In Conversation with Choreographer Ashley Dougan

    The famous Orpheus myth has featured in opera many times. Forest Collective’s upcoming production shines a new light on the Ancient Greek myth, paying equal attention to Orpheus’ love of men and women. The show’s premiere season will run from 31 January – 3 February at the Convent as part of Midsumma Festival.

    We chat to Orpheus choreographer Ashley Dougan about this world premiere ballet-opera, and the lesser-known elements of the Orpheus myth it explores.

    You’ve teamed up with Forest Collective and an array of creatives to present Orpheus as part of Midsumma Festival at the Convent. Can you tell us a little about the team behind the show? 

    We have a really exciting team working on this show, from all different backgrounds, and that's what makes it such fun to work on. We've got the team of musicians at Forest Collective, and then we have Janet Noonan and Candice McAllister, both fantastic designers with a keen eye for detail. There are my two dancers, Piaera Lauritz, and Luke Fryer, both graduates from the VCA like myself, who have been engaged in residencies in New York and Melbourne respectively. Then there's myself and obviously Evan Lawson at the helm, steering the ship.

    It's an important story to get out there, because Ancient mythology often falls victim to erasure of LGBTI+ themes and characters, and so I'm stoked to have these colleagues helping to create a world in which that is possible. 

    The famous Orpheus myth has featured in opera many times, with most works focused on the journey to Hades and his relationship with Eurydice. This new production encompasses little-known parts of the Orpheus myth that focus on his male lover, Calaïs, while journeying with the Argonauts. Tell us a little more about this lesser known element to the Orpheus myth?

    Calaïs is often dismissed by Western mythologists because he didn't fit into their world-view at the time. The Ancients were comfortable and accepting of homosexuality and gender-fluidity and this was erased in Western translations. Calaïs was Orpheus' first male lover, and is often said to have been his undoing. The Ciconian women (Eurydice's kin) felt spurned that Orpheus would take only male lovers after Eurydice's death, and so tore him to pieces. Some 19th century translations say Orpheus was killed by a god, but we believe this to be untrue, as earlier [contemporary] Greek translations still have the Ciconian ending. 

    Three dancers will physicalise the vocal expressions of the three singers. As the choreographer of the piece, can you tell us about how you captured the story through movement, and how the dancers interact with the singers and musicians?

    My approach to this piece was to utilise other works of literature and art to inform me. I've taken passages from Holding the Man and Barracuda, both by Australian authors, to help create movement. I often assign abstract imagery to movement, in the sense that each phrase of movement is like a short story. I've brought in my unique aesthetic in contemporary movement, fused with classical styles, in order to physicalise the music and feeling of Evan's composition. As for how we interact with the musicians, I guess you'll just have to come and watch! There are a couple of really intriguing moments.

    What’s next for you?

    It may be a bit cheeky to say, but hopefully another contract! It's always great to be working collaboratively with other artists, but I do love immersing myself in performance. Aside from that, I'm producing my own solo show Seeing Red, and I'll be heading over to New York, where I can get a bit more post-modern dance training. I'll also hopefully be travelling to Berlin to do some dance work there with an electronic composer. 

    The Orpheus premiere season will run from 31 January – 3 February at the Convent as part of Midsumma Festival.

    Watch the video below for a sneak peek at Ashley workshopping choreography for Orpheus.