May 12–16, 2009
Reviewed by Margaret Fuhrer
The Golden Legend. © 2009 Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy DTW
Nothing is as beautifully, compellingly weird as Medieval literature—except, perhaps, dance about Medieval literature. Christopher Williams used early Christian mythology as the basis for his acclaimed 2005 work Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, which depicted 11 female saints, and used it again in his newest dance-theater extravaganza, The Golden Legend. Inspired by a richly eccentric 13th-century text of the same name, Legend is something of a companion to Ursula; its cabaret-style vignettes introduce 17 male saints.
Williams is an excellent curator. All of the collaborators he chose for Legend affirm his pitch-perfect taste. Bits of original music by Gregory Spears and Peter Kirn blend nicely with melodies dating from the 12th to the 15th centuries; wonderful puppets by Eric Wright, Lake Simons, and Williams add a dash of playfulness to some of the sketches; and fantastically elaborate costumes by Carol Binion, Andy Jordan, Ciera Wells, Michael Oberle, and Williams lend the production a gothic opulence. Best of all are the 17 dancers chosen to portray the saints—including Jonah Bokaer, David Neumann, and Gus Solomons jr—who are the saints of today’s dance world. Legend feels like a gala event, both in the scope and number of its participants and in its material extravagance.
Williams does a good job evoking the strange mixture of solemnity and absurdity that characterizes the text of The Golden Legend. His saints are simultaneously hilarious and earnest. A dancer—a saint, no less—might grunt suggestively, suck on his own toe, or grab his crotch; a moment later, however, he’ll recite an intensely religious passage in Latin.
But unfortunately, Legend has few memorable dance moments. One feels odd describing a work that involves a giant antler headdress, five pint-sized demon puppets, and several dead languages as unimaginative, yet the choreography was disappointingly literal. The program notes tell us that after St. Vincent’s body was thrown into a field to be ravaged by wild animals, a raven protected his remains. Onstage, that translates to Vincent (Julian Barnes) writhing around with a raven puppet.
Maybe it’s unsurprising that the dancing seems underdone—it must have been difficult to coordinate rehearsals with all those high-profile cast members. One wishes Williams had been less ambitious, for ultimately the sheer length of the evening was overwhelming. Thrones for each of the saints lined the side of the stage in Legend; after each dancer performed, he took a seat, so that the filled thrones became a kind of hourglass. However good-spirited Williams’ intentions were, when little more than half of those seats were filled after two hours of dancing, it was hard not to feel weary.