Head to Ilium with Mosaic’s newest show, ‘Troy: Women & War’

Photo Courtesy of Gary Heller

MONTCLAIR, NJ — The Trojan War elicits images of flashing swords and shining helmets, blood spilt and warriors killed — but what of the women? Mosaic Dance Theater Co., which is based in Glen Ridge, will answer this question with its new show, “Troy: Women & War,” which will be performed at the First Congregational Church, 40 S. Fullerton Ave. in Montclair, on Saturday, May 21, at 5 p.m., and Sunday, May 22, at 3 p.m., with an artist talkback after each performance. The program is presented free of charge; reservations are strongly recommended and can be made online at https://tinyurl.com/yck3vh9s.

“As we are describing in our promotional material, it is the essence of the Trojan War. It is not ‘The Iliad’ and it is not ‘The Trojan Women,’ the tragedy by Euripides, though those pieces were the great inspiration and influence of the piece. We see the underlying root cause of the war, which was the judgment of Paris, and it takes us through the end where the women of the royal house of Troy are all carried away as prizes to the victorious generals of the Achaean army,” show creator and Director Morgiana Celeste Varricchio said in a May 13 phone interview. 

According to legend and detailed in Homer’s “The Iliad,” the Trojan War was a 10-year-long conflict in which Greek generals and their armies besieged the city of Troy. The root of the war lay in a contest between the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite; each was competing for a golden apple — thrown by Eris, the goddess of strife — inscribed with the word “kallistei,” or “to the fairest.” Ultimately, Prince Paris of Troy was asked to pick the fairest and, after weighing all three goddesses’ bribes, chose Aphrodite, who had promised him the most beautiful woman in the world. The problem? Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, was already married to King Menelaus. When Paris absconded with Helen, it kicked off 10 years of death and despair.

While women are integral to the start of the war, they sometimes seem overlooked in Homer’s “The Iliad,” which details the final month and a half of the war. Rectifying this, in 416 B.C.E., the great Greek dramatist Euripides premiered his poignant tragedy “The Trojan Women,” viewed as the first anti-war drama. The war is over; Greece has won. The men of Troy have all been slaughtered, and the Trojan women await their futures as slaves and concubines of the conquering Greeks.

According to Varricchio, the idea of a dance show focusing on the women of Troy spoke to her.

“Last summer, 2021, my brother was going to see a one-man show of ‘The Iliad,’ and both he and I have always been amateur students of the classics. I love Greco-Roman mythology and history and all of that,” Varricchio said. “It was time for me to start planning what Mosaic could do as we came out of the pandemic and I just was thinking, ‘The Trojan Women’ is such an exquisite tragedy, plus it’s women, and Mosaic is primarily women. So I’m always on the lookout and thinking of themes that focus on women that fall within Mosaic’s domain, if you will, which is the Mediterranean. And that is history and folklore, ancient, modern, and certainly this fits the bill.”

The audience can expect a polished and thoughtful piece. This isn’t Varricchio’s first foray into communicating Greco-Roman mythology through dance.

“A few years ago we did ‘Pandora’s Box,’ which is the retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words, and that was done like story theater, because the narrator was on stage as the action was progressing. But it was told through the words and a lot of dance, obviously. A long time ago I had a one-person show; it was called ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses’ and was based on many of the myths that Ovid described in his Latin poetry of the first century,” Varricchio said. “It’s always fun to portray the gods on stage, because they are just so larger than life.”

The themes of the “The Iliad” and “The Trojan Women” have certainly continued to captivate readers and audiences for millennia, and Varricchio believes it is because the story isn’t about people who died a long time ago; it is about the stories that continue to happen around the world today.

“When I started developing the storyline for our production, ‘Troy: Women and War,’ in the summer of 2021, the U.S. was planning the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the poetry of ‘The Iliad’ and Homer is 3,000 years old and perhaps the war is even older than that. And then, when we began rehearsal, Russia invaded Ukraine. It doesn’t matter how many millennia separate the wars, the history of the earth can be told through wars. And in the telling of these wars, we learn about the generals and the armies, but we never hear about the women,” Varricchio said. “The translation of ‘The Trojan Women’ by Edith Hamilton is the one that I guess speaks to me with the loudest voice. In her introduction to her translation, Edith Hamilton states that ‘The Trojan Women’ was the first anti-war play in history, and I don’t think you can put blinders on and say, ‘Ah, well, it’s part of ancient literature.’ It’s not. The timeliness of the message — it doesn’t matter what century it is — endures, and the message is that war creates horrible things, and the women left behind have stories that are never told.”

This was certainly the most compelling aspect of the show for choreographer Samara Adell, who told the newspaper that she is most passionate about the show’s message regarding “feminism in relation to violence and male power.”

“Women throughout time have suffered immensely, and to this day they are victims of brutal regimes,” Adell said. “Women always have to pick up the pieces of war or suffer the treacherous consequences of being left behind, becoming prisoners and slaves.”

To help audience members follow the story and hear the message, there will be voice-overs prior to scenes.

“Each scene is a different piece of music that tells a different point in the whole saga, and so, for the audience’s benefit, there is a little oral introduction before the scene begins so they know what they’re going to see,” Varricchio said.

While the words will help the audience along, it is mainly the movement and the music from Jehan Kamal that will tell the story and impart the emotion behind the story.

“Choreographing a theatrical dance with a storyline is very different from choreographing a dance without a specific and detailed narrative,” Adell said. “But when choreographing a story there is both music, subtext, storyline and sometimes spoken word to deal with. My job is to create staging through movement that brings the stage pictures alive.”

According to Adell, the first step in this process was to read the script and ensure she understood it from beginning to end. She then sat down with Varricchio to discuss the vision for the piece, scene by scene. 

“Then I listen to the music over and over again until I see the story we want to bring to life. I then dance to the music to see what my imagination brings to movement,” Adell said. “In Mosaic, Morgiana and I work together. She blocks the action as I choreograph. It has worked for us for many years and many shows.

“We are also very lucky to be able to work with Jehan Kamal’s very dynamic, expressive and emotional soundtrack. Music has a lot to do with the style of choreography. Some of Jehan’s music in this piece is a fusion of Middle Eastern and contemporary music. So that guides me.”

Adell was quick to compliment the seven amazing dancers who will be performing the piece. 

“We have casted the piece with performers that will bring their talents and imaginations to the map Morgiana and I have created. This is when the piece really starts to come alive as these wonderful artists take it to the next level,” Adell said, adding that the dancers have backgrounds in many different dance styles, which allowed her to experiment and combine styles. “We have several dancers experienced in partnering, so you will see lovely lifts and dips. For me, as a choreographer, this has been very inspiring and at the same time extremely challenging.

This show is also notable for Mosaic because it is the dance company’s first in-person show since 2019. Every member of the cast and crew have been vaccinated. 

“We all have been very diligent, wearing our masks during rehearsal, which isn’t the greatest, by the way, because you’re dancing and you’re breathing hard and you’re breathing your own air back and forth through the mask. But we had only one scare — knock wood,” Varricchio said, adding that no one in the show has contracted the coronavirus since they began rehearsals. During the actual show, performers will not wear masks, though audience members are required to do so. “It’s very difficult to see emotion through masks. The eyes tell a lot, but a lot of times you’re at a distance in the audience, so you can’t really see what the eyes are telling you.

“We are thrilled that we are able to be back.”