Orpheus (1995)

Madrigal for choir, synth lute and pre-recorded track
Choreography: Christopher Gable
Lighting Design: Marion Mahon
First performed at the Janetta Cochrane Theatre, Holborn in London, as part of the 1995 Central School of Ballet School Show.

Christopher Gable was passionate about dancers using their voice, and insisted that there should always be a singing number in the school show. The madrigal, Orpheus, came about when Philip Feeney was asked to compose a choral piece for the second years, designed to accompany dancers from the first year. Gable himself provided the choreography, and based it upon the phenomenon of photosynthesis and the growth of tiny shoots into trees. The choir in black formed a ritualistic arc and sang with a backing track with live accompaniment by the composer.

The madrigal itself was a setting of ‘Orpheus with his lute’ from Henry VIII by William Shakespeare, sourced by Professor Rose Atfield who has introduced generations of dancers to the wonders of English literature. It was designed to have an Elizabethan feel to it, hence the synth lute (from the Korg X3 played live), and the sampled recorder sounds on track.

Written in an awkward 5/4 metre, the madrigal splits the female voices into three parts with a supporting tenor line for the men (SSAT). Despite its uncompromising difficulty, the singers were superbly prepared by Karin Greenhead and were boosted by a handful of strong singers from the third year. One of these was Amy Freston who was later to pursue a successful operatic career, ultimately becoming Feeney’s guest singer of choice for some of his later works; there is a brief closing solo for her at the quiet end of the madrigal.

The fact that three of the singers (one for each part) were in Ballet Central meant that they could be coached by the composer in empty moments out on tour, most notably in Jersey in the Channel Islands. There was even a coaching session of the difficult central canon between the top two lines on the return hydrofoil.

The lighting designer, Marion Mahon, took an extraordinary photograph of her mercurial lighting design for this piece, which, because of the low exposure, showed the dancers as magical light- spirits illuminated in the green forest gobos with the singers as ritual onlookers. So extraordinary was it, that it was hung on the wall of the basement at Central School of Ballet until a devastating fire extinguisher accident unfortunately caused some of the Ballet Central archive material to be jettisoned.