Pearson Widrig photo by Tom Caravaglia
If only dance was given the opportunity to be huge more often. So rarely are choreographers given even close to what is needed to bring the enormity of their vision into reality. It takes, if you will excuse the appropriation, a village. For once, we got it.
Every now and again, there are communal outpourings that bring individuals together in a shared experience that gives rise to a heightened awareness. The Kumbah Mela, a gathering of saints every 12 years in India; a peace march in Washington; Woodstock. For two nights, Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig orchestrated a dance equivalent on Paradise Pond in Lewiston, Maine as part of the 25th anniversary season of the Bates Dance Festival.
From an inspiration by Festival director Laura Faure, this transformation by Pearson/Widrig is an epic journey. In the beginning, a lone female figure in vivid yellow and red is ferried across the water, away from the audience seated in a stone amphitheater. She is met on the far side by a mob of dancers flinging and rushing as if unleashed for the first time in centuries. Though viewed by the audience from 200 feet away, the energy unleashed by the dancers hits one in the gut like the bass boom from a rock band. When the dancers finally disappear into the dark, the audience is asked to leave the amphitheater and begin its own journey around the pond.
There is no beginning nor end, no right way to take this trip. All around dancers and musicians create a flaming, passionate performing village. One may go slowly for the next forty-five minutes watching dancers on a balcony pour flowers to the ground below; or step away in surprise from underworld specters scrabbling in the dirt under a dark clump of bushes. One might choose to circle the pond twice in the same amount of time, taking in what catches the eye or stops the heart. No one is viewing Paradise Pond in the same way. Such is life.
And such a life Pearson/Widrig have brought forth--clearly with the participation of a very devoted cast. Performers become one with enormous boulders; a grove of trees is the setting for a lovers’ tryst; viewers pass down a darkened path bordered by rows of silent men and women dressed in white, sitting in chairs, repeating an extraordinary/ordinary ritual. And then, gorgeous and terrifying--the ropes: ten dancers swinging, dropping, flying through the air from long ropes hanging fifteen feet from branches in a stand of tall pines.
Everywhere one turns there is a feast: extreme dancing on platforms built into the pond; ghostly silhouettes on a boat hold lanterns while gliding over the lake; a chorus of three women pour water from tubs, recalling figures on a Grecian urn.
On opposite sides of the pond are two shallow reflecting pools. It is as if one has walked through a movie screen and right into the movie--into an endlessly repeating, but slightly varying segment of a movie. In one pool, a man and woman coil and spring. In the other, from behind a stone wall at the back of the pool, a woman's hands suddenly appear. The expressiveness in this simplest of gestures communicates more than is often seen during an entire evening in the theater.
In a large field an army of children drum and chant, while circling a giant luminous cube. Inside the cube the shadows of two children rise and fall. Just farther on, six dancers behind the plate glass window of a pottery studio, endlessly drape and pose in a disconnected silent unison.
Robert Een's astonishing score for sixteen vocalists and eight instrumentalists performed live, fills the air—insistent and ecstatic. At one point near the end of the hour, (was this journey really only an hour in length?) the audience turned its collective head to see the musicians so unearthly was the beauty of the sound.
The costumes by Melody Eggen are the colors of fire: reds, yellows and oranges, with some ghostly whites, evocative of both some ancient faraway place, as well as a time that is yet to be. Paradise Pond has elements of a modern-day Babel. But what arises is more like a not-too-distant future--when cultures having borrowed enough from each other have created new ways of speaking. History becomes ritual--both broken and renewed.
It is in the very last image of this extraordinary piece, however, that true transcendence comes. The audience now gathered back at the amphitheater watch as the main corps of dancers throw themselves with the abandon that comes from the most exacting precision, over each other-- from one side of the platforms to the very edge of the other, the inky water always just inches away. Then the dancing slows. And what happens is this: From the darkness of the far shore, pieces of fire, of light, rise into the night sky. There is a gasp, a moment of disbelief –- beauty defying gravity -- first one, then three, then twenty, then more. The fires float like northern lights—not down to us on earth—but up to heaven. We rise with them, briefly, but still, for once, together, rising up.
© Karin Levitas 2007