Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hero/Worship: Christopher Williams' Saints Kick the Habit and Come Dancin' In

An arch bishop dances in bemused little skips adorned by flicking wrists, a sword thrust through the mitre that crowns his head. A holy man, stark naked except for the wreath caressing his temples, turns around and spreads his cheeks to show the congregation his asshole. Three times. Then after repeated poses recalling Rafael’s David he hurls himself upon a griddle made out of the arms of six stout men only to be tossed, joyously, as if in a blanket, and go back to posing.
Above: Luke Miller as St. Laurence about to hurl himself on the griddle formed by the male chorus: Sydney Skybetter, Bryan Campbell, Arturo Vidich (left group);
Philip Montana, Brandin Steffensen, Clay Drinko (right group). Already enthroned in the background from l to r Chris Elam as St. Christopher, Rommel Salveron as St. Pancras, Glen Rumsey as St. George, Julian Barnett as St. Vincent of Saragossa. `````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````Photo by Paula Court.

A woman screams before a man painted green and dragging a dragon’s matching tail, his head in a helmet crested with teeth. After a tussle with an armored saint, the dragon finds himself collared and led off by the woman on a leash. A group of black-veiled acolytes then rushes to wipe up the green body makeup on the white stage floor. A flock of puppet birds attends the wanderings of a friar and ends by stretching red ribbons with its beaks from anchorages at his stigmatic wounds.

I could go on (and on). On May 15, beginning with simultaneous formal processions down both aisles of the theater inside Dance Theater Workshop, I witnessed a 3-hour-long dream scape come to life in dance form. And if you want an absolutely stunning, remarkably comprehensive, concise and graceful explication of the goings on in Christopher Williams’ The Golden Legend, including the name and role of each of the 35 dancers, I recommend Deborah Jowitt’s review.

Glen Rumsey as St. George wrestles Dylan Crossman's dragon.
Photo by Paula Court

Let’s face it: saints, almost by definition, conjure the kind of obsession, fanaticism, obstinacy and foolhardiness that we tend to regard as insane. Giving themselves over to a power or ideal greater than themselves, they endure temptation, humiliation, torture, and embrace death and dismemberment, often in spite of social and political mores, in obeisance to a greater good. When we perceive that good, we lift up such people as heroes and martyrs and lionize their devotion. When we don’t, or they go off the moral rails, we recoil from their enormities as lunacy or terrorism. Either way, they make themselves hard to ignore and break through our complacent stupor.

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu
The Golden Legend, a meditation on the lives of 17 (or 23 depending on how you count) early Christian male saints, somehow put me much in mind of the day of 9/11 and those immediately following. As I circumambulated the shattered parts of my city, I kept running into the armed men and women standing sentinel at the edges of the “frozen zone” around ground zero. I eyed them and their guns warily, out of long habit, and wondered a bit resentfully just who or what they had been sent to protect and why. Yet along with most of my fellow citizens, I found myself newly appreciative of these gendarmes’ poise as potential heroes, and the sudden usefulness of their stance of moral certitude and physical fortitude in this battered landscape.

Many of the heroes and saints (if any) had already been crowned with tragic and brutal death. Others still labored behind those barricades, or would soon turn their attention to the cause of redeeming lost lives in testaments of moral introspection, social outreach, healing and political activism. Many artistic voices seemed momentarily stilled as we struggled to catch our breath and reconnect with some essential truths about our lives on this planet.
Julian Barnett hurtles earthward as St. Vincent of Saragossa
Photo by Paula Court.

Soon a whole decade will have passed. For the majority of that time Williams has been at work on his lives of the saints. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, produced in 2005, and in preparation for over a year previous to that, provided the distaff predecessor to and template for The Golden Legend. In a time of new crisis, in which many of the lessons of those days 8 years ago already seem in need of relearning, he arrives with a piece that challenges glib and conventional wisdom in so many significant ways.

Beginning with the full cast processional and closing with a similar formal recessional, everything about the work, save the choreography of the 17 individual dances that form its spine, has been produced on a scale rarely, if ever, seen these days in the “downtown” dance world. Williams seems to have that rare and precious ability to dare everyone and everything around him to dig more deeply and defy previous and accepted levels of expectation. This includes DTW, whose facilities and resources have been pushed to their limits, his audience, which must acclimate to the work’s deliberative pace across its 3 hour length and those, like myself, who may take weeks wrestling over a fitting response.

Holding their halos (above): David Parker as St. Thomas of Canterbury and Reid Bartelme as St. Giles advance with the other saints in the country dance style processional. ````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````Photo by Paula Court.

The talents of what constitutes an all-star team of male contemporary dancers stretches to meet Williams’ imagining of the selected saints. These have been sketched from the telling of Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa and author of the 13th century Legenda Aurea Sanctorum (Golden Legend of the Saints,) the book that launched the Williams’ opus. But the choreographer also has behind him a history of Western visual art that depicts these same stories, reaching back through iconography and medieval and renaissance painting and sculpture.

Like panels in Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass the planes of sainthood fracture in the course of the work and branch off in unexpected directions. ```````Photo by Yi-Chun Wu. Here we have a collared Rommel Salveron as St. Pancras, beheaded under the Emperor Diocletian in 304. He is attended by the blue-faced Keith Sabado and Nicky Paraiso, who flank Pancras and embody saints Mamertus and Gervasius, fellow “Icemen” in the liturgical and seasonal calendar. These seconds also recall mortals, perhaps not so intimately tickled by the finger of the divine. In the course of their scene, Sabado re-enacts the legend of the man who swore falsely on the martyr’s tomb. Now he literally can’t keep his hand off Salveron’s head. Paraiso finds himself forced to follow their tortuous interlocked dance about the stage singing as he goes.

