Christian Theological Seminary
Nov. 11 and Nov. 13 Assenting Angels marks an exhilarating collaboration between artists across the arts at Butler University. This bold new work enfolded Shelton Auditorium at Christian Theological Seminary, bringing actors out of all parts of the space to frame dancers around, and on, the thrust stage.
Ascent and descent in movement, sound and design surrounded the work's dualities of grief and glory, conflict and unity. The space, with its twinned cathedral-like/Greek amphitheater architecture, and the date of its premiere - Nov. 11, 2004 - opened parallels with wars and deaths of those "carried off early." Termed by its originators, Cynthia Pratt and Diane Timmerman, as "a contemporary dance theater production," the work is based on Rainer Maria Rilke's The Duino Elegies.
Unmitigated grief erupts in the stark enunciation of Ulf Goebel's recitation, in German, "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?" In contrasting silence, two figures move about the stage, one leading, the other shadowing, until the one in front turns back, and is struck down.
This new work, dense with inferences, is equally overlaid with imagery. In shape and drama it triggered memories of Delacroix's painting "The Death of Sardanapalus," which was influenced by Byron's play, and which reverberates with many meanings concerning the question of death and those who are left to live on. The painting can best be described as a fugue of curves, and that is the essence of the pictures presented by the dancers and the soundscape emanating from the throats and mouths of the actors.
Playing light against shadow, doom is heightened, drama is tightened. Knowing also that Rilke had served as secretary to the sculptor Rodin, it follows that his poems should lead the makers of Assenting Angels to dimensionalize written words.
Assenting Angels rises and falls in intimate partnering of movement and sound, lighting and costuming. Vitality and rhythmic balance drive the agony of loss. With a company of 15 dancers and eight actors, this is an ensemble work of finely crafted flowing precision.
In one of those unfathomable coincidences, earlier on Nov. 11, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented blue cathedral, contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon's elegy to her younger brother. She wrote in her notes: "I found myself pondering the question of what makes a life ... this piece represents the expression of the individual and the whole group - our places [where] our souls carry us."