Theater company brings ‘The Iliad’ alive

Photo Courtesy of Gary Heller
The Mosaic Dance Theater Co. takes to the stage during a performance of ‘Ubar, Lost City of Brass.’

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Plans for battle are being hatched by Glen Ridge’s Mosaic Dance Theater Co., as the company prepares its first in-person performance since 2019. The offering, inspired by Homer’s “The Iliad,” is titled “Troy, Women of War.” It is being written by company founder and producing artistic director Morgiana Celeste Varricchio, and choreographed by Samara Adell.

Earlier in the pandemic, the company produced virtual performances, funded by an Essex County grant. Videos were made of the dancers performing in their homes, and the videos were edited together by the company technical director, Bob Greenwald.

“It was an interesting concept for us, and we did have a live gig for Dining Under the Stars, a Bloomfield Center Alliance program,” Varricchio said in a recent phone interview.

Founded in 2003, MDTC creates and presents dance and theater performances enlivened by the folklore traditions of the Mediterranean regions of northern Africa, southern Europe and the Middle East.
And now to the battlements.

Homer’s “Iliad” is an epic poem relating the actions of mortals and gods during the Trojan War between the Greeks and the Trojans. Varricchio’s story begins with “The Judgment of Paris,” a mythological tale about a beauty contest among three goddesses. The contest is judged by Paris, a Trojan who is bribed by a contestant and rewarded with the beautiful Helen, a Greek and wife of Menelaus. The elopement of the illicit couple precipitates the siege of Troy, an ancient city located in present-day Turkey. The Greeks are the eventual victors of the barbaric war.

“I’m working on the story now,” Verricchio said in an interview on Friday, Jan. 7. “It’ll certainly be dance with some narration, from the judgment of Paris to the end, when the women of Troy are taken as slaves.”

The idea of writing a story about the Trojan War from the female characters’ perspective came to Varricchio a number of years ago, she said, after hearing music by the Lebanese singer Fairuz.

“It’s not just victory and defeat when the story is told by women,” she said. “It’s not just a body count.”

Rehearsals are scheduled to begin at the end of January in Manhattan.
The music for “Troy, Women of War” is by Jehan Kamal.

“She creates in my ear a cinematographic sound with an Arabic percussive line,” Varricchio said. “The music tells me how to write the story. So, I create this analysis, the playwriting. I’m writing nonverbal action when the action makes sense with the music.”

While Varricchio is working on the words, Adell, the choreographer, becomes involved and is given only the music.
“We’ve been working like this for a number of years,” Varricchio continued. “Our creative process is very open.”

But while the story is being written, it belongs only to Varricchio.
“It’s a character-driven piece,” she said. “The characters have to show a growth.”
The production has a cast of five women and two men. The men will perform as the chief Greek and Trojan combatants. The women will portray Trojan mortals and goddesses. The running time will be about 60 minutes, without intermission.

“We want to do it live, but you have considerations,” Varricchio said. “But we’re shooting for it to be live.”

During rehearsals, the dancers will provide creative input, especially for the numerous solo spots.
“We want the best production possible,” Varricchio said. “Everyone is involved.”
She noted that a Middle Eastern dancer must be able to isolate the parts of their body; the movements are not balletic.
“The dancer is another part of the orchestra,” she said. “The music tells you what step to use.”
The costumes are being created by Varricchio, who said she found a place to purchase helmets.

“The costumes make a statement, too,” she said. “The music isn’t traditional, so the costumes aren’t either. People don’t need to look like they stepped off a Greek urn.”
There will be a free, two-show run at the First Congregational Church of Montclair, on Saturday, May 21, and Sunday, May 22. Registration will be required.

Performances are also being planned at local libraries. MDTC, which has extensive school programming, has performed regionally and at Lincoln Center. The hope is that the group will cross the Hudson River again with “Troy, Women of War.”