With bright images practically torn from the pages of fashion magazines, Hope, Death, Love, Virtue, and Time glide in courtly dance. Fusing Baroque aesthetics and pop culture in an elegant tapestry, Andrew Ondrejcak’s and Shara Worden’s YOU US WE ALL will grace the stage of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater from November 11 – 14 as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival.
Andrew Ondrejcak, a 2015 artist in residence at the Park Avenue Armory, looks content while discussing YOU US WE ALL. Ondrejcak, who has been working on his new piece Elijah Green, said of his Park Avenue Armory Residency, “The experience here mirrors the building itself—everything feels bigger and more important.”
Before moving to BAM, YOU US WE ALL will actually have rehearsals at Ondrejcak’s Armory studio, a large room with wood paneled walls, complete with sketches, bulletin boards, and costume pieces. An interdisciplinary artist who shifts between his roles as a writer, director, and designer of theater, opera, and fashion shows, Ondrejcak reveals images which give me a surprising glimpse into YOU US WE ALL, a world where names like Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, and Mary Kate and Ashley fly around like pop art.
A composer and performer originally from a family of classical musicians, Shara Worden has collaborated with David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, and Matthew Barney, among many others. Worden’s career includes multiple appearances at Carnegie Hall and four albums with her band, My Brightest Diamond. Though her opera, YOU US WE ALL, has been to the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, Worden has her sights set on Brooklyn Academy of Music. Of BAM, she says, they are, “Just categorically so progressive […] the kind of work that they are bringing to this country is challenging and leading edge. I’m thrilled to have our premiere at my dream venue.”
In Worden’s and Ondrejcak’s work, pop culture matters. It’s infused into our everyday and fills our brain with images so alluring that we are almost blinded. In that way, YOU US WE ALL is challenging. It features collage and moving images—with singers dressed like fashion models in corsets and bustles in brilliant patterns, including stripes, diamonds, and floral prints.
Image by image, piece by piece, Ondrejcak (whose work has been featured in Vogue, Wallpaper, and W) provides a rich world where the characters seem to come right off the page. “In my performances, I micro-manage everything but, of course, unlike my work in fashion, there’s no Photoshopping afterwards.”
The opera, with five performers, carefully finds the balance between Baroque vanity and the need to be everyone. Although the stage is not a chess board, the courtly manner in YOU US WE ALL is central to the opera. When developing the work, Ondrejcak thought: Are celebrities objectified? Do we banish our own?
While there can be an interchangeability of roles, the characters also hold their ground. Ondrejcak explains how fan letters became part of this opera. “When I met Shara,” he says, “she was composing a song cycle based on the letters that her grandfather had written to her grandmother during their long distance courting. I connected to the episodic structure of these letters being sung back and forth to each other.”
Hope, played by Worden, writes to these celebrities with a quill pen onstage. Her voice just sails through. The color palette is kaleidoscopic, and striking a pose is every day for the players. The court clown, dressed in white, scampers across the stage. As the creative team developed the piece, they considered the history of Baroque, the need for allegorical characters, and, of course, the masque. Politeness is as important as appreciating the new values of the time. Dealing with Hope and Time is different than dealing with Death and Virtue. Unable to detach from classical gestures of ballet, or his concept of what is aesthetic, Ondrejcak builds a world where dances are joyful, without brash movement.
It’s quite a different piece than Feast, Ondrejcak’s work about indulgence that played during The Public Theater’s 2014 Under the Radar Festival. Feast questioned the nature of eating, with characters like the Fishmonger and the Concubine. In contrast, YOU US WE ALL is like a beautiful reverie that could almost lift us into a time capsule. The pacing is slow and meditative, and static images never dominate. Computer video is live onstage and in motion. Sunsets are displayed, as are moving pictures of a town. Sketch art fills the lower left hand side of the screen.
