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The Bird is the Word  

Finding contemporary relevancy in a 19th-century ballet is just as challenging as it sounds. Ask NoExit Performance's Tommy Lewey, choreographer and director of the company's "gripping dance-theater adaptation" of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

"There's a sense of complacency in classic work, in the sense that it's held to such high esteem, but we really don't know why anymore because we're so far removed from it," Lewey said. "It's the job of the theater artist or the director or the choreographer or the artists themselves to get their hands in and figure out what it all is, because the stories themselves have been carrying through centuries and engaging audiences the whole time."

click to enlarge Tommy Lewey is also the mind behind Project 52. - ANNA PETERS
  • Anna Peters
  • Tommy Lewey is also the mind behind Project 52.

With this mindset, Lewey began digging for truths within the Swan Lake story that would especially impact a modern audience. He quickly realized the tale's romantic basis would work just fine.

"I was thinking, 'Well it's about this man who falls in love with a bird'--I thought that was kind of an odd concept," Lewey said. "It was like, 'How has this story been able to engage audiences for so long when on the surface it looks like it's about bestiality.'"

Lewey continued, "Over some time and thinking about it, I settled on the fact that the swan itself is kind of an allegorical representation of 'the other,' or the sense of the relationship is falling in love outside of societal norms."

From marrying outside one's race or religion to marrying inside one's gender per se, Lewey was able to find several modern parallels to the prince's romantic relationship with his feathered darling -- truths he felt would be able to touch a modern audience. While he has chosen to focus on this theme, Lewey still admits he "tried really hard to stay committed to the actual plot points of the ballet."

Keeping this in mind, he has chosen to simply shift the story's traditional perspective, "focusing a little bit harder on society's reaction ... to falling in love outside of societal norms." The result?  A gritty tale of all-consuming, forbidden love, with much to show us about our prejudices and our own preconceptions of love, according to NoExit Performance's promotions.

click to enlarge Dramatic make-up seems de rigueur following Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and NoExit's face painters have prepared some bold looks. - COURTESY NOEXIT PERFORMANCE
  • Courtesy NoExit Performance
  • Dramatic make-up seems de rigueur following Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and NoExit's face painters have prepared some bold looks.

"I didn't want to correct it, and I didn't necessarily want to put my own spin on it, but I wanted to kind of find the heart of it again -- find what the moral is and retell it in a different light," Lewey reflected. "Kind of like how years and years ago people would tell stories around the fire, and it would change with every person who tells them. This is just my telling of the story."

Georgeanna Smith, Executive Artistic Director of NoExit Performance, believes that Lewey, through his contemporary fusion of dance and theater, has undoubtedly created a refreshing retelling that hits very close to home.

"I think a key element is his decision to cast the swan as a man," Smith said. "We're not trying to be super preachy or anything like that about political stances, but it is a commentary on what's going on, especially in Indianapolis in the political scene right now."

Ultimately, Lewey hopes audiences can find themselves somewhere within this production.

"A lot of the artistic minds in NoExit, we really want to focus on the human element of the show and really engage our audiences by holding up a mirror to them so that they can see themselves and start to develop a comment on what it means to be human in this world," Lewey said. "My hope is that this show does that for the audience."

NoExit Performance presents Swan Lake at Wheeler Art Center June 13 and 14 at 8 p.m., June 15 at 2 p.m., and June 19-21 at 8 p.m.

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Seth Johnson

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Since high school, Seth Johnson has been drawn to telling compelling stories through the lens of journalism. A 2013 graduate from Ball State University’s News program, he has especially discovered a love for music journalism, particularly connecting to local music stories in an effort to enlighten others on Indianapolis’... more

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