Portrait Art

Christopher Williams
Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins & The Golden Legend (excerpted solos)
The Portuguese Suite (world premiere)
presented by Danspace Project
New York City
May 18, 2006

by Nancy Dalva
copyright ©2006, Nancy Dalva

Christopher Williams was blessed with the ideal venue for his two-part program of dances dealing, in turn, with the lives of saints and the love of sinners. In the lofty confines of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, we saw that pain comes not from God, but from man. For despite the choreographer’s unerring evocation of the underlying erotics of pain and intrusion that informs even the most chaste hagiography, this was a program more sacred than profane.

The program first introduced a work-in-progress, a companion-piece to last year’s “Ursula and the 11, 000 Virgins,” from which two episodes were also included. Just as these are depictions of female saints, the new piece will eventually consist of 15 portraits of male saints, their stories drawn from a 13th century text , “The Golden Legend,” by Jacobus de Voragine. (The program notes are excellent.) In the new work, the choreographer is again drawn to stories that transpire at a long remove from logic. You see strange things and strange creatures: demons, monkey-men, giants. Things, then, from the land of puppetry which the choreographer studied alongside his dance studies, transiting from Sarah Lawrence College outside New York City to the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He has worked in both worlds, with a singular result: He makes his people into vessels such as puppets are, but then they fill themselves up with themselves. Drama, but without acting.

The imagery of this work is fantastical and transformational, just as the Saints themselves were transformational, and transformed. (As water into wine, girl into saint. ) On this program, the stories of Saint Barbara and Saint Lucy alternated with three new profiles of men: Saint Christopher, Saint James the Greater, and Saint Anthony Abbott. The latter was portrayed by John Kelly with a great fidelity. How utterly convincing he was, exerting the allure, the fascination, and the scariness of someone in open communication with demons and angels! Amid the other refined portrayals, Janet Charleston played Saint Lucy. Again, as last year, she pierced one to the core with her little mewing cries of “No, no. No, no,” as her torturers set upon her. Nothing brutal was depicted; just the joint menace of the brutalizers, who are sanctioned to inflict pain. (I don’t know that there is anything more pornographic than that.) That this all transpires to the most divine music, sung live, is a not ironic, but uplifting. Complementing the ancient sacred songs that, without any dance or theater at all, would have made a complete evening, were new passages by the composer Peter Kirn. The singers included members of The Anonymous 4 and of Lionheart.

Christopher Williams stints on nothing. Just so, each piece was costumed and set with imagination, skill, and technical invention. All the fine lighting was by Carol Mullins. The eerie and beautiful costumes for the saints were by Michael Oberle and the choreographer, who also, with Eric Wright, made the creepy little puppets that depict demons. For the Portuguese Suite, John Bianchi designed moveable confessionals, and Carol Binion the costumes and “mechanisms.” Their designs are integral to the choreography in the same way that what people are wearing in paintings is integral to their composition. There is no separating one from the other. The visual richness evokes the medieval miniatures which apparently inspired the first half of the program: illuminated manuscripts. Indeed, the choreographer himself could be a figure out of a French Book of Hours. He’s the exact type. There is, however, also something a bit darker, more or less along the lines of Hieronymous Bosch. Not that the pieces look like Bosch; they do not. But they have some of the feeling of a Bosch, some of the threatening weirdness, some of that mix of the sacred (the saint) and the profane (her torturers).

All of the work is narrative, and without commentary. This also holds true in the second more didactic piece, “The Portuguese Suite,” in which two male mariner lovers, an American and a Portugese, are beset by a female choir lamenting at the sight of their embraces. But still, this is a situation of “sunt lacrimae rerum.” All feel, but none are faulted for their feeling. Not the sailors, yet also not the women, who are sympathetic. This is in part a function of the music, which is a woman’s voice. Throughout, a recording of the late Amalia Rodrigues is played. Her art is “fado,” songs that convey the pains and pleasure of life, of death, of all things fated for humans, love of course included. Like a fado singer, Williams, too, is a dramatist, an historian, a story teller, and all without a shred of distancing, commentary, self-reference, or alienation effect or affect. The choreographer himself portrays the American sailor in his new work, with Andrei Garzon taking the role of the Portuguese. They are near physical twins, so that all of their movement has symmetry, and a reciprocity reinforced by mirroring. They take turns not only leading, but also in sometime repelling and sometime rapelling, one off the other. Their lifts are harmonious balancing acts. Their partnership is not measured, but elastic. Each takes, each gives, each is met more than half-way by the other. In other words, they dance.

First photograph: the choreographer.
Second photograph: From "The Portuguese Suite."

Volume 4, No. 20
May 22, 2006

copyright ©2006 Nancy Dalva



©2006 DanceView