Let’s see, there’s St. Glen, St. Charley, St. Gus. . . .Oops, I mean St. George, St. Francis, and St. Dionysius the Areopagite. Forgive me for confusing downtown dance luminaries Glen Rumsey, Charley Scott, and Gus Solomons jr with the saints whose mantles they assume in Christopher Williams’s vaudeville of holy solos, The Golden Legend. I could easily do the same with the other “saints” on the bill: David Parker, Paul Singh, John Kelly, Jonah Bokaer, Julian Barnett, Rommel Salveron, Keith Sabado, Nicky Paraiso, Chris Elam, Aaron Mattocks, Luke Miller, Reid Bartelme, Stuart Singer, Chris M. Green, Alberto Denis, Carlton Cyrus Ward, David Neumann, and Brian Brooks.
These saints, whose miracles and torments Williams drew from Jacobus de Voragine’s 13th-century Legenda Aurea Sanctorum, were, most of them, the rock stars of their day. Nothing attracted a crowd like a burning or a beheading. And what third-century fan of violence could stay away from the sight of a young man smeared with honey (Luke Gutgsell) and cast among hornets, and another (Dusan Perovíc) bound in a bed of flowers and tempted by a harlot (Renée Archibald)? To remind himself of his vow of chastity, the latter martyr bit off his tongue. Williams’s fabulously strange and beautiful epic occasionally refers to a saint’s awareness of his role in a theatrical spectacle. St. Laurence (Luke Miller) steps off the sizzling grill of male arms—where the six valiant chorus members have been tossing him as if this were a fraternity hazing and not a Christian roast—and poses seductively, hand on hip. Stark naked, he also—and not just once—turns his back to the audience and spreads his cheeks. Just before St. Sebastian (Jonah Bokaer) becomes a living target for arrows, he waves to us with a shy smile.
Hinting at the eroticism of pain is appropriate. Spurning sex and lacking decent food, a would-be virtuous man might take a voluptuous pleasure in suffering—especially when dying a martyr guaranteed one a place in Paradise. Clad in a skirt of rags and matching long fabric hair, St. Anthony Abbot (John Kelly) writhes rapturously as he fends off the twitchy little fingers and tails-cum-penises of a horde of devil puppets wielded by red-cloaked women. Attacked by huntsmen and hounds (who bay a cacophony of anti-gay slurs), St. Sebastian howls, “Don’t!” “Stop!” Then, “Don’t stop!”
This ambitious, nearly three-hour-long Golden Legend is an extravaganza of images tilted into motion (Williams has been working on it for years, showing various parts of it on other programs). Joe Levasseur’s lighting uses color in elegant, often symbolic ways. The puppets (designed and constructed by Eric Wright, Lake Simons, and Williams) do what humans cannot. In addition to the little demons, there’s the marionette raven who legendarily protected the battered remains of St. Vincent (Barnett), the three-foot deer representing the one who fed St. Giles (Bartelme) her milk when he was starving, and little birds carried on sticks who flutter together to attend to St. Francis’s lessons.
The costumes (by Williams and others) play imaginatively with the saints’ attributes and the symbols they bear in medieval statuary. St. Thomas of Canterbury (David Parker) has a sword thrust through his mitre, and when it’s pulled out, red silk blood pours out of the collar below his drooping head. St. Stephen was stoned to death, so Brian Brooks wears a headdress on which rocks, strung on wires, seem to hover around him. The costume for the beheaded St. Dionysus is an outsized, headless robe; Solomons’s own head appears at waist level cradled in his hands. You can imagine the festive sight of these saints parading down the aisle to begin The Golden Legend with a dignified country dance. After finishing his cameo, each of the 17 major holy men sits, as if enthroned in heaven, in one of the high-backed chairs that flank the stage.
Some of the costume ideas are wild. We know that St. Christopher bore the child Christ on his shoulders across a raging river, and that Christ is sometimes known as the Lamb of God. Williams costumes Coco Carol as a lamb, but Elam wears a sheep suit too, pink-lined ears and all. He sucks on Carol’s fingers, and she gnaws on his leg before they get on with crossing the river. The choreographer’s vision of some of the saints definitely tweaks the legends. In morphing (with the help of a coterie) from a thumb-sucking infant prodigy into Santa Claus, St. Nicholas (amazing performance by Neumann) offers three twittering marriageable girls the dowries they lack. They fight over the gold only to throw it back; it’s the bushy-bearded saint himself that they crave. The dragon (Dylan Crossman) that St. George (Rumsey) attempts to slay is not averse to being leashed and led away by the maiden that the saint came to rescue (Jennifer Lafferty).
The aural spectacle is as enthralling as the visual one. An 11-member ensemble of greatly gifted and versatile musicians sings and plays a selection (chosen by Williams and Susan Hellauer) of ear-entrancing excerpts from motets, organa, hymns, tropes, lauda melodies, etc., plus original music by Gregory Spears or Peter Kim. You wouldn’t believe a cramped offstage corner could hold that many people, plus four viola da gambas, recorder, crumhorn, portative organ, baroque guitar, rebec, troubadour harp, percussion, and electronics.
In addition, the dancers are far from silent. They chatter, coo, howl, roar, snarl, and titter; they babble in tongues, intone Latin, and address us in English and bad French. One of the most delightful sequences stars Salvaron as St. Pancras, with Sts. Mamertus and Gervatius (Sabado and Paraiso) as his decidedly rowdy backup men. At St. Pancras’s tomb—wearing antic caps, their faces painted green—these two gasp and cough and yell doltishly, apparently swearing falsely on the head of the saint (literally). As per the legend, Sabado “cannot withdraw his hand,” and he and Paraiso drag and twist Salvaron around, trying to get unstuck from his skull. Paraiso sings lustily in counterpoint to the musicians whenever he can.
There’s nothing unusual about some of the dance choreography, but often the steps and gestures seem imaginatively wrung from the stories (Gutgsell and Barnett—as St. Vincent of Saragossa—convey their tortures in wrenchingly acrobatic solos) and from the holy images on view in stained glass windows and manuscripts. All the soloists and the women’s chorus (Sarah Rose Bodley, Abby Block, Storme Sundberg, and Takemi Kitamura, in addition to the three already mentioned) perform with gusto. But the agile, highly vocal members of the men’s chorus (Philip Montana, Arturo Vidich, Bryan Campbell, Sydney Skybetter, Clay Drinko, and Brandin Steffenson) are the evening’s real heroes. Huntsmen, hounds, archers, wild beasts, executioners, a red-hot gridiron—you name it. You wouldn’t want to meet any of them in a dark forest or the shadow of a cathedral.
Instructive Christian fables like these are drawn from an age when devils prowled the earth and heaven was the prize that made daily life bearable. Williams and his many colleagues make the terrors, the weirdness, and the fantasies come alive with scant pity and sometimes droll, always vibrant force.