Christopher Williams's Epic of Martyred Men
If you’re going to demand three hours from your audience, you had better give them something good. The Golden Legend, a new work by Christopher Williams, pulled out all the stops May 12–16 at Dance Theater Workshop. The seventeen-saint pageant had a cast of 46 dancers, puppeteers, and live musicians, plus program credits for “Early Music Research” and “Medieval Hagiography Consultant.” Williams approached some of the most exciting and accomplished men in the field to collaborate on the project. The result was an event not to be missed: Bessie-award winners, creative pioneers, and other dance-world favorites shared the stage in one extravagant concoction. (And tickets were only $10!) Grand, flamboyant, and above all ambitious, The Golden Legend swaggered a bit here and there, but the scale of its vision utterly won me over.
Inspired by the 13th-century Latin text Legenda Aurea Sanctorum, the show illustrates the lives and deaths of selected male saints. The fantastic tales are great fodder for live spectacle. A dragon is slain, a tongue bit off to resist seduction, and a thorn removed from a lion’s paw. Inventive costuming and puppetry (by Williams and six other artists) become integral to the storytelling. Williams embraces medieval sources, incorporating music, text, and courtly theatrical devices of that era, without sacrificing contemporary kitsch or the unique talents of his collaborators. Another ingredient is skin—and lots of it. Exposed, painted, transformed, and costumed, men’s bodies are magnified to saintly heights. But they are also mortal men, earthly and suffering. They are incessantly vocal; they grunt, scream, whisper, and squeal. Their strange sounds permeate the show with distinctly masculine fleshiness.
The format is simple: processional, seventeen tales (broken by one intermission), recessional. As each tale is completed, the saint takes a seat on one of the thrones along the side of the stage, a Heaven-Olympus construction recalling the pagan undertones in Christian legend and in the art of pageantry itself. This rigid structure heightens the sense of grandeur and strings the disparate elements together.
Summaries of the stories were printed in the program, but I’m not sure whether it was better to read them first or enjoy them later. (The couple beside me chose the worst of both worlds, holding their programs to their noses to reference during the show.) I read the notes for the first half beforehand, then watched amused at the clever ways the artists handled the material. For the second half, I read nothing. Blissfully ignorant of what it all meant, I stopped connecting the dots and entered that sensuous world of ritual and camp.
Each scene bore the signature of its performers, but some movement motifs emerged. Most of the saints grabbed one of their feet at some point, winding it through another limb or using it to pull their body over in a somersault. These were weighted, stilted motions, even by fluid movers. If it had symbolic significance, that meaning was unclear, but perhaps they were earning their way to heaven by the bootstraps of their sufferings. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it—Williams does seem to work with movement that feels good. When he dances his choreography (sadly, he was not in this show), he sometimes looks like a child playing in a long skirt. Yes, the movement is limited, but its arcs and spirals are immediately satisfying. Translated onto different bodies, his movement acquires new accents and permutations, while retaining a cohesive vocabulary throughout the evening.
Of so many wonderful performers, a few must be singled out. Jonah Bokaer, former Cunningham dancer, Chez Bushwick co-founder, and Human Rights Award winner, danced with haunting purity as Saint Sebastian. Like delicate tendrils, his limbs sculpted the air and found beautiful, unexpected shapes. His one cutesy aside only underscored irony’s absence in the rest of his solo, making his martyrdom the most tragic. On the other end of the spectrum, but equally glorious, was Gus Solomons, Jr.’s funny and terrifying portrayal of the beheaded Saint Dionysius the Areopagite. A fixture renaissance man in dance for decades, Solomons moved with agitated jerks, back to the audience, his costume adding a good two feet to his height. Muttering crazed nonsense, he turned around suddenly, apparently carrying his disconnected (and still sputtering) head in his hands! What an unforgettable rush!
I must reserve my highest praise, however, for choreographer David Neumann’s tour de force as Saint Nicholas. It’s hard to capture just what was so spectacular about his thumb-sucking, lip-syncing, and macho flexing performance. It was simply and indescribably perfect. One article at a time, he exchanged his puffy shirt and other frivolous items for a more ludicrous Santa Claus outfit, building to his grand finale. With a bright-eyed, utterly sincere face, he finished by delivering a famous dismissal of skeptics. “Virginia, your little friends are wrong—”
The Golden Legend leaves tensions between formality and irreverence imperfectly resolved. In doing so, it stays vibrant, justifying its magnitude instead of collapsing under its weight.