Spring Preview: Myth, Ancient History, And Burt Bacharach Inspire Dance and Opera

Climate change, the songs of Sufjan Stevens, the oldest known Jewish play, a New Jersey mall—all this and more factor into the best of this season.

Clockwise from top: UnFiNiShEd aNiMaL, The Extinctionist, The Look of Love, and La ville morte. Leandro Justen; Dondre Stuetley; Christopher Duggan; Giorgos Kalkanidis

If there’s a common thread running through these picks, it’s archeology. Digging into the past to see how it illuminates our present. Whether it’s blasting through the strata of the American mall, or Burt Bacharach’s songbook, even the snakier corners of our reptilian brain, dance makers are burrowing for stories. On the opera side of things, the exhumation business is even more pronounced. One piece is actually set amid Greek ruins; another was adapted from a tragedy perhaps 1,800 years old; another goes all the way back to the Bible; and yet another reopens the case of an Army suicide from the Afghanistan War. Trust the ghosts of the past to resurface in song and dance.

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Liz Lauren

Illinoise at Park Avenue Armory (March 2–23)

The blockbuster dance-theater event of the season was inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois (2005), his landmark album of hypnotic orchestral folk-pop. Choreographed by Justin Peck (Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story) to a story co-written by Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview), the mystical heartbreaker follows young dreamers as they find themselves—and a community—by the glow of a campfire, not far from their own private Chicago. The ensemble includes Gaby Diaz (So You Think You Can Dance winner, season 12) and singing in the band is original Illinois vocalist Shara Nova.

The company of CHILD. Walter Wlodarczyk

1-800-3592-113592 at MITU580 (March 9–16)

Just as some AI-generated humans have too many fingers, the title of dance-theater collective CHILD’s trippy satire is a metastasizing toll-free number. It’s how you reach DiFrederico’s, a bizarro jewelry store in a New Jersey mall where everything is for sale. Twelve performers and a rocking lounge band enact arcane rituals around retail and consumerism—all the while morphing into zebras. What subversive choreographer Lisa Fagan is selling, we’re buying.

The company of The Look of Love. Christopher Duggan Photography

The Look of Love at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (March 20–23)

Seven years ago Mark Morris choreographed a program to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and he’s back in the ’60s but with a different sound: silky, romantic earworms by pop legend Burt Bacharach. Jazz pianist Ethan Iverson’s arrangements are performed live, vocals by Broadway veteran Marcy Harriell (In the Heights). With dancers grooving to familiar hits such as “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and the smoky title track, this is the perfect retro date with that special someone. 

Patrick Needham and Burr Johnson in In the Fall. Delphine Perrin

Trisha Brown Dance Company at The Joyce (March 26–31)

A pioneer in finding the choreographic beauty in pedestrian movement and site-specific performance, Trisha Brown may have passed in 2017, but her company is going strong. Their new season at the Joyce includes the TBDC’s second ever commission, In the Fall, by French choreographer Noé Soulier. It will be presented alongside two of Brown’s iconic works, Glacial Decoy (1979)—her first collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg—and Working Title (1985), a test of her dancers’ strength and stamina.

Rhiannon Giddens Ebru Yildiz

Martha Graham Dance Company at New York City Center (April 17–20)

We’re around the middle of Martha Graham Dance Company’s three-year run-up to the centenary of its 1926 formation. In addition to dance programs, there will be a documentary and a coffee-table book. This engagement at City Center includes Graham’s strikingly calm, geometric take on The Rite of Spring and her joyous collaboration with Aaron Copland and Isamu Noguchi, Appalachian Spring. In addition, the repertoire includes a commission by Jamar Roberts, set to a new score by Grammy-winning composer Rhiannon Giddens.

UnFiNiShEd aNiMaL at New York Live Arts LEANDRO JUSTENs

UnFiNiShEd aNiMaL at New York Live Arts (April 25–27)

New York Live Arts’ entire space will be transformed into an immersive, multimedia party based on the aesthetics of queer nightlife culture. The subject sounds a little slippery and abstract, but it’s an exploration of “cognitive bias,” the human tendency to act irrationally because information hasn’t been processed fully. The multidisciplinary cohort behind the brain-scrambling fun is Nonfatal_Error, “catalyzed” by creative director MX Oops.


Eliam Ramos, Philip Stoddard, Yvette Keong, and Claire Leyden (from left) Dondre Stuetley

The Extinctionist at Baruch Performing Arts Center (April 3–14)

In this environmentally minded opera by composer Daniel Schlosberg to a libretto by Amanda Quaid (based on her play), a couple is tormented by the prospect of having a baby as climate change rapidly renders human life on earth impossible. The 75-minute world premiere by Heartbeat Opera will be staged by Shadi Ghaheri and runs in rep with an abridged version of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Jorell Williams (left) and Joshua Dennis G.Kalkanidis

La ville morte at Skirball Performing Arts Center (April 19–21)

Here’s a rarity to delight the opera completist: composer-teacher Nadia Boulanger’s “lost” work has been reconstructed from a piano-vocal score by David Conte, one of her final protégés. (World War I postponed its 1914 opening and the score went missing.) This tale of obsessive love, with a libretto by Gabriele D’Annunzio, follows an archeologist and three other characters as they explore the ruins of Mycenae in Greece. Acclaimed film and opera director Robin Guarino stages the action for Catapult Opera; maestro Neal Goren conducts 11 members of the dynamic Talea Ensemble.

J’Nai Bridges, Davóne Tines, and Julia Bullock (from left) Freddie Collier (Bridges), Bowie Verschuuren (Tines), Allison Michael Orenstein (Bullock)

El Niño at The Metropolitan Opera (April 23–May 17)

One of America’s most celebrated opera composers, John Adams, unpacks the Nativity story in this opera-oratorio from 2000, now in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera under the baton of Marin Alsop. Drawing on texts from the Bible, apocrypha, and a selection of poetry, the polyglot score is sung in English, Spanish, and Latin. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz makes her Met debut with a dream cast that includes Julia Bullock, Davóne Tines, and J’Nai Bridges. 

James Rodgers Courtesy of Untitled Theater Co. #61

Exagoge at La MaMa E.T.C. (April 25–May 12)

Don’t have Passover plans? Writer-director Edward Einhorn invites you to his seder table (or watch from the audience) as he adapts the “oldest known Jewish play,” written in Alexandria in the second century BCE by Ezekiel the Tragedian. In addition to updating this story of the Exodus from Egypt through the story of a contemporary Jewish composer and his non-practicing Muslim girlfriend (original music by Avner Finberg), Einhorn serves a 15-course seder. Music, drama, and ancient traditions: Sounds like opera!

David Henry Hwang and Huang Ro Matthew Murphy

An American Soldier at PAC/NYC (May 12–19)

After its powerful 2018 world premiere at Opera Theater of Saint Louis, this blistering work by composer Huang Ro and librettist David Henry Hwang comes to New York. It’s actually a New York story, the real-life tragedy of Danny Chen, born and raised in Chinatown, who shot himself in 2011 at his U.S. Army post in Afghanistan. The reason? Chen had been the victim of relentless racial harassment and beatings by fellow soldiers. Opera and war stories have been aligned for centuries; this one brings the battle home.

Spring Preview: Myth, Ancient History, And Burt Bacharach Inspire Dance and Opera