Dance Alloy: Pope Joan

October 13, 2000

Gillian Beauchamp in Mark Taylor’s Pope Joan.
Photo courtesy Dance Alloy

Dance Alloy

Byham Theatre
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

October 13?14, 2000

Reviewed by Karen Dacko

Initiating its twenty-fifth anniversary season, the six-member Dance Alloy, directed by Mark Taylor, ventured into new artistic territory with mixed results. It presented Taylor?s Pope Joan, a fifty-minute dance oratorio, conceived by composer Anne LeBaron and co-produced by Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.

According to a medieval legend, Joan disguised herself as a Benedictine monk to acquire an education. Elected pope in 856, she later fell in love with a Vatican guard. Discovered when she gave birth to a son during a papal procession, she was executed in 858.

Despite the Dark Ages reference, the swift-paced production with its deconstruction of a poem cycle by Enid Shomer, its leather-clad cast, postmodern dance vocabulary, and percussive, jazzy musical outbursts has a contemporary edge that fixated on Joan?s carnality.

Departing from the Alloy?s starless policy, Joan thrust an adequate Gillian Beauchamp into the leading role, which was shared with strong soprano Kristin Norderval. The women bore a remarkable likeness to one another that was accentuated through similar hairstyles. The choreography clearly melded the two performers: As Beauchamp posed, arms outstretched sideways, Norderval stepped behind her and assumed the same stance while Beauchamp lowered her arms and exited.

Joan?s fleeting solo dance passages were less satisfying.

Joan is too often flanked by the ensemble, or she is locked in grappling caresses?more dispassionate than sensual?or poses with her lover (Michael Walsh, a powerful presence) wrapped around her knees. Consequently, her independent strength never emerges.

Memorable imagery is generated by manipulation of long poles that reference the Vatican guard. These poles form arches, crucifixes, accusatory fingers, and a roiling mattress. In one scene, Joan lies on the floor as the ensemble circles, poles directly aimed at her abdomen. Withdrawn simultaneously, the plunger-like effect produces a telling theatrical moment.

Completing the program were Taylor?s Province (1989), which featured role-reversal partnering for Elizabeth Swallow and André Koslowski, and George Crumb?s Ancient Voices of Children (1970), an audience-challenging non-dance offering.