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    martha clarke: angel reapers
    Photo by Sara Davis

    Shaking It Out

    Martha Clarke's Angel Reapers gives Shakers some life


    What better way to start some heavy conversations about sex and religion than to create a dance about celibate Shakers that has sex and nudity in it? Choreographer Martha Clarke and writer Alfred Uhry give us a history-based impression, beautiful songs and plenty of food for thought in Angel Reapers, presented Monday night at ADF as a well developed work in progress.

    Choreography by: Martha Clarke.
    Dancers: Sophie Bortolussi, Asli Bulbul, Patrick Corbin, Lindsey Dietz Marchant, Sara Erde, Whitney V. Hunter, Gabrielle Malone, Luke Murphy, Peter Musante, Andrew Robinson, Isadora Wolfe.
    Music by: Shakers.
    Costumes by: Donna Zakowska.
    Lighting design by: Christopher Akerlind.
    Production stage manager: Terri K. Kohler.
    Music Direction and Arrangement: Arthur Solari.
    Texts: Alfred Uhry.
    American Dance Festival
    Reynolds Theater
    July 5-7, 2010

    Soft but specific lighting by Christopher Akerlind and costumes by Donna Zakowska clearly put six women and five men into a Shaker community somewhere in a previous century, and the peformers just as clearly live there. An almost continuous stream of unison songs and rhythmic dances — spinning and swirling, with footstompings — give both a wonderful sensation of Shaker life and philosophy and a smooth and unforced way to entertain and to tell a tale.

    The song lyrics are probably historically accurate, but Uhry gives the performers lifestory monologues that feel emotionally accurate and fraught with trauma even if they are not historically accurate. In these stories lie what seems the meat of the piece: these individuals who have come together to be part of a utopian or highly idealistic religious community are coming from places of pain, loss and emotional turmoil. The doctrine of harsh self-denial and the rigidity of the rules for the community are there just as much to ward off freakouts as to create order, and occasional convulsings and speaking in tongues look more like mental illness than religious experience.

    What is religious experience? Is the battle between each member's supposed inner angel and inner human even a battle the angels can win? Can people actually live and work in harmony while denying themselves any outlet for lust? The exploration of these questions is much of what makes Reapers so rich.

    There is plenty of violence and sex in this onstage collection of self-deniers: unknown infractions sometimes lead to beatings; one young couple goes off into the darkness of night to have consensual sex; another couple have a rough but ambiguous encounter that implies rape. The strength of Angel Reapers is that it never resolves anything onstage but therefore leaves the audience trying to find resolution. The young couple leave for awhile (turnover was apparently quite high, historically), but later they reappear, unpunished but perhaps also unaccepted. The man and woman of the rough encounter still have to see each other every day and work as a group. A surprisingly naked group of men frolic in moonlight and show up clothed the next morning unremarked. Incidents of same-sex compassion and conflict have tinges of homoeroticism.

    Even death appears here, and just to give the audience further brain fodder, the death that marks the end of the piece may be the death of an adult son who dies before his mother, or. . ., or . . .; the Shakers tossed out distinctions between mother and sister and wife and father and brother and husband so that all members would be equal, just one more religious ideal that may have been emotionally brutal in practice. But that is for the audience to decide. Discuss.

    JULY 16, 2010

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