Angel Reapers, Martha Clarke (direction and choreography) and Alfred Uhry’s (text) dance-theater work at the Joyce through Dec 11, is pretty much a 180º flip from Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights, which still lingers in my memory from its run of a few years ago. The new show explores Shaker culture, which feels not entirely foreign in part from our familiarity with its elegant furniture and design, its memorable hymns, and its puritanical garb (the women wear long, somber-hued cotton dresses and white bibs and bonnets; the men black suits and deep-brimmed hats; and all boots, designed by Donna Zakowska). But some of the basic tenets emphasize the cultural chasm: celibacy, segregation of the sexes, rituals expressing spiritual ecstasy, and the belief that if you’re an angel, you can dance naked because you’re invisible. All of which are rivetingly illustrated in Angel Reapers‘ compact 75 minutes.
The sui generis Clarke once again has assembled a multi-talented cast of dancer/singers/actors (including Asli Bulbul and Patrick Corbin, alums of respectively Bill T. Jones and Paul Taylor) who alternately assimilate mutely into their gender groups and distinguish themselves with brief monologues and solos. Ann Lee, a founding member of the American sect that gained large popularity in the late 18th century (but which has dwindled to near extinction), is played by a fervent Birgit Huppuch. Lee, a charismatic speaker, advocated by example the strong role of female leadership, even as women confessed their remorse at being objects of seduction. Many of the other 10 cast members represented outsiders—once convicts, slaves, abused wives, orphans. No doubt the strict rules of the Shaker religion offered structure and meaning, and their affinity for hard work produced enduring, still-fashionable wooden furniture, boxes, and most notably ladder-backed chairs, which populate the handsome, broad-planked stage.
At the start, the group is happy and giddy, like children, and declaim Shaker tenets, such as, “Brethren and sisters may not pass each other on the stairs.” In Uhry’s surehanded, well-paced book, text and songs (including the famous “Simple Gifts”) alternate with stamping and dancing, some of it reminiscent of early tap steps. A couple gives into basic carnal instincts and leaves the group, the woman pregnant. The movement and song become increasingly feverish to the point of abandonment, reined in by navigating obediently in snaking lines, tracing the stage’s circumference or a big circle. Some of the men, naked but for their boots, flail wildly in shadowy lighting (pristinely designed by Christopher Akerlind), fleshy angels intoxicated by a higher spirit. Angel Reapers is a tonic during a time of global uncertainty, a reminder of the power of spiritual belief, of restraint, of introspection—even with questionable outcomes.