June 4–23, 2024

Hilma at the Wilma  

June 10, 2024
The Dance Journal

Lewis J Whittington

Photo credit: Johanna Austin

The Wilma Theater closes their current season with the premiere of ‘Hilma’ a new opera composed by Robert M. Johanson, libretto by playwright Kate Scelsa and with choreography by Lisa Fagan. The opera is ostensibly early 20th century Swedish lesbian artist and mystic Hilma af Klint, who kept her surreal artwork from public view for over two decades because it was too futuristic.

Arias & Dance

 “Dance can be the least comfortable space in opera, with performers who are both acting and singing and that’s what make it challenging.” Fagan explained, in an interview at the Wilma Theater, during a rehearsal break in May. Fagan started working with the singers on movement for the opera previous the rehearsal sessions but acknowledged that “Once you get in the theater, of course, everything changes.

” to make interesting movement while the singers have to do other things, knowing that I won’t in any way compromise their operatic breathing. I try to make them feel relaxed with moving in their own space, then activate the body. I’m not interested in -5-6-7-8-go- choreography. That’s why Morgan Green brought me into this because she is very familiar with my work.”  The cast- Sarah Gliko, J Molière, Brett Ashley Robinson, Evan Spigelman, and Kristen Sieh (who portrays Hilma) are all singer-actors with no professional dance background.

From the start, Fagan and the rest of the artistic team wanted to evoke Hilma’s life and work in an unconventional framework. Johanson’s score is a progressive mix or oratorio, jazz, ambient genres performed onstage by live orchestra. And fortunately, in contemporary opera, dance is no longer applied as merely a divertissement, but instead an integral storytelling component of a production.

In Act I the singers portraying Hilma and people in her era. The second act, Fagan said, is “more abstract, the music more orchestral and is choreographed from start to finish.”  The final act a “Meta-theatrical moments in the present day,” Fagan explained, the singers observing Hilma’s singular life and artistic legacy.

An operatic tryptic

Hilma af Klint was born into a wealthy Swedish family and she had conventional art training at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, graduating with honors. From there she lived a very unconventional life. Her futuristic, prismatic works predating the so called ‘cubist’ era and 20th century modernist artform  of abstract expressionism associated with art legends Picasso, Kandinsky, and others.

Hilma also headed a group of women theosophists known as The Five, who participated in seances and rituals, allegedly to channel so called ‘automatic’ drawing and painting. Even though the artist’s life and work is the source material for the opera, Fagan explains, the opera is not a linear narrative.

The choreography does is not reflective of Hilma’s artwork. “that’s not the world we are operating and I’m not interested or capable of transposing Hilma’s ideas. They are amazing and hers alone… and there is no reason to repeat them in this opera. In order to honor her work, it’s my job to come up with different ideas.”

So visionary and radical that she viewed her own work as too advanced in her time and when she died in 1944. The artist stipulated in her will that her painting could not be made public for 20 years. Since then, there have been major exhibits of Hilma’s artworks in Europe and in 2018, the Guggenheim in New York staged a major retrospective of her work, which attracted 600,000 visitors.

Librettist Kate Scelsa was so inspired by the art and af Klint’s notebooks that chronicled the artist’s life as a mystic, that she wanted to write about it.

Dance Homecoming

It is the first time Fagan is collaborating with Wilma and she is thrilled to be back in her hometown. “It’s been a lot of fun being back, I grew up here, my parents were professional dancers. I was a baby dancer at Rock School. Summer programs at Uarts. She went on to study dance at Bard College and Stanford University. Fagan is now a New Yorker, still performs, choreographs and is director of CHILD the 14-member experimental performance collective.

  “Even though my work is departed from capital D-dance. It’s complex and athletic in many ways. “I think of ballet as an insane thing. It’s how I came to understand my body. I still go to ballet class for some maintenance.” “It’s clean and clear. You are either doing it right or doing it wrong.as an artist “I love the discipline and intensity of ballet. It taught me rigor and that’s how to approach experimental art making. I go back to ballet now as a meditation.”

 Even though ballet disciplines are not usually employed in her dancemaking, she said a trained eye will see markers in her choreography. “I do like technique, but in many forms. And if there aren’t any technical work applied, audiences know and they can get bored quickly.”

In the dance moment

Fagan stood behind what looks like a cross between a giant telescopic lens and a trippy design from a 60s Bond film. The choreographer is obscured by a veil of gold beads. She moves her arms and body in and around to the pulse of a rhythmic chant- The Universe regards itself- is  sung by the cast. After their vocal rehearsal, they join Fagan to work on the sequence . she had just formulated and there was laughter, and that rigor Fagan noted, that these singer-actor-and novice dancers had nerve enough, Fagan noted earlier “to try anything.”

And the Tony goes (finally) to…..

In late May the artistic team and cast of Hilma were in the final weeks of rehearsals for the premiere, it was announced that the Wilma Theater is the recipient of the 2024 Regional Theatre Tony Award, for its ‘continuous level of artistic achievement.’  The recognition is long overdue. For 45 years, The Wilma has presenting innovative theater from re-imaging classics to nurturing new voices in the theater. From the start dance and physical theater, was part of their visionary mission, championed by co-founder and longtime artistic director Blanka Zizka.

Hilma runs June 7-23 
The Wilma Theater, Philadelphia PA