Comfortable in their skins
"Is there anything or anyone that could make you just get up and leave to pursue it, without even a thought to saying goodbye to your current life?"
– Megan M. Reilly
A selkie occupies two worlds. You saw The Secret of Roan Inish; you know those Celtic creatures who rise from the sea, slip off their seal-selves like skin, and become lovely women (or seductive men – and if you ever require one of the latter, they say, weep seven tears into the green-black sea [but be reasonable: it's not going to work in the soup-brown Gulf]). If you hide her seal skin, the selkie must stay with you forever – unless she finds it, whereupon she will abandon husband and children to disappear under the rough black waves.
That impulse back to the sea – what Austin theatrical designer Megan M. Reilly calls "the idea of wanting something so much that returning to it is almost instinctual" – is at the heart of Selkie Project: gestation. Divergence Vocal Theater has swum up from Houston with a creature of many worlds – in this case, the worlds of opera, theatre, dance, video, sculpture – which you can experience this Saturday as part of Creative Research Labora-tory's "Ideas of Mountains" exhibition.
Misha Penton, Divergence artistic director, partnered with Reilly, her "creative twin," to develop the performance piece. A self-described "mythology and folklore freak," Penton had a "very loose idea of doing a 'sea show,' and I've had a thing for the selkie stories for a long time," and Reilly "knew just what I was talking about."
Reilly says that Penton's "sea piece" concept recalled for her "the haunting installation Another Place by Antony Gormley, that kind of panoramic loneliness felt when staring at the sea." Asked what the piece is about, Penton replies, "Longing, loss, desire, fear, loneliness, desertion, abandonment, terrible beauty." Around the time they were exploring these potent ideas, CRL put out an open call, and the Selkie Project was born.
Reilly is constructing an installation environment from "fabric, paint, sculptural techniques, creative typography, three projectors with media/film, and a few surprises." In it, Penton, a mezzo-soprano, will sing music that ranges from a Benjamin Britten nocturne to original work commissioned from James Norman and Elliot Cooper Cole; actors will speak Penton's dreamy, poetic text; and the always-compelling Austin dancer/choreographer Caroline Sutton Clark will perform. Although Saturday's is the only performance, the installation will remain throughout the exhibition.
Penton and Reilly have tagged this initial iteration of the project a "gestation," but they plan to develop it further. Penton says: "I'll be choosing more vocal repertoire for the piece and using additional original compositions and also writing more theatrical text. We have tentative plans to produce the work in Houston in late spring, and some other opportunities to present it are cooking."
But no guarantee you'll see it in Austin again, so come to the edge of the sea with Divergence Vocal Theater this weekend. The skin you save may be your own.
Selkie Project: gestation will be performed at the opening reception for "Ideas of Mountains" Saturday, Jan. 23, 7pm, at Creative Research Laboratory in Flatbed World Headquarters, 2832 E. MLK. "Ideas of Mountains" continues through Feb. 6. For more information, visit uts.cc.utexas.edu/~crlab.