“We don’t see things as they are,” declares an opening title of Anaïs: A Dance Opera, “we see them as we are.” The statement, as any habitué of Tumblr or Pinterest can attest, is a virally quoted epigram by Anaïs Nin, the 20th century diarist, experimental novelist and erotica author whose posthumous literary fortunes have ebbed and flowed in recent years as precipitously as a Nova Scotia tide.
To the credit of this sleekly valorizing musical reappraisal from composer-lyricist Cindy Shapiro and director-choreographer Janet Roston, the line (from Nin’s 1961 novel Seduction of the Minotaur) now reads likes an eerily prophetic epithet as the writer is being rediscovered on social media and eagerly embraced by women of the Tinder generation.
Four decades after her death in Los Angeles at the height of her renown — and 20 years after Deirdre Bair’s scathing 1995 critical biography triggered Nin’s ignominious fall from feminist icon to self-absorbed pornographer and sexual “monster” — the author’s reputation is again on the rise. And Shapiro and Roston’s 90-minute biographical homage is determined to erase past slanders by memorializing Nin through dance and song as a pioneer of women’s sexual empowerment.
Unlike a conventional book musical, in which the narrative heavy lifting is more or less divided between an ensemble of actor-singers and the production numbers of a dance chorus, Anaïs is structured as a concert staging. Singer Madison Dewberry (alternating with Marisa Matthews) stars as a sort of balladeer/narrator — or the “Eternal Anaïs” according to the program — who vocally comments on Anaïs’ interior, emotional world as the ensemble performs Roston’s balletic jazz interpretation of the defining moments of Nin’s eventful if self-obsessed life. Those lyrical passages foreground documentary-like strands of biography that are presented onscreen in Joe LaRue’s elegantly animated Art Nouveau text projections and through archival recordings of Nin herself (courtesy of Jack Wall’s capable sound).
The result is not unlike a live performance of an album-length Taylor Swift music video (replete with Allison Dillard's emblematic fantasy costuming and Michelle Stann's dynamic, low-key lights). Sultry principal dancer Micaela DePauli takes on Anaïs (Tiffany Wolff alternates) as the show quickly zeros in on the most celebrated and salacious aspect of Nin’s life: the decade-plus and storied extramarital affair that she carried on with the transgressive American novelist Henry Miller (a hunky Michael Quiett), but with the tacit approval of her lifelong banker husband Hugh Guiler (Quinn C. Jaxon, alternating with Du’Ron Fisher).
Musically, the show’s synthy, 17-song, prerecorded R&B and electronic dance-inflected tracks (co-produced by Shapiro and Wall) provide both brooding atmospherics and pulsating urgency for the drama, as well as a sensational showcase for Dewberry, whose smoldering stage presence and eerily soulful delivery both drives and elevates the evening.
DePauli, Quiett and Jaxon are effective in the series of passionate pas de deux and wary pas de trois that Roston has designed to represent the unconventional nature of their relationship, but her mostly illustrative choreography and its limited vocabulary of swoons, lifts and sweeping carrying moves too soon exhausts itself through sheer repetition (though standouts Jackie Hinton and Denise Woods distinguish themselves as personable featured dancers in both the “Café Culture” and “Delta of Venus,” numbers, highlighting Nin’s interwar literary endeavors.
“America tried to kill me as a writer, with indifference, with insults,” the show quotes Nin as complaining. And if Anaïs: A Dance Opera falls short of redressing that affront by making its case for the author’s induction into the last century’s dead-white-male-dominated literary canon, it certainly succeeds as a persuasive and entertaining argument for the cultural importance of Nin’s empowering defiance of the gendered sexual stigmas of her time that still persist today, lyrically captured in Shapiro’s feminist war cry, “And my body is mine!”
Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N Fairfax Ave., Fairfax; through September 18. greenwaycourttheatre.org.