Chong and Bagby revive collection of Viking tales in ''Edda''

BY LAURA DENEAU
Daily Arts Writer
Published April 16, 2001

"Rhinegold" is an ancient Icelandic tale from a collection of poems called the "Edda." The story it tells is one of greed, about the effect a treasury of dwarf gold (made from the magical riches of the earth) has on ancient Germanic society after the jealous and greedy gods steal and corrupt it. It is also the basis of Ping Chong and Benjamin Bagby"s world premier of "Edda: Viking Tales of Revenge, Lust and Family Values," which premieres at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre April 25-26 at 8 p.m.

Paul Wong
Benjamin Bagby and Ping Chong are definitely on another level.<br><br>Courtesy of UMS

"The production has a feeling of sitting around a campfire and hearing this strange story in the night," said Chong, the show"s visual director.

"Edda," one of the greatest sources of Northern Europe"s early tribal history, tells the stories of real and imaginary people, gods, families and their constant feuds. Bards recited and sang the Eddic poems, accompanied by instruments, through the Middle Ages.

Chong and Bagby have revived the poems for modern audiences as one dramatic story orated and performed by six singers and three actors, sung in Icelandic and spoken in English, with the dwarf cursed gold at its center. Despite conceptions of the Germanic fold tradition, the show has a contemporary look. In other words, the characters will not be wearing horned hats.

"The performers are all on moving platforms that look like the horizontal escalators you see at airports," Chong said. "Most of the story tellers are wearing black rubber, and one character, a shaman, is completely painted blue."

The story continues from the god"s hands, the cursed gold falls into Fafnir, the dragon"s possession, and becomes the ambition of Sigurd, a mythic hero with a supernatural horse and a magical sword, (forged by a dwarf) who slays the dragon dead.

From the dragon"s blood, Sigurd draws magical powers, and yet, carrying the cursed gold from its den, he finds nothing but trouble. After marrying Brynhild, a magical girl, Sigurd is surrounded by horrible family jealousies, which end in his murder.

Chong mentioned that the Germanic people of the time were unusually violent, but he finds a strong relevance between these stories and the modern world. "They"re very bloodthirsty and violent, but it"s out in the open. Today we live behind sweet words like democracy to hide that same violence," he said. He cited the fact that more people have been killed in this century of progress than in any other.

Because there are no surviving musical manuscripts from the time of the Eddic poems, Bagby"s job as musical ensemble director has been difficult.

By studying Icelandic traditional music as well as music from the Faroe Islands, Bagby has reconstructed a repertoire of musical modal gestures, which the musical group Sequentia will perform.

"It"s like reconstructing a language based on a few surviving dialects of a modern language, but one can trace many musical gestures back to their origins and make very plausible performance schemes," Bagby said in a press release.

Bagby is also the director of Sequentia, a group based in Cologne, Germany that specializes in medieval music and has been performing for over 20 years across the globe, winning numerous awards including a Grammy nomination. The first vocalist at the Oberlin Conservatory to earn a degree in early music, Bagby later received an honorary degree in medieval musical performance from the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland, where Sequentia was formed in 1977.

Chong, known for his stunning visual direction, has always been interested in cultural material spanning historical and mythological content as well as social and political themes. In his more than 30 major theatrical works, Chong has used the American experimental theater to synthesize other art forms such as film, dance, music and fine art.

As a student Chong studied film at the School of Visual Arts and Pratt Institute, and his major influences are found in film. Though he considered himself not aggressive enough to enter the film industry, performance and dance came naturally to Chong. His career in theater began with his work in Meredith Monk"s "The House of Foundation," and was greatly affected by the fact that his parents and grandparents were also involved in theater, as directors and performers of Cantonese Opera in Southern Asia during the 1930s.

Tickets for "Edda" cost $40 and $25 Student Rush Tickets for $10 may be purchased at the Power Center Box Office on Wednesday, April 25 and Thursday, April 26 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There will be a post-performance dialogue with the artists from the stage Thursday, April 26. Subsequent performances of "Edda" will be held at the Lincoln Center Festival 2001 in July.