…often the most unexpected collaborations result in the most intriguing artistic offerings. This is most certainly true of the partnership between BraveSoul Movement and Chicago Fringe Opera…
We thought building and maintaining an audience for dance was difficult, but it seems to be just as challenging for those in the art of opera. The two art forms face many of the same challenges when it comes to gathering the public for performances. In dance, the abstract language of movement can be intimidating to digest; in opera, a libretto in a foreign language may not be understood by everyone in the audience. In either disciplines, the concept or story line can feel outdated or unrelatable (in dance, this can be especially true of classic romantic era ballets or historic pieces of modern dance, but contemporary works can feel just as distant). There are also instances where ticket prices can be the deciding factor for individual or group attendance, not to mention the countless other food and entertainment options that can pull dollars away from the arts.
So how do we begin to entice and invite more people into the theater? We typically find the best way is to join forces, and often the most unexpected collaborations result in the most intriguing artistic offerings. This is most certainly true of the partnership between BraveSoul Movement and Chicago Fringe Opera in their production of The Rosina Project – a modern re-imagining and interpretation of the classic Italian opera, The Barber of Seville. Originally developed in the 2018 Pivot Arts Incubator Program at Loyola University, The Rosina Project takes a contemporary spin on the original opera by taking Rosina, a supporting character classically portrayed as a damsel in distress, and flipping her role into the empowered central character. Chicago Fringe Opera Artistic Director and project mastermind George Cederquist also found many parallels between the opera’s original, diverse urban setting in Spain and that of his native Chicago, which both face the challenges of a crowded metropolis in their respective time periods. Oh, and did we mention that tickets are only $15?
The Rosina Project premieres as part of the 2019 Pivot Arts Festival, and DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera caught up with BraveSoul Movement Co-Founder Kelsa Robinson and Chicago Fringe Opera Artistic Director George Cederquist to get an in depth look at how the two companies worked together to translate a classic Italian opera through the lens of Hip-Hop culture to create The Rosina Project. Here’s what they told us:
When George saw the power of the community and the way the main event (the jam) disrupts the whole notion of the audience as a spectator, it affirmed (even more) his vision for this project.
Kristi Licera: The Rosina Project is the brainchild of Chicago Fringe Opera Artistic Director George Cederquist. This collaboration between Chicago Fringe Opera and BraveSoul Movement puts an urban spin on Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, which premiered in Rome just over 200 years ago. One of George’s artistic missions is to bring the art of opera to a wider, more diverse modern audience; using the Hip-Hop and urban movement expertise of BraveSoul Movement seemed like the perfect partnership to achieve this. Can you tell us how the themes of Rossini’s classic opera relate to the challenges of modern society? How did you use hip-hop vernacular to transport The Barber of Seville into a more relatable context for contemporary urban audiences?
Kelsa Robinson: George is the best one to answer this, but here are a few of my own thoughts to get started. In terms of the original opera, we are clearly removed by distance and time. However, Seville was an urban space in the late 1700’s with great diversity. So, there are some similarities to Chicago in that way.
I’d also add that many others (in the collaboration) are bringing in the Hip-Hop expertise, not just BraveSoul Movement. Really, the entire cast is doing this! I think that’s one of the real successes of the project – who George has been able to bring into the fold. Everyone is skilled and experienced in Hip-Hop vernacular and culture. In terms of BraveSoul, one of the things that seemed important in the process of envisioning this was when George attended the B-Series a hip-hop/street dance festival that BRAVEMONK and I curate at Columbia College. When George saw the power of the community and the way the main event (the jam) disrupts the whole notion of the audience as a spectator, it affirmed (even more) his vision for this project. It confirmed that Hip-Hop was the perfect vehicle to deliver an opera that breaks the fourth wall and gets the audience dancing right along with the performers.
It seemed to me that there was a lot in common between Rossini’s music and that of hip-hop, EDM and other contemporary pop genres.
