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.
Elsewhere, the torture, as in a dream, is vague, only marginally torturous. Saint James’s nemeses, when he meets them, are just seven black-cloaked lumps sitting on the stage to his right. But soon they start hopping in his direction—thunk, thunk, thunk—on their bottoms. Eventually they stand and shed their cloaks. I don’t think they are tormentors. I think they are rocks, because that is the function they serve at the end, when they do the trick of sticking their feet in the air to form a bier for the saint. Still, they call him to his death.
The variety, from section to section, seems endless, partly because, as in a sonnet sequence, a strict set of rules—a saint’s life, a soloist with a small ensemble, an average duration of ten minutes—creates a situation in which variation looks especially striking. But even without the tight casing, the impression of plenitude here would be dazzling. The show is a wonderland. I have described one set of puppets, but there were many: Saint Vincent de Paul’s raven, Saint Jerome’s lion, Saint Francis’s birds. There was even a miniature Jesus. (He popped up from between the antlers of a talking deer encountered by Saint Eustace in the woods.) The puppets are controlled by different mechanisms—poles, strings, hands—to do not just big things such as walking and flying but also tiny, precise things. When the birds whom Saint Francis (Charley Scott) has befriended misbehave, he reproaches them, and these little creatures, maybe four inches tall, hang their heads in shame.
Then there were the outfits. Not all the costumes in the show were as interesting as in previous Williams concerts. Some of the anchorites’ clothes looked like miscellaneous hula skirts. I attribute this to the fact that for The Golden Legend, the most elaborate production Williams has ever mounted, he used four costume designers besides himself. Still, there were triumphs—of engineering, for one thing. Saint Dionysius the Areopagite (Gus Solomons Jr.) sidles out of the wings with his back to us. He is very tall, even without a head. On top of his neck there is only a bloody stump. By now, more than two hours into the show, we’re used to decapitation. But what a surprise when the saint finally turns around, and we see his arms sticking out of his jacket, holding Gus Solomons’s presumably severed head—an effect achieved by raising the shoulders of the jacket way above Solomons’s head. This sounds easy, but somebody had to think of it.
Other costumes control tone. Saint Paul the Hermit, the first desert ascetic, fled to the wilderness after seeing the terrible tortures inflicted on his fellow Christians under Emperor Decius. One chaste youth, for example, was tied to a bed, and, in the words of Jacobus,
A very beautiful but totally depraved young woman was set to defile the body of the youth…. As soon as he felt the disturbance of the flesh, having no weapon with which to defend himself, he bit out his tongue and spat it in the face of the lewd woman. Thus he drove out temptation by the pain of his wound and won the crown of martyrdom.
Williams at this point should have been showing us the story of Saint Paul the Hermit. That’s how the dance is advertised in the program, and that’s the chapter in The Golden Legend he drew the story from. But he seems to have decided that this other poor wretch would give him a better movement drama. So the tale of the tortured boy is what we get, and it is thrillingly repulsive. The woman dives between the boy’s legs, licks his thighs, practically eats him. He grunts, he screams, he sticks out his long tongue. (That’s a false tongue. It’s what he’s biting to quell his arousal. At the same time, it is unmistakably phallic.) But the costumes are the culmination. Underneath the man’s pants and then between the woman’s legs as well, we see little balls of coal-black fur. At first one thinks they must represent pubic hair, but they’re not wispy, and they don’t spread. They’re really balls. They look like seed pods, bearing the seeds of God knows what. Williams takes evil seriously. In dance his direct ancestor is Martha Clarke, whose first great hit, revived this past summer at New York’s Minetta Lane Theater, was The Garden of Earthly Delights, from 1984. His and her more distant ancestor is Hieronymus Bosch, and specifically his Garden of Earthly Delights, Clarke’s source.
But horror is only one string to Williams’s bow. Throughout, no matter what else is going on, the show is very funny. Saint George (Glen Rumsey), when the dragon enters and prepares to assault the princess, doesn’t pay much attention. He seems to be posing for a painting. He wears sexy armor, revealing his thighs and one of his nipples, and he is evidently proud of his outfit. Finally, though, he remembers his job, and wrestles the beast to the ground, whereupon the princess goes off not with him, but with the dragon, to whom she has tied a nice leash. Perhaps she sensed that the dragon was more interested in her than Saint George was. That is true, the saint realizes, but still, after all the trouble he went to! He exits, bewildered.
That’s camp, maybe. At the same time, Williams’s show is filled with kindness, unqualified by irony. In the wilderness stands Saint Jerome (Chris M. Green), who translated the Bible into Latin and thus gave the Western Church its text. He has the gift of language, but at the beginning his language is incoherent, useless. He grunts, he babbles. Then the lion enters (a lion-sized puppet, requiring two handlers), with a huge, bloodied thorn in his paw. Saint Jerome leans down and removes the thorn. The lion lays his cheek in the saint’s palm, and the two are wedded forever. The saint’s language consolidates. Now the Bible can be translated. The sweetness, when appropriate, may be anchored in naiveté, as in medieval painting. Saint Francis’s stigmata could easily have been painted on his body. Instead, these wounds were represented by patches of red cloth, attached to the saint’s body by dressmaker’s elastic. This is something a child might do.
