When Disciplines Collide
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When Disciplines Collide

Director/choreographer Zack Winokur follows his passion for collaboration.
By Daniel J. Applebaum
Photographs by Sasha Maslov

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Photographs by Sasha Maslov
Grooming by Affan Graber Malik
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Photograph by Sasha Maslov

ZACK WINOKUR WATCHES as bass-baritone Davóne Tines slowly circles the perimeter of a dimly lit barn-cum-rehearsal-studio in Stamford, Vermont. “The tiniest swing makes a world of difference,” Winokur says, then demonstrates, his soft movements conveying the dramatic simplicity that is a trademark of his work as an opera director. Winokur, twenty-nine, is a graduate of the Juilliard School’s Dance Division and the recipient of the school’s 2014–15 

Marcus Institute opera directing fellowship; his Juilliard successes include directing and choreographing Cavalli’s Calisto in 2016. This month, Winokur returns to Juilliard to work on Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie with director Stephen Wadsworth. 

The rehearsal room in Vermont, part of dancer/choreographer Marta Miller’s bucolic sanctuary, Certain Bird, is a laboratory for Winokur’s newest venture, the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), with which he and his co-artistic director, composer/conductor Matthew Aucoin, and colleagues—including Tines, choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith and singers Paul Appleby, Julia Bullock and Anthony Roth Costanzo—aim to “reimagine the experience of opera, from conception to performance.”

At Juilliard, Winokur followed his passion for interdisciplinary work whenever and wherever he could. During his freshman year, his self-choreographed solo to “Poveri fiori,” from Adriana Lecouvreur, allowed Winokur to work in close proximity to a soprano for the first time. “I was amazed at what was physically happening to her when she sang,” says the director. “Every bone in her body was vibrating and rattling—it’s mind-blowing when you’re that close. It was a visceral experience I wanted to keep exploring.”

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The New Prince in Amsterdam, 2017
© Marco Borggreve

Winokur adds, “My agenda at [Juilliard], as a student and afterwards, has been to make interdisciplinary collisions happen in big, integrated ways.” He says Hippolyte et Aricie is perfect for such a mash-up, because it is essentially a dance piece. Wadsworth and Winokur will integrate voice and movement to tell the story, hoping to “find a language where you can’t necessarily tell who is a singer and who is a dancer—instead of plunking dancers into ballos, which goes against everything I believe in.” 

Away from Juilliard, Winokur’s credits include choreography at Dutch National Opera (Mohammed Fairouz’s New Prince) and Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (Ana Sokolovic´’s Svadba) and for Orphic Moments at National Sawdust and the Landestheater in Salzburg. In May, Winokur will direct Orphic Moments, a double bill of Aucoin’s monodrama The Orphic Moment and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, presented by MasterVoices at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. MasterVoices’ presentation will be Winokur’s first time helming the full show. 

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Photograph by Sasha Maslov 

In past incarnations, the Aucoin had been presented as a prologue to the Gluck. Winokur intends to have his Orfeo (Costanzo) “sing [the Aucoin] in the middle of a recit in Act III. Orfeo says, ‘What torment! How my heart is torn! I can resist no more!’ and Matt’s piece intervenes there. The end of Matt’s piece is Orfeo’s fateful glance, and then we return to the Gluck. It’s a suspended slow-motion psychological explosion at the pivotal moment of Gluck’s piece—right about at the golden mean of the structure, too.”

Navigating the 130-member MasterVoices choir with his well-honed use of bodies in space, Winokur will also employ “real objects used in surreal ways” to bring Orfeo’s journey to life. “I think a lot of opportunities have come my way because I’m not interested in gigantic sets or similar operatic tropes,” he says. “What interests me is what Balanchine was able to achieve by using people—they are individuals but also objects, architecture and landscape.”

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Photograph by Sasha Maslov 

It is precisely this interest in people that drove the creation of AMOC. “There are definitely plans to do full-scale operas,” says Winokur, but AMOC’s current emphasis is to build a repertoire of smaller works tailor-made for the talents of the company members, “so you get a portrait of these people. The idea is to commit to working with this group over a long period of time and create a body of work from those relationships. Davóne is one of my best friends, and here we’re able to think in much longer units of time. It changes the whole approach and unlocks potential. Spiritually, AMOC feels like my home.”

As they work through a “mad scene” comprised of fragmented spirituals, Winokur instructs Tines, “Take up the space you are.” Originally intended as a Christmas show, Were You There (which had its premiere at the Run AMOC! Festival at ART in Cambridge in December 2017) took an unforeseen turn during rehearsals: Winokur says it has become a “meditation on the lives of black men and women lost in police killings over the past year. The form changes in this context—so much more than would be possible with a shorter rehearsal process, or with a group of strangers. What’s interesting to me about this work is that I ask myself, ‘Is that opera?’” 

So what is opera to Zack Winokur? “I want to have that conversation all the time! This is the field where all disciplines collide, and I want to smash these different methods of performance and expression together to produce things of power, meaning, matter and beauty.” spacer 

Daniel J. Applebaum is a dancer with New York City Ballet. 

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