Stravinsky and the Saci: New Music and Modern Dance

by Brendan Howe

The music from Stravinsky’s theatrical work The Soldier’s Tale is reimagined with a 21st century libretto by dramatist Doug Thorpe in The Greater Trumps, a contemporary tale of good and evil. The piece shares the same septet orchestration as a new jazz commission by Latin Grammy-nominated Jovino Santos Neto titled The Saci after a mischievous, one-legged prankster in Brazilian folklore.

The two works flow together seamlessly in this weekend’s debut production from The Universal Language Project (ULP) and Karin Stevens Dance (KSD): The Saci & The Greater Trumps. It’s the first of what the they are confident will be many more multimedia productions together.

“We talked with several other dance companies before Karin [Stevens] and I met at a Community Advisory Board meeting for Second Inversion,” says Brian Chin, Director of ULP. Stevens had likewise been looking for a new music partner for KSD. It was a match made in a conference room.

The production is unified around the general narrative arc of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, in which a soldier trades his violin to the devil in exchange for massive wealth and then learns a classic thing or two about the relationship between money and happiness. That said, Brian and Karin both felt that an update to the story was in order.

“While [Stravinsky’s] music is timeless, the story is antiquated—there’s a princess who gets traded like a goat, and the tale is viewed through a faux-Faustian lens,” Brian says. To remedy this and other outdated concepts, his colleague at Seattle Pacific University, Doug Thorpe, wrote a libretto with more relevant themes.

“It follows the same narrative line of the original, but updates it, shifts genders [to a female protagonist], and adds some new elements inspired in part by the novel of Charles Williams, The Greater Trumps,” Doug explains.

Brian was particularly keen to produce The Saci & The Greater Trumps now, as he sees many parallels between the problems facing art and artists during WWI—when Stravinsky completed The Soldier’s Tale—and now, a century later. Stravinsky was somewhat ironically inspired by the difficulties of making dramatic art in a time of financial crisis, as are many artists today.

“Once again, we’re living through a time in which artists everywhere are saying, ‘now what?’” Brian says.

He has rather artfully pulled the production together with a minimal budget and sheer resourcefulness. Good relationships with musicians and Cornish, where the performance will take place, came through and revealed considerable generosity and solidarity within the Seattle arts community.

“We put 90 percent of our funding towards creating art,” a proportion, Brian says, that larger organizations with more fundraising power are not able to achieve. “Cornish has generously opened its mainstage to us. We’re also able to pay the dancers and musicians much closer to a pro wage than we were before, thanks to sponsorship from 4Culture and the St. Paul’s Arts Commission.”

Karin and Brian plan on engaging further with the community with a “Moving Conversation” (a sort of next-level meet-and-greet) and refreshments at St. Paul’s Cathedral following the December 2 matinee performance. Karin calls it an opportunity “to commune, collaborate, and converse with our audience through movement!”

The Saci & The Greater Trumps will be performed at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center on Friday, December 1 at 8pm and Saturday, December 2 at 2:30pm. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

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