Out of Darkness

Shaker fervor in a contemporary guise

Tero Saarinen's Borrowed Light is one of those rare dances that make the world seem a better place. Musically, choreographically, and spiritually, it's all of a piece—deeply conceived and executed by Saarinen, members of his company, and singers from the Boston Camerata.

Only at first does it seem odd that a Finnish choreographer would be drawn to the Shakers, the Quaker sect that during the 18th and 19th centuries formed religious communes across New England and beyond. But Saarinen was struck by films of Doris Humphrey's 1931 dance The Shakers, and I imagine that the concept of illumination might resonate with one living in a country whose winters are long and dark.

Saarinen doesn't attempt an historically accurate depiction of Shaker dances or Shaker life. He doesn't separate men from women as stringently as the celibate communities did, although his dancers touch one another infrequently, and contact is often mediated by the leather belts they wear (a person may grab another's belt and be dragged across the floor). Rather than focusing on sexual tension, he turns the stage of Jacob's Pillow's Ted Shawn Theatre into a site for inner struggle and transformation. Christians in general banned dancing, but the Shakers incorporated it into their services, along with singing—considering both as "laboring" to achieve God's grace.

Mikki Kunttu's lighting and set, Erika Turunen's costumes, and Heikki Iso-Ahola's sound design contribute to the work in profound ways. The set is a dark, plain, but unconventionally shaped series of walls and two-tiered platforms on which the performers sit, stand, or stride—the four female and three male singers (the Camerata's bass had another commitment) move about about the area, occasionally mingling with the eight Finlanders. The women dancers wear long, belted black dresses, while the men are garbed in trousers and long coats—unbuttoned but belted, and made of heavy fabric that's quilted at the bottom so the coats can swing out like bells. In arrangements by Camerata director Joel Cohen, the simple, unaccompanied hymns (most of them employing the gap scales characteristic of Anglo-Celtic folk music) seem to burst boisterously from the earth or tremble in the air. When soprano Anna Azéma, standing in a beam of light, begins the piece with "In Yonder Valley," she seems to summon dancer Sini Länsivuori, who—facing away from us and toward Azéma—steps falteringly onto what might be unstable terrain before blossoming into big, breath-suspended movements. As a new song is heard, Länsivuori's lunging, clapping, and shaking lure the four men into rhythmic stamping. During the beautifully tuneful "Simple Gifts," the best known of Shaker songs, only the profiled face of soprano Margaret Frazier is lit; she sings across a gulf of darkness to where Ninu Lindfors broods, finally opening her arms, and herself, to grace.

The movement is whole-bodied, powerful, weighted, clumsy with yearning. The dancers reach out as if to harvest blessings just beyond their grasp. They take lurching, spraddled steps. The way they whirl their arms or throw their legs askew pulls them into turns and new directions. Sometimes they limp along, dragging one foot behind them. In a circle—the "great wheel" of one of the songs—they step out neatly and jauntily, once tightening the circumference around a cluster of singers turning the opposite way. In the early years of Shakerism, the members often became possessed during services, and Saarinen's choreography hints at this with fluttering fingers and suddenly jerky or wild gestures. Carl Knif takes off his coat and swings it furiously around. Heikki Vienola and Maria Nurmela strive separately until she falls back and he catches her and walks her erect again. Vienola and Henrikki Heikkilä grapple together. Saarinen runs in a ring, and even though two men interrupt and carry him along a diagonal, he goes back to his circle and slogs until he can barely stand.

Singing—alone, in male or female groups, or all together—sopranos Azéma, Frazier, and Anne Harley; mezzo Deborah Rentz-Moore; tenors Timothy Leigh Evans and Daniel Hershey; and baritone Donald Wilkinson tell resoundingly of joyful service, repentance, comfort, the holy order and its founder Mother Ann Lee, the joys of the simple life on earth, and paradise to come. Nor are the dances all sober or wild. To "Virgins clothed in a clean white garment" sung by Harley, two women, Nurmela and Satu Halttunen, frisk teasingly about like young rabbits at play.

Toward the end, the tide of fervor that's been slowly rising with each ebb and flow reaches a new dimension. As the men clomp along one of the platforms and the women jump rhythmically on and off another, the sound of their steps is amplified. When all but Länsivuori have retired to rest, Azema again sings to her—this time of "Holy Mother's Protecting Chain." The splendidly pure voice, too, has been subtly, magically transformed. It floats out as if descending directly from Heaven. You could weep at the beauty of it—indeed at the beauty and strength of Saarinen's piece and its marvelous performers.

 
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