After performing Heaven in New York and Houston, Minneapolis-based choreographer Morgan Thorson brings some of the Twin Cities’ most charismatic dancers to the McGuire stage for the local premiere of this Walker-commissioned piece March 4–6. Read the article from Walker magazine here, or the full Q&A with Thorson below.
Can you describe the ideas that you began with in creating the piece, and what kinds of research you did in terms of exploring those ideas?
Initially I was interested in the idea of the impossibility of perfection; in religion it’s dangled before worshippers constantly as a carrot. What kind of control does the promise of perfection have on people? I pondered these questions from contemporary secular standpoint and came to realize—some of this might seem obvious—how perfection is an illusion, there are no absolutes, and how to begin to know perfection is to know that it’s impossible—unattainable.
In an ecclesiastical sense, there are many different interpretations of what that perfection is. Some religions look at perfection as intellectual freedom, being able to sit and ponder freely—at least in the mostly Judeo-Christian religions I studied—for others, it’s the idea of eternity. Heaven is elusive, and I feel like the piece itself begs for continued exploration, for me as an artist.
So I think Heaven initially pursues some sort of manifestation of perfection and draws multiple conclusions from that pursuit, one of them being that the body—including the voice—is capable of perfection, and it is that capability that is closest to anything pure and static. And the other is sort of the opposite: with paradise, its perfection only exists in that you can ponder it as an idea. Ironically, some of our choreographic methods — interpretation and translation—drove us even further from achieving a static notion of corporeal and ecstatic perfection.
One thing I really wanted to convey is a devotional love for space. With simple yet reverential material, the body and space unite in a powerful unison where temporal shifts underscore this relationship. And light has its own presence in this work. The other thing is the power of the voice and song. In terms of the structure of the piece I intentionally end it with a shape-note singing piece. Tonal resonance and harmony can spark an energetic or emotional shift in the performer and viewer. I really wanted to play with this power in Heaven, and juxtapose this kind of material to vigorously moving bodies. [At the end,] the piece is no longer about the body, it’s about a sonic, communal gesture, that elevates the piece in the room beyond a bodily presence. And so the community comes together in the end and joins in this singing act, sending the piece off to a dimension that it hasn’t been in yet.
How did you come to work with Low? Were you always intending to have them be performers, or if not, how did that decision evolve?
I met Low through one of my dancers and had a couple of meetings and they were really interested in the project, we talked about how this collaboration was going to work. From the beginning they were really interested in performing the music live, and I really wanted them to perform live, or at least to have live music. So they were really open to that idea.
We talked about religion in general and ideas of god, and what does that mean as we have pursued performance structures for this piece. They are known for working the edges, beginning [their songs] delicate and soft or loud and abrasive, and I was interested in those edges, and that restriction and what it forced me to do choreographically. I’ve had to let go of some of the ways I’ve worked in the past, it’s made me uncomfortable to take these risks. Going back to residency, it’s been great to have that as a way to allow for taking risks, to develop a working methodology that allows for tests and accidents.
You toured with this piece in several cities now, and will doing so after the Minneapolis performances. What’s that experience been like?
[With touring,] each venue brings a host of opportunities and problems, and part of the pursuit of this piece is how to—and this is true for any choreography, but certainly for this piece—it’s finding the best, most nearly perfect place for this piece to be presented in this particular venue. Yet it’s also made me aware of the certain futility in the search for perfection; you’re bound to fail in some way. The pursuit for me is to keep angling into the work, fleshing out what I believe are some of the possibilities.
Part of what’s interesting to me is that there are certain parts of the piece I want to be wholly beautiful, in a way a lot of people can related to, and other parts I want to be intangible – something the audience simply can’t recognize. And my hope is that they can just experience it. [Because] there are aspects to this piece that are very challenging to the audiences.
The beginning has a very devotional, almost monastic structure, with walking and bowing movements, and it grows, very slowly, like over a 25-minute period. I think that part, some people really find a connection to that use of time, it’s very durational, you get to really look at the dancers, with no distractions. But some people go insane with that. For them that’s the underbelly—they get anxious. For others, it’s beautiful.
Then the piece gets more interpretive, more behavioral, and some people connect to that, it gets a little more strange. This is one of the things I made an assumption about in the piece. But everyone makes a connection to the singing and the music, and that was one of my points early on, was to draw from that expression: music is very immediate, but presenting the body can be very complicated for people.
There’s also a significant gender play in this piece, where some people aren’t sure of one performer’s gender. That was intentional as well, drawing from religious ideas about angels, thinking of people as an ideal gender, with no cultural markings, creating our own signifiers for the performers.
It allowed us to come together for the second time as collaborators, dancers, lighting and costume designers, and sound composers. Basically before we had staged sections, now we could sequence them into an order and see what manifested out of those ideas over time. Because we’d had a significant break, too, since the previous residency [at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography, at Florida State University]. It was an opportunity to have ample space and full light and sound.
Normally when we perform I get about two or three days in a theater, there’s not a lot of opportunity within the space to look at what works, there’s no room for experimentation, you have to make decisions on the spot. With a residency you can do that and look at things for awhile, and take that beyond the residency once that alchemy is going. It’s an opportunity to see how people’s ideas are aligning or misaligning and whether those constructions are working or not working. It also allows us to have deeper relationships with our designers.
I know that many artists in Europe have that access for developing work, but it feels like a luxury in the States, and something I hope every artists gets an opportunity to have access to.
What were you aiming for with the lighting, design, and costumes in this work?
As I researched religion and different religious practices, and came across different manifestations of iconography, I found that light really played a huge role in so many religions. I wanted light to be an impressionable player. I wanted it to have an effect on the audience in a really direct way; I wanted its relationship to the audience or the performers to be literal in this piece. In some ways it guides the audience at times, and it guides the performers at times. In most dance, lighting Is designed to highlight the dance, certainly, but not to have such a presence. Here it has its own presence. The residency was essential to creating that with light.
With other design: Lenore, Emmet and I worked together to build stage view and scenic elements, it’s really taken time to balance it out, and in each space it has its own manifestation. And during the Walker residency we had reels of elastic and we really got to see how they look, look at scale and size of this material, how the dancers interact with it. It was important to have time to integrate that material into the dance, and into the costuming.