New York-based jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant has big plans for “Ogresse.” Originally co-commissioned as a song cycle by the Kennedy Center, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the story-driven musical production is slated to become an animated film in 2025. In the meantime, McLorin Salvant is coming to the Walker Art Center to perform the work along with projected animation, a step in the process of the project’s journey.
At the heart of the story of “Ogresse” is a woman who lives in the woods near a small town. She’s big, and a bit different from everyone. One day, a group of men from the town decide they want to capture the woman and put her into a freak show. “She doesn’t let herself get taken. She eats them instead,” McLorin Salvant says.
The new multimedia version, “Ogresse: Envisioned,” commissioned by the Walker, adds layers of visuals and a performative element to McLorin Salvant’s song cycle. As part of the Walker’s “Out There” series, it will be performed along with a 13-piece chamber orchestra, arranged and conducted by Darcy James Argue.
The Walker commission has been a boost toward McLorin Salvant’s eventual goal of creating a film version of her work. “This was a way for us to keep working on this as a film,” McLorin Salvant says. “The Walker gave us that opportunity, which is rare, and which is really a huge gift.”
For the performance at the Walker, audiences will see an animated forest. “It’s immersive, visually, where you go into the landscapes of the story,” McLorin Salvant says. She will be singing a mix of American musical styles— jazz, folk music, musical theater, and vaudeville, as she tells the story. “It’s kind of like a virtual reality,” she says. “That’s the best way I can think of it. You’re going to be in the world with these animated landscapes, and I will be kind of trying to embody the different characters.”
McLorin Salvant’s costume in the piece is a golden outfit made by her mother. She wears it as the narrator, who becomes different characters as the story progresses. “It’s like a campfire story,” she says. “It’s like a murder ballad.”
The performance also offers a sneak peek at the animated storyboard for the film, a taste of what she’s planning along with Belgian animator Lia Bertels. The two have been collaborating on creating the visual world of Ogresse, which existed only in the form of music in its first iteration. “It’s been years and years of drawing and transforming these characters,” McLorin Salvant says.
“To me, this is a hybrid between doing the concert and doing the film,” McLorin Salvant says of the upcoming Walker presentation. “We’re gonna learn a lot of lessons from this part of the process.”
Besides being a Grammy Award-winning vocalist, McLorin Salvant has been drawing for as long as she can remember. After the success of “Ogresse” as a song cycle, she decided she wanted to bring animation into the project of creating a film of the story.
“I started looking into it and learning about the history of animation and I pleasantly learned that there are a lot of parallels with the work that I do in music,” she says. “The history of animation, especially in America, is really tied up in minstrel shows and blackface performances and vaudeville.”
As an example, she notes that Mickey Mouse’s white glove is actually the glove of a minstrel performer that was then translated into animation. It’s part of a fraught history of the art form, where murky and problematic history is also the history of beautiful craftsmanship and artistry. McLorin Salvant was interested in acknowledging that complicated history, and also embracing the limitless possibilities animation presents.
McLorin Salvant also draws on the history of Sarah Baartman, the South African woman who was taken to Europe and displayed as a part of a freak show under the name “The Hottentot Venus” in the 19th century. After her death, her remains were part of a museum display up until the 1970s. She was finally buried in 2002. Baartman has since been the subject of many scholars writing about the colonialist gaze and the often sexist dehumanizing exploitation of Black bodies, as well as creative works like Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1996 play, “Venus.”
McLorin Salvant was deep into the project before she realized a painting in her home had been guiding her along the way. The painting depicts a moody Haitian voodoo spirit. “It was kind of funny and strange to realize that I was writing and singing about this big woman in the woods, and above my piano was this big woman in the woods. I didn’t even realize the connection,” she says. “It was osmosis. She was overlooking the process, but I can’t even put my finger on it other than it’s the same subject matter.”
Apart from the theme of otherness, there is also a love story in the tale, which is both tragic and comic. “It’s about getting past differences when you’re in love, and how we’re able to get past so many differences and how beautiful that can be but also how impossible that is,” McLorin Salvant says. “It’s also about regeneration, and it’s about renewal, and it’s about the relentlessness of life, no matter how much you try to suppress it, and no matter how much violence there is. We still survive. We leave things behind, they grow into new things. There’s a lot of hope in the story.”
“Out There: Cécile McLorin Salvant, Ogresse: Envisioned” peforms Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24 and 25, at 8 p.m. at the Walker ($45). More information here.