By Bruce Walsh
Antigone brings Indiana University dance and theater faculty together in search of a one-of-a-kind theatrical language.
Outfitted in workout clothes and kneepads, MFA acting students Ashley Dillard and Justino Brokaw perform perhaps the most iconic scene from Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. It’s eight days before opening night, and the performances are starting to find precision and rhythm. Antigone pleads for her life with Creon, the king of Thebes, but still can’t bring herself to compromise her ideals.
But as Creon begins to weave the epic tale of the battle for control of the city, a throbbing drumbeat cascades through the room. Director Katie Horwitz sets down her notebook and stomps her foot with the beat. The reason for the workout clothes and kneepads becomes abundantly clear, as the entire cast streams onto the stage. The theater erupts in a stylized battle. Fight choreographer Adam McLean stands in for an actor at the center action, wielding a shield over his head, and moving in lockstep with the group.
For McLean – an Assistant Professor in the Theatre Department – this sequence represents the most dance-heavy fight choreography he has ever created at Indiana University. IU Contemporary Dance and IU Theatre officially merged two years ago, providing new opportunities for collaboration between dance and theater faculty. McLean worked closely on this sequence with the Director of Contemporary Dance at IU, Elizabeth Shea.
“We sat down and talked about this section of the play quite a bit. Katie [Horwitz] was interested in bringing the battle to life, rather than Creon just describing it,” explains McLean. “I immediately felt that realistic stage combat didn’t feel right for the world. This play exits in a deeper layer than that. So the fight choreography moved into a more abstract place, which brought it closer to the world of contemporary dance. This couldn’t have been created without her in the room.”
When director Katie Horwitz initially read Anouilh’s 1943 version of Antigone, she instinctively imagined drumbeats under the monologues. As she continued to read the play in preparation for production, music became more and more infused with her vision.
“I actually started to play music when I read the play,” explains Horwitz. “And these visions of movement and dance began to evolve and take on a life of their own.”
Soon Shea was designing choreography for her first IU mainstage theatre production.
“I knew we had to create our own movement language for this show,” says Shea. “This isn’t musical theater, where there’s an established craft and vocabulary and way of working with performers. Modern dance by definition is very fluid and open. Unless we’re working in a codified technique, we’re always creating a somewhat new movement vocabulary. That can provide a piece like this a one-of-a-kind feel.”