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Preview: Against the Grain Theatre turns to a Messiah with movement

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At last summer’s Glimmerglass Festival, Against the Grain Theatre artistic director Joel Ivany saw a performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater that included choreography. It touched him deeply.

Pergolesi wrote the work for two soloists, to be sung in church on Good Friday. The Glimmerglass presentation, directed and choreographed by Jessica Lang, also added dancers.

“It was a wonderful collaboration of high music with the visual, which is something that for me rang true,” says Ivany.

He immediately began to think of works he might be able to adapt in this sort of way. Handel’s 1741 oratorio Messiah wasn’t his first choice. But when the programme he really wanted to present couldn’t come together, Ivany set his sights on this Christmastime favourite — a work for choir, orchestra and four soloists meant to be presented in standard, static, concert form.

But that’s not how Ivany and his gang of creative collaborators at Against the Grain work.

“Music is meant to be interpreted — beyond just musically,” Ivany insists. So why not make dance part of that interpretation, something that will allow the audience to “experience it anew.”

Given the dozens upon dozens of amateur and professional Messiahs we can choose from in southern Ontario every December, experiencing it anew is at once a welcome proposition and a direct challenge to a Christmas tradition — and few traditions are more sacred than our personal and collective Yuletide habits.

“We know we can’t compete with the size and pop of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra or do Tafelmusik’s baroque experience,” says Ivany. “So what can we do? Something unique and different by playing with the visual and the venue.”

The venue for the two performances this coming Saturday and Sunday is the impertinently named Opera House — a grotty indie-rock venue one block east of Jilly’s strip club at Queen St E. and Broadview Ave.

The visual twist is choreography, in what has turned out to be the most people-intensive show in Against the Grain’s short yet remarkable theatrical history. Evem so, an orchestra of 18, led by Against the Grain music director Christopher Mokrzewski, four soloists and a chorus of 14, represent less than half the musical forces that Handel would have had at his disposal 272 years ago.

Since adding dancers to the mix would have broken the budget as well as overcrowded the performance space, Ivany asked the singers to learn their music by heart — something unheard of in the performance of oratorio. Then he and choreographer Jennifer Nichols set to work on them (they split choreography duties roughly in half for the three-part, 2-1/2-hour performance).

There is a costume designer, too, so the singers won’t just be moving around in tuxes and black dresses.

In this Messiah-saturated city, it seems improbable that Ivany has only attended one performance of the oratorio before — one of Tafelmusik’s singalong concerts at Massey Hall, many years ago. Mokrzewski has never conducted it. And only two or three members of the chorus have ever sung the work.

And we know that no one has ever danced it here before.

Ivany, wanting to make sure that the choir started the process well prepared, turned rehearsal duties over to southern Ontario choral specialist Robert Cooper. But, otherwise, we are dealing with a roomful of people who are making contact with this iconic work of Western music for the very first time.

“The core of this piece is whether you believe the text to be true or not,” explains Ivany. “It is a message of freedom and of hope,” where the journey is led by the four soloists — soprano Jacqueline Woodley, mezzo Krisztina Szabó, tenor Isaiah Bell and bass-baritone Geoffrey Sirrett.

Ivany’s visual arc is a journey from the formal to the unconstrained. “It screams for gorgeous movement and singing,” he says. “Here is the piece that’s 260 years old yet brand-new. That’s what exciting about the things we do.”

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The Opera House is not large, so the assigned seating sold out quickly. Against the Grain scrambled to add extra $40 general-admission seating as well as $15 standing-room tickets, which are still available here. The performances begin at 8 p.m. The Opera House is located at 735 Queen St E.

John Terauds

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