By Mae G. Banner
Pearson/Patrik Widrigand Company
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.
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
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?”
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,
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