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A Seasoned Performance
By Mae G. Banner

Sara Pearson/Patrik Widrigand Company
Skidmore College Dance Theater, Feb. 8

Salt. Streams of it, showers, arcs and cascades rained down on the stage of the Skidmore College Dance Theater and seemed to hover in the air last Saturday, as Sara Pearson, Patrik Widrig, Katherine Fisher and Lindsay Gilmour probed The Return of Lot’s Wife.

The New York City-based company premiered the 65-minute dance-theater work last month as part of the Joyce Theater’s Altogether Different Festival. Their two Saratoga performances were part of a three-week combined residency at Skidmore and Emma Willard School in Troy.

The dancers poured waterfalls of salt that sparkled in the stage lighting. Sitting up in the top row of the balcony, I could taste salt. The effect was magical.

Pearson, Widrig and their colleagues have made an elemental dance that uses basic materials to explore profound questions imbedded in the Old Testament story. Why was Lot’s wife punished? For disobedience? Curiosity? A tendency to gloat over the fate of her neighbors in the doomed city of Sodom? An unwillingness to divest herself of emotional baggage?

And, by the way, what was her name?

All these questions are broached in a well-crafted weave of movement, monologue, original music and poetry whose separate threads remain distinct, but in balance. Costumes—cotton shirts, denim pants, suspenders—are everyday simple. Set pieces—a couple of tables, a phone, an ironing board, door frames, and a variety of small carpets—are carried on and off unobtrusively by the dancers.

Lot’s Wife unreels in one continuous stream with no intermission. The dancers make the scene changes from the ancient desert to a Brooklyn apartment in semi-darkness, while the caressing voice of Kouross Esmaeli is heard reading Persian verses of the 14th-century Sufi poet Hafiz.

Esmaeli reads in the Farsi language, which sounds a little like Hebrew, a little like Armenian, and altogether mellifluous. Though the program provides a translation, it isn’t needed. The sound suffices to sustain the dance’s atmosphere of mystery.

However, Pearson’s plain-spoken monologues in the character of Lot’s wife are essential. To begin with, she and Widrig retell the old story of how God resolves to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but will spare the honest man Lot and his family. One caveat: As they flee the city, they must not look back.

Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Pearson says, “So, ladies and gentlemen, we ask you. What are we supposed to do with this information?”

What the four dancers do is to create a tight, consistent vocabulary of movement cast low to the ground, marked by frantic changes of direction, punctuated by sudden falls, full of unallayed tension and the unresolved question: What will happen next?

Three in a row, dancers run forward and plop down in a sitting position, one knee bent forward, the other bent back in Arabic fashion. They sit, spring up, turn, and sit again. Or, they run, collapse, rise, and run the other way. Over and over, they repeat movement motifs with ankles crossed, one tortured foot turned in on the other, or wrists crossed behind their backs. Once, with their backs to the audience, they bend double and twist their heads around one leg to look back at us.

While the dancers hurry slowly, Pearson reappears as a Brooklyn housewife who talks to us or calls the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides on the phone to puzzle over her punishment. Her monologues, juxtaposed with the highly patterned dancing, are funny, mystical, and inherently feminist. “How could I leave?” she asks. “I had to pick up the dry cleaning. I had a hairdresser appointment. What about my friends?”

“Men. They don’t look back,” she says. And, finally, “Salt tears. That’s all that’s left of me. He’s a pillar of the community. I’m a pillar of salt.”

Pearson raises two cartons of Morton’s salt high over her head and pours rivers down onto her body. Could she be koshering herself? Is she reclaiming God’s punishment as her own deliberate act? The gesture, repeated in every scene, is funny, agonizing, and beautiful.

Finally, all the dancers carry in trays filled with boxes of salt. They whirl the boxes overhead, so ribbons of salt swirl in the air. Turning and turning, they’re clothed in veils of salt that drift to the floor in four circles, forming a boundary around each dancer.

What is the meaning of this story? Only the questions, which are enough.

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