Morgan Thorson

October 16, 2009

Morgan Thorson
DiverseWorks Art Space

Houston, TX

October 16–17, 2009

Reviewed by Nancy Wozny


Photo: Jessica Cressey, Chris Schlichting, and Hannah Kramer in
Heaven. Photo by Justin Bernhaut, courtesy DiverseWorks. 

When the audience enters the all-white space for Morgan Thorson’s new work Heaven, the service has already begun. A tight procession of nine moves through the space in a dirge of tiny steps, which takes its time unfolding into various patterns. By the time the first mover breaks away to play the organ, the spell is cast, the audience entranced.

The motions of praise, devotion, and prayer inform Thorson’s rich movement vocabulary, from embodying spirit with raised hands to davening, the Jewish prayer form of rhythmic bowing. The choreographer paints a sacred landscape rich with contradictions, from wild abandon to control and conformity, from the ecstatic to the contemplative, and finally from individual expression to the collective power of a congregation.

Thorson’s dancers double as hymn and rock singers, and perform multi-part harmony with breathtaking clarity. In one captivating solo, Elliott Durko Lynch sings sweetly into the white glare of a hanging light. Later, in one of the most quiet and powerful moments, Karen Sherman wraps herself in ace bandages, a poignant homage to the careful placing of ceremonial garments. Sherman captures the transformative nature of these delicate gestures in her intimate sense of timing and punctuation.

The Minnesota-based duo known internationally as LOW created the score from their own brand of mesmerizing singing, tape loop harmonics, and eerie organ music. Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk not only sing but also move as members of the makeshift congregation. Their haunting anthems give the piece its aural punch and sonic unity.

Lenore Doxsee’s lighting conjures an exalted space—sacred but not precious—within DiverseWorks’ customary black box. Glittery hanging beads adorn the elegant white room designed by Doxsee, Emmett Ramstad, and Thorson. Ramstad’s white and tan costumes hint at religious garments without being literal.

Thorson luxuriates in profound acts of total surrender. At one point Jessica Cressey breaks off from the tribe in her own powerful dancing-in-tongues solo, eventually luring the ensemble into her soul possession. The dancers stop on a dime to belt out the glorious hymn “Not Made from Hands.” Stalwart voices, communing around a shared unnamed belief, close the piece with a bang. The hymn ends, the stage goes black, and bright white lights shine on the audience, signaling the “Go, the mass has ended” call to disperse.

There’s something particularly significant about Heaven premiering in Houston, the home of numerous mega churches, TV evangelists, mosques, temples, and a shiny new Catholic cathedral. Thorson merges the worlds of modern dance and the Bible belt with grace, minimalism, and reverence toward spiritual tradition.