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Pure Gold

The Golden Legend

a dance piece by Christopher Williams
at Dance Theater Workshop, New York City, May 12–16, 2009
acocella_1-081309.jpg
Yi-Chun Woo
Brian Brooks as Saint Stephen, at top, in the recessional from Christopher Williams’s The Golden Legend

The Golden Legend, a compilation of lives of the saints made in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine, the archbishop of Genoa, is not something that would spring to mind as a likely basis for a work of “downtown” dance. That is not because it is a holy book. There is a long tradition of holiness in modern dance (Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, Alvin Ailey, and onward). No, the problem, for adaptation as dance, is that The Golden Legend is so minutely representational and narrative. Jacobus covered more than one hundred fifty saints, and his aim, in each case, was to record all the traditions he could lay his hands on, whether or not they added up to a unified story.

He also had the fantastical turn of mind typical of the Middle Ages. His saints journey over seas in rudderless boats; they convert nations; they retire to the desert and eat spiders for thirty years. When Saint George (the dragon-killer), a Cappadocian tribune, runs afoul of the emperor of Persia, he is placed on a rack and torn limb from limb. This having no effect on him, he is then burned with flaming torches, poisoned, bound on a wheel fitted with knives, and dropped into a pot of molten lead. Each time, he emerges unharmed. Finally, he is beheaded, and this does put an end to him. Medieval Christians loved these colorful stories, and seem to have believed them. According to William Granger Ryan, the translator of the first complete modern English edition,* The Golden Legend is said to have been the most widely read book, except for the Bible, in late medieval Europe. Some one thousand manuscript versions of it have survived—an astonishing number.

Ordinary people of course had no direct access to The Golden Legend, because they were not literate. Their priests read it for them, and sermonized accordingly. In turn, the sermons were heard not just by the cartwright and the wheelwright, but also by painters and sculptors. Apart from the Bible, Jacobus was the primary sourcebook for the sacred art—that is, more or less, the art—of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance: the predellas, the windows, the carvings. Most people saw that art at least once a week, and together with fireside tales, it provided what they had in the way of entertainment. It was something like the movies.

So it was, too, apparently, for Christopher Williams, who created a three-hour dance piece, The Golden Legend, that had its premiere in May at Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea. In his program notes Williams says that when he read Jacobus he was “inspired by the strange, fanciful, and touching passions of the…remarkable individuals” within the book’s pages. He picked out seventeen saints and made for each a short dance-play. The dances are tidy and in some respects conventional. Each has a beginning, a middle, and an end, performed, in the usual case, by a principal dancer—the saint—and an ensemble. Each section poses problems that are solved, and has sorrows and beauties that are known to us, so that we like them better: Saint George meets the dragon, Saint Francis the birds, Saint Sebastian the arrows once again.

Until recently, Williams, thirty-three years old, was best known as a dancer. He has worked for many important choreographers and seems to have favored witty ones: Tere O’Connor, Douglas Dunn, John Kelly, Yoshiko Chuma. But he is also a sort of scholar of theater arts. During his time at Sarah Lawrence, he also spent two years at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where the curriculum included, among other things, training in mime and puppetry, together with a class called “The Mysterious or the Fantastical,” intended, Williams says, to “unleash what each of us is, from before birth to after death.” He has mounted his own puppet shows and also performed in those of Basil Twist and of Dan Hurlin, who was a professor of his at Sarah Lawrence. (There has been a surge of art puppetry in recent years, at least in New York. Those two men are leaders of it, and Williams, when he has time, is a star of it. He was the title puppet in Twist’s superb 2001 Petrushka.) He is also a costume designer of great distinction.

All those traditional theatrical arts— mime, puppetry, costuming—led Williams to storytelling, which has not been of special interest to forward-thinking modern dance choreographers since Merce Cunningham captured the flag from Martha Graham in the 1960s. (George Balanchine, another abstractionist, took over American ballet around the same time—a pincer operation.) Williams was led to narrative also by a passion for medieval art, and this is where The Golden Legend comes in. In 2005 he presented Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, consisting of the stories, drawn from Jacobus, of eleven female saints. Now he has made The Golden Legend, with the men’s tales.

