For Baker, opera is an all-encompassing art form, and her latest program “is a poem and an opera in a fever dream, whose structure erases itself and vanishes, and is designed to expose emotion. A poem is slippery and can move in between worlds, it doesn’t have to offer clarity or hope or vision, it only has to make us pay attention to the world.”
by Operation Birdsong, the Brigid Baker Wholeproject company showcases human beings’ kinship with their bird cousins — from shared song patterns to the over-the-top displays of color and costuming both species can characterize. Presented at Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s On.Stage Black Box Theatre from November 11-14, the show forms the second installment of the company’s three-part trilogy that also includes Crown (which debuted in November 2020 as a excursion-by experience) and Return of the Bird Tribes (scheduled to debut spring 2022).
For decades, the calls of birds have seemingly changed due to greater urban ambient noise. When the pandemic hit, some changed their tunes thoroughly.
“The sudden quiet enabled them to hear each other on a wider extent and vary their communication. They sing now more quietly in a lower tone, but with more flourishes,” Baker continues, as she pins a loop of fabric tight under the arm of Wholeproject dancer Isaiah Gonzalez in the company’s 6th Street Dance Studio in Little Havana.
Gonzalez steps back and moves his arms in the changed costume. Half-dress, half-cape, the white fabric billows, sail-like, with patterns of bright yellow and mauve circles.
Nearby are two, five-foot-tall blue papier-mâché robin eggs, and against the wall is an enormous “nest” the size of a barn door. Baker refers to the nest as a mandala that will float across the stage at meaningful moments of the performance, with brooms hanging beneath it.
During this recent rehearsal, Gonzalez then lines up on the opposite side of the studio along with two other dancers, Amy Trieger and Meredith Barton. After a narrator recites the names of birds, a fleeting recording of their specific song plays. With each new bird call, the dancers shift their movements. The screeches of the blue jay, for example, cause quick steps, with the dancers firmly sandwiching one another, while the puffin’s call inspires long, sweeping leaps.
At the eagle’s scream, the three plié deeply, torsos bent toward their side, while for the seagull they stretch at an angle. As they shuffle by the sequences, they often break out birdlike shifts of their head, quick ankle-height kicks, or fluttering twists of their wrists.
Video also forms an basic part of “Operation Birdsong.” Baker affectionately terms her own videos as “slash-and-hack jobs.” But audiences who have seen her films know they characterize poignant, tongue-in-cheek edited clips sourced from the web and often teeming with gorgeous natural images set to music.
Baker — dressed in an orange top and loose-fitting black slacks — starts up a black-and-white video featuring soprano Beverly Sills as Cleopatra in Handel’s opera, Julius Caesar. Sills packs her performance with runs, trills, and virtuosic leaps of octave.
Sporting a crown of white feathers and a white cape hanging from her shoulders, Sills looks like a fantastic bird performing a mating dance.
“If I take clips of operas and put them alongside birds in song, we are similar, down to the plumage,” says Baker, as the video shifts to shared songbirds warbling their tunes.
“Also, Justin has the sound wired in the theater to give a surround-sound effect to the bird calls,” she adds, referring to Justin Trieger, digital multimedia artist, recording engineer, and manager of New World Symphony’s collaborative, internet-based projects. Trieger consistently contributes videos for Wholeproject programs.
With so much emphasis on music, the program also includes Baker’s sister, Bertilla Baker, singing a cappella Irish folk songs.
The video ends. The dancers do a quick costume change, donning black robes and velvet black hats angled like a tuft of feather on the head of a bird. Each hat has a gold feather sewn into its side. The performers line up on the far side of the studio, facing away.
As a husky male voice recites the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” the dancers sweep the floor, beating their arms overhead and to their sides, then set afloat into tight pirouettes before falling out to sweep across the floor again. The choreography comes off as part-dance, part-ritual invocation.
Baker sees the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity for people to recalibrate their priorities.
“We’ve lost 3 billion birds worldwide since the 1970s,” she says. “And the idea that we would let their songs disappear is insane.”
– Sean Erwin, ArtburstMiami.com
Brigid Baker Wholeproject’s Operation Birdsong. 8 p.m. Thursday, November 11, by Sunday, November 14, at Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s On.Stage Black Box Theatre, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami; miamidadecountyauditorium.org. Tickets cost $25 via ticketmaster.com.
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