A tall, slim dancer commands the attention of everyone in his immediate area in the entrance of downtown LA’s Union Station. He’s rehearsing for Invisible Cities, an experimental opera collaboration between Yuval Sharon’s The Industry and Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project, which premieres Saturday at the stroke of 7 pm.
Falling, sliding, lunging and flailing, the dancer executes large movements in a designated small space. Suddenly, another dancer gallops briskly by the first company member, hands flapping wildly, scratching his head and neck, keeping to his own rhythm. But he doesn’t stop. He heads out the main doors and into the night because, in fact, he is not a cast member. In retrospect, he was one of the eccentrics who frequent Union Station, one of the many characters who will make this innovative production even more interesting and challenging.
“From the beginning of the concept [of Invisible Cities], I wanted the piece to feel like an invisible layer of what is already among the reality of Union Station,” says Sharon, director of Invisible Cities and artistic director of The Industry, an LA-based nonprofit that aims to expand the traditional definition of opera and explore new paradigms for interdisciplinary collaboration. “The idea that there is a really eclectic, wild mix of personalities, characters, costumes, activities — that’s a major theme of the performance.”
Union Station is gorgeous to look at, combining Dutch Colonial Revival architecture with Mission Revival and Streamline Moderne style. But it’s a far stretch from, say, New York City’s Grand Central Station. Though the two stations serve the same purpose, Grand Central is almost always packed with travelers. Union Station has that atmosphere at times, but more often, it feels stagnant, like a resting place for the less fortunate who have nowhere else to go. Travelers alternate with down-and-out locals, who are sleeping or just hanging out, on the main lobby seats. During rehearsals, without costumes, the cast of Invisible Cities blends in with the masses as the singers walk slowly around the station or when Ashley Faatoalia, who plays Marco Polo, sits at a table at Traxx Restaurant as part of the performance.
It’s easy to pick out the performers because they’re wearing headphones and have serious-looking people who look like production assistants following them. But, otherwise, the cast members look like they too could be waiting to catch a train or just whiling away the hours.
Sharon appears to be in command at each rehearsal. He has headphones, but also a handheld mic. The singers have wireless mics in front of their mouths and headphones to hear the music. When Sharon calls a cue, the singers begin to rehearse a section, stopping when they hit a technical snag or if the director has notes. He’s juggling a lot: the cast, the sound, the public. Once in a while, the whole creative team — director, composer (Christopher Cerrone), singers, production assistants, sound engineers — huddle together.
It’s a little bit of controlled chaos in this large area of busy activity. People stop to tell the singers how pretty their voices are. A production assistant has to politely explain that they’re rehearsing and hands them a flyer with show information. The loudspeaker blares out that the 8:45 pm train to Riverside is leaving in 20 minutes on track nine. Onlookers gather in random areas, making it more difficult for the singers to move freely. They have to adjust, weaving through the rooms and courtyards.
Then there are the people who mimic the singers, blurting out off-key words, or leaping in the air, copying what they see the dancers doing. The actors can’t break character, but they often have a smile creeping up in the corner of their mouths or they just outright giggle at the goofiness.
During the performance of Invisible Cities, for 70 minutes audience members will wear wireless Sennheiser headphones, which pipe in a mix of the singers’ voices with pre-recorded and live music from an 11-person orchestra housed in the Fred Harvey Room (formerly a restaurant with a magnificent Native American-meets-art deco design theme). A stage management team is on hand to make sure the audience members’ headphones are working throughout the entire performance and to hover around the singers and dancers to answer any bystander questions and prevent any interference. Those who aren’t wearing headphones might see a singer and hear the individual’s voice, but they won’t comprehend the interconnectedness of the work as a whole.
On an average Tuesday at Union Station, a man shuffles in the courtyard with his pants at his knees and a teenager walks down the main corridor with a live pet cat perched on his baseball cap. This is the colorful environment in which the actors, dancers and singers perform Invisible Cities, which is based on Italo Calvino’s novel about the meeting of the emperor Kublai Khan with the explorer Marco Polo, where Khan orders Polo to report on the cities in his empire.
Wednesday, October 2, is the first of seven rehearsals at Union Station after months of planning and preparation. The following Friday, at the second rehearsal, just the singers are mapping out a scene titled “Venice.” Ashley Knight, Delaram Kamareh, Maria Elena Altany, Stephen Anastasia and Cale Olson join Ashley Faatoalia (Marco Polo) and Cedric Berry (a wheel chair-using Kublai Khan) as they all wander around inside the station and outside in the courtyards, singing the word “Marco” into the sky.
People watch them curiously. Berry, as Khan, wheels by a group of college-age students. He’s singing into his mic. Everyone in his vicinity hears a subtle, soft murmur. One guy imitates Berry, pretending to be an opera star, singing at a high pitch, hands swinging in the air and mouth stretched wide open. His circle of friends chuckle. They have no idea what’s going on. Maybe they think Berry is a weary traveler or a strange LA local. They aren’t aware that there are many other singers meandering around other parts of Union Station singing the same word.
“Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan that every city he’s ever visited is basically just a representation of his hometown of Venice,” says Sharon, who was recently selected as one of the three finalists for Center Theatre Group’s 2014 Richard E. Sherwood Award. “In that scene [“Venice”], Marco is being called by the chorus as if it’s this nostalgic call from his hometown. Chris wrote those voices in this beautiful cascade. That entire scene is built like a cascade of sound. Everyone will hear it perfectly in their headphones, but if they’re in the station, they’ll hear these beautiful, perfectly sung almost-like bells scattered through the space.”
It’s not a call and response, though. Sharon admits he’s waiting for someone to yell out “Polo!” He says he’s sure it will happen, and “when it does, it’ll be a big challenge for the singers not to break character.”
People busting out into dance and yelling out ad-libs are just two of the challenges of this production. Christopher Cerrone, who composed and adapted Invisible Cities, points out more of the show’s specific musical challenges.
“In any other opera, the conductor and singer have some ability to make eye contact,” he says. “By far, this is the biggest challenge for the singers. They have to memorize [the lyrics], sing [them] really well, without looking at a conductor while acting. Kublai Khan’s wheel chair causes interference. I don’t know if anyone knew how challenging this would be.”
These obstacles are part of the experimental territory that Invisible Cities inhabits.
“The everyday life of the station is part of the performance, even the maintenance that has to happen at Union Station,” says Sharon, who begins to recount how at the third rehearsal, on October 8, the artists showed up to find part of the seating area roped off where the performance occurs.
“So we adjust. And people can wonder whether that’s an intentional artistic choice or the life of the station. The sights, sounds, smells and lighting are all part of the performance. Depending on the moon and how bright the sky is, it’s beautiful to have that impact. We’ve had three different rehearsal days [so far] with different weather and atmosphere, and it changes the energy in a fundamental way, which is quite beautiful.”
For the first rehearsal, Sharon says, the cast was “relatively self-conscious about doing the opera there, constantly watching how people were reacting. Is this something that feels like it belongs to the space?” But by the third rehearsal, “we felt we are all connected to each other across this big space. Union Station is an amazing town square. It’s a broad spectrum of who arrives at the station. In and among that layer is this performance, and it’s a performance that belongs in a public space, in a space that is fundamentally about travel, and is a place to meditate on the past and also contemplate the future. It feels really aligned with the space in so many ways.”
This third rehearsal is also when the L.A. Dance Project entered Union Station. LA-based Danielle Agami is responsible for the new site-specific choreography for Invisible Cities.
“Danielle and I are working very closely to create a map of the performance,” says Sharon. “Where are there really fantastic moments for these worlds to collide? Danielle has a great knack for movement that feels like it’s extraordinary, but you can see it’s rooted in the post-modern tradition of investigating pedestrian movement. The dancers seem to disrupt the space far less than the singers. The dancers seem to really seamlessly fit into the world of the station, which is a total delight to watch.”
The dancers, like the singers, also receive a ton of strange glances from bystanders. With the dancers in the space, there is a new energy that dancers bring, a can’t-sit-still, jumping, stretching, hugging, touching energy, which is different from the more reserved behavior of the operatic singers. The dancers also make more of a spectacle of themselves.
At the fourth rehearsal, Sharon is going over a few scenes with the dancers in the front part of Union Station. In solos, duets and trios, the dancers use their entire bodies to enact the emotions and behaviors of travelers. Two men and a woman pull frantically at each other. One woman sits on top of a man’s shoulders, legs dangling on his chest, as he walks briskly. In another moment, every L.A. Dance Company member holds a piece of luggage as they swirl in circles around Marco Polo while he drifts forward, as if in a trance. The dancers stop and start.
It’s hard to know how these sections connect yet, or if they’re in chronological order. Although the work is highly choreographic, at times it seems the performers just fly into fits of movement. They contort, squirm and kick, then hurry along, only to stop and break out into more jarring movement. Their mannerisms are so chaotic that a man running to catch his train might be mistaken for an Invisible Cities cast member.
No person can pass by without stopping and staring. Most people are amused. Not one person looks annoyed or frustrated that their path is being blocked. And then, in one rush of bodies, several of the singers and the majority of the dance company head into what used to be the ticket lobby, where a sign at the entrance now reads, “This area is not open to the public.” People now have to peer in through the entrance-way to see what’s going on, and a small crowd gathers with some of them standing on their toes to see over each other.
The dancers line up on the narrow ledge of the ticket-selling counter and all execute the same choreography, much like a synchronized swimming routine. Without costumes, it’s a beautiful sight set against the huge, arching windows in the background. (Union station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and was designated as a Los Angeles Historic–Cultural Monument in 1972.)
For anybody who wants to make the connection between Invisible Cities and flash mobs, Sharon says his opera takes the concept of a brief occupation of a space to the next level.
“What we’re doing is so much more expansive because it’s a 70-minute-long performance … that actually invites the audience into a deeper sense of the environment,” he says. “Most importantly, into their own imagination and into their own relationship of what they see and hear. Because for every single spectator, that is going to be radically different, including the ones without headphones.”
Invisible Cities, Union Station, 800 N. Alameda Ave., Los Angeles. Opens Saturday, 7 pm. Then two performances nightly, October 24, 26, 29, 31 and November 5 and 8, at 7:30 pm and 10 pm. Through Nov. 8. Tickets: $25-$75. invisiblecitiesopera.com. 866-811-4111.