Judson Memorial Church
Snapshot Review: Radiant
Cindy Sibilsky, Reviewer
Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum
Desire/Divinity Project opens with a spotlight in the darkness shone on multifaceted composer and performer, Marisa Michelson, perched on a stool plucking a small harp. She’s tall, lean and clad in black. Her presence is commanding as a goddess yet vulnerable as a maiden. She sings the first line of Sappho Fragments, “Yes! Radiant lyre speak to me. Become a voice.” The Constellation Chor, an incredibly internationally and vocally diverse array of talent, hailing from Greece, Portugal, Hungary and the US, seen on stages from New York to Dubai and BAM to Broadway, join her on “radiant.” That they are!
Their sonic expressions, from ethereal sounds to primal screams, animalistic wails and simply breath, are more aligned with vocal innovators like Kate Bush, Bjork, Florence Welch and even Yoko Ono than traditional musical theatre or opera.
The Judson Church, with dual seraphim flanking the stage and jewel colored stained glass, makes the ideal setting. The landmark is as historically significant to the arts as it is the Greenwich Village’s Bohemian spirit. The Chor’s angelic voices and heavenly bodies utilize its resounding acoustics and open space to express the words of Greek poetess Sappho and the Song of Songs.
The attention of the audience, placed in a three-quarters round, is guided by the superb design of Singapore-born Elizabeth Mak. Her play with light and shadow utilizes the high ceiling and white walls to create looming ghostly figures or simply set the moods that string Sappho’s fragments together.
Part One is indeed fragmented, but this is part of trusting the poetry to carry the action. It climaxes and ends with a breakup lament from her lover over “how badly things turned out for us.” Sappho’s response: “Rejoice and remember me for you know how much we cherished you,” concludes that perhaps the fragments are that of a broken heart trying to piece together memories of a love lost.
As Part Two commences, the Constellation Chor is joined by a cello, percussion and various woodwinds, including a Bansuri flute. Michelson, garbed in white gown, takes centerstage later to be joined by her lover (Heath Saunders) also in white. This is the Song of Songs, the only part of The Bible focused on love in the form of Eros instead of Agape and explicitly celebrating sensuality. The lovers and the Chor dance and exhort adorations such as, “I love to look at you” and “I’m in a fever of love.”
Arabesque music, intoxicated movement and raw, guttural sounds provokes a frenzy, until Michelson takes place at the piano and intones a tribute praising her lover’s attributes. He joins her and they straddle each other on the piano bench while never missing a note or key. The playful sensuality of this moment, their gazes and voices are more in line with a sexy R&B duet than a biblical passage. This intimacy opens up as Michelson leads the Chor into a flurry of sound akin to a bee’s hive. They then turn towards the audience and invite them (a la The Living Theater) onto the stage with them, proclaiming, “I am a city of peace” and “listen for your voice, let me hear it now.”
The experience is truly transcendent, in a time where such expressions of love and spirituality vary, if they exist at all. Marisa Michelson and the Constellation Chor have created a sacred space through the openness of their hearts and voices, starting with themselves. As Chor member Chad Goodridge explained, after initially thinking “What is this?” the weekly Friday morning practice became a sort of church through “community, commitment, and accountability” with a focus on “love and acceptance.” Of Michelson he says, “She composes dynamically,” with the “full range of humanity,” in mind. Heath Saunders, like Goodridge, comes from a Broadway background. He echoes the sentiment by adding, “what we do as musicians is inherently spiritual. This work keeps me from cynicism.”
Michelson herself describes her journey as coming from “a place of deeper and deeper trust in myself, my instincts and impulses, to create the form.” She calls working with the Chor “seeing my childhood dreams come true in a professional setting.” Michelson sees The Desire/Divinity Project as her “inquiry into letting go of the ego and freeing the voice in the process,” in the way saints and devotees have expressed their love of God in an almost erotic, orgasmic state as one would address a lover.
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© Copyright 2018 by Jeff Myhre, PhD, Editor. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent. Produced using Ubuntu Linux.