A Modern Medieval Tale

Don't Be Alarmed, But Orts' Latest Production Is Heresy

By Margaret Regan

IT'S NOT EXACTLY what you'd expect of a modern dance: the story of a medieval German theologian twice condemned for heresy by the Catholic Church.

But then, Airborne: Meister Eckhart, An Evening of Flying Dance Theatre is not your typical modern dance piece. Playing Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the PCC Center for the Arts, it's an evening-length work in two acts, performed by a cast of 38, including dancers from Orts Theatre of Dance, choral singers from Desert Voices, a narrator and assorted children and three seniors playing Old Wise Ones.

Review There will be songs sung not only in English but in Latin, jazz-tinged medieval music recorded by Chuck Koesters, and dance that draws its stately rhythms from the images in medieval paintings. Seven dance trapezes will hang on stage throughout the piece, and their movements are meant to suggest the vast spaces of the great European cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

Presiding over the remarkable whole is Robert Davidson, the Seattle dancer, choreographer and composer who first introduced Annie Bunker and her Orts dancers to their now-trademark trapeze dancing. Not only did Davidson compose the dances for Airborne (back in 1985), he wrote the songs and put together a text gleaned in part from the writings of Johannes Eckhart, a 14th-century mystic who nowadays languishes mostly in obscurity. And he himself dances the part of Eckhart.

One day last week, in between a frenzied round of rehearsals, Davidson took a quick break in the warehouse district space that is Orts' latest studio. (The longtime Tucson company has already lost two spaces this year, first its Stone Avenue lodgings to Tommy Tucker, of mural-destroying fame; then the Historic Y Theatre to Millennium Theatre Company.) Dressed in stretchy gray dance togs that matched his short-cropped gray hair, Davidson curled his flexible limbs into a corner of a battered couch. Now and then, as he told how he happened upon Eckhart's spiritual teachings, his remarks were interrupted by the rattle of trains rolling by just a hop-skip away.

"I was reading a book by John Cage, Silence, and a footnote mentioned Meister Eckhart. This was 15 to 20 years ago. I'd worked with Merce Cunningham as a student dancer and I'd met Cage...I went to a bookstore and found this book (of Eckhart's writings). For five years I tried to read it but I couldn't find in it what John Cage (did)."

Davidson was what you might call a spiritual seeker. He'd entered college intending to study for the Methodist ministry and later had become a devotee of Zen Buddhism. But he'd long sought without success a connection between Eastern mysticism and Christianity. He finally discovered what he was looking for when he gave up reading Eckhart's densely written sermons. He delved instead into his "legends" and "fragments," which are closer to Zen koans than conventional Christian dogma.

"God is Nothing. No Thing. God is Nothingness. And yet God is Something," Davidson read, and knew at last he'd found "the mystic that I hadn't been able to find in the Western tradition."

Eckhart died in 1327, more than a century and a half before the birth of Martin Luther; and his teachings, such as an insistence on a personal relationship with God, prefigure many of the innovations of the Protestant Reformation. Though Eckhart wrote a lengthy defense of his work against the Church's accusation of heresy, Eckhart himself never attacked the Church hierarchy per se, Davidson said. "All he was trying to do was make the church pure."

But how to make of all this a dance? Davidson mixed his media--dance, song and spoken word--to evoke a rich panoply of the Middle Ages, when cathedral architecture soared, when freelance mystics formed alternative religious communities, when dance and music were sacred. A narrator leads the audience through the story, a flashback retelling of one day in the life of Eckhart not long before his death.

"(The narrator) becomes the alter ego of Eckhart, weaves his tale, makes him come to life," said Davidson. He's delighted to have as narrator a Methodist minister, Patrick S. Cunningham, who works as a chaplain in a hospice for the dying. Cunningham, on hand for a rehearsal with Orts dancer Stacey Haynes, said he in turn is delighted to translate into art issues he deals with everyday, such as "the presence and the absence of God."

The work has 12 distinct dances, including "Dance of the Inclusae," which Orts performed separately last year. Danced on trapezes, it's about the strange medieval practice of permanently shutting up women--called inclusae--into tiny dark rooms, all, it seems, for the greater glory of God. Orts performed another section, "Nightdreams," two seasons ago. And because of the strong cohort of Orts women, Davidson added a new all-female piece for this production, "Dance of the Faithful." It's meant to chart out a terrain "where the mundane and the divine meet."

Davidson's own troupe, Robert Davidson Dance Company, has toured Airborne around the country in the last decade, garnering such praise as "captivating" and "unconventional" by Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice. For its Tucson debut, Davidson had Koesters re-work the original music by James Knapp. Davidson himself composed a new song, because "this is the first production with a wonderful choir." He had faith that all the new elements would be in sync in time for Thursday's opening.

"As of last night 'Dance of the Faithful' was blocked out," he said serenely. "Chuck will write the music over the weekend."

Orts Theatre of Dance performs Airborne: Meister Eckhart at 8 p.m. Thursday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at the PCC Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. There is no Friday performance. Tickets are $10, $8 for students and seniors, $5 for PCC students, with discounts for religious organizations and groups of 10 or more. They're available in advance from Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea, Silverbell Trading, by email at orts@rtd.com. For reservations and information, call 624-3799. TW

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