in: Reviews

July 15, 2012

Tension to Stillness in Borrowed Light


Natasha Lommi, Annika Hyvärinen, Maria Nurmela, and Sini Länsivuori of Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light with The Boston Camerata; photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance

Jacob’s Pillow, the nation’s only dance festival designated a National Historic Landmark, is celebrating its 80th anniversary this summer. More than any other American dance enterprise, the 10-week annual explosion of culture features opportunities to hear live music that frames, accompanies, and has inspired great dance.

This weekend included a talk by dance luminary Judith Jamison discussing the way Menotti’s opera Amahl & the Night Visitors gave her a first glimpse of her eventual mentor Carmen de Lavellade, a special presentation featuring three generations of men dancers who sometimes sang as they danced, and classes for current students in open studios with live musicians. Most noteworthy among the dozens of offerings was the revival of Borrowed Light, in which musicians were fully integrated into the movement, as well as the sound design, of an important locally-inspired contemporary masterwork.

On Friday night, eight singers of the Boston Camerata performed with Tero Saarinen’s excellent company of eight dancers based in Helsinki, Finland. (Today is the final performance.) Saarinen was invited by Executive and Artistic Director Ella Baff to revive Borrowed Light, which made its U.S. debut at the Pillow in 2006 to great acclaim. This work has continued to evolve and become more profound since its French premiere in 2004, as the two ensembles have now toured 11 countries together, and deeper relationships have formed among the artists.

The performances took place in the spacious Ted Shawn Theatre (“America’s first theater for dance”) in the center of the Pillow grounds, which encompass 163 wooded acres in the Berkshire hills of Becket, MA. This was an ideal venue for at least two reasons: the work was inspired by Shaker songs, many of which were originally sung in the Berkshires (local sites include Hancock Shaker Village and Enfield, CT), and the wood-paneled space itself acted as a resonator for both the a cappella vocal selections and body percussion. Traditional Shaker meeting-room architecture included special wooden floors that could be tuned, like a drum, so the stage was enhanced to bring out percussive footwork that sometimes preceded, and often acted in counterpoint to the vocal selections.

In a post-performance discussion, Joel Cohen, director emeritus of Boston Camerata, talked about the development of the work as an organic process: “Tero allows things to grow and gives notes to the singers after every performance, so each night is different, due to ongoing conversations.” Cohen described his work with the Camerata during their 1994 Shaker recording project, which involved primary research and song transcriptions done at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker colony near Poland Spring, Maine. The choreographer stumbled upon a copy of this recording, and sought out the Camerata for a live collaboration. Cohen and current Music Director Anne Azéma offered a choice of approximately 200 pieces but strongly encouraged the inclusion of Simple Gifts, due to its importance to American dance, and the unusual Holy Mother’s Protecting Chain, which closes the work with a soprano solo by Anne Azéma that evokes Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784). Cohen recalled that after singing this song for women at Sabbathday Lake, “Sister Frances [one of the last living Shakers] said, ‘You know, Mother Anne was in the room with us.’”

Borrowed Light is loosely structured in two parts, which are defined by light. Each began in silence, with a single dancer in darkness, then lit by a single instrument from offstage right. The rest of the ensemble framed many dances by sitting or standing around the edges of the stage on a stark, black series of wide steps, recalling the benches placed around the edges of large Shaker meeting rooms. Halfway through each part, the black-and-white effect created through judicious use of spotlights and backlights on the front of the stage gave way to a warmer, brighter presentation, in which an illuminated wooden backdrop, symbolizing the wall of a meetinghouse, added both light and color to the scene.

The first section is structured around 12 Shaker songs featuring clear, strong solos from sopranos Azéma and Deborah Rentz-Moore, baritone Donald Wilkinson, and tenors Timothy Leigh Evans and Daniel Hershey. As in traditional Shaker practice, most songs have two sections, each of which were repeated without ornamentation, and then were often taken up by a larger group. The most familiar tunes, such as In Yonder Valley framed lesser-known songs including wordless marches (sometimes notated in Shaker sources as “Lodel, lodel,” and sometimes left up to the singer). Tero Saarinen developed a series of highly expressive rhythmic patterns, including several 4/4 and 2/4 passages for his four female dancers and a striking 5/4 motive for the men, used at the beginning, center, and end of the work. The 5/4 phrase was synchronized with the steady beat of the duple-meter music but created a hypnotic pattern of slowly shifting accents that built up tension both visually and aurally.

All of the performers wore heavy black shoes, the men with slight heels, and the women with laces. All eight dancers wore leather-belted hybrid black garments evoking the long-sleeved flared coat worn by Merce Cunningham as the revivalist preacher in Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring. The singers wore simpler black attire, and joined in walking, dancing, and stomping in lines and circles, as appropriate to the song lyrics.

The Boston Camerata and Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light; photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance

The Boston Camerata have mastered both the difficulties inherent in extended unison passagework and the flexibility required to vary the speed continuously of a rhythmic ostinato. Azéma told the audience that the choreographer’s notes affect both vocal placement and breathing, in that “we sustain the dancers by what we give back to them.”

