Art Song Dance: The Eagle, 2004

Curran explores darks, lights of the Irish soul

BECKET –– The souls of the Irish inhabit a restless landscape, and choreographer Sean Curran willingly enters and examines it in all its darks and lights.

At the end of the last Doris Duke concert of the Jacob's Pillow Festival season, we are charged with emotion, not the least of which is witnessing the Ted Shawn Theater already being stripped to its bones for the long winter ahead.

Music and poetry –– passionate, outspoken and awash in color, mood –– dominate Curran's program. This is a man who wears his feelings and his politics like badges, and dance is his medium for stating them, not, however, in a badgering way but plainly, and with grace.

Curran cites many influences in his work, but clearly his years as a principal with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company are the most pronounced. By his report, Jones taught him it is okay and good to mingle art and politics; Zane opened him to the legacy of dance history: Don't start from scratch, use what others have discovered. So, in these works, we come to understand Curran's own striving, as a gay man, to enter and be accepted into the human circle, to love; to accept our ultimate aloneness, and the universals that make us all one.

We see his savvy use of space, how he easily forges geometric configurations, pairings and groupings that form and morph, and virtually skim the stage. (Indeed, Curran has at times worked as choreographer to leading ice skating champs.) Most notably, these episodes pass before our eyes like a time–lapse of weather in the Berkshires –– bright one moment, clouding the next, somber with mist and passing showers the next. Accompanying them is the evocative music, seemingly, a legitimizing force for Curran's own self–expression.

While the works on this program are redolent with raw need, they are not exercises in psychotherapy. Maturity and practice have disciplined his form and craft.

"Sonata" carries the subtitle, “We are what we were,” but its basis in the motifs of folk dance transforms the potential hopelessness of that message into one that origins, roots, and traditions are a source for resilience. The music by Czech composer Leos Janacek captures shades of human sturdiness, lamenting and rejoicing by turns.

"Schubert Solos," for Curran himself, are light–footed character sketches in the tradition of silent film buffoonism, suggestive of the mournful, resigned Buster Keaton.

But he demonstrates his most skillful sleight–of–hand in "Art/ Song/Dance" in which the live music of composer and pianist Ricky Ian Gordon carries its own dance into Curran's choreography, perfectly melding the two.

Fully neo–classical and achingly dissonant, this largely vocal score adapts the texts of such disparate poets as Langston Hughes, W. S. Merwin, Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay, each one a bittersweet tale of vulnerability and survival. Michael Arden, Rosina Hill, Scott Murphee and Diane Sutherland are the gifted singers, winding through these varying texts with almost excruciating enunciation. The intuitive leadership of Rosina Hill galvanizes an intimate interaction among them, making this music as accessible and vivid as a Broadway musical.

Lyrics, heart, and character are visually embodied by Curran's expressive troupe. And, when the last notes spill over the audience, the overall impact is profoundly spiritual. Catharsis of feeling has flushed and renewed, imbued strength and courage. It is a fitting end to summer, an opening to autumn.

– Allison Tracy, The Eagle, 31 August 2004