In Christopher Williams’s world, the macabre and the beautiful wander hand in hand down byways of myth, legend, and history. He peoples St. Mark’s Church with saints and demons (two solos from his 2005 Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins alternating with three from his in-progress tales of male saints, The Golden Legend) and with tormented mariners (his new Portuguese Suite). How many choreographers list a “medieval hagiography consultant” on their programs?
It’s significant that Williams functions as more than a greatly gifted dancer-choreographer. He’s also a puppeteer and a costumer. His characters can shrink,grow, and sprout appendages. Saint Christopher is no bearded benevolent figure bearing the Christ child on his shoulder, but an earlier, darker force: a gigantic, black-coated figure with talons and an animal mask. What writhes out from beneath that costume are two hyper-flexible white creatures with pink-lined ears sticking out from the sides of their heads (Michael Oberle and Williams are credited with the fabulous costumes). The pair (Chris Elam and Williams) pull and gnaw on each other awhile before Williams lopes temporarily away on all fours and Elam twists himself into pretzels; alternates growled gibberish with high, awed tones; and proudly speaks a few words in mispronounced French.
Williams’s holy soloists are all framed by choruses. Five men call out while Saint Lucy (Janet Charleston) dances explosively; they pull at the long braids that enwrap her until she’s caught in a web. Five women with small demon puppets strapped to their chests taunt a voluptuously exalted Saint Anthony Abbot (John Kelly) as he attempts to master lust. Saint Barbara (Nami Yamamoto) pushes in vain against a wall of men then simply blows herself a path through them. Crouching, blue-cloaked women bump, squeak, and roll like living boulders around Saint James the Greater (Aaron Mattocks), whose necklace spouts red spines (he was beheaded) and who moves boldly, slashing his limbs across his body and snapping his fingers like a flamenco dancer. Finally, lying in two lines, their legs lifted, the women become his sarcophagus.
Williams played a church organ and wrote choir music as a boy. That helps explain his musical taste and sophisticated use of silence. The saints are accompanied by medieval music and compositions by Peter Kirn. Exquisitely sung and played by members of Anonymous Four, Lionheart, and the New York Consort of Viols, the sounds float from the balcony into a space beautifully, mystically lit by Carol Mullins.
The music for Portuguese Suite is on tape, but it’s no less ravishing. The inimitable Amalia Rodriguez sings fado, Portuguese songs of loneliness, frail ships on rough seas, lost love, and death that eloquently support this Brokeback Mountain set in a fishing village where everyone wears black decorated with red ribbon, and the “mourning women” emerge from individual wooden huts the size of telephone booths (designed, like the costumes, by Carol Binion).
The beginning tells us much. Williams (the American sailor) and Andrei Garzón (the Portuguese sailor) stand side by side in manly friendship. Suddenly they’re sent leaping and rocketing across the floor, where they lie inert, one draped across the other. Love, like a giant wave, has cast them up on this beach, and the sight of their entwined limbs sets the seven women convulsing, whimpering, staggering, leaping, and swirling like black surf. Jennifer Lafferty is the Portuguese sailor’s betrothed, Darla Villani perhaps her mother, Derry Swan a kind of village leader.
When Williams dances alone, frolicking sadly, he’s almost boneless; then in the men’s duet, he makes a multiple spin in the air into Garzón’s arms that’s as ardent as the kiss that follows. Throughout the various tender, desolate, angry, and comforting encounters, Williams’s grasp of his narrative only occasionally wavers. His actual vocabulary of steps is still narrow in range, but his mastery of grouping, gesture, and visual design never falters.