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’Tis a gift: Tero Saarinen Company.

Transcendent Simplicity


By Mae G. Banner

Tero Saarinen Company, Boston Camerata

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 23

We came out of the theater God-struck after seeing the U.S. premiere of Tero Saarinen’s Borrowed Light Sunday at Jacob’s Pillow. “Seeing” is insufficient to describe this passionate, weighted evocation of the utopian Shaker community. Hearing was equally integral to the experience, for seven members of Joel Cohen’s Boston Camerata moved among Saarinen’s eight dancers, in song and in silence, in gesture and in stillness, throughout the 75-minute work.

To call Borrowed Light a dance, or even a dance with singing, also is insufficient. It was an illumination of the Shaker ethic and aesthetic. Beyond that, it exposed the struggle of souls striving for salvation and the selfless joy of merging into the community.

I should say that I’m a thoroughly secular person, yet Saarinen’s dance spoke to me, cutting straight to basic human feelings.

Saarinen, whose company is based in Helsinki, Finland, made Borrowed Light in 2004, after becoming fascinated with his study of Shaker life. He says, in program notes, that the piece is about “community and devotion. . . . Total commitment—whether religious, artistic, or political—is fundamentally the same.” The dance, performed only with the Boston Camerata, is presented only when both groups can reconcile their touring schedules.

Lighting is crucial to this work, both factually and symbolically. Designer Mikki Kunttu begins with a shaft of white light emanating from stage left and casting a long shadow before the solemn, expectant figure of a woman in a simple, wide black skirt—Mother Ann Lee, if you like. Other dancers and singers rim one side and the back of the stage, standing shoulder to shoulder on Kunttu’s several wide steps and levels.

The woman begins on a path of heavily weighted steps forward and to the side, her body swinging back like a pendulum with every step. The dance is big, ungainly, clumping, and possessed.

Other dancers join, keeping to a primitive 1-2-3-4 beat, repeated with claps or footstamps. Some songs, such as “In Yonder Valley” or “Simple Gifts” are well-known, but others are rarely heard or even newly uncovered from the Shakers’ oral tradition. Most are mournfully modal, or lilting, like Celtic dances. All have a mysterious aura.

In our region, we’re familiar with Shaker history. Saarinen is never literal, but Borrowed Light hews to the squared-off directness of Shaker construction, so not a step or a word is extra, and all are without nuance, without vibrato. As to the ethic, Saarinen shows the battle between earth-bound life and aspiration through passages of movement with one leg heavier than the other, dragging the dancer down.

Saarinen fills the dance with variety, including passages of fierce joy and even frightening group mania. Changes of pace and mood happen when a male dancer in long frock coat lifts another from behind, or when dancers fall to the ground and yet continue to move by beating their fists on the floor and banging their heavy shoes. A soprano sings “Repentance” and the dancers gather into a huge circle, walking quietly around and around her until they become, visibly, a congregation in a shared rapture.

At a peak moment, one man falls forward. His fingers dance. His hand brushes the ground. He dances under icy blue light, casting a shadow to the sound of the singer’s strange melody, “I have a soul to be saved or lost.” You know the dancer feels these words as he struggles to be upright.

The holy madness climaxes as the dancers and singers ascend the stairs to the hymn “Holy Mother’s Protecting Chain,” and the shaft of white light now shines toward the right.

Crowd Pleasing

New York City Ballet

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 18

In New York City Ballet’s brief season of 18 performances and 25 ballets, the only one to fill the house at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center was Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons. This rough-hewn, lusty ballet, made for NYCB’s Diamond Project and given its local premiere on July 18, was the hit of the season, deservedly so.

Ratmansky gave us a community of dancers—six men and six women—who moved in simple blunt-cut patterns to Leonid Desyatnikov’s folkloric score.

To the sound of co-concertmaster Arturo Delmoni’s violin and the laments sung by mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini, the dancers—couples, solos and small groups—showed us the elemental passages in life: love, loss, marriage, death. Russian Seasons was affecting in its simplicity, its drive to the heart of things.

Even the costumes are powerfully simple—tunics and pants for the men, knee-length dance dresses for the women, all in vibrant jewel colors of purple, wine, red, emerald green. These colors bounced off each other, and, when couples changed partners, they created new, brilliant combinations.

The leading women, Wendy Whelan as the forlorn one whose man did not return from war, and later as the pristine, but reluctant bride; Sofiane Sylve, and Jenifer Ringer; and the men, including a vigorous Albert Evans and a passionate Amar Ramasar, danced the dozen vignettes with peasant courtesy. We saw allusions to folk steps: folded arms, big strides and loud two-footed jumps, and, for the women, an “oy vey” gesture, with tilted head and hands to cheeks. The dancers showed a gentle awareness of each other, as when a dancer touched another’s shoulder to salve the ever-present sadness beneath the gaiety.

Ratmansky made dramatic use of open space and occasional stillness, which set off the action boldly. Here is a choreographer with a clear, welcome point of view.

The program, billed as a “Russian Extravaganza,” included Jerome Robbins’ predatory The Cage (1951) to music of Stravinsky, and his affectionate Andantino (1981) to Tchai-kovsky, as well as the tender balcony scene duet from Romeo and Juliet, (1991), choreographed by Sean Lavery to Prokofiev’s music.

Ratmansky’s stolid peasant wedding was bracketed with the royal wedding of Balanchine’s Firebird, (1949) to Stravinsky’s driving score and with Maria Kowroski as a flashing, magical bird, who helps Prince Ivan defeat the monsters and win his Princess. Here, before color-drenched backcloths by Marc Chagall, the Prince and Princess, all in red satin and sparkling jewels, presided over a joyous party with pie-faced children racing back and forth across the stage, bearing trays piled with sweets. There were flowers and flags, and, the monsters—now chastened—came, too.

Note: this Russian program was repeated in a driving rain on Saturday afternoon. Again, there was a full house. This should tell SPAC and NYCB that good programming trumps bad weather every time.

—Mae G. Banner

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