Heaven, in Minneapolis choreographer Morgan Thorson’s piece of the same name, is a place that imperfect people labor to reach. In terms of this yearning, religious zealots have something in common with dancers, whose daily search for possibly unattainable perfection molds their lives. The nine performers who—bodies bowed over and eyes down—are slogging around the perimeter of P.S.122’s black-box theater when we enter, show that they have a way to go. They’re wearing white clothes (by Emmett Ramstad) of odd textures, such as mattress-pad quilting. Hems hang unevenly, one woman’s collar juts out at an angle, two of the men wear skirts with undershirts for tops. The slight untidiness, the askew clothes, the slack or too-tense bodies hint at inner grime that no hopefully donned white garments can completely conceal.
They inhabit a sweetly sanitized environment designed by Lenore Doxsee, Ramstad, and Thorson. P.S.122’s pillars are slip-covered in white, with little pleated skirts at the bottom; so are the room’s light switches and the organ that Mimi Parker plays. A fan and a white guitar sit on matching pads. White cushions are provided for the performers to kneel on when they need to get in touch with holiness. White curtains cover the back and sides of the performing area, and clusters of silver strings studded with crystal drops hang near the rear of the space. Parker and guitarist Alan Sparhawk are among the sloggers as the piece begins, but as the founders and sole members of the slow-core band Low, they’re more often playing their instruments. Sparhawk also sings an enigmatic solo.
The performers indulge in what seem to be fragmentary rituals. Hannah Kramer slowly wipes her hands and arms as if cleansing them. Karen Sherman and Elliott Durko Lynch stand facing each other, bobbing rhythmically forward, like those toy birds from my childhood that would “drink” if you sat them on the rim of your water glass. Sounds erupt out of long silences. People go from swaying—arms lifted, blinking eyes turned heavenward—to convulsive thrashing to slamming against the back wall. They whip their heads around, hair flying. Justin Jones and Max Wirsing, the most vigorous dancers, hurtle through space, wrenching their bodies. Jones spends a long time pinned to wall, arms spread, body leaning; it’s as if Christ’s cross had tipped due to faulty construction. Sometimes they all (that includes Jessica Cressey and Chris Schlichting) join in shifting from foot to foot. Cressey throws herself into a crazed solo. In one enigmatic sequence, Sherman wraps her chest in tape, and Lynch kneeling on a pillow, slides after her as she retreats (wanting to be near her, or advocating more tape?).
The vocal work is one of the best things about Heaven. Lynch stands with his face inches from a side light, as if it were a mike, and chants over and over a sweet tune with the words “You’re always inside your body; I’ll be by your side,” building it to an ecstatic pitch. At the end, all nine stand together, facing us, and sing in gorgeous harmony the spiritual that begins, “I know that when this earthly house is decayed, I have another building, not made by man.” Then the lights turn on us, and they go.
Throughout the piece, Doxsee’s ingenious lighting suggests many changes of mood. Sometimes the performers are bathed in white glare. At other times, the curtains turn green or soothing peach. Thorson and her colleagues have created a powerful piece of dance theater. If her intention was to create a kind of ritual, however, Heaven doesn’t maintain that feeling of inexorable build, with intermittent backsliding. Instead, it reveals failed strategies, fits, and penitence in interlocking modules (without any personal relationships developing). What does accumulate, movingly, is the dancers’ fatigue, their sweat, the sound of their breath. When their voices finally soar together, they seem to glisten. Perfection? Who cares? Heaven is the journey.