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Friday, August 07, 2020

Devilish Reaping

From the Vault Dept.: Advances aren’t nearly as interesting as reviews, but this piece looks at a theater piece with dance that presented a fascinating meditation on the Shaker heritage, which is part of the Albany area’s history. I saw the performance that the piece below tried to persuade you to attend, and I recall a small house with an embarrassingly inattentive audience – but there’s no review in my files. We shall content ourselves with this.


SHAKER LEADER ANN LEE, who emigrated from England in 1774 with eight followers, was known to her flock as “Mother Ann,” an ironic designation when you consider that she never cared for sexual activity and had children only as the result of a forced marriage – four stillbirths and four kids who lived to be no older than six.

Production photo by Rob Strong
Her community, based in New England and, locally, not far from Albany, took its name from the vigorous shaking that members performed in the throes of spiritual ecstasy, which was as close as they (officially, at least) came to getting laid. This tension between carnal asceticism and the sexual imperative is at the heart of “Angel Reapers,” a theater piece with dance written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and renowned choreographer (and Piloblus founder and MacArthur Foundation award-winner) Martha Clarke. It plays a single performance at Proctors Theatre at 8 PM tomorrow (Friday).

“Alfred approached me about the project in 2005,” says Clarke, speaking by telephone from her home in Connecticut. “He said he’d become obsessed by the Shakers. I looked at him as if he were somewhat cracked. But I have so much admiration for his work that I agreed to do it.” The piece had its first workshop at Lincoln Center not long afterward, “but it was in a very different form, more of a traditional play then. Now there’s much more dance, and I think of it as a tone poem on the Shakers.”

Uhry is best known for his play “Driving Miss Daisy,” which won the Pulitzer in 1988 and, in his screen adaptation, a 1990 Academy Award. He is also the author of the plays “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” “Without Walls” and the book for the musical “Parade.”

Clarke has choreographed for the Martha Graham Company and American Ballet Theatre, among many others, and has directed many operas and plays, including “The Magic Flute” and “Cosi fan tutte” for the Glimmerglass Opera. When I spoke with her, she was just back from Milan, where she is working on a project at La Scala.

“Angel Reapers,” she explained, “seemed crazy at first. Then it seemed like an idea that was possible to put on stage It has become a theater piece with a lot of dance.” The first challenge for her lay in the casting, although she was helped by her long history of working with talented dancers.

“Several of them I’ve worked with many times before. If you don’t get the right people and the right spirit, it isn’t going to work. Robert Altman said that 90 percent of the challenge is in getting the casting right.” The cast is made up of two actors and nine dancers, all of whom are called upon to dance and sing.

At a preview rehearsal in Manhattan, I watched the cast, garbed in tee shirts, slacks and sneakers, play out a couple of scenes with an intensity that transcended the drab rehearsal room. I was expecting something as austere as a Shaker song. What I saw was passionate and fierce, the dancers’ moves swollen with pent-up sexual energy, their movements often accented by percussive feet. And when they did go into song, this underlying energy gave the devotional words an unexpectedly extra level of meaning.

As the project took shape, Clarke met with Joel Cohen, whose ensemble Boston Camerata issued two acclaimed CDs of Shaker hymns. “He was very helpful,” says Clarke, “but ultimately our music director, Arthur Solari, devised his own arrangements.

“Also, for me, part of this was a chance to explore rhythm. A lot of the movement is very rhythmic, and working with it has been a new experience for me. Everything I do on stage is cinematic, and this could easily become a movie.”

Because of the sexual intensity of the piece and its occasional nudity, the performance isn’t recommended for those under 15. Because it’s so difficult to propagate a community when sex is forbidden, there are but three remaining Shakers in the country. Their story, inevitably, becomes a meditation on repression.

“But the intention of the Shakers,” says Clarke, “was to create a utopian society. There’s something inspiring in their philosophy of craft and farming and sharing within the community. The amazing thing they achieved was a form of matriarchal society during the American Revolution!”

Metroland Magazine, 20 October 2011

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