The festival season is well on its way at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL). Big productions will be hitting the stage through the month of June, including Ariadne on Naxos, directed by Sean Curran, which will premiere this Sunday, June 5, as well as Shalimar the Clown, making its world premiere Saturday, June 11. Sean Curran, founder of Sean Curran Company, opened his dance company in 1997. He has choreographed productions that have traveled all over the world including Germany, France and Kazakhstan. Recently, Sean has claimed an unexpected position to go along with choreographing: directing, a new and exciting challenge he never saw himself facing in the past.
Do you prefer directing or choreography more?
I am a more confident choreographer. Directing, I’ll be honest with you, terrifies me. As crazy at is, it is a kind of fuel that pushes you to make something important. Again, it’s thinking, process not product, so I can leave rehearsal and still not be thinking about opening night because we don’t have a beginning, middle and end, yet. I love directing and, in fact, when this process started I felt like a man on the way to the gallows, like ‘what did I just get myself into?’ Now that I’m into it, I’m enjoying it, and I can see what I’m doing is going to work. I am more confident as a choreographer. I still love directing, but it’s a bit more terrifying.
It’s not. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been coming here for many years, mostly as a choreographer, working with the director, making the dances and moving the chorus around. My first chance to direct the show was here at OTSL and it was Salome. I was terrified. In fact, I was already on board to choreograph it and the director that was going to do it, suddenly was not. I got a call from James Robinson, who is the artistic director. He said “Sean how would you like to choreograph, as well as direct the show?” Of course, I said yes, with confidence and everything, but I hung up the phone and almost fainted because never in a million years did I think I would be a director. I was happy to be on the team, happy to choreograph, love working with the set and the costume designers, and the director. But I never thought I’d have to drive the bus as it were. Still, I love a challenge.
Tell me when you discovered your love for the performing arts?
A big part of my story is that I grew up with Irish immigrant parents. We had Irish step dancing lessons, my sisters and I. We had Irish music and learned how to speak Gaelic. My father is what we called “Mr. Ireland,” jokingly, because he was more Irish than the people who actually stayed in Ireland. For some reason, it was Irish step dancing that we were best at and got to perform a lot, and not just St. Patrick Day parties.
I do, because we are known for the gift of the gab and storytelling. I think that human beings are hard-wired, so to be storytellers, we need to tell them that we love to hear them. There is this idea in Irish culture: What do you do at the party? Do you sing the song? Do you play the fiddle? Do you get up and do a jig? And certainly, in my family, that was a big part of every party, whether it was Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve or St. Patrick’s Day. In fact, there’s an Irish saying that says, “Give us a song.” The idea in that is that you’re not just performing but you’re giving, almost like a gift.
How are you playing a major role in this year’s festival?
It sounds a bit crazy, but not only am I directing and choreographing my own show, but I’m helping to choreograph other shows. La Boheme and MacBeth, are not dance heavy shows. So, luckily, I have been able to go in and help, sometimes with choreography, and with behavior. Martha Graham is famous for saying ‘Movement never lies.’ So l look at a scene and help somebody with body language. Say they’re lying, or they’re vulnerable, or whatever it is; I can help with body language and posture and behavior. There’s a little scene in La Boheme, where four friends do kind of a silly dance and then have a mock play, their last bit of joy before the tragedy strikes. In MacBeth, what Shakespeare has as the three witches is performed by the women’s chorus. The director has done a brilliant thing where he has put them in little family groups of three. I’ve taken those groups of three and have moved them in a circle, or brought them outside in, with these long sticks and branches that they move. Even though it may look chaotic to the audience, it has to be organized. It has to be controlled chaos. So I’m there to help with stuff like that.
Yes, because that’s such a different challenge. I’m trying to add my own eccentric spin on it. Shalimar is a premiere. No one’s ever done the show. No one’s ever seen the show. That’s where the excitement lies. It’s almost like making something from scratch. The composers have been working on it for years, and James Robinson, the director, has had a hand in how it’s been shaped. Now, the music is done and the words have been written, of course there will be little changes, but now it’s time to make it happen. There’s an opening night, the world premiere, and the clock is ticking.
How do you think this festival season will stand out compared to previous years?
I think it’s going to stand out because it’s a big season. There are no small productions. There’s something like Shalimar which has a political edge, and is a contemporary story. It’s not like Shakespeare’s MacBeth. It’s political, it has to do with love and desire, but also politics on how somebody conveys to you a word in pop culture can absolutely be radicalized. I think it’s a case of art doing its job and holding up a mirror where we can see ourselves reflected. The one thing about OTSL is that they are not afraid. They are not afraid of world premieres. They don’t play it safe. Now, Shalimar the Clown is very political. People are either going to love it or hate it, but no one will feel ambivalent. I love coming to OTSL because they are willing to take risks. Their artists are changers. They do it through opera, theater and art.
I am primarily a contemporary dance choreographer, but when I come and do an opera, or sometimes I’ll choreograph a Shakespeare play, I like to jokingly say it’s like a creative crop rotation. I take ideas and concepts from contemporary dance or ideas from post-modern age, really because I am a grandchild of the post-modern age. So, I bring those ideas to opera, I learn things in opera, then I take the opera stuff back to contemporary dance. In fact, I’ve made several dances to music by Handel after I worked on the Handel opera. It’s all interconnected and related but, for me, one really informs the other. It’s exciting in a way, and I’m never bored.
Is there a show you would like to work on but haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet?
I choreographed a production of West Side Story, and I want to it again. It’s an incredibly well-built, put-together piece of musical theater. I was really pleased with what I did, and I would love to have the chance to do it again.
Opera company directors are always asking me what I want to do, but the things I want to do are too far out for them. I will tell you, there is an opera called A Flowering Tree by John Adams – that’s the one I’d love to do someday. It has three characters, but they each have a dance doppelgänger. It appeals to me as a director and as a choreographer.
Getting my company, Sean Curran Company. This past October, we were part of the Next Wave Festival the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and it was a dream of mine for the past 20 years. When I got up to BAM and we did a premiere with a piece called Dreamed in a Dream, I really felt like I had accomplished something and we had gotten somewhere.
There was also a great musical called James Joyce’s the Dead which was an off Broadway musical I choreographed, and it made it to Broadway. There was something really wonderful about my Irish immigrant parents coming to New York. I took them to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway, and my name was on the marquee.
Check out Sean Curran’s choreographed and directed operas starting this Sunday, June 5 with Ariadne on Naxos, followed by the world premiere of Shalimar the Clown, on June 11. For tickets and more information on Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s Festival Season, click here. V
by Brenden Kleiboeker