Malashock and Sacra/Profana: ‘Orpheus’ inspires ‘Snakeskin’ dance-drama coming to UCSD May 15-17

Krishan Oberoi, artistic director for the choral ensemble Sacra/Profana, said he has worked with top dance companies before and was inspired to collaborate with John Malashock after viewing his “Floating World.”

“I followed him and said I liked his work,” Oberoi said. “We talked about ideas and here we are.”

Now the men are focused on the interplay between dancers and musicians in their collaborative dance drama, “Snakeskin,” and how they will glide on and off a thrust stage May 15-17, at the Forum Theatre on the UC San Diego campus.

“ ‘Snakeskin’ is inspired by the Tennessee Williams’ play, ‘Orpheus Descending,’ ” Oberoi said. “We retain the haunting underworld of his dark story … but ultimately, the score and choreography are uplifting, even though it does not end well.”

There are complex themes hiding under the mythic story of a wild man who wanders into small Southern town. Oberoi wrote the music and lyrics for “Snakeskin” to reflect a dark, earthy tone. “There are two layers,” Oberoi said. “The instrumental has influences from Stravinsky and Bartok, and on top of that are more songs, with folk-rock idioms. We want to convey that American identity.”

There are 10 songs and eight singers who walk onto a platform on stage built like an old barn. “All of them sing and play instruments, too,” Oberoi said. “The tuba player is a lovely soprano.”

Oberoi’s rich lyrics guided the choreography, said John Malashock.

“The first song is ‘Blaze a Bitter Trail,’ ” Malashock said. “That’s character Val’s solo, where we meet him for the first time. Justin Flores, a new guy for us, dances the role of Val. He’s not a bad guy. He’s a drifter and he meets strange characters. Some of the characters have changed from ‘Orpheus,’ in an organic way, and that’s part of the process.”

Malashock said he and his dancers did a lot of character development and built the piece especially for the unusual stage inside the 400-seat Forum Theatre.

“I love story-telling dance, Malashock said. “There are some mature themes — some frustrations and narrow-mindedness, racism, but that should be OK for anyone over age 10. The musicians are on the platform and there are lots of exits off the side of the stage in this tragedy — and lots of action.”

Tennessee William’s play “Orpheus Descending” was presented on Broadway with modest success in 1957. Revived for Broadway in 1989, it starred Vanessa Redgrave. She starred as Lady Torrance again for the TV film adaptation in 1990. In the modern retelling of the ancient Greek legend, her father was killed by the KKK and she’s trapped in a terrible marriage for 20 years. Everything changes when a stranger in a snakeskin jacket comes to town.

Lara Segura dances the role of Lady in the premiere of “Snakeskin,” and Nicholas Strasburg is her suspicious husband, Jabe. They dance of temptation, passion and consequence. “He’s a scary character in the story,” Segura said, “and goes crazy when Val comes through the town. Costumes take us to the 1940s era, and it’s stunning to see how the musicians shift from voice and instruments. It becomes a conversation.”

During the evening, eight dancers and eight musicians doubling as vocalists will depict flawed characters struggling with bigotry, class and isolation.

“We dance on the thrust stage and the musicians appear on the platform behind us with a rusty roof,” Segura said. “There are three stairways and we’ll be running through the crowd. I’d experienced the Sacra-Profana choir before, and love working with Krishan. His musical tone switches and his lyrics create this new storyline.”

There are 23 sections in “Snakeskin.” Segura said Malashock’s choreography requires motion in the body and facial expression. “John’s movement is dynamic and this becomes an endurance test,” Segura said. “It’s athletic and also tells a story, so it’s 70 minutes of dance-drama.”

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