Festival of Organ and Dance

Kast and Company

at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church, March 2 and 3

This year’s “Festival of Organ and Dance” in-cluded Maggie Kast’s third installment in her series of dances to be performed at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church. Forgoing a religious theme this year, Kast focused on dance–on moving large groups through the vast spaces of a landmark Catholic church in Hyde Park, creating a flow of movement as steady as a river and bringing the overbearingly ornate church a spark of lightness and breath.

Kast uses 17 dancers with various levels of training in Five Dances. She scatters them throughout the church: falling off the communion rail into the arms of other dancers, clambering into the pulpit, climbing up a rope ladder into the choir loft, hiding behind the silver tabernacle on the altar, cartwheeling down the side aisles, running and leaping in a loop around the church. Many of these movement ideas have appeared in previous years, but now they have a different quality. In Kast’s earlier, liturgical pieces dancers crawling into a pulpit seemed faintly sacrilegious at first, but also audacious in the way playful children can be. It was a take on Catholicism 30 years after Vatican II that playfully nipped at the heels of a once illustrious but now stodgy institution.

Because Five Dances doesn’t have a religious subject, the movement doesn’t have a sacrilegious echo. It comes across simply as dance, and since the most unusual aspect here is the setting, Five Dances seems a meditation on large, decorated spaces. Caryn Weglarz’s costumes cleverly pick up on the change in tone: in previous years the dancers wore loose tunics and pants in colors as vibrant as those of children’s clothing, but this year their costumes looked like workmen’s clothes made of a dull gray but glittering cloth–like sackcloth with sequins.

In Five Dances the church is less a setting than a prop. Many dances have been built around something the dancers play with, such as the scarves and bolts of cloth in Isadora Duncan’s dances. The danger in “prop dances” is that they’ll simply collapse into a list of all the movements that can be done with the prop. Saint Thomas the Apostle Church is an extraordinary prop: it was constructed in the high old Catholic style with a carved pulpit, a towering tabernacle, and an elaborate altar under a canopy held up by marble pillars in front of a carved wooden rood screen. Many of the images in previous years used these architectural features and objects to help tell the story: a forest of arms sticking through holes in the rood screen recalled drawings of hell in which people amid flames beseech help. But in previous years these images were usually called up and then just dropped as another image was developed. It seemed Kast took a child’s delight in playing with the church–picking up one toy, then going on to another.

Five Dances doesn’t delight in the church so much as reflect and use it. The first section, “The Primitives,” rambles through the whole space, but Kast always directs the eye so that the viewer rambles along with the dance; she creates a sense of steady invention rather than delighted dashing. Other sections focus on specific areas of the church. In “Those Americans” two brash young men dance on top of the communion rail like sailors on leave in a musical. In “At the Ballet” a dancer with sinuously weaving arms hides behind the tabernacle; at another point the dancers become an audience, hidden behind the communion rail, who occasionally burst into applause, their hands suddenly appearing above the rail. “An Exalted Ritual” has a deliberate, meditative rhythm, as the dancers pass lighted candles down the center aisle of the darkened church, then pass them up rope ladders to the choir loft where they’re lined up on the ledge. Five Dances ends with audience participation: dancers and audience perform a simple folk dance in a huge circle hugging the walls of the church.

Five Dances doesn’t have the drive or the story that dances in previous years have had, but the choreography is much more satisfying. Kast is beginning to master this new form–I particularly like the way she combines dancers with various levels of training. The audience gets the kinetic thrill of seeing many moving bodies, and a different kind of kinetic thrill from seeing a few finely wrought moving bodies.

Thomas Weisflog accompanied Five Dances on the organ, playing Calvin Hampton’s work of the same name. Weisflog played several other dance pieces on the organ, such as a Chassidic dance and a rigaudon, but the best of the musical pieces was Herman Berlinski’s atonal The Burning Bush, which dramatizes Moses’ meeting with his God. Another dance by Kast and Company, Y’rushalayim, which used fewer performers than Five Dances and was set only in the church’s sanctuary, didn’t have the impact of the larger piece.

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