Profile: Lileana Blain-Cruz & Raja Feather Kelly - Detroit Opera

Profile: Lileana Blain-Cruz & Raja Feather Kelly

The upcoming Detroit Opera production of Faust, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz and choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, is the duo’s first collaboration in the operatic world. Over the past five years, the two have challenged generic boundaries to instead create an emergent body of work which resonates with anxieties, hopefulness, and as Kelly describes, “amplifying mundane and/or pedestrian movement… [and using] performance-making and exhibition as a way to promote empathy.” 

This artistic alliance began in 2016; Kelly, known for his imaginative dance-theater excavations of pop and queer culture, broke into the Off-Broadway world with Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. “She said, ‘I have this ensemble, and I don’t want them to leave the stage so I need to think about their physicality and their bodies.’” 

Since then, Kelly and Blain-Cruz have collaborated on pieces including Marcus Gardley’s The House that Will Not Stand (2018), Branden Jacob-Jenkin’s play GIRLS (2019), and coming up, Michael R. Jackson’s White Girl in Danger (2023). 

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz - whose complex and thematically diverse work has recently earned her Obie Awards (2017, 2019), Lincoln Center Emerging Artist (2020) and a Doris Duke Artist award (2021) - will lead Faust’s artistic team this November! The Detroit Opera production will feature Gounod’s original Théâtre Lyrique setting, which incorporates original dialogue and music removed from later editions. Focusing on Gounod’s “singing actor,” Blain-Cruz explains, allows her to delve deeper into the characters. 

“In [Gounod’s] memoirs he describes how the fusion of theatrical elements could create ‘an expression of what goes on in the human soul, individual or collective.’ The desire to flesh out these characters is what also makes me so thrilled that we are doing the first version of this opera at Opera Omaha [which now comes to Detroit] with dialogue and additional music that add to the complexity of the characters and their relationships. Gounod, in this opera of numbers, created a clear dramatic story with people who experience journeys of passion to the point of transcendence.” 

In particular, Blain-Cruz takes a fresh look at Gounod’s character Marguerite; tracing Faust’s love interest through the work of Michel Carré’s Faust et Marguerite and Goethe’s poetry, she finds that this opera gives more nuance to the young woman. Marguerite, caught in the middle of Faust’s deal with the devil, is an unwilling participant in patriarchal desire. Gounod’s story, told through Blain-Cruz’s contemporary lens, asks us to find empathy for others in tangled, overwhelming circumstances. 

Blain-Cruz is a recent awardee of a 2018 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award, a 2018 United States Artist Fellowship, a New York Theatre Workshop 2050 Fellowship and the Josephine Abady Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Princeton University and her Master of Fine Arts in directing from the Yale School of Drama, where she also received the Julian Milton Kaufman Memorial Prize and the Pierre-Andre Salim Prize.  

Choreographer/Director Raja Feather Kelly is the artistic director of New Brooklyn Theatre and founder of the dance-theatre-media company the feath3r theory. Recently, he received critical acclaim for his work choreographing Michael R. Jackson’ Pulitzer-prize and Tony-award winning A Strange Loop – Kelly’s Broadway debut. Working between the New York experimental theater community and the commercial Off-Broadway/ Broadway field. With his collaboraters, he creates work “like Andy Warhol meets David Lynch on the set of RuPaul’s Drag Race with commentary by James Baldwin.” 

“My practice identifies and magnifies opportunities where popular culture and human desire intersect. My work has two parts. The work unabashedly appropriates the structures, themes, and aesthetics found in reality television, celebrity culture, and social media (YouTube, Instagram, Facebook). Then it deconstructs them into new works which combine dance, theatre, and visual media. The aim is to challenge our audience to recognize their own implication in popular media: how media has trained and molded their desires, relationships, and identities.”  

Kelly has been awarded a Creative Capital Award (2019), a National Dance Project Production Grant (2019), a Breakout Award from the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (2018), Dance Magazine's inaugural Harkness Promise Award (2018), the Solange MacArthur Award for New Choreography (2016), and is a three-time Princess Grace Award winner (2017, 2018, 2019). He was born in Fort Hood, Texas and holds a B.A. in Dance and English from Connecticut College. 

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