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A gorgeous hello-summer collaboration between Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks Performance Company.

In her introduction to Handel’s Bestiary, opera aficionado and mystery writer Donna Leon asks us to “subtract the motor.” Think, in other words, about a world in which there were no engines—on land, sea or air—to allow humans to rival the speed, power, or aerial skills of animals. That was Handel’s world—the 18th century—and also the world of ancient Greek and Roman writers like Aesop and Pliny the Elder, whom Leon cites to illustrate what animals meant to humans before the machine age.

For Dani Kuepper and Jill Anna Ponasik, the animals of Handel’s arias offer a chance to create something magical. Using Leon’s book as a guide, they have turned the Lynden Sculpture Garden into a charming musical zoo full of wit and poignancy. It’s an expansive collaboration between Danceworks Performance Company and Milwaukee Opera Theatre, with over 100 dancers, singers and musicians, and the best way to “capture” it is to mention some of the many highlights.

—“Lion”: Choreographer Kuepper transforms “Qual leo che fere irato” into a feline version of The Honeymooners, with Kim Johnson managing the cubs and household while the king of the beasts (Bobby Miles) naps. When he decides to play 52-pickup with the Goldfish crackers, well “pace e calma” (peace and tranquility) will have to wait.

Christal Wagner
Photo by Jeff Zmania

—Solo turns by DPC company members Christal Wagner (“Tiger”) and Gina Laurenzi (“Snake”) offered loose-limbed agility and canny character work. Wagner’s big cat is fierce and boastful (she wows her prey with a couple of showy barrel turns), but also full of lazy vanity. Laurenzi’s serpent is a sinewy force of vengeance, eager “to sink his venom into the blood of his enemy.”

Gina Laurenzi
Photo by Jeff Zmania

—The central spectacle of the evening—(“Phoenix”)—featured dozens of fire-red-clad dancers in the largest space of the garden, with Liz Licht donning a magnificent cape as she enacted the mythical bird’s rise from the ashes. As you might expect, she spent much of the dance aloft, thanks to sure partnering work by Miles, Desmond Cotton and Morgan Williams.

—“Stag” was Kuepper’s best work, featuring forest duels between competitors abstracted into beautiful duets. As with many of the dances, one of the joys here is watching the imaginative way Kuepper transforms the natural—the stride of a stag, lumber of an elephant, flicker of a moth—into evocative dance.

Nathan Wesselowski tames The Hive.
Photo by Jeff Zmania

—The music was exquisite. Conveying the meat and elegance of a full baroque orchestra with only a handful of players is no easy task, but the eight instrumentalists delivered uncompromising accompaniment. The vocal soloists—Kathy Pyeatt, Sarah Richardson, Nathan Wesselowski, Ruth Brown, Diane Lane, Cecilia Davis, Jackie Willis and Danielle Aldach–offered singing that was pure joy. They reveled in the glory of Handel’s swirling melismatic melodies, and often became part of the drama (Diane Lane fretted over the plague of frogs like a Real Housewife snarling about a gauche catering disaster). And who could not be moved by Bob Balderson’s “pop-up” version of “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Xerxes, turning it into a memorial to a fallen swarm of bees.

—As with the Danceworks/MOT 2015 production of Fairy Queen Fantasy, Handel’s Bestiary is more than a performance. A celebration of community and creativity, it’s a bold assertion of the power of imagination and beauty to bring people together. Like Handel’s Silver Dove, it aspires to a time when “we might rest/forever blest/with harmony and love.”

Handel’s Bestiary takes over Lynden once more—tonight (Saturday, June 17) at 7 pm.

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