Christopher Williams’ latest project that closed last weekend at DTW, entitled The Golden Legend, flies in the face of just about everything conjured up by the phrase “New York contemporary dance.” This cycle of male saints, following Williams’ memorable project for female saints a few years back, comprises solos performed by well-known dancers, plus supporting characters. It is dense with history and religious iconography, and epic in scale, with 17 solos. It has live music performed by a chamber ensemble and members of vocalists playing and singing early music plus new songs by Gregory Spears and Peter Kirn.
More high mass in feel than dance performance, the setting is defined immediately by 20 or so tall-backed chairs lining the sides of the stage. A processional down the aisle steps lets us view close up the amazing handiwork and detail of the costumes, created by Williams and team. But the seriousness of a mass is immediately deflated (or inflated?) by the cheeky first solo by David Parker as St. Thomas, diva-like and bathed in rose light (by Joe Levasseur).
The evening takes a more turn serious after that, pretty much a prerequisite when you’re dealing with a bunch of dudes often as famous for their deaths as their impressive deeds in life. Take for example, the extreme case of St. Dionysius (the startling Gus Solomons jr), who carried around his decapitated head; a convincing illusion revealed after a long dance section with his back to us.
Williams wisely tailors each chapter to the strengths of each dancer. David Neumann (St. Nicholas aka Santa) displays his acting charms, Jonah Bokaer (St. Sebastien) his beautiful feet and architecture, Charley Scott (St. Francis) a fragile strength, and Brian Brooks (St. Stephen) an otherworldly calm, enhanced by a wonderful headpiece—a spiralling garland of rocks, paired with a gold kilt.
At 3-1/4 hours, it is uniquely long for a contemporary dance show. But that seems to be within the stoic dogma that infuses the show with some verisimilitude, some remnant of the perseverance of these saints. Sainthood is a mystical, arduous process that begins in life but ends sometimes centuries after. To underscore this long process in a small way, Williams has the dancers take a chair onstage after they perform, for the remainder of the performance. Each participant—no doubt busier than your average Joe—signed on for the long haul, rather than slipping out after his section ends, as can be the case.
Williams, who is a steady fixture as a crack performer with other choreographers such as Tere O’Connor and Douglas Dunn, has a bright future as a theater director. He could also have a fair go at being a master costumer, puppet maker, dramaturg, and for all I know, violinmaker or animal whisperer. There seems to be nothing he can’t do. The level of imagination, fit, and detail in the costumes is truly stunning for a project that cannot have a huge budget. Even the “chorus” of female puppeteers wears the most elegantly fitting linen frocks with habits. The serfs who come out to clean the dragon’s green body paint off of the white marley do so in character, shuffling like they’ve got scurvy. The puppets—birds, a fawn, a lion—are wonderfully detailed and operated by the puppeteers, primarily women. There are so many collaborators that to list them all here would fill up this space.
In short, no detail is too small for Williams to care for, and it all comes through in his larger-than-life spectacle. Someone give him a healthy grant or commission and let him loose. Please?
Photo: Gus Solomons Jr. as St. Dionysius by Yi-Chun Wu.