‘Go West!’ explores new world for performing arts

Video by Yi-Chin Lee | Multimedia Editor

This weekend, the Chautauqua Inter-arts Collaboration will cram the spilled blood, soaring melodies, brutal battles and undying hope of 500 years of history and American-inspired artistic expression into a neatly packaged show.

According to Chautauqua Theater Company Associate Artistic Director Andrew Borba, this season’s Go West! will explore “this notion of — what does the West mean to America, to Americans, to American history and to the world at large?”

The second installment in a three-year project, Go West!’s one-time show is 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.

Built around an exploration of the North American pioneering spirit and westward expansion in the United States, Borba, who directs the production, said the work aims to give dual consideration to the problematic aspects of American exceptionalism and the positive implications of the American Dream.

“There will be things that will deeply, silently and artistically challenge and surprise [the audience], as American expansion should,” Borba said. “I don’t have any interest in answering any questions. I don’t have any interest in putting a stamp on, ‘This is what I think the American expansion into the West meant.’ We’re raising questions and trying to entertain.”

Combining the theater, symphony, opera, voice, dance and visual arts, Go West! is the definition of collaboration. The sources it draws from are as diverse as its art department partners, built off folk songs, diary entries, Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” and more.

“As we start to see these individual pieces come together, I feel less like I’m on the edge of a precipice ready to fall in,” Borba said. “But the marvelous part about it is, we are like Lewis and Clark, this core of discovery, creating a piece that is motivated essentially by an artistic pioneering experience.”

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Cast members of Go West! perform during the dress rehearsal Wednesday afternoon in the Amphitheater.

Last year’s The Romeo & Juliet Project drew from source materials dealing specifically and directly with the famous Shakespearean tale. But this year, themes of American expansionism — including racism, dreams of wealth and anticipation of a better future — are expressed abstractly in a variety of works. CTC and its collaborators, including Music School Festival Orchestra conductor Timothy Muffitt, choreographer Mark Diamond and projection designer Christopher Ash, worked to condense these often conflicting themes into a cohesive piece of art.

“It’s a weird mix of reflecting on the American Dream and pioneering from a slightly more passive place and then from an active place. There’s lots of scenes and lots of firsthand journals and the symphonies and dance,” said CTC guest artist Michael Curran-Dorsano. “It has layers to it. You’ve got some very active, visceral stuff happening onstage and it’s also very fun and playful.”

The production is split into two acts, the first of which is largely chronological, and the second, which delves more deeply into the mythology behind American expansion. Each act is further divided into chapters like “Arrival” or “Gold Rush.”

“I knew I couldn’t and didn’t want to tell a History Channel story,” Borba said. “That’s not necessarily an artistic exploration of these themes.”

Go West! combines original pieces with historic works to build its portrait of American expansion. Borba said incorporating both aspects was important in offering a fuller picture of the intimidating topic.

“There had to be new pieces in there, or else something felt not fulfilled about that,” Borba said. “There is a real sense of, not only collaboration, but a sense of the new.”

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Dancers of Go West! perform during the dress rehearsal Wednesday afternoon in the Amphitheater.

CTC Managing Director and Go West! Line Producer Sarah Clare Corporandy said the collaboration involved in the piece has created a renewed feeling of camaraderie between the Institution’s art forms.

“It really has opened up doors between all of the arts departments,” Corporandy said. “We’re just reminded of what we’re surrounded by, and we appreciate what each other does on a much deeper level because we’re starting to learn the process that each department goes through in order to produce their work.”

Though Borba directs the piece, each arts program also has a director lending expertise to his or her specific art form.

“There’s a reason we’ve all come together as professionals and specialists,” Borba said.

In the collaboration, guest artist actors Curran-Dorsano, Michael Gaston and Stephen Spencer join CTC conservatory actors Oge Agulue, Susana Batres, Marianne Rendon and Chelsea Williams. Each actor will play a variety of roles, and Curran-Dorsano is also assistant directing.

“I’ve been figuratively wearing those two hats, but then I also have a lot of literal, physical hats that I wear throughout the show,” Curran-Dorsano said. “We run the gamut in terms of historical characters.”

Dividing time between several roles derived from primary texts offers a challenge to the actors, who shape shift throughout the performance, weaving between dancers, singers and the symphony.

“What’s difficult is you have to invent or discover what the context is around it … to make a poem sound like it’s coming out of a person in the moment because they need something, or have a journal entry that’s not a journal entry,” Curran-Dorsano said. “So you’re actually in some ways doing a lot of playwriting yourself as an actor.”

What Curran-Dorsano called the “epic” scope of the project has also made it difficult to know each art’s complete role in the piece.

“That night when we get onstage is probably going to be the one and only time that every piece is actually there,” Curran-Dorsano said.

However, according to CTC Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch, confronting these types of challenges is vital to advance arts both at Chautauqua and outside the Institution’s gates.

“I do believe inter-arts is the future for the performing arts,” Benesch said. “Not only in terms of the creative process but also in terms of developing our audience.”

Chautauquans should arrive at the Amphitheater on Saturday, seat cushions slung over shoulders, ready to hunker down. Old clichés die hard with reason, and going west never was an easy ride.

“Come with an open mind and know that you’re popping into something that’s going to be a little wild, but that’s what going west is,” Curran-Dorsano said. “It’s a little wild.”