He has studied Jacobus’s book very closely, as one can tell from the thirty-page program (a record, I would say) that accompanies his show. A considerable portion of the program’s text is devoted to telling today’s godless audience who these saints were, and how they lived and died. I doubt that many spectators read this material. Had they done so, they would have had the pleasure of picking up certain small details in the dances. When Saint James the More (later, Saint James of Compostela), played by Aaron Mattocks, reached the end of his earthly journey, his disciples, as Williams writes in the program, laid him on a stone, which then, in recognition of his sanctity, softened like wax and became a sarcophagus for his weary body. Likewise, in the dance that Williams made for his Saint James, the ensemble dancers lie down side by side on their backs and stick their feet up, soles to the sky, forming a kind of platform. Saint James falls onto it, whereupon the ensemble dancers bend their knees, so that his body sags gently toward the earth. If you know the episode from Jacobus, you enjoy this more. But even if you don’t know it, it still seems a rare and ingenious metaphor for the ending of a holy life: relaxation.

In fact, Williams’s greatest achievement in The Golden Legend is that he has truly converted Jacobus’s narratives into the nonnarrative medium of dance. He might have just created some dances vaguely suggestive of a mood or action and then laid narrative material—mime or silent acting—over them. This is what story ballets do much of the time, and he too does it some of the time. But in most of his numbers he has, with great discipline, wrenched out of a long, action-packed tale one or maybe two ideas that would serve as the basis of an actual dance. With Thomas à Becket, for example, it was just the idea of Becket’s being a medieval bishop, and a very confident one, who quarreled with his king. So Williams’s Thomas (David Parker), resplendent in a red chasuble and golden shoes, does a dainty dance to a fourteenth-century rondelus while four masked men slither around on the floor behind him. We know that when the song is over, they will cut off his head. But the idea is a movement idea: Thomas’s uprightness and civility versus the ensemble’s lowdown-ness and animality—the comedy of this, and the menace.

A second example, more thrilling: Saint Laurence, a deacon of Spanish heritage who died in Rome, under the emperor Decius, by being chained to a gridiron and grilled. What Williams seems to have taken from this tale in The Golden Legend—a long one, twelve pages—is just a sense of the vulnerability of the human body, for what he gives us is a dance about skin: how it can be exposed and violated. His Saint Laurence (Luke Miller) is utterly naked and, at the outset, gladly so: he bends over and spreads his cheeks for us. He also goes in for some gay posturing: hand on hip, etc. But then he begins his dance with members of the corps, which soon involves his hurling himself, headlong, into the mass of them. Clearly, they are the flames. They catch him, curl over him, enfold him. They throw him in the air and flip him over. (Jacobus writes that Laurence, dying over the coals, said to Decius, “Thou cursed wretch, thou hast roasted that one side, turn that other, and eat!”)

Between bouts with the ensemble, Laurence comes downstage and stands before us. Before, he thought he was going to have fun; now, with his skin visibly abraded, he looks uncertain. At the end Williams gives him a brilliant three-stage maneuver. First, he points with two fingers to his reddened stomach. (“Look what happened to me.”) Then, those same two fingers rise in the standard priestly gesture of blessing. Finally he puts the two fingers in his mouth, like a child who has burned his hand. More than half of Williams’s saints were martyrs, and some of them die appallingly, but there is nothing quite so bad as the death of Laurence, because he alone didn’t believe it could happen to him.

It must be said that these ideas are not endlessly extensible in choreographic terms. Maybe that is because they are drawn from a narrative source, or maybe Williams’s interest is always more than choreographic. I have now seen three concerts of his. The range, the complication, of his dance ideas is not huge, but he doesn’t try to push it further than it will go. He doesn’t dilute. Rather, he sticks with what he has, which is a talent not so much for the elaboration of design as for the creation of emotionally extreme and, above all, violent movement.

Williams is in a class with the Baroque painters in portraying pain. His saints and their torturers do things we haven’t seen before. They yank their jaws open; they pry their toes apart; they walk on their knees. They twist and twist their bodies, as if they meant to break themselves in two. Between numbers, gibbering women run across the stage, dabbing at the floor with rags, mopping up the blood. But the saints’ pain is not just painful; it is also curious, oblique, something we need to think about, as is appropriate to our skeptical times. Very often, the dancers perform with their backs to us. We know they’re suffering, but we’re still required to find out what the suffering is.

And then there is the saint’s relation to his ensemble, who are usually the demons tormenting him or the men about to kill him. The note of ambiguity in the Thomas à Becket episode—the refined archbishop and his nasty, funny back-up group—returns again and again. Sometimes the struggle between them is explicit. Saint Anthony Abbot, who was the founding father of desert monasticism in Egypt, is hounded by a pack of devils. (The devils are puppets, lying on the bellies of female monks, who thus look as though they are giving birth to these monsters, or having sex with them, or both.) The devils squirm and convulse; they wave long, hose-like penises—some pink, some red, some purple—at the saint.

  1. *

    Two volumes, Princeton University Press, 1955.

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