Williams and his fellow music researcher, Susan Hellauer, came up with authentic medieval and Renaissance music for every saint they could, roughly half of them, and these compositions, sung in their original languages—Latin, Old French, Middle English—by an ensemble at the side of the stage, sound both beautiful and weird, like something heard distantly, at night, from a sanctuary or a catacomb. For the remaining half of the saints, those for whom he could find no hymns, Williams commissioned music from two composers, Gregory Spears and Peter Kirn. Sometimes their work too sounds medieval—repetitious, monophonic—and sometimes it sounds much more bizarre, like low mutterings or smothered cries. Several of the instruments on which the music (old and new) is played are also unfamiliar, because they are medieval: the rebec, the crumhorn. All the singers are drawn from the acclaimed early music groups Anonymous 4 and Lionheart. They give the songs an extra push.
So do the dancers. In a stroke of theatrical brilliance, and good connections, Williams cast as his saints some of the best-known people in downtown dance. Nicky Paraiso (Saint Gervatius) was a member of Meredith Monk’s early company, The House. For almost thirty years, he has been programming the shows given at The Club at LaMama ETC (Experimental Theater Club); no one performing below Fourteenth Street doesn’t know who he is. Gus Solomons Jr. (Saint Dionysius) danced with the Martha Graham company. He was also a member—the first black member—of Merce Cunningham’s troupe. Jonah Bokaer (Saint Sebastian) and Glen Rumsey (Saint George) were also Cunningham dancers. Bokaer is the founder-director of Chez Brunswick, a busy new theater in Williamsburg; Rumsey is an acclaimed drag performer (as Shasta Cola). Keith Sabado (Saint Mamertus) was a beloved member of the early Mark Morris Dance Group. John Kelly (Saint Anthony Abbot) is a famous performance artist. David Parker (Saint Thomas à Becket), David Neumann (Saint Nicholas), Chris Elam (Saint Christopher), and Brian Brooks (Saint Stephen) all direct their own companies.
This star-studdedness was glamorous and fun. More important, the older men, because they were veterans, were relaxed and spontaneous, a mood that spread to the whole cast. Williams tailored each dance to its dancer—not just his personality and artistry, but also his age and girth. One saint mostly walked; a few mostly acted. Only to Jonah Bokaer, who was in the Merce Cunningham Company until two years ago and is therefore still a highly polished technician, did Williams give a long and demanding classical dance, with big extensions, balances, the works.
Holding this variety show together—all the men and animals and emotions and dance styles—was a firm ritual structure. We were not invited to forget that these seventeen stories all came out of one book and that these men, be they from Egypt or Galicia, the second century or the thirteenth, fit into one account of the world. The show had a processional and a recessional. The stage was flanked, at right and left, by choir stalls, and each dancer, when he finished his number, went and sat in one of the seats. What this meant was that every saint, as he performed, was watched by those who preceded him in the show. That would have been the case in a medieval church. As the woodworker carved each saint for the pulpit or the altar screen, the other saints, the ones he had completed, would be looking down, waiting for their new colleague.
Williams gave his show an exalted ending, centered on Saint Stephen (Brian Brooks), the Church’s first martyr, who died around 35 AD. Stephen enters bare-chested, in a golden kilt—just the sort of thing a male saint might wear in heaven—and does a slow ballet solo, with his back to us much of the time. Here, finally, there is no story; all grief is gone. On his head the saint wears a three-ringed halo, with stones strung on the wire, like pearls but bigger. What is this headpiece, besides a halo? If we’ve read the program, we remember: Stephen was stoned to death. Those stones strung on the wires are what killed him, but here they are frozen in mid-air, never touching him. Finally, the construction of circles and orbs looks like the solar system, with the gold-clad saint as the center, the sun. So this, at the end of the show, is the universe. It is an austere and touching vision: the short man, doing his difficult ballet dance, trying to be perfect, and, above him, the cosmos, perfect, blessing him, and this time keeping the stones away.
Thinking about Williams’s show, I wondered about the repeated images of sexual foulness—the black hair balls, the waving penises. Of course they represent the temptations endured by the ascetics, but what does Williams think they should mean to us now? I believe that they are the most persuasive (to us as well as to him) images he could come up with of a general horror mundi, an emotion appropriate not just to a time when Christians were being stoned to death. Torture has not gone out of fashion. Likewise, Williams’s conventionally sweet images—the birds and the lion (there’s a lamb, too)—are straightforward representatives of life’s kindnesses and beauties. Why avoid them if you can make them work again? The Golden Legend is in no way churchy—Williams is not a Roman Catholic, nor was he raised as one—but he does not scruple to borrow the Church’s symbols of its moral seriousness.
Williams is a remarkable-looking man. He has a white face, glittering eyes, and an “overdirect,” the sans-bald-spot comb-over that is so popular today in rock bands. When you see him dance, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. He is fantastically intense, excited; he tears through the space, sweating profusely. He seems to be obeying some offstage voice. “He is a fairy,” one of the dancers in The Golden Legend said to me—by which he did not mean that Williams was a homosexual, but that he was a sort of spirit of the air.
When I have talked to him on the telephone (the only way I have communicated with him), I could not get him to speak at a normal pace. If I asked him for facts that he didn’t have at hand, he would immediately throw down the phone. I would be yelling, “No, no, Mr. Williams, we’ll do the details later,” but he was gone. Five minutes later, after many clangs of file cabinets being yanked open and slammed shut, he would return to the phone and give me the information I had now forgotten I wanted. He is the closest thing to the wild-man artist stereotype that I have seen lately. He should get a good administrator who would tell him that, at three hours, his show is way too long (he needs to cut three or four saints) and that his recent seasons—four performances of Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins at P.S. 122 in the East Village, five performances of The Golden Legend at Dance Theater Workshop (with all performances sold out and long lines of people waiting for cancellations)—have not been programmed ambitiously enough. He needs bigger auditoriums, a wider audience. He is a thrill.