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Angel Reapers, coming to Proctors on Friday, weds theater and dance to create an R-rated take on the Shakers

by B.A. Nilsson on October 19, 2011

Angel Reapers rehearsal photo by B.A. Nilsson

Shaker leader Ann Lee, who emigrated from England in 1774 with eight followers, was known to her followers as “Mother Ann,” an ironic designation when you consider that she never cared for sexual activity and had children only as the result of a forced marriage—four stillbirths and four kids who lived to be no older than six.

Her community, based in New England and, locally, not far from Albany, took its name from the vigorous shaking members performed in the throes of spiritual ecstasy, which was as close as they (officially, at least) came to getting laid. This tension between carnal asceticism and the sexual imperative is at the heart of Angel Reapers, a theater piece with dance written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and renowned choreographer (and Pilobolus founder and MacArthur Foundation award-winner) Martha Clarke. It plays a single performance on the mainstage at Proctors at 8 PM Friday.

“Alfred approached me about the project in 2005,” says Clarke, speaking by telephone from her home in Connecticut. “He said he’d become obsessed by the Shakers. I looked at him as if he were somewhat cracked. But I have so much admiration for his work that I agreed to do it.” The piece had its first workshop at Lincoln Center not long afterward, “but it was in a very different form, more of a traditional play then. Now there’s much more dance, and I think of it as a tone poem on the Shakers.”

Uhry is best known for his play Driving Miss Daisy, which won the Pulitzer in 1988 and, in his screen adaptation, a 1990 Academy Award. He is also the author of the plays The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Without Walls and the book for the musical Parade.

Clarke has choreographed for the Martha Graham Company and American Ballet Theatre, among others, and has directed many operas and plays, including The Magic Flute and Cosi fan tutte for the Glimmerglass Opera. When I spoke with her, she was just back from Milan, where she is working on a project at La Scala.

Angel Reapers,” she explained, “seemed crazy at first. Then it seemed like an idea that was possible to put on stage. It has become a theater piece with a lot of dance.”

“Also, for me,” Clarked said, “part of this was a chance to explore rhythm. A lot of the movement is very rhythmic, and working with it has been a new experience for me. Everything I do on stage is cinematic, and this could easily become a movie.”

The cast is made up of two actors and nine dancers, all of whom are called upon to dance and sing. At a preview rehearsal in Manhattan, I watched the cast, garbed in T-shirts, slacks and sneakers, play out a couple of scenes with an intensity that transcended the drab rehearsal room. I was expecting something as austere as a Shaker song. What I saw was passionate and fierce, the dancers’ moves swollen with pent-up sexual energy, their movements often accented by percussive feet. And when they did go into song, this underlying energy gave the devotional words an unexpectedly extra level of meaning.

Because of the sexual intensity of the piece and its occasional nudity, the performance isn’t recommended for those under 15. Because it’s so difficult to propagate a community when sex is forbidden, there are but three remaining Shakers in the country. Their story, inevitably, becomes a meditation on repression.

“But the intention of the Shakers,” says Clarke, “was to create a utopian society. There’s something inspiring in their philosophy of craft and farming and sharing within the community. The amazing thing they achieved was a form of matriarchal society during the American Revolution!”

Angel Reapers will be performed at Proctors (432 State St., Schenectady) at 8 PM Friday (Oct. 21). Tickets are $20-$65. For more info, call 346-6204.


The text was edited 10/21 to correct the spelling of “Pilobolus.”