Worden says that in order to make a musical statement that isn’t a mosh pit gone wrong takes experience. Baroque gestures, minimalist devices, and pop melodies are combined to create the musical vocabulary of the opera. She says integrating your influences is more important than referencing any particular style. “Analyzing what gestures you are going to use, what harmonic language you are going to employ, and what you are not, is part of how you make your own language.”
Allegory is difficult. “Death talks about Death, Hope is Hopeful, and Virtue tries to be virtuous, but little by little, these facades begin to crack. Eventually I wrote the central scene which is a title-less poem that we call simply ‘Destruction,’” says Ondrejcak. “During the song, the characters remove their costumes which earlier in the play represented their assigned archetype. And, underneath, of course everyone is in their underwear—Hope wears Spanx with that shiny beige central panel; Death wears boxers from Kmart. Simultaneously, the set falls apart and the once candy-colored light now shifts to a pure white. And this all happens in one three minute scene.”
Considering an interplay between light and dark, the players are contemplative and sophisticated. In the second half of the show, performers glide on a reflective floor that is glistening black. They shift in Lucite chairs. Shimmering silver cuts through. The players listen intently to one another as they reveal parts of themselves after destruction. How they deal with emptiness is in the fabric of the piece.
“Destruction is the center scene and it parallels the opening scene, ‘We Saw,’ which introduces the characters,” Ondrejcak said. “The dramatic structure is ABCDE ABCDE. With Destruction, I start the play again; the next thing we have is Hope singing a letter to Céline Dion which mirrors the first part of the play when Hope begins the letter to Beyoncé. The sequence feels familiar except now we have eliminated the Baroque tropes.”
Ondrejcak, who will be participating in a Watermill residency, doesn’t shy away from minimalism. His work, which has gone up at Works & Process at the Guggenheim, focuses on the physical body in relation to the ephemeral. His next play at the Kitchen in 2016, Elijah Green, is a take on Strindberg’s A Dream Play in which a god comes to earth in human form.
Meanwhile, in YOU US WE ALL, breathtaking visuals are coordinated with lute, strings, and the lightest percussion. B.O.X. (Baroque Orchestration X) provides a smooth listening experience that could connect an audience from a range of social classes. A band from Antwerp, B.O.X. blends the sounds of a harpsichord with the sounds of the typewriter. The composition utilizes the expansiveness of the male and female range. Long, sustained tones keep the piece whole and solid.
“Shara has an amazing, elastic voice as well as a very strong connection to an emotional core,” says Ondrejcak, “One of my goals as the writer is to give her opportunities to reach towards the farthest ranges that she can access.”
Joining Worden on stage is Helga Davis, who performed in Einstein on the Beach at BAM. “I met Helga through Bob Wilson years ago, and I knew that she comes from and can execute Bob’s highly disciplined physical vocabulary, but after meeting her I felt this wild, emotional, active spirit—so I wrote specifically with this juxtaposition in mind,” Ondrejcak says. “I wanted to offer her a chance to access all of the aspects of her talent as a performer but, in a way, Helga—and indeed all of my characters—become a surrogate for myself. They take on the struggles and tensions that I feel in my own life and my own existence. Helga gets an extra helping of this because I know she can handle it; she will take my poem about a ‘demon within’ and shred it to pieces. This is how I eventually came to this characterization of Virtue, who struggles with being virtuous while also having this bestial inner life.”
YOU US WE ALL reminds us that, as we chase Time, we also want a moment to bathe in the splendor of the light. The opera honors the need to leap among stars in a longer journey. Eternity is not a curse or a struggle, but a long winding road wherein we can find our true selves.
YOU US WE ALL, with text, direction, and design by Andrew Ondrejcak and music by Shara Worden, will be running from November 11 – 14 at the Harvey Theater during Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. For tickets and further information, visit the website.
MARCINA ZACCARIA is published in the NewCrit section of HowlRound and has written monologues, published in "InterJACtions: Monologues from the Heart of Human Nature (Vol.II)," available on Amazon. She is a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women and holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her clips can be found at @ZaccariaMarcina.