideal place to realize the opera "Invisible Cities," an adaptation of Italo Calvino's book about relationships between built environments and social and economic life.

Invisible Cities: The Finale
Here's a roundup of Artbound's behind-the-scenes features examining "headphone" opera "Invisible Cities."

Artbound Special Episode 'Invisible Cities'
Artbound presents a one hour special focused on the avant-garde opera, "Invisible Cities."

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