michael j. morris

morgan thorson’s “heaven”
20 October, 2011, 10:26 pm
Filed under: art, Dance, dance review | Tags: , ,

This is still very much a draft. But I’m not sure when I’ll next find time to post writing to my blog, and I want to begin to give this writing a life beyond my laptop.

This is a short piece of writing that I did in response to a piece entitled Heaven by Morgan Thorson.
The piece can be viewed in its entirety at http://www.ontheboards.tv/.
This is a nice trailer for the dance:

And this video has some beautiful footage of the piece, as well as some interview footage with the choreographer:

My reading of the piece is not perfectly in line with Thorson’s explanation of her interests/process, but I think they create a lovely dialogue with one another.
I could have written far more about this piece. But it was a productive exercise to restrain the writing to (just under) 650 words.
Here are my words about the piece. Enjoy:

If There Is Always This and Here

Morgan Thorson’s Heaven, premiered in 2010, stages the affective possibilities of materiality. As exemplary of a contemporary “total art,” it choreographs not only the movements of bodies, but renders intentional organization to costumes, props, sets, lighting, and music as they evolve together through time and space. The work consists of a rigorous investigation of the materials from which it is composed—bodies, motion, light, textiles, and sound—offering an account of their immanent significance that relies not on systems of symbolism or representation with which they might be associated, but rather, on the inexhaustibility of their own potential.

Just over an hour long, Heaven unfolds as a boundless proliferation of differences that somehow feel the same. The use of “white” in the piece provides an example of one such proliferation of differences. Through often gradual and occasionally sudden shifts, I come to see white, not as ideal or sacred in its singularity, but as endlessly transformable, itself a composition of light, shadow, depth, and motion, always a different version of itself. The stage floor is white, and the three sides of the performance space are draped in white fabric that sometimes hangs like a veil and at other times billows in monumental waves on the impact of dancing bodies. The dancers are all dressed in assorted shades of white. White is the color of much of the light that throughout the piece reveals other “whites” in the play of lightness and shadow across the many surfaces scattered throughout the performance space. Across and between these surfaces, white unfolds not as a single neutralizing quality to which each surface refers; rather, “white” becomes a richly textured field of infinite variation that asks what else “white” might be.

The treatment of moving bodies is another mode through which Heaven demonstrates its internally differentiated unity. The dance begins in silence with the performers already moving in a lengthy synchronized procession around the parameter of the stage space. At various points during this procession, individuals drop out to engage in other tasks, while the original action of the procession is constantly maintained by at least one performer. This becomes a structural theme of the piece, particular actions carried on by one or more performers while others proceed into other tasks, gestures, and phrases.  Processing continues during bowing, bowing is simultaneous to standing and rolling and colliding, which someone carries on while others move into circling, circling that flows into singing and spinning, spinning while others break into running and later into kneeling, and so on: the cohesion of the choreography comes from its layering, actions always overlapping with other actions, and in doing so, smoothing out what might otherwise register as decisive breaks in a dance so varied in its movement vocabularies. The effect is a busyness of action that somehow over time feels like stillness, a broad domain of movement possibilities that paradoxically simulate uniformity.

In Heaven, Thorson not only accomplishes a compelling example of contemporary performance work that takes its own materiality as the source of its own possibilities of meaning. The title of the piece makes the deployment of many of these materials (pervasive whiteness, dazzling beaded curtains that might elsewhere suggest pearly gates, singing in groups with eyes closed and hands raised, the departure and return of bodies) notable: their abstraction from traditional representations of “heaven” asks us to consider the affective significance of symbols that need not signify, and to consider the immanent sacredness of materiality. What are the sensational possibilities of the physical and the familiar when they are no longer used for religious iconography, but are instead put forward to be considered in their very own glory? Thorson’s Heaven asks how our concepts of transcendence, divinity, or salvation might transform if the materials through which such concepts have been represented were to take on tacit interminable meanings of their own.


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[…] organization of the stage space reminded me of a piece I wrote about earlier this year, Morgan Thorson’s Heaven. The space was large and predominantly white. It contained various “stations”: the sound boards […]

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