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MonteverdISH – Mindblowing crossover theatre

October 26, 2011

Gender-bending, breakdancing, ancient musical instruments, opera, engagement with current politics, hip-hop, acrobatics (both visual and vocal), three different languages, music that spans several centuries: MonteverdISH has it all.

Several weeks ago, I went to the premiere of this opera in a modern jacket with some friends in Amsterdam. The diversity of the audience – young and old, of all races and backgrounds – already indicated that people were not afraid of or put off by the fact that this performance is based on Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” a 17th-century opera about Poppea’s rise of Nero’s mistress to empress. Though the opera’s basic plot and themes remain, ISH’s adaptation of it imbues the story with a new dynamic and present-day relevance.

We’d seen a preview of the show at the Prins Berhard Cultuurfonds stage at the 2011 Uitmarkt in Amsterdam, where we were blown away by the skills of dancer Shailesh Bahoran and the way his modern movements flowed together with the baroque music as played on the theorbe by Israel Golani. We immediately decided we would see the full show as soon as it hit theatres (proof that the Uitmarkt concept, in which the public can catch little previews of upcoming shows and performance art, works), and in the meantime we researched what exactly the show entailed.

It turned out MonteverdISH is the result of a collaboration between modern dance collective ISH and VocaalLAB (musically supported by Perquisite and DJ Irie). Directors Marco Gerris and Arnout Lems banded together to create a show with a drastically reduced character cast, in which four characters are played by two different people (one ISH dancer and one VocaalLAB singer) and are supported by a quartet of (baroque) musicians and a DJ. The story of each character is both sung and danced (sometimes alternating between the two, sometimes simultaneous) to the music of Monteverdi himself, but also to compositions by Perquisite and samples of modern music (perhaps most noticably the often sampled “Apache”).

No description or recording of the show can really do it justice. People were on the edge of their seats the entire time, often whooping and hollering at particularly incredible physical or vocal feats. There was lots of scattered laughter at some of the more humorous moments, intent focus when the language suddenly shifted from Italian to Dutch or English and back again, great applause after the military jab-at-Berlusconi-interlude, and open-mouthed awe during the finale. I appreciated all of these things, but perhaps most of all I adored Laura Bohn’s Nero(ne). Though MonteverdISH’s gender-bending has been explained away as purely practical (the male sopranos of Monteverdi’s time are no more), I believe it not only perfectly fits the topsy-turvy morals in Monteverdi’s original piece (in which virtue is punished and greed gets ahead), but it also perfectly fits our times. If the dance part of the female character (Poppea) can be played by a man (and it is), why not the vocal part of the emperor Nero? And Laura Bohn makes a fabulously attractive Nero, no matter which way you turn it. Her Nero is both classically masculine in performance while classically feminine in bodily representation and funny, forceful, aggressive, needy – all at the same time. The dance part of her character complements and supports its development to an astounding degree. The combination of modern dance and opera might easily have failed in less capable hands, but it works – and it works wonderfully.

With the current and upcoming budget cuts to the arts, who knows if such innovative and excellent productions can even be made in the future. So I would recommend everyone take advantage of the opportunity while they still can, and catch MonteverdISH. It’s touring theatres in The Netherlands until mid-December. For anyone still doubting, I’d recommend watching this Uitmarkt preview. Really, just watch it.

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