An Angel Appeared: Why “Book of Saints” Matters

Veronica Cross

History – whether allegorical or otherwise – is subject to interpretation. What we talk about and how we talk about it reveals our concerns for the present and future. You may think it odd to introduce a review of a ballet about saints with the word history. But the lives of persons (imagined or real) who dedicate their mortal coil to benevolent convictions could not hold more value to the narrative arc of humanity, in the hope that we actually are evolving as a species.

Art can offer us a way in to that stream via metaphor to transcend time and place. By alluding to sacred texts, visual art, and recorded histories, the ballet “Book of Saints” offers a luminous and contemporary space for meditation on who we are – or hope to be – as humans.

Onstage, a large Gothic reliquary represents the time-honored tradition of storytelling. It is both icon triptych and illuminated manuscript, as in the devotional book of hours. This is the one constant upon a bare stage, such restraint permitting the larger Classical arched-“bones” of the Marigny Opera House (itself a former 19th century Catholic church) to frame the dramaturgy. Ballet Director Dave Hurlbert brilliantly supplied the concept and scenario.

Such reservation and moments of stillness provide room for the viewer’s imagination and also eclipse the affect of pageantry; this is no small feat for a production about saints performed in the city of New Orleans, itself a locus for Christian and Classical themes. The real opulence is seen in allegro and arabesque crescents formed by the dancers. Introspection is invited by chorus and chamber music performed by The New Resonance Orchestra in a commissioned score written by New Orleans composer Tucker Fuller.

Three seraphs open “Book of Saints” in serendipitous measures to a choral liturgy. This production is radiantly performed by the Marigny Opera Ballet (now in its fourth full season.) Three saints beloved by the Roman Catholic Church – Teresa of Avila, Sebastian, and Francis of Assisi – are summoned from their stillness within the reliquary. Outside, on bare stage, the three icons re-enact their mortality, vulnerable away from their allegorical glory. Choreographed by Teresa Fellion (of BodyStories, New York City), the company’s movements and gestures reveal complex range of emotions including traces of doubt, resistance, and hope before capitulation.

Outside, on bare stage, the three icons re-enact their mortality, vulnerable away from their allegorical glory.

Lauren Gynes’ Carmelite nun St. Teresa betrays a fleeting incredulity at and defiance to the visit from John Bozeman’s seraph with the angst of youth in sharp, looping arcs of movement. Hers is a struggle between intention and endurance in terms of her interior life as a mystic and her exterior one as a mortal. The passion play between Gynes and Bozeman is a dynamic recourse to a familiar Baroque exemplar of the saint swooning over the angel’s visit in Bernini’s 17th century sculpture, “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”. Faced with others’ disbelief at her visions, the saint’s frustration is convincingly performed by Gynes.

“Intertextual” – a word reserved for the relationships between texts over time – can describe in a general way the process in which Hurlbert and Fellion expertly riff on imagery and history to weave very human dynamics. Act II presents the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Of the three narratives, this segment is especially complex for a confluence of factors. The image of St. Sebastian over art-historical time has developed a certain homosexual eroticism, from Renaissance paintings to photography and film (Sodoma, Rejlander, Haynes, et al). Often depicted as pale, bound, and isolated, a tweak to that dynamic would be one thing, but not what comes next.

On the stage, we are reminded of St. Sebastian’s role as a soldier to his ultimate oppressor, Roman Emperor Diocletian. An overt narcissist played by Niklas Nelson, one could insert any name of privileged megalomaniacs here. Edward Spots’ St. Sebastian is a man of conviction and empathy. He is also a man of color. Nelson is not. Director and choreographer have made key casting, choreography, and set decisions in this scene, without being overly didactic. Nelson’s Diocletian both torments and desires Spots’s Sebastian, their sways and twists together, and with another soldier (Derwin May, Jr.), result in Spots being left bound upon a pedestal. Consider the paradox of Spots’s Sebastian on a pedestal – here is the black body on display, spotlighted, a’ la Mapplethorpe, fetishized. Consider also another type of pedestal, or block, that a person of color has been put upon – for display and for sale – here, in this city. And then you might consider something a bit more contemporary, of power and disempowerment.

Edward Spots’ St. Sebastian is a man of conviction and empathy.

A profound trinity is formed between Diocletian, Sebastian, and Ashlee Smalls as Sebastian’s petitioning mother. In laser-focused silent exchanges between mother and son, Sebastian’s gaze of empathy, fear, and longing (powerful even in stillness, much to his credit) respond to Smalls’ ultra-elegant appeals – are repeatedly intercepted by May, Jr.’s soldier.

And for our third saint, St. Francis, Joshua Bell carries the saint’s nobility of origin into a staid grace as he enters his chosen life of poverty. In penitent acts of isolation and hunger, he is accompanied both by his faith and his doubters. Bell’s solo, moving from floor work to lyrical adagio phrases, is only eclipsed by his ecstatic leaps and turns in the final act as the saints, now transformed, reappear in joyous formation before their return to the pages of allegory.

Triumphant horns, punctuating triangle, and ethereal chorus signal the closing of the “Book of Saints.” In borrowing the model of the book of hours, we are reminded of our humanity and why we continue to seek out stories of those who push boulders up steep mountains if only to be crushed underneath. And we repeat it all over again because we continue to value our convictions. In this production, the Marigny Opera Ballet reminds us of the efficacy of using Art to make sense of it all, and how really accessible that is.

“Book of Saints” debuted early October 2017 at the Marigny Opera House in New Orleans. The production is scheduled to return to the Marigny Opera House in March 2019.

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LUNA Fête light show at Gallier Hall in New Orleans 2017