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Still gestures: Portland Symphonic Choir and push/FOLD Dance Company harmonized distinct disciplines for Rachmaninoff’s ‘Vespers’

Differing senses of time, space, movement, image and meaning were coordinated by artistic leaders Alissa Deeter and Samuel Hobbs in their dazzling recent performances at The Reser.

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Dr. Alissa Deeter, artistic director of the Portland Symphonic Choir, and Samuel Hobbs, artistic director and choreographer, push/FOLD Dance Company. Photo: Holly Shaw.
Dr. Alissa Deeter, artistic director of the Portland Symphonic Choir, and Samuel Hobbs, artistic director and choreographer, push/FOLD Dance Company. Photo: Holly Shaw.

How did they pull this off? How did a decade-long creative impulse – “wow, I’d love to do that” – become  “we did it?” The January 19-21 premiere of “Vespers”, dance based on Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, a collaboration between push/FOLD Dance Company and the Portland Symphonic Choir, is the result of pursuing the possibility. And, yes, they pulled it off.

You can read in an earlier OAW choral preview, how push/FOLD founder Samuel Hobbs, creator of the dance, and Alissa Deeter, Artistic Director of Portland Symphonic Choir came to this partnership. Sometimes it takes a bit of kismet in creative endeavors, and intelligence and guts to seize a moment when it presents itself. It also helps to retain the joy of that fateful moment after the enormity of a project like this sets in.

From the beginning it was understood that the choral forces were not engaged to ‘provide the music’ for the dance production. There are a handful of documented choral/dance collaborations commendable for their use of live music. But these mirror the choral/orchestral model: choir in background, sometimes even behind a scrim. Sure, Hobbs could have done it that way. He could have used one of the many very nice recordings out there and we’d have been treated to some very nice original choreography superimposed on some very nice singing. Not Hobbs and the push/FOLD dancers. Not Deeter and PSC singers.

To this, the boldness of this endeavor, I raise a toast. Risky, scary, costly. So non-traditional. So gutsy. This is THE Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, our Good Ol’ Rach. Deeply rooted in tradition – the epitomic aural iconology of the Russian Orthodox choral canon. Which, ironically, is exactly why I found the performance so meaningful. I experienced the Vigil anew. 

But first I had to have a conversation with my classical circuitry, so hardwired to downbeat, to meter, and to the symmetry so carefully laid out by Rachmaninoff. After Movement I, a powerful choral-only “call to worship,” the dancers were in motion and–what’s this?–the meter and phrases were not the cues off of which dancers moved. There, far downstage right, was conductor Deeter, cueing and shaping the phrases–and here were the dancers, powerful and athletic, seemingly unaware of the existence of a downbeat. 

But I began to sense the intention of movement, and toward the end of that segment–in which a chrysalis of entwined body parts emerged as singer Claire Robertson-Preis’ smooth alto intonement offered the first blessing–my initial striction based on classic choral construct was relaxed. It all began to make sense. I realized the beauty of the dance lay in its constant unfolding within the music, not on the black dots and measure lines. Now that was a blessing.

Alto Soloist Claire Robertson-Preis of the Portland Symphonic Choir with dancers Willow Swanson (inverted) and Maile Crowder (on side). Photo: Samuel Hobbs.
Alto soloist Claire Robertson-Preis of the Portland Symphonic Choir with dancers Willow Swanson (inverted) and Maile Crowder (on side). Photo: Samuel Hobbs.

Still gestures

But could I really heed the call to stillness inherent in music of the Vigil when before me bodies were in motion? My Oregon Arts Watch colleague Lindsay Dreyer, in her dance companion review, addressed how dance can capture that important element when she noted “the ways in which still gesture seemed to evoke the introspection the “All-Night Vigil” is lauded for.” Note the words “still gesture.” I possessed no pre-performance knowledge of “still gesture” but the dancers must have conveyed it; the stillness was there. Note this, too: not everything needs to be intellectualized to be felt. Afterall, did my choral mind check the “beautiful decrescendo” box after the choir put me in my happy place in one of my favorite choral moments, three-quarters through in Movement VII? (Measures 11-13 to be specific). No, I simply sat in the stillness.

