The 1997-98 six-play season at Yale Repertory Theatre includes two world premieres: an avant-garde dance/multi-media piece conceived by choreographer Ralph Lemon and a send-up of pre-revolutionary Russia by C.B. Coleman. Both the premieres are by relative unknowns in the theatrical field.
Lemon, an internationally-acclaimed choreographer who had his own dance company, kicks off YR's 31st season Oct. 23-Nov. 8 with Georgraphy at Yale's University Threatre, 222 York Street, New Haven, CT.
The work will be performed by nine male dancers, actors, and percussionists of African descent from Guinea and the U.S.
"After a year and three months of conceptual planning," reported Lemon, "we've had our first four-week workshop. It's anthropology, but I'm not sure it's art yet. We're working on that. It's a broad process for me. It's not the kind of material I'm used to working with."
The project has been developing for three years but Lemon couldn't begin to assemble his bi-cultural collaborators from various arts mediums until he disbanded his dance company two years ago. "A year ago I met with Yale Repertory Artistic Director Stan Wojewodski," said Lemon, "and he wanted to bring some new work into his more traditional repertory. If nothing else, this is something new. It'll wake 'em up. It's waking me up! I'm 44 and the elder here. The artists I'm working with are in their 20s."
Lemon feels the Yale Rep premiere will advance his career because "it's taking me in a direction I want to go in."
The choreographer explained that is some fear. "Call it tension. Audiences who've followed my work will have expectations. So there's some uncertainy since a lot of this process is unknown. That's what it's about, learning about what I don't know. This is a great opportunity to expand."
Will his fans be surprised at elements of Georgraphy? "I think so," he said, laughing. "I'm surprised. The job for me is to find a whole in the broad collaborative process of the parts -- choreography and the other elements."
Collaborating with Lemon, an associate artist at Yale, are composers Francisco Lopez of Spain and Paul D. Miller, a.k.a. (disc jockey) "Spooky, That Subliminal Kid." Tracie Morris, who writes "Nuyorican" performance poetry, will shape the text from Lemon's outline.
The second premiere, Apr. 30-May 23, 1998, is Petersburg, a farce by C.B. Coleman.
In addition to playwrighting, Coleman is a translator and dramaturg who received his doctorate degrees from the Yale School of Drama. Earlier plays, which include Bunker Hill, Freedom Republicand 'sparanto, have been produced at Brown University Theatre and the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
Petersburg was written two and a half years ago. It has a cast of nine but two of the seven male roles can be doubled. It's based on the novel of the same name by Andrei Bely and tells of an aspiring pre-revolution Russian anarchist, who's the son of a reactionary senator. He's put up to assassinate his father by his group. It's a bumbling attempt that doesn't succeed.
"I've stuck pretty close to the basic spine of the novel," Coleman said, "which I found rather problematic. It's a Russian Ulysses in terms of style. It was experimental in 1913 (when originally published) and it's still experimental. Bely continued to revise it."
A Slavic major in Greek and Russian in college, Coleman was aquainted with the work. "Three years ago when I was looking for something to adapt for the stage," he explained, "I reread the novel in Russian and found it fascinating. It has contemporary resonance. It deals with a Russia that's trying to decide whether its allegiances are with the East or the West. The book has a lot of satire, which I try to convey on stage."
Preproduction will be begin in late January or early February. A director is still to be chosen, but Wojewodksi has expressed interest.
The high profile nature of his first professional production has already brought attention to Coleman's previous plays. Hartford Stage and Actors Theatre of Louisville are considering them. The playwright, who teaches at Southern Connecticut State University, is at Yale this summer writing a new play, The Las Vegas Effect, which he described as a satire on academe.
Wojewodski announced that the other plays for the season are: ROBERT: This remains unchanged:
* George Bernard Shaw's Candida, Nov. 28-Dec.20 (YR Theatre, York and Chapel Sts., New Haven)
* A contemporary urban drama by Kia Corthron, Splash Hatch on the E Going Down, Jan. 15-Feb. 7 (YR Theatre) (this, like the recent Triumph of Love, will be a co-production with Baltimore's Center Stage)
* Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, featuring the graduating Yale School of Drama acting class, Feb. 19-March 14 (YR Theatre)
* The Cure at Troy, Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Sophocles's Philoctetes, March 26-Apr. 18 (YR Theatre).
Lemon's Geography has been commissioned by YR in cooperation with 651: An Arts Center and funded by grants from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the New England Foundation for the Arts with major support from the National Endowment for the Arts. For information on YR's subscription or single tickets, call (203) 432-1234.
-- By Ellis Nassour