A Song and Dance Collaboration, Straight Outta Swamplandia
The Night Falls is a tourist trap in Florida, a beautiful grotto turned into a roadside attraction where three sisters sing in kitschy bird outfits. And then they drown and become actual birds, monstrous ones, whose seductive song, like that of the sirens in Greek myth, draws people to their doom.
Mingling comedy and horror while leaning into the seedy sublime of Florida, this scenario sounds like a story by Karen Russell, the author of “Swamplandia!” and “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” And it is a story by Karen Russell, created for a new dance-driven musical theater production, “The Night Falls,” which has its premiere on Feb. 9 at Peak Performances in Montclair, N.J.
Choreographers don’t often work with writers of fiction. But Troy Schumacher, who is also a soloist with New York City Ballet, founded the artists’ group BalletCollective in 2010 on a principle of collaboration across disciplines. He has teamed up with painters and poets and, more conventionally, composers — many times with Ellis Ludwig-Leone, also known for his indie-rock band, San Fermin.
In 2017, Schumacher wanted to create a narrative dance — not the usual update of a classic ballet or adaptation of a familiar movie or book, but “a new story about people living today,” he said. He and Ludwig-Leone decided they needed a writer, one who could invest a present-day tale with some dance-conducive fantasy. They reached out to Russell.
Team Night Falls: from left, Russell, Schumacher and Ludwig-Leone.Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times
The idea appealed to her. “I expected to write a scenario and sort of hand it over in a baton pass,” she said. What developed instead was, as Schumacher said — and Russell and Ludwig-Leone agreed — “a once-in-a-lifetime collaborative process.”
“We built it together from the ground up,” Russell said. “We made a world.”
The first task for Russell was to come up with a story idea suited to dance and music. Sirens fit the bill. “I had been thinking a lot about what you hear referred to as this epidemic of anxiety or despair, and the amplification systems we have now,” she said. “What if there were a sonic contagion?”
Naturally, for her, the setting had to be a (fictional) abandoned park in Florida, where she was born. (She now lives in Portland, Ore.) “I grew up going to all these places, like the Weeki Wachee mermaids,” she said. “And I thought it would be a playful way to take people’s suffering seriously without feeling so serious.”
Together, the three collaborators developed a story. Felisberto, a teenager in Queens whose boyfriend has just died, is haunted by the sirens in his nightmares. A television commercial for the Night Falls lures him to Florida, where he meets others under the spell: an Orpheus-like piano teacher, a Demeter-like mother who has lost her daughter to addiction, a burned-out tennis star, an acrobat, a python hunter. These sufferers tell one another their stories and form a community to resist the siren song of despair.
Along with the story, the team settled on a concept for casting and staging: The sufferers would each be split into two, a dancing body and a singing spirit. The dancers vary widely in age and background, merging in a contemporary ballet-in-sneakers style. Some of the singers come from opera, some from theater, some from Ludwig-Leone’s band, and the music both draws on and dissolves those differences.
The stage is two-tiered, with the singers above the dancers, gently mirroring them “like balloons on 30-foot strings,” Schumacher said. Ludwig-Leone and Russell wrote the lyrics together. In addition to choreographing, Schumacher directs.
Speaking about their collaboration, each one stressed the strengths of the others and their mediums. Schumacher, from the start, was conscious of how “dance is notoriously bad at conveying specific details,” he said. That’s why he wanted a writer. (Even during the interview, he reacted to Russell’s comments with sighs of admiring pleasure.)
Russell, who felt like “an awkward scarecrow” watching the dance rehearsals, said she was excited by how dance could convey, more visually and viscerally than words, the seduction of despair, “that emptiness that pulls at your abdomen, that vertigo and longing to fall.”
Similarly, she said, “if I wrote in a story about the ‘leap of empathy’ required for strangers to become a community, it would be a cliché.” Whereas dance and music can dramatize the normally internal way that people connect with and imagine the stories that other people tell about themselves. In the production, as strangers sequentially tell their stories through gesture and song, the others respond with their own physicalized memories; the choreography and score show how they create a shared language of motions and musical motifs together.
At a recent rehearsal with the siren singers, Russell marveled at the rich, early-music sound. She contrasted it with the way that, in one of her stories, “The Gondoliers,” she had represented the music of three sisters who echolocate through song: “OoOoOoOo.” Some things, she said, music does better than prose.
But it was Ludwig-Leone who had brought up “The Gondoliers” to help explain to the singers the feeling he wanted, the shifts in tone he found in Russell’s writing. And he solicited Russell’s opinions about their delivery.
The whole work, Schumacher said, is full of instances of “cross-ownership”: lyrics by him, movement suggestions by Russell or Ludwig-Leone. Russell described a frequent (and continuing) experience opening up the Google Doc of the libretto and discovering her collaborators making adjustments.
While the three artists didn’t stick to their own lanes, they did have to figure out how not to get in one another’s way. “When I first started working with Troy,” Ludwig-Leone said, “the first thing I learned was to leave space for the dance.” Now, with the addition of text and plot, balance is even more important: “There are moments when the music needs to push everything forward, and moments when it needs to recede.”
For Russell, the lesson was to be simpler. “I’m so used to this kudzu sprawl of figurative language,” she said, “and simple can feel like ‘see spot run,’ but there are simple words like prime integers that carry so much meaning when sung.”
“Sometimes the lyrics are really specific and driving the action,” Schumacher said, “and sometimes they’re more abstract and the dance gets more specific and takes over.”
It was often Schumacher’s job to be the practical one, figuring out how Russell’s profusely metaphorical ideas might actually work onstage. (“I know, I’m sorry,” Russell said.)
Ludwig-Leone recalled writing music for the moment when Felisberto splits into a dancing self and a singing self. After Schumacher explained that the physical transformation would require more time, Ludwig-Leone had to write more music, “and now I find that moment much more musically satisfying,” he said.
“We’ve pushed each other to new places in our own mediums,” Russell said. For Schumacher, the push was toward narrative structure; he now writes librettos for all his ballets. Ludwig-Leone said that having to manage and meld all the different characters and tones had made him much more dexterous.
As for Russell, the process helped her approach “an earnestness that many writers become allergic to,” she said. She cited the ending of “The Night Falls,” when the singers and the dancers are reunited amid dawn light and birdsong, because storytelling and art have bridged difference and held despair at bay.
“It’s not a stable happy ending,” she said. “We’re always vulnerable to that siren song, but the music and the dance work together to deliver an earned sentiment of possibility.”
The three arrived at that ending together, through years of writing and workshopping, several of them during a pandemic that only heightened the pull of despair. “Everyone is vibrating with that now,” Russell said.
“It almost feels trite to say,” Ludwig-Leone said, “but it’s just true that the process of making this work has absolutely paralleled the process we’re trying to write about.” He noted how the collaboration had grown, folding in designers and dancers and singers, and how their artistic and social lives had merged, their friends and colleagues becoming friends and colleagues.
“Now I can’t imagine my life without Karen,” he added.
“Yeah,” Russell said. “Don’t imagine that.”