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Flash Review, 5-26: Saintly Feast
A Marriage of the Saints & One More Virgin from Williams

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2006 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- There's no doubt that Christopher Williams has a major theatrical imagination. In his season at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church last weekend, he staged the premiere of "The Portuguese Suite" and a hybrid piece that combined portraits of two female saints (Barbara and Lucy) excerpted from "Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins" (2005) with those of three male saints (Christopher, James the Greater, and Anthony Abbot) from the work in progress "The Golden Legend," which, when completed, will feature 15 male saints.

Whether it's Chris Elam -- who, like Williams, is as flexible as a pretzel -- portraying Saint Christopher as a giant, pink-eared white mouse, or Nami Yamamoto as Saint Barbara, pitching herself headlong into a barricade of bare-chested men in black skirts, or Aaron Mattocks in black pantyhose as Saint James the Greater, leaping and lunging amongst seven animated, squatting heaps, Williams, a Douglas Dunn alumnus who now dances with Tere O'Connor, finds consistently interesting gestural choices and elicits from his performers the same hell-bent riskiness that makes his own dancing so riveting.

Much of the movement is standard modern and ballet vocabulary, but marvelously distorted to look like things you've never seen before: an arabesque with the ribs jutted laterally; a passé with torso hooked into a question mark; an assemblé with a devilish twitch in midair. Williams uses his excellent chorus as living props to complement the central figures, and they take to their relatively unglamorous tasks with gusto. The group includes women Rebecca Serrell, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Derry Swan, Darla Villani, and men Clay Drinko, Marcelo Rueda, Sydney Skybetter, Luke Wiley, and Ryuji Yamaguchi.

Using original music by Peter Kirn or 13th-century English music, sung live by a fine ensemble in the church balcony, Williams creates a fantastical, Hieronymus Bosch-like world, where Saint Lucy (powerfully danced by Janet Charleston), in a green, brocaded robe and leather harness gazes heavenward, while the pack of men surround and finally tether her with her own long blond braids and Saint Anthony Abbot (John Kelly, dancing with lithe elegance, passion, and weight) battles five demon puppets (created by Williams and Eric Wright), manipulated by a Bunraki-style chorus of hooded women in crimson cassocks (Yamamoto, Lake Simons, Takemi Kitamura, Kate Brehm, and Yoko Myoi).

Working with medieval hagiographic consultant Professor Thomas Head, Williams has obviously done extensive research into his subject matter. Even if, like me, you know virtually nothing about the lives of the saints, you sense that his visual images clearly seem derived from historical details, inventively translated into uniquely vivid movement.

The early music, researched by Susan Hellauer, and performed by Lawrence Lipnik, Michael Ryan-Wenger, Kurt-Owen Richards, John Olud, Judith Davidoff, Jacquenline Horner, and Hellauer, richly imagined, whimsical costumes by Michael Oberle and Williams, and superbly modulated dramatic lighting by Carol Mullins create a palpable sense of ancient time and place.

The premiere, "The Portuguese Suite," set to nine recorded fado and other Portuguese songs, captures the cultural phenomenon of reveling in misery. Seven mourning women wail and moan and writhe as if in deep agony, though their faces remain passive. Each of the women dwells in a peak-roofed cubicle with a silhouetted symbol on its door: cock, crescent moon, cross, star, shield, sailboat, and heart (sets by John Bianchi), and wears a heavy-looking black dress, decorated with red embroidery (costumes by Carol Binion).

The story concerns a pair of sailors: one American (Williams), one Portuguese (Andrei Garzón), and the latter's Betrothed (Jennifer Lafferty). Though the narrative is frequently interrupted by long group passages that derail its trajectory, we gather that the American sailor is actually in love with the Portuguese one, who ultimately spurns him. The two sailors wear black pants, arm bands, and floppy hats, and the red paint on their hands gradually leaves blood smears on their bodies.

For all its vibrant dancing and theatrical inventiveness -- Williams has a knack for moving people around the stage in interesting ways -- "The Portuguese Suite" felt distended; each section outlasts the amount of new information it gives us. Perhaps it seemed long following a nearly hour-long opener. Alone, 'Suite' would have made for a less protracted evening. Williams's talent, imagination, and choreographic energy are irrefutable, and we can't wait to see "The Golden Legend" completed. But his youth has not yet taught him to leave us a little hungry for more.


 

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