New ballet at Music Hall draws on messy myth of Osiris

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Choreographer Ron De Jesus says he was originally “a little apprehensive” when approached about creating a ballet based on the Egyptian myth of Osiris.

“Who does Egyptian stories?” De Jesus says. “I thought it was too epic for me.”

However, that early doubt was just the beginning of a seven-year journey that has seen De Jesus dig deeper and deeper into the unconventional material. The resulting work, “The Osiris Legend,” will make its Detroit premiere Saturday and Sunday at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. Sunday’s performance will be filmed, likely with interruptions and multiple takes, and the public is welcome to attend.

The project began in 2009, when archaeologist James Westerman began pestering De Jesus with the idea of an Osiris ballet. Westerman has made multiple expeditions to an Egyptian tomb known as the Osirion over 26 years. And as the husband of a former board member of De Jesus’ Chicago-based dance company, Ron De Jesus Dance, he had a passion for the dance world.

De Jesus says one of his initial objections to the Osiris myth was that it was “pretty morbid,” which may actually be an understatement. The god Osiris marries his sister Isis, after which he is murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother Set (also married to his own sister, Nephthys).

But as De Jesus repeatedly pored over the story, he became fascinated with the love between Osiris and Isis. Isis collects the fragments of Osiris’ body so that he may be resurrected as lord of the underworld.

“I really took the… bond and the devotion that they had between them, and I really extracted that and stretched it and made that the real core of every scene,” De Jesus says.

De Jesus initially agreed to choreograph just one scene, but he says he got on a roll and “cranked out” an entire 90-minute ballet in just two weeks. He staged the ballet in a minimal studio showing in 2011, and again in abridged form among an exhibit of Egyptian artifacts at Chicago’s Oriental Institute in 2014.

But the latest production of the ballet is the most robust yet, thanks to financing from more of De Jesus’ board members and a donation from the Chicago Community Trust.

The new production premieres Thursday in Chicago before its weekend run in Detroit. De Jesus has established a presence in Metro Detroit since becoming as assistant professor of musical theatre at the University of Michigan in 2012. The new production will feature stark black and white costume and set design, with video projections providing striking bursts of color.

However, De Jesus’ plan is to strip the project down again. He envisions the ballet as an educational program that could easily be presented in museums nationwide.

“It’s only six artists and it could be done with no smoke and mirrors, just a clear pallet floor and music,” he says. “(The current production) is like full lights, action, camera, all the bells and whistles. But it can be done with nothing other than an open space.”

To help sell that idea, De Jesus decided to film the production this Sunday in Detroit. He says he eventually hopes to take the production to Egypt and film scenes there as well.

“We’ve started and we just go incrementally,” he says. “We just keep contributing and… develop it as much as we can until the next step.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

'The Osiris Legend'

8 p.m. Sat.; filming day 3 p.m. Sun.

Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts

350 Madison, Detroit

Tickets: $30-$50 Sat.; free Sun., but production will likely be interrupted during filming process

(313) 887-8500