nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
November 7, 2007
"Yea, we will rejoice with freedom / In this straight little narrow way": this refrain from one of the Shaker songs used in Borrowed Light keeps coming back to me as the simplest and most elegant way to describe both the piece's virtues and its flaws—it is filled with joy, but its constraint, its narrowness, is also a limitation. Both a dance piece inspired by the culture of the American religious community called the Shakers and a choral concert of Shaker hymns (some of which have never previously been performed outside the Shaker community), Borrowed Light makes its beauty out of an austerely limited array of movements, and out of the joy in the compositionally simple but emotionally resonant Shaker music. The program notes say that choreographer Tero Saarinen builds on the specific elements of Shaker dance—upraised arms, stomping, clapping, shuddering, twisted torsos—but the patterns also clearly recall strains in American modern dance history as well, especially Martha Graham and the technique she developed, with its contractions and weight shifts coming from the body's center.
The piece is performed by eight dancers (four male and four female) from the Tero Saarinen Company, a Finnish modern dance group, and eight singers (three tenors, three sopranos, one baritone, and one mezzo soprano) from the Boston Camarata, an American early-music vocal ensemble. Some sections of the dance are performed in silence, or accompanied only by rhythms created with the dancers' bodies—stomping on the stage, clapping, slapping the thigh; many of the musical pieces acquire rhythmic counterpoints from the footfalls and percussion created by the dancers. Sometimes the dancers are foregrounded, with the singers in silhouette around and behind them; sometimes the singers take the forefront. Each dance segment is strongly patterned, with lots of internal repetitions; each song is built on a memorable refrain, which repeats multiple times. The various songs are also musically quite similar.
To the extent that there is any throughline or arc to the piece, it's a movement from the starkest simplicity toward somewhat greater complexity, and greater interaction among singers and dancers. The first segment is a dance solo partly in silence and partly accompanied by a single singer. Then, we see groups together, all male or all female, accompanied by single-gender vocal groupings as well (possibly an allusion to the celibacy of the Shaker community?) And in the last third of the piece, all the singers and all the dancers do come together—first dancing separately, then touching, and ultimately forming a circle containing both dancers and singers, in an elegant evocation of community. The movement elements, too, loosen toward the end; where the male dancers in particular seem earthbound at the beginning, their jumps grow freer. Similarly, the musical harmonies grow more complex.
The piece has its moments of transcendent beauty—I especially liked a mesmerizingly slow female dance solo right at the beginning of the piece, and some of the unusual single-gender duets and lifts later in the piece—but the simplicity of both the music and the movement vocabulary can also sometimes feel limiting. Even at 70 minutes, there are sections that drag or seem repetitive, especially since the songs are all so similar. Borrowed Light does a wonderful job of exploring the potential to be found in the simplest elements—but by its end, I was ready for something a little more complex.