a gift: Tero Saarinen Company.
Mae G. Banner
Saarinen Company, Boston Camerata
Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 23
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.
York City Ballet
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
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
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.