Photo by Paula Court
Chris Elam, as St. Christopher, backs onto stage with Coco Karol on his shoulders so that under their shared costume they take on the form of a monstrous mythical giant. Slipping out of this beastly overcoat, the two, each costumed in lamb leotards complete with tails and pink-eared headpieces, execute a cruciform lift, a birth-like calving, and a series of oral explorations on their way to their crossing. Thus from an earlier pagan myth emerges that of the apocryphal Christian “bearer of Christ,” still the patron saint of cities and countries. What would it be like to taste the lamb of God?

Gus Solomons, Jr. appears as St. Saint Dionysius the Areopagite/St. Denis, with his head literally in his hands. Encased in another of the piece’s fantastic costumes, he dances under a banner “To the Unknown God” held aloft by Alberto Denis and Carlton Cyrus Ward. `````````````````````````Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.
These two evoke the saint’s fellow martyrs St. Eleutherius and St. Rusticus. The trio also hints that even a patron saint of France, one of the 14 “holy helpers,” must have needed, as we do, heroic helpers of his own. Their dancing leads us towards the liberating delirium of unity with the divine.

In each of the visually arresting episodes, the movement has been tailored to the imaginative possibilities of a story, a dancer or dancers, and a visual and/or musical touchstone. The latter range from those composed for the piece by Peter Kirn and Gregory Spears to the medieval hymns, antiphons, laude, motets, and conductus written in praise of each saint that make up the bulk of the sound accompaniment. Dating from as early as the 12th century, this music emanated in voice and on traditional and modern instruments from a consort of 11 tucked into a tiny front corner just offstage. It added immeasurably to the sense of suspended time and continuous present moment that attends the unfolding of the Legend.

The musical ensemble, which featured members of Anonymous 4 and Lionheart among other illustrious players and singers, contributed to the strength and precision of the piece as surely as did the extremely strong and versatile choruses of 6 male and 5 female dancers/puppeteers. So did Tom Lee’s exquisitely reserved set of 17 high-backed chancel chairs that face each other in single lines along both sides of the performance space as if across a Cathedral choir. Each chair’s red velvet upholstered seat will enthrone a principal saint at the conclusion of his turn on the stage. From this perch, he will join the audience as witness to the subsequent The puppeteers, including (l to r) Kate ` ` ` ` ` episodes until a formal bow and reces-
Brehm, Erin K. Orr, Lake Simons elevating ` sional parades this venerable dance
their demons. `````````` Photo by Paula Court. ` company through the congregation
` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` again.

The metaphorical significance of this watchfulness cannot be overstated. Like
the saint he portrays, each of these dancers has achieved an individual renown born of unrelenting and solitary devotion to a way of life. This religious dedication has found him often at odds with the accepted modes of validation that predominate in American society, particularly as they relate to men’s work. Williams allows us to watch them watch each other create a collective testament that transforms and transcends the sum of its parts.

Beyond its utility and craft as a formal framing device, the choreographer’s stylization of this action subtly reminds us of our collective interdependence, and the human hunger for interconnection that we felt so strongly in the days after the terrorist attacks. He redeems and reinvigorates the role of live theatrical dance as a vital mode for acknowledging and even celebrating this existential fact; these needs and desires.

The creator’s fingerprints can be seen everywhere in a litany of collaboration. His co-credits extend to the beautifully realized costumes (designed and built with Carol Binion, Andy Jordan, Ciera Wells, and Michael Oberle) and the magical puppets (with Eric Wright and Lake Simons). And when did you ever see a performance that in addition to two early music researchers (Susan Hellauer and Williams) lists a medieval hagiography consultant (Thomas Head)? The scholarly contributions of these collaborators manifest in the music and text translations and choreographer’s notes that make up the majority of the 32-page program insert accompanying the piece. The notes represent Willams’ cogent gloss of relevant details taken from the lives of the saints as presented in his source text. It provides yet another point of entry for exploration and appreciation of The Golden Legend as an imaginative response to our Western moment.(l to r) Aaron Mattocks as St. James the More, Luke Miller as St. Laurence, Reid Bartelme as St. Giles, Stuart Singer as St. Eustace, and Chris M. Green as St. Jerome in the recessional. ```````````````````````````````````````````````Photo by Paula Court.

Only Joe Levasseur’s exquisitely nuanced lighting seems to belong to one designer alone. The collective nature of the entire theatrical enterprise, and its analogous relationship to the possibilities of cooperative action, became palpable and moved me in ways I haven’t felt onstage since the Broadway productions of Angels in America and Copenhagen. The multi-dimensionality, scale, scope and quality of the work recalls that of such artists as Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, William Forsythe, Pina Bausch and Bill T. Jones.

The Golden Legend stands as a fitting return gift to and redemption of the sacrifices of those who stand guard over our “homeland security.” By whatever means they serve, they insure the freedom that brings us saints as well as corporate Ponzi and steroid sinners. The challenge falls to us as to which merits our own sacrifices and devotion in attention, blood and treasure.

Like other contemporary American artists, and many U.S. families, Williams has gambled himself into the bondage of credit card usury. His thrall has come in pursuit of a singular dance theater vision. The fact that he has forged his chains in a field that offers virtually no chance for the gamble to pay off in a material, and therefore, by extension, a status sense for either him or his art form hardly makes him a saint. But if it were ever to come to a question of that, perhaps The Golden Legend might be cited as one of the requisite miracles.

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