at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church, March 5

Site-specific performances are big favorites among choreographers and dancers. After all, dance deals with ephemeral figures in space, and dancers love to squeeze themselves into odd little challenging or intriguing shapes. Incorporating the odd little nooks and crannies of the room they’re dancing in is a natural next step: they think of it as making good use of the space, and change minutiae of the choreography from one performance to the next to accommodate the unique elements of different stages. It’s particularly intriguing for them to work in a space that’s not a regular performance venue: it inspires them to look at things in novel ways. So I was not surprised to see dancers coming out of the woodwork in a site-specific dance created by Maggie Kast for the landmark Saint Thomas the Apostle Church in Hyde Park.

Kast has been choreographing modern dances for the past few decades in Chicago, but in the last decade she’s turned to liturgical dance. Oddly enough, despite the church setting, her work at Saint Thomas didn’t have the element of worship necessary to make it true liturgical dance, nor was it part of a service. There were religious overtones and themes, but essentially the church offered an opportunity to explore choreographic possibilities during this evening of music and dance. In fact, part of the fascination of the evening was the way Kast fused modern dance with religious elements.

Kast, who is a member of the Saint Thomas congregation, was approached by the church to create dances to the music of French composer Jehan Alain (1911-1940), who wrote largely for the organ. She created two works, the first a brief duet for herself and Bryan Saner to Alain’s Deux danses a Agni Yavishta, the second a larger work to Alain’s Trois danses. Organist Thomas D. Weisflog, who performed several Alain pieces, flooded the magnificent church with music.

During Deux danses a Agni Yavishta, when Saner popped up in a solo the sudden introduction of movement was like a visualization of the music’s imagery, as if our thoughts had sprung to life. The title refers to the Hindu god of fire, and Saner, leaping straight up over and over, was like a sudden burst of flames licking upward, his angular body in three-quarters profile, his face toward the audience, his arms extended upward and outward, bent at the elbows, his legs extended. But his impish smile lent an element of playfulness and joy to the movement. Kast, a striking dancer with dark features and long white hair, popped up next, standing behind the large, ornate tabernacle like a silver drum she was about to play. But she just trickled her fingers up and down over it, very flamelike, before she danced. When she first appeared, Kast seemed almost monolithic, but her movements and softened facial expression added a playful element, too.

Those leaps by Saner and Kast on the altar seemed very personal, very human. They set up the image of the “I” of the human spirit against the almost overwhelming surroundings of the edifice–and neither was diminished. One noticed, of course, how small a dancer looked against the magnitude of the church, but dancer and architecture both gained by the contrast.

This element was even more prevalent in Kast’s choreography for Trois danses, which took up the second half of the program. The work’s three sections were marked by Mark Iverson reading Paul Eluard’s poems from the pulpit, reciting both the original French and an English translation. These brief texts didn’t always add much to the work, but the reading in the pulpit provided another visual image in a work that was rich with them.

The three sections–“Joies (Joys),” “Deuils (Funeral Corteges),” and “Luttes (Struggles)”–have different moods; and Kast’s dance is essentially abstract with a few plot suggestions, a cycle of creation, death, and afterlife (or the struggle for its attainment). The sequences with a story line were the most memorable because they often incorporated the architectural details of the church, but the abstract movement sections held the piece together. The movements the dancers always returned to, no matter what snippets of plot they followed, were leaps and bends and turns with arms thrust upward, legs bent at the knee and half turned or thrust back and outward. Kast’s dancers seemed to come from everywhere at once, like the music. She accomplished this difficult feat by having her performers–her own company of four plus nine dancers from the community–enter and exit from both ends of the church, and by paralleling the movement on different levels at the same time.

At times Kast used the architecture solely for its dramatic visual possibilities; at others she used the architecture or the “props” of the church as metaphors. In the work’s final image she made the choir loft-balcony a symbol of heaven and the church floor a symbol of hell. The war hero of the second section (who was carried in a funeral cortege up the church aisle on the shoulders of all the dancers) stood almost at the apex of the balcony with his arms outstretched like a cross, now risen to heaven after his death. Directly below him, just as firmly planted, was a wooden cross with stones around the base, a little larger than life-size–but the dancer too loomed large because of his position in the loft. The image was both a literal echo of the architecture and a wonderful metaphor for human faith: I am a rock, I am a cross. Trois danses is full of such moments, part of the reason it’s so rich.

The dancers coming out of the woodwork worked in a similar way. On one level it was striking just to see a large number of people poke arms or heads or parts of their torsos through narrow partitions in the mammoth wooden altarpiece in a constantly changing tableau of sinewy body parts glimpsed for only moments at a time. But they were also reaching out toward the rest of the dancers joyfully romping on the space before the altar, and their gestural improvisation inevitably took on emotional overtones. A hand with an open palm looked like an appeal for help, and an arm suddenly thrusting, fist clenched, looked like a grasping gesture of avarice or anger.

There were many memorable moments in Trois danses, beginning with its opening pageantry. The dancers climbed down rope ladders on either side of the balcony at the rear of the church and marched down the aisle with large banners they waved in sweeping gestures over the floor. (Later these banners were used to cover the fallen hero.) Dancers popped joyfully out of a small doorway next to the altar, leaping and twirling in sheer delight at their own physicality. Dancers periodically appeared in the pulpit on the wall surrounded by elaborate scrollwork. There was only room for two or three at most, but they filled the small space with chains of movement as they hung from the top, dangled over the banister, or formed chains of hands across it. In one of the most dramatic moments of the piece, two dancers were draped like corpses over the edges of the pulpit, and Iverson came out between them to recite the text: “Twenty-eighth November nineteen forty-six / We shall not grow old together / This is one day / Too many: time overflows / My love so light now weighs like agony.” He could have been a minister eulogizing the dead, or the president of a war-torn nation delivering an address over a corpse-strewn battlefield.

This second section, with its “dolors of war” imagery, was the most moving. The dancers often carried one another in a sort of pieta pose. These “wounded” were tended by “loved ones” grieving at their injuries or deaths, played with just the right degree of tenderness to make the bittersweet scene believable. Dancers know only too well the fragility of the human body, so who better to portray that, with a heartfelt softness to their cradling. It certainly seemed to engage the audience, who gave Trois danses a standing ovation. Sunday service will never be the same, for it will probably carry afterimages of dancers moving in and through the church’s various nooks, like an echo of the organ music.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Frederking.