Sarah Michelson pushes her dancers to heroic limits in a work about faith and belief.
"Out of dark came light." These are just a few of the words playwright/director Richard Maxwell wrote to accompany "Devotion," a work choreographed by Sarah Michelson for his New York City Players, now performing at the Walker Art Center.
And the nearly two-hour effort, illuminated by countless theatrical lights of all sizes, delivers upon this simultaneously simple and epic promise. "Devotion" delves into the deepest shadows (literal and literary) in order to reveal, and upend, the symbolic meanings, idiosyncracies of faith, and enduring iconic images that shape belief.
The heroic performers (who often dress and move like Olympic athletes) push their physical limits through steadily accumulating layers of repetitive movement and patterns in an environment where several forces compete for sensory domination. At times "Devotion" is an endurance test for the artists and audience alike but in the end that is its essential, hard-won beauty.
Sitting at a desk in the audience, Michelson delivers Maxwell's text with a matter-of-fact tone. Familiar yet modernized stories of biblical figures interweave with snippets of personal experience. Paradise, fear, perfection and freedom figure into the telling. When Michelson falls silent, we hear haunting music from Pete Drungle and the operatic "Dance IX" by minimalist Philip Glass.
The dancing that occurs within the stark visual setting is remarkable. Rebecca Warner as the physical embodiment of the "Narrator" works her way through Michelson's unadorned blend of pedestrian, athletic and technical movement with calm precision. She later appears in the choreographic equivalent of a travelling tongue twister with Nicole Mannarino ("The Spirit of Religion").
The ethereal, reed-thin Non Griffiths, a 14-year-old who has a Bessie Award for her work with Michelson, has a surprisingly powerful presence, which is important since she carries the big role of "Mary" to James Tyson's barely-hinged "Jesus." And Eleanor Hullihan's "Eve" is a dynamic feminine spirit who seeks to sustain Jim Fletcher's "Adam," a man worn down by his Sisyphean burden. Their duets are laced with a potent blend of optimism and doom.
As the work comes to a quiet close (Warner touches the ground in reverence) some of the final words we hear are "invincible," "taut," "voluminous," "divided" and "kind." All of these, and so many more, aptly describe the indelible experience that is "Devotion."
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.