Karole Armitage at work with Miseries

by June Kinoshita

The Violent against Nature, Sandro Botticelli

I dropped by the Media Lab this week to sit in on Death and the Powers rehearsals and had the privilege of catching choreographer Karole Armitage at work. It was fascinating and exhilarating to see her creative process unfurl. She explained to me that when she choreographs for operas she often turns to the world of visual arts for inspiration. For the scene of the Miseries, she was drawn to Botticelli’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno. The scene with the Miseries comes at the beginning of Scene 8, which is described in the libretto as follows:

A parade of the World’s MISERIES — the victims of famine, torture, crime,
disease. MIRANDA is caught up in it. Cacophony of noise, building in numbers and intensity.

In the wake of the parade of MISERIES, the figure of SIMON – in his human body – emerges from the shadows.

MIRANDA and SIMON have final confrontation.

A team of a couple dozen volunteers arrived at the lab Tuesday evening to serve as flesh-and-blood putty in Armitage’s hands. Among the actors and dancers were Tod’s and my 12-year-old daughter and two of her friends. Soon, the rehearsal space, a large, high-ceiling room on the top floor of the new Media Lab building, was reverberating with the sound of pounding feet, punctuated by grunts and bursts of laughter, as Armitage directed the throng.

Karole Armitage in green sweater, center

Slim, with straw-blonde pixie hair and low-key, friendly manner, Armitage conjures the movement and effects she wants out of the dancers through her vivid language and keen eye. She asks the dancers to try a series of poses and movements, picks out what she likes and doesn’t like, and works it in, deftly shaping the work just like a sculptor molding a piece of clay with a few economical pinches and slices. It was a wonderous thing to see the work emerge before our eyes, Botticelli’s hellish vision brought to life on the stage.

Miseries à la Botticelli
Karole Armitage working with Jim Maddalena

This week, the rehearsal space also saw the arrival of life-size mock-ups of the living Wall system that plays a major role. Through much of the opera, Simon Powers’ character is expressed through these dynamic walls. Alex MacDowell and his team were on hand to help translate their vision into the four dimensions of the living theater. More on that soon.

Life-size wall mock-ups in rehearsal space

Here’s a snapshot I took with my Blackberry of a desktop model of the stage set!

Scale model of Death and the Powers set

And here are some sketches of the set and costumes:

Set and costume sketches

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