by Kirby Lindsay Laney, posted 20 April 2017
Opening this weekend at West of Lenin (and running through Saturday, May 20th,) is a gripping human story told through movement, music and narrative, by skilled professionals. Nike Imoru created ‘Ode: A Stage Song’ based on universal themes shared through the story lens of an immigrant girl struggling and surviving in a sometimes ruthless reality.
‘Ode’ draws together the considerable talents of actress Imoru with professional dancer/actress Simone Bruyere Fraser, composer Ryan Leyva and director John Britton to create a collaborative and compelling work. Showing how choices, and actions, can inspire, through innovative and non-traditional mediums, they’ve given audiences an epic story. Imoru began with her very personal yet very relatable story, and brought in a team of skilled craftspersons to help her share it in the WofL black box theatre. “It’s been a wholly collaborative process,” Imoru acknowledged.
The Art Of ‘Ode’
Sixteen months ago, Imoru underwent a sudden surgery. In recovery she found her desire to move reawakened. “I wanted to dance!,” Imoru has commented. This inspired ‘Ode’, which draws on her vast resume and full life experiences. “A performer brings all the themes together,” she explained about ‘Ode’, and “how an artist writes themselves into their art.”
“I had not seen or spoken to John [Britton] for 30 years before I reached out to him to direct me in what has become ‘Ode.’” Imoru explained about her initial outreach, “We had worked together in our twenties when we were both into physical-dance theatre, and after my operation I realized I needed to rehabilitate my body with beautiful movement and he popped into my mind. I just had a feeling he could bring subtle mastery to the work.”
Physical-dance theater is not an idea unfamiliar to Fremont audiences, with growing enthusiasm for vaudeville and burlesque. Imoru explained that ‘Ode’ is a fusion of narrative and movement. “It’s a blend,” she said, “a style that is pretty prevalent in Europe.” Imoru saw a surge of popularity for the blend while living in England and Europe in the 1980s. The mixing of disciplines, traditional theater with dance, created dynamic and engaging shows that audiences responded well to, like ‘Stomp.’
Imoru chose Britton as her director specifically because of his background in multiple forms of physical theater, such as burlesque and circus. “John is brilliant,” she praised, referring to his deep understanding of the potential of the human body. ‘Ode’ allows for expression through the body rather than relying solely on the word. As a writer and actress Imoru doesn’t discount the word, of course. “My passion is Shakespeare,” explained the classically trained actress, “Oratory is sacrosanct,” and ‘Ode’ has a narrative beginning, middle and end. Imoru compared the use of movement and music to the way circus clowns entertain with few words.
With ‘Ode’, Imoru and Britton blended the word and the movement, and incorporated 90-minutes of original music composed by multi-instrumentalist, composer, and performer Ryan Leyva (a.k.a. Johnny Nails.) “Music is massive for John and myself,” Imoru commented, “I conceived the show as a ‘stage song’ and the music is truly a third character, a complex and vital part of the experience.” As Britton added, “We needed music that could evoke complex worlds of memory, trauma, passion and humor, without becoming too filmic or overwhelming. The music sometimes drives the action, sometimes responds to it. It’s a fine and complex balance,” like so much of the art of ‘Ode.’
A Blending Of Disciplines
For Fraser, who performs in ‘Ode’ alongside Imoru, this production presented a wonderful opportunity to bring into play her talents as both a dancer and actress. “I’ve felt very compartmentalized,” Fraser explained, being offered projects that either draw on her classical training in ballet or her skills as an actress. “To be able to do both is a blessing,” she said, “I’m in love with this show.”
For Fraser, “all movement is dance,” and she rejects the idea that dance must be limited to only those with formal training, performing fixed routines. Imoru has seen popular culture becoming more willing to accept the blending of disciplines and art forms. Varieté is coming back. “Our audiences are going to go into an experience,” Imoru explained, “I don’t want to give away too much, but what happens in there is extraordinary.”
“It’s absolutely transformative,” Fraser observed about ‘Ode.’ Younger that Imoru, Fraser has found this collaboration very informative. Through Imoru’s sharing of her personal experience, Fraser has been able to learn from, “how she has approached things in her life,” she explained, “the choices you make, and how adversity becomes triumph.”
For Fraser’s role, Imoru and Britton sought a performer able to create something ultimately very complex. “We wanted,” Imoru observed, “an edgy dancer, disciplined, with the possibility of going beyond and ‘dancing outside of the box’.” While continually on-stage, and always part of the action, Fraser is also often silent. As her director acknowledged, “I’m asking her to do something way outside conventional acting or dancing. It requires a special skill and intelligence to tackle that ambiguity, talents that Simone amply brings to her performance.”
‘…The Power Of Art, And The Capacity Of The Human Spirit…’
Besides bringing Fraser to WofL’s stage, and its audiences, Imoru was able to lure Britton to Seattle for his first directorship here. In fact, she’s been able to gather together talent from all over for this collaboration by amazingly skilled artists. “Our lighting designer, Geoff [Korf] paints our bodies with his lights,” Imoru praised, and “composer Ryan Leyva has been writing music we can move to.”
Imoru also chose West of Lenin for them to play with, deliberately. She looked at different venues around Seattle, but for ‘Ode,’ “[WofL]’s so available,” she explained, with its flexible seating and professional equipment. “It reminds me of the Arts Centre back home,” Imoru observed, “the fact that everything is there. It is fitted out exquisitely.”
Be sure to experience ‘Ode’ during its brief five-week run at WofL. “It’s a tale for a sanctuary city, with themes of war, struggle, inspiration, the power of art and the capacity of the human spirit,” Imoru commented, “And, of course, there’s a great dose of comedy as well.”
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©2017 Kirby Laney. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.