Stephen Petronio’s dance Like Lazarus Did (through March 8 at the Newmark Theatre) marries a neo-balletic movement style to a mostly somber score by Son Lux, both inspired by slave songs that Son Lux (his real name is Ryan Lott) came across and sent to Petronio. Peculiar, on the face of it, but the choreography and music are so well made and the echoes of those songs so powerful, that I found it transporting, maybe not to the transcendent state that Petronio seeks, but somewhere…different, maybe sacred, definitely beautiful.
Lott has used excerpts from the songs (I wish I had their complete texts, but my online search was unsuccessful) and embedded them in an electronic score. Crucially, his own recorded singing of lines from the songs has a plaintive, folk-song quality that undermines the electronic perfection, and even better, the touring production employs a live choir. In our case, that meant Mia Hall Miller’s Pacific Youth Choir, and they delivered well enough to make me wish they had a bigger role in the score.
The songs (and they aren’t really songs, more like samples) don’t connect in a linear, literal narrative. They are more like implications of stories, than stories themselves, mantra-like (as Andrew Boynton wrote in The New Yorker), though that’s not quite how they functioned.
So, Like Lazarus Did starts with the line, “I want to die like Lazarus did,” repeated many times. The curtain rises just a bit to reveal a man in a suit (Petronio) lying prone and still upstage, the choir rises into the sight of the audience, we see the legs of dancers moving in place. And then we hear, “Come out!” repeated several times.
Here, you have to know your Bible, I’m afraid. Jesus was summoned to heal Lazarus, but by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days, and his family was distraught that Jesus had taken so long. Jesus says to Lazarus’s sister, “ I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?”
And then he orders the stone to the cave where the body of Lazarus lies to be moved aside, and yes, exhorts in a loud voice, “Come out!” (Or per the King James Version, “Come forth.”) Which Lazarus does.
The curtain rises and the dance begins in earnest with an exquisite set of movements performed by three sets of three dancers, combining in different ways, dancing in unison very deliberately, arms swinging and torso turning elegantly. And then we are off into the rest of the dance.
Some of the sections of Like Lazarus Did are electronic only, no words, but frequently they come with lyric snippets song by Son Lux or the choir and usually both. “Done with this troubled world at last.” “No one but Jesus heard me.” Sometimes the lyrics are a little hard to understand, but this is how I heard one set: “I had so many children pulled out of me and into chains.” Another: “The world will be on fire, and you’ll hear the saints say Alleluia.” And then a lullaby at the end.
The choreography in those sections ranges from the soft stateliness of that opening scene to an almost raucous foursome, three men and a woman (Davalois Fearon), that has sexual undertones. Petronio’s vocabulary has the posture and rhythmic bounce of ballet, though he shatters the high carriage and twists the dancers into the ground, creates difficult angles and turns. The solos are all challenging and brilliantly executed. The last one, featuring Nicholas Sciscione dressed only in trunks, sticks in my mind best: a man collapsing in on himself, fighting to recover.
Until Petronio brought Like Lazarus Did to Portland, I had no idea that slaves in the American South used Lazarus as symbol of liberation. I had always thought of the story (as the Pharisees did, per the account of John) as a demonstration of power, and left it at that. And if pressed, I would have said that another Lazarus, the one in Luke (not John), a beggar who dies and is “carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.” The rich man who turns him away? He dies, too:
And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
Maybe the song is a conflation of the two? And the second story illustrates Petronio’s concerns a little better anyway, “cycles of reincarnation” (he says in the program). I’m not going to belabor this: Pretty soon we can be equating the human condition as a whole with slavery in the American South, and obviously, they are not equivalent. But another point emerges from Petronio’s dance: We have lessons to learn about that human condition from American slaves, preserved in the songs they sang themselves.
I felt my attention a couple of times during the wordless sections of Like Lazarus Did, a product of its repetition of movement vocabulary, perhaps. The words always snapped me to attention, though, sung by the choir or by Son Lux, words and sentiments made “strange” by the condition of slavery. Petronio shows us one way to make sense of them, phrase by dance phrase, and gives us the chance to interpret them ourselves in our own way, a door nudged ajar.