How Do We Stage a World?
In a new choreographic reconfiguring of the operatic chorus, Sun & Sea by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė, represents an innovative staging of our current world.
Sun & Sea
September 15 – 26, 2021
A woman in a bathing suit lies on a lilac towel, her feet up on a beach ball printed like a globe. As her legs idly rock, the world underneath them turns and crunches in the sand.
This is Sun & Sea, something between opera and performance art, devised by the self-proclaimed “three-headed dragon” of Vaiva Grainytė (writer), Lina Lapelytė (composer), and Rugilė Barzdiukaitė (scenographer). Having won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, and performed across Europe, it comes to BAM to begin its first US tour.
In each iteration, the space is oriented the same. The audience enters on an upper balcony that surrounds a stage below, where we look down upon a beach. Sand coats the entire floor, stretching in every direction beneath us, as if our view is only a small slice of a larger expanse.
Upon it, people sunbathe, flick through books, cradle their smartphones, knit, apply sunscreen, teach each other mahjong. A man in pink shorts paces on the phone, perhaps taking a work call. Children play badminton over the sunbathers, have tantrums, and throw sand. Dogs pant, restless. A man stands up, scratches his back, and stretches his arms out wide, eyes closed, as if to bask in the warm sun.
Throughout, music plays, composed of gentle piano and synthesized organ, a kind of muted, operatic pop that varies in rhythm while maintaining an unwaveringly upbeat lightness and breeziness. Sometimes the whole chorus is singing, sometimes it’s just a solo. With the singers wearing hidden microphones, at no point does the change in who’s singing register at a visual level. All activity continues blindly, unfazed, as if, like in a film, the music was overlaid indifferent to the action. When a soloist starts, the audience members’ heads all turn as we collectively scan the beach to decipher who’s singing.
Among the overflow of quotidian activity, tiny details emerge. The uneaten sushi atop a Vietnam travel guide lies forgotten by the woman with designer jewelry. Her toes curl on her sun lounger as she sings proudly about how her son will swim in all the oceans of the world. Another sunbather, with a deep crispy tan and shimmery eyeliner—like a tourist from a Martin Parr photograph—melodically complains about a recent snowless winter. A third daydreams in a whistling soprano about jellyfish and plastic bags that dance together (“Oh the sea never had so much color!”). Everywhere the heat of a warming planet glimmers incessantly.
Up on the audience’s balcony, the air grows hot by the ceaselessly bright stage lights, while the humdrum below continues on, oblivious to the rising sea-levels or impending natural disasters the lyrics playfully gesture to. During the five-hour performance, where audience members arrive and leave at frequent intervals, the 60-minute score is looped seamlessly, simulating a never-ending sunny day. .
As we gaze from the balcony, the audience’s experience is no different to that of people-watching. This choreographic use of quotidian movement, the breadth and range of activities across the beach, their semi-improvised nature, and their seemingly haphazard arrangement, is what creates the appearance of a genuine crowd. Everyday gesture has found its way into dance since the Judson group and downtown New York minimalist dancers of the ’60s. Sun & Sea builds upon Yvonne Rainer’s remark that “dance is hard to see,” by blending the crowd’s quotidian actions so evenly across the wide sandy stage, that, unsure of where to take our attention, our gaze feels unanchored and dizzy.
But Sun & Sea’s choreography of its chorus draws upon much earlier historic precedents. In the classical Greek chorus, composed of both dancing and singing, regular citizens (young men of military age) were called upon to form the chorus not unlike how we participate in jury duty today. In this sense, the city saw itself directly represented onstage, embodied in the chorus members. In Sun & Sea, the 13 vocalists who tour with the production are accompanied on stage by a cohort of “extras” cast from the local community who comprise the rest of the beachgoers. With no visible distinction made between singer and extra (aside from the “hidden” microphones), Sun & Sea actively incorporates local people into its choreographic structure to stage a kind of mirror to its audience. A rusty green trash can is identical to the ones found on New York beaches. (The directors always inspect the neighboring coast before arriving at each new performance site.) Yet, as the Greek chorus responded to the pathos of the unfolding tragedy, Sun & Sea’s undeterred activities at the beach appear oblivious to impending meteorological doom.
This task reflecting society on stage was also taken up in the chorus choreography of classical and romantic opera. Canonical works such as Bizet’s Carmen, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, or Puccini’s La bohème, contain integral scenes orchestrated precisely to administer the feeling that an entire city is contained on stage. Both Sun & Sea and traditional opera stagings assemble a variety of bodies, ages, live animals, and children with the aim of conjuring a sprawling display of social strata—a reflection of the contemporary world. Just as on the classic opera stage, the chorus of Sun & Sea supply sounds of talking and laughter that overlay across the music to create a dense cacophony.
In the opening scene of Carmen, for instance, the intermingling of genders, races, and social classes (central to the opera’s plot) in Seville is brought to life by a chorus composed of various “types” (Romani people, soldiers, children, etc.) who are choreographed to interact together within a larger crowd, parading a miniature model for the diversity of public life. Contemporary and traditional stagings often achieve this choreographically using a healthy mix of quotidian movements that generate a sensation of frenetic and worldly crowdedness. Similarly, in Sun & Sea, the directors can manage this microcosm from the balcony, texting the performers (via their phones) to evenly disperse the bodies on stage or adjust their activities (swap card games for badminton), to maintain this delicate simulation of balanced chaos.
The difficulty faced by arranging crowds under a proscenium arch is that they underwhelm from eye level; our gaze can only fall on the bodies closest to us. Raked stages or sets containing multiple levels and balconies are frequently used in opera productions to allow choruses to be dispersed vertically—crucial for generating the impression of crowdedness. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 production of La Bohème, still in repertoire at the Met, arranges some 250 performers in the famous Café Momus street scene by splitting the street into two levels with a flight of steps in between. However, Sun & Sea’s rotated staging arrangement, so we now look down on the performers, satisfies this problem of crowd spectating unusually perfectly. Furthermore, rather than peering down on the tops of heads, the setting of the beach, with its sunbathing inhabitants, rotates the performers bodies upwards so we can access their faces and expressions. Sun & Sea moreover differs from typical opera construction in the foregrounding of the chorus activity. What are often small fleeting moments of quotidian choreography, deployed to create the backdrop in traditional opera, are now extended to comprise the entire performance.
If Sun & Sea follows its formal tradition of staging a kind of social world, the question follows: what kind of world is it? Though at first glance the beach buzzes with activity, over time the different figures slowly appear more separate. Alone on individual towels, like islands adrift in the sand, the sunbathers don’t look at each other so much as stare up at us. A young child slowly builds a little city of sandcastles. Arranged in neat little rows, each one is topped with a solitary shell.