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Minnesota Opera’s ‘Faust’: full of dancing with the devil

This is the still of the "Faust" set, but imagine Doug Varone's dancers making the figures come alive.
Photo by Steve McHugh/courtesy of Minnesota Opera
This is the still of the “Faust” set, but imagine Doug Varone’s dancers making the figures come alive.

On a chilly afternoon earlier this month, in the basement of the Minnesota Opera building, the Angel in White performed while Méphistophélès looked on. Was hell freezing over? Hardly.

Natalie Desch, a member of Doug Varone and Dancers, who dances the Angel’s part in the opera’s new version of Charles-François Gounod’s “Faust,” was previewing her forlorn solo for a small crowd — including Kyle Ketelsen, who sings the Devil’s role in the production.

Her movements were by turns jagged, curved, angled and smooth; she was both beautiful and broken, as her arms folded across and struck away from her twisting body with measured precision. Desch won’t be the only dancer performing in “Faust,” which opens Saturday night and is directed and choreographed by Varone.

Varone’s entire New York-based company is an integral part of the production, the opera’s first “Faust” in more than a decade. In this tale of a philosopher’s (Paul Groves) deal with the Devil, and his deception and destruction of the fair Marguerite (Judith Howarth), Varone’s female dancers are “the soul of Marguerite and her friends,” he explained.

Meanwhile, he added, the male dancers form a dog-like entourage for the Devil, providing both a sense of terror and some comic relief. For a synopsis of the opera, go here.

Varone is better known as the affable director of his vibrant modern-dance company, which rarely performs in the Twin Cities. Zenon Dance Company has commissioned several works by Varone, which remain part of the troupe’s eclectic repertory. So “Faust” provides local dance aficionados with an excellent opportunity to see the robust, expressive company.

No newbie to local opera
Varone, however, is no newbie to the Minnesota Opera. In 1998, he choreographed “Translatlantic” — his first opera. “I always put myself in situations where I can learn new things,” Varone said. “Opera provided a wonderful opportunity to explore a much larger sense of a playing field.”

He went on to direct and choreograph “Joseph Merrick: The Elephant Man,” and choreographed “Grapes of Wrath” for the Minnesota Opera. In 2006, he and composer Ricky Ian Gordon won an Obie Award for “Orpheus and Eurydice” at Lincoln Center. He has also worked with the Metropolitan Opera, among other groups.

Gounod’s “Faust” already includes a raucous dance scene in Act V: the celebration of the feast of Walpurgis Night. The “infernal ballet” provided Varone and his dancers with plentiful opportunity for choreographed mayhem. But Varone isn’t content to relegate dance to just one section of the opera.

“I love creating a large physical movement vocabulary, things that make sense in a dramatic way ‘gesturally,’ ” he said of choreographing opera. “As humans we communicate with our bodies all day long, in how we move, how we gesture in everyday life. Those things draw me in — as a director — to find the truth in character through movement.”

He’s against the old practice of “park and bark,” whereby a singer walks downstage, stops and sings. Younger singers, Varone explained, are interested in a more physical approach to performing their roles. And he’s happy to integrate movement “that moves the story forward.”

Set at the outbreak of World War I, when such avant-garde art movements as Futurism, Dadism and Cubism were rocking the status quo, this version of “Faust” includes sets influenced by the collages of Kurt Schwitters. At the same time, Varone explained, the production “lives in a global Europe, not a specific time or country.”

“This opera,” he added, “is huge in its broad sweep of landscapes, scenes that fall out of intimate moments.” Moments often created with a gesture or choreographic phrase for which no words are needed.

“Faust.” 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 24 and 31); Tuesday (Jan. 27), and Thursday (Jan. 29); 2 p.m. Feb. 1. Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. ($20-$150) Call 612-333-6669 or go online.

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