'Where Heavens Dew Divides' provides much food for thought

Posted: April 19, 2013

How often does a piece with multiple authors and a broad-reaching concept come out as a cohesive whole, but with poetic elusiveness that leaves you, hours later, pondering what you've experienced?

Such was the case when the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts' time-machine concept made one of its less-well-documented stops: Where Heaven's Dew Divides, a dance/theater work that opened Wednesday at the Kimmel Center's Innovation Studio, commemorates the African American religious community's rebellion against discrimination in worship services and the 1794 founding of St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church.

Under the umbrella of the Germaine Ingram Project, a company of dancers and musicians of many ages and ethnicities developed a 10-episode piece choreographed by Ingram, Leah Stein, and individual company members. Graphic representations of historic personalities were projected on the rear wall. You may not know who they are but you can feel their determination.

Stark piano writing (composed and performed by David Burrell) accompanied some dances; others had silence or songs. Attire was plain - aside from the occasional red hood or hat - to avoid distracting from the movement. One episode recounted the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 that killed 5,000 Philadelphians. Diary entries were quoted from religious visionary Jarena Lee, who found God after repeated suicide attempts.

Virtually all choices were deeply artistic and even more deeply felt but were fueled by abstract emotion more than anything laden with a stern lest-we-forget message. If there was a predominating language, it was tap dance, but not flashy 42nd Street stuff or anything hip-hoppish. This was lower-key, concentrated on movement from the waist down with an ear for the metric interplay between the music and other dancers' taps.

Solos and small ensemble dances were smartly interspersed with full-company episodes, one with the dancers moving as a single organism, not tapping at all but weaving in and out of one another in many configurations with different degrees of physical contact. Square dance reimagined by Pilobolus?

Afterward, one audience member observed that the piece took an overall cue from one of the church's founders, Richard Allen (1760-1831), who decreed there should be "No moaning and groaning" during worship so as not to drown out subtle messages from God. Well said. But I urge Philadelphia's artistic community to moan at length until Where Heaven's Dew Divides has a run beyond its current stint - the last performance is Friday.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|