George Cederquist: The Rosina Project really started with the music, not the story. In the summer of 2014, I was directing at an opera festival and had a lot of spare time on my hands; in that time, I was dreaming up new projects. I wasn’t directing The Barber of Seville that summer, but I kept on hearing Figaro’s famous aria “Largo al factotum” (when he sings “Fiiiiii-ga-ro!”) in my head. To me, it sounded like a hype man working the crowd. The more I listened to the opera and to Rossini’s music, the more I noticed Rossini’s use of harmonic rhythm: the rate at which chord changes and harmonic progressions create a sense of forward movement and increasing intensity. It seemed to me that there was a lot in common between Rossini’s music and that of hip-hop, EDM and other contemporary pop genres.
I wondered if there would be a way to have hip-hop MCs rewrite Rossini’s libretto in their own words, to beats and tracks that sampled Rossini’s harmonic rhythms and catchy melodies.
George: The other thing Rossini does in his work is play with rapid fire text and delivery. Again, I saw parallels in the ways that Rossini’s characters and hip-hop MCs spoke: eloquent, articulate, verbal and lightning quick. I wondered if there would be a way to have hip-hop MCs rewrite Rossini’s libretto in their own words, to beats and tracks that sampled Rossini’s harmonic rhythms and catchy melodies. Our lead writer, Mikey to the P, who is a brilliant MC in his own right, has successfully crafted dialogue that communicates Rossini’s story within the brilliance that is rap. One of our main collaborators, K. F. Jacques, is a classically trained operatic baritone who is also a virtuosic MC and hip-hop producer/composer. He plays Figaro, and his integration of both Hip-Hop and opera, their movement, music and culture, is like nothing you’ve ever seen. So, ALL the Project’s artists, including BraveSoul, bring Hip-Hop expertise to the production.
A change we’ve made with the piece since the workshop at the Pivot Arts Incubator last year is focusing the story on Rosina. The opera really has Figaro and Almaviva (the man who is in love with Rosina) as the central characters. It seemed that the moment we’re living in right now demanded something different – a female-driven narrative with a strong woman at the center of the story. Pinqy Ring, the MC who plays Rosina, is an absolute wonder, and it seemed only fitting to continue to build the show around her and her talent for writing and performing.
Kristi: The Rosina Project features original music created by some of Chicago’s recognized and accomplished DJs and beat makers, as well as fresh choreography from BraveSoul Movement. Can you tell us more about the process of updating this classic score and its traditional staging to represent the themes mentioned above? How did the nature of choreography and plot influence the creation of the score?
Kelsa: It’s been an interesting process. We’ve sort of been figuring it out as we go. We learned a lot from doing the pilot run of the show last year. One of the shifts we made in the process this year was to start much earlier with the music and writing, and then have the dancers start out by holding some rehearsals separate from the cast before bringing all of the bodies into the space together. However, it has still been a highly collaborative process between everyone involved.
True hip-hop dancers have strong individuality… because one of the dominant values in Hip-Hop is originality; community is another, and the two work in tandem.
Kelsa: On the dance side, I’m technically the choreographer, but I prefer to say I provide “choreographic direction” because all of the dancers are contributing to the choreography. I prefer to work in this way, especially with a group of dancers who are all so virtuosic in their own styles of movement. True hip-hop dancers have strong individuality (it’s true for all hip-hop artists actually: emcees, graph writers, deejays, etc.), because one of the dominant values in Hip-Hop is originality; community is another, and the two work in tandem. The artists grow within a cypher format – a circle where individuals take solo rounds, challenging one-another to grow and build their skills and individuality. It’s whack to bite (copy) someone else’s style or moves. If you do a move (or rap with the exact same cadence) that you saw (or heard) someone else do, you have to flip it and make it your own. So, in working with a group of amazing dancers who all have their own unique styles and flavor, I’m not going to give them a bunch of moves to copy and make them all look the same. In order to bring the best of what they do to the stage and keep them who they are as artists, they are heavily involved in building the vocabulary and other aspects of the choreography for the show. In general, artists who are trained in the hip-hop community tend to work this way. It tends to be a group effort, and this really speaks to the value of community.