The most striking men’s selections were the trio of songs grouped together: I Have a Soul to be Saved or Lost, Fall on the Rock, and the powerful Voices of the Angel of Mercy danced primarily by three men, lifting and spinning each other from behind by the belts around their waists. The first section concluded with a pair of songs featuring the women: Virgins Clothed in a Clean White Garment and Verdant Grove (which had never been sung outside of the Shaker community until transcribed for this production for soloist Margaret Frazier).

During the incessant, quick repetitions in Virgins, a female trio of dancers presented an ecstatic dance that combined visual references to the young Pioneer Bride’s first solo in Appalachian Spring with stomping and jumping motives that brought out rhythmic phrases in the song. The final selection began a fifth up, in a striking soprano tessitura, and was the first to develop a narrative element rooted in the Shaker love of ecstatic trance. The dancers began to move in a more frantic way, introducing more variation into what had been a fairly strict musical and physical unison. Some displayed wide eyes, distressed facial expressions, and seemed to stagger through the movement, only to (mostly) recover by the third repetition of the song.

The second section of the work followed attacca, framed by similar lighting cues, and beginning with a haunting solo danced by Annika Hyvärinen to  Jane Sheldon’s spare rendition of Simple Gifts. Choreographer Saarinen explained the reason for his choice of the extremely slow tempo: “She is thinking, ‘Am I on the right path?’ and is doubting her choice to join this community.” This movement is one of the purest expressions of Saarinen’s goal for the piece; he has woven together ‘two communities of power” in order to “examine the sacrifices one has to make to achieve common goals.”

Although the music and visual design of the work is clearly based in Shaker tradition, Saarinen emphasizes elements evoking universal truths, such as stairs (“striving for a something better”), simple uncolored interior light (“a pure form of being”), a conscious integration of gender groups (“valuing equality”), and the inclusion of circles, clapping, and stomping throughout the work (“evoking the ritual aspects found of all human dance”). Music Director Azéma agrees that the incorporation of these natural, inborn percussive responses “felt very natural to the singers,” and cautions “we are used to the [unnatural] quiet of the 19th-century concert hall.”

Maria Nurmela of Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light with The Boston Camerata; photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance.

Two of the most dramatic moments in Borrowed Light take place in the final third of the piece: a sometimes violent, sometimes tender duet between the expressive Pekka Louhio and the physically dominant Henrikki Heikkilä (which might be titled “I want…/ you can’t have…) to a mostly wordless Turning Shuffle Tune; and the introduction of vocal amplification and sound effects based on reverberating echoes of the full choir, beginning with tenor Ryan Turner’s poignant presentation of The Great Wheel. The latter movement had a distinct musical development, with danced variations building as the intensity and layering of sound increased. From this point on, the audience and the hall itself became part of the performance, and Saarinen remarked later that the Ted Shawn Theatre provided a more satisfying resonance for this climactic song than any other. The Great Wheel began with a simple duet, increasing in speed as the men contributed syncopated eighth-note rhythmic patterns on rhymed words such as “portion” and “ocean.” The women dancers entered on the fourth repetition as the stomping patterns intensified and increased in speed. This dissolved into a striking spoken/whispered fugue enhanced by echoes broadcast around the audience, overlaid by 3/4 patterns and an inexorable crescendo resulting in the collapse of several of the dancers.

Azéma remarked during the post-performance discussion that she was “afraid of loosing the tactile quality of the voice by amplifying it” but was won over by the excellent sound design of Heikki Iso-Ahola, who engineered this portion of each live performance. Also singing miked, Azéma continued with a stirring rendition of Mother’s Warning while dancers pulled and dragged each other from the central floor. Tonic and open-fifth drones were employed by the male voices underneath Mother Anne’s Song and Encouragement. The penultimate selection, O Will You Sing Another Song, climaxed with circular movements evoking the century-old masterpiece Le Sacre du Printemps, with its “Spring Rounds”, 5/8 patterns, and one female dancer excluded and marked as a “chosen one.” All this complexity was overlaid onto a hypnotic, intense presentation of the basic a cappella tune in 4/4, accompanied by patterns derived from the song beat on the floor. Standout soloists soprano Jane Sheldon and dancer Natasha Lommi were featured in several similar parts of the work to illustrate Saarinen’s philosophical starting point for Borrowed Light: “struggle is a part of life.”

Architect Mikki Kunttu, who has enjoyed a “fruitful and long collaboration” with Saarinen, made the most of his lighting and set design by creating a variety of beautiful images through backlighting, individual spotlights from overhead (on solo singers) and through fog from offstage left and right (on solo dancers). One of the most memorable effects was a blurred chain of gently interwoven arms (or singers and dancers) that preceded the final song Holy Mother’s Protecting Chain. The vocal arrangement of this song concluded with a deep, sustained octave, against which the voices gently rocked us into stillness.

Laura Stanfield Prichard is a regular pre-concert lecturer for Boston Baroque, the Berkshire Choral Festival, and the Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies. She sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and has recently edited eight orchestral scores for Musikproduktion Höflich in Munich.

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