George and I on are talking to each other and sharing ideas, along with the entire cast. Everyone is building this thing together: the dancers, music producers, writers, emcees, deejay, beat boxer, etc!
Kelsa: In addition to collaborating within each discipline involved in the show, we are also collaborating across the elements. George and I on are talking to each other and sharing ideas, along with the entire cast. Everyone is building this thing together: the dancers, music producers, writers, emcees, deejay, beat boxer, etc! We have all been taking influence from one another and sharing ideas. The producers have taken influence from the choreographers and dancers to create tracks that work for the specific dance styles that connect to Hip-Hop culture. It’s not straightforward. Different sounds call for different kinds of music. And the writers, producers, emcees, deejay and beatboxer have all had ideas for the choreography.
Here’s a great example: One of the writers, Mike Parish (Mikey to the P), had an idea for a dance-based number in the show involving an elaborate chase scene with all the cast members. He envisioned this section to be rooted heavily in a form of dance known as popping. He then took that idea to one of the music producers, ‘Kechi, to lay down a track for it. ‘Kechi sent me his first draft of the song, and then I gave him some ideas to build into the track. For example, it needed to have a stronger clap (snare) sound, which is one of the main driving sounds in the music that practitioners of popping dance to. You could put any kind of movement with any kind of sound, especially in a production as innovative as The Rosina Project. However, we are also really driving for authenticity around Hip-Hop culture. And so that’s part of why we are all working so tightly together; to ensure that The Rosina Project really is rooted in the values and languages of Hip-Hop culture.
After ‘Kechi sent the second draft of the song, he and BRAVEMONK got together and fine-tuned the track in a production session, where they brought their ears and expertise together to create a sound that works exceptionally well in supporting the dance elements and the plot. Now I am working with all of the extraordinary cast members to bring this section to life in real time on the stage. In our first rehearsal to build this section, we had the whole cast plus DJ Oliver Fade in the room. As we were building the structure for the movement, he was coming up with ideas on how he could enhance the scene by embellishing the sonic score with live deejay elements.
Authenticity – that is, truth – is at the center of what good acting is, and it’s at the center of Hip-Hop culture.
George: I saw BraveSoul Movement perform at Millennium Park at Chicago SummerDance in 2017. The Project was still kicking about in my head at that time but hadn’t taken off. I was about to give up. When I saw BraveSoul Movement’s dancers perform, I knew that they were the perfect collaborators. Kelsa, BRAVEMONK and their colleagues have brought such knowledge, such authenticity and such virtuosity to the Project. Authenticity. Virtuosity. Those are the two guideposts of our collaboration together. In putting the cast together last year, I had to make a choice between finding actors to play MCs, or finding MCs and teaching them to act. And I knew it had to be the latter. Authenticity – that is, truth – is at the center of what good acting is, and it’s at the center of Hip-Hop culture. As Kelsa mentioned, no one wants to copy or be copied. You want the unique truth of each artist to come through in performance.
The piece stays true to Rossini’s opera in both form and content. The form of most 19th century opera is divided between arias (songs) and recitative (sung dialogue). We’ve retained that structure, with the MCs performing both fully produced tracks, and then talking in rhythm and rhyme as beatboxer Yuri Lane lays down an intricate beat. The content of Rossini’s opera is found in the many samples that K. F. Jacques and ‘Kechi, our producers, took from old recordings of the opera and worked into their tracks.
While the Project successfully integrates two distinct art forms, it’s even more important to me how successfully it brings together a diverse group of artists and audience members: diverse in race, yes, but also in economics, age and physical ability. And I think that what our audiences and artists have found is that there are actually many similarities between opera and Hip-Hop to be discovered and celebrated.
Chicago Fringe Opera and BraveSoul Movement present The Rosina Project: May 31 at 7:30 p.m., June 1 at 8 p.m. and June 2 at 7:30 p.m. Performances take place at Alternatives (4730 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago 60640). Tickets are available at www.brownpapertickets.com.
The world premiere of The Rosina Project is part of the 2019 Pivot Arts Festival. To see the full line-up, visit pivotarts.org.