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Stillness was also created by the lighting throughout the performance, particularly when the 90-ish voice choir was stretched wing-to-wing upstage, most singers on floor level. In unrelieved black from waist down, strategically lit, the choir seemed to levitate. From shoulder up, book-lights created a candle-like illumination of hands and faces forcing a perception that there were thousands amassed to celebrate the Vigil of darkness to light. The choir hardly moved, performing this non-singing role beautifully. It was visually stunning.

The finale of "Vespers," featuring the dancers of push/FOLD and the Portland Symphonic Choir. Photo: Samuel Hobbs.
The finale of “Vespers,” featuring the dancers of push/FOLD and the Portland Symphonic Choir. Photo: Samuel Hobbs.

Alas, this formation created the greatest challenge to the sonic excellence of which this choir is capable. The Reser Auditorium acoustic is honest; no wobbles, no fractures. But it is not a cathedral-like, blend-assisting sonic hug (think St. Philip Neri in Portland or St. James in Vancouver). Voices shoot straight out. Tuning a hall like this – making sure that your singers can hear themselves and that the audience will hear your very best sound – is essential.

The hall is very nice for the solo singer. The natural resonance of Brandon Michael’s tenor voice offered a refreshing brightness – more light against the darkness – arising from within the thick Vigil textures. He shimmered on his solo above beautifully sung choral moments in Movement IV and the precious prayer (Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace) of Movement V which was also the ideal place for soprano Megan Conroy-Peters to soar above the undulating supportive chords.

Tenor vocalist Brandon Michael of the Portland Symphonic Choir, Portland's oldest symphonic choral ensemble, in "Vespers." Photo: Samuel Hobbs.
Tenor vocalist Brandon Michael of the Portland Symphonic Choir, Portland’s oldest symphonic choral ensemble, in “Vespers.” Photo: Samuel Hobbs.

To benefit the choir there should have been an acoustic shell upstage behind them instead of a thick curtain–which can soak up sound like a Brawny paper towel. Ideally, a slight curve and/or slight elevation at each wing would have allowed the sound to blend more before it wafted into the hall. In one formation, when the voices were amassed diagonally upstage stage left, with voices projecting at a 45-degree angle from the audience, the sound mixed before heading my way. A good sound it was – rich, full, blended.

Full choir fortes occasionally lifted me from my seat. Yes, I know some of us crave the Rachmaninoff low B-flat as much as we do the Allegri Miserere high C. Alas, not all choirs preparing an All-Night Vigil have oktavist Glenn Miller on speed dial. Many audience members joined me anyway in a satisfying sigh at the end of Movement XII for which the choir and conductor moved into a stage-centered block formation. 

By my count the choir moved six times. We are so accustomed to choirs in block formation, on risers. Sure, choirs sometimes sing in processional or recessional and are at times repositioned into double-choirs or circle the audience for a surround sound. Choral repositioning is usually in service of the music, as was the shift to semi-chorus for this performance. But in the earlier-mentioned movement to the stage left, when I perceived the choir being moved out the way, it was in fact a beautifully executed and intentional piece of stage-craft. Again, my colleague Lindsay Dreyer clarifies this well in her dance review:

Vespers made incredible choices in honoring each form, specifically choosing to start and end the production with the choir, but also using the vocalists in the mise-en-scène. So often, dance is seen as the dominant stimulus with its visual presence, but establishing the choir before the movement allowed the Vigil to command the space it needed as such a significant choral work. From there, with the sonic space already claimed, the movement directed its own presence, highlighted through the negative space left by shifts in the choral congregation’s formations.

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This fusion–created, envisioned and brought to the stage by Hobbs–was entrusted to some very skilled artists. The performers – dancers and singers whose knowledge of the challenges and delights in store for them on stage were held in deep freeze (literally) until mere hours before opening night–are to be commended. And in Deeter, Hobbs lucked upon an artistic collaborator with whom he could share the vision, debate, compromise and trust to hold the production together in performance. 

All choral eyes were fixed on their leader’s sometimes exaggerated and always exacting gesture. She was conducting not only from the score but from the dance. There was an agreed upon rendezvous point at the end of each set but with two different ‘clocks’ in play – dancer time and metric time – and adjustments were required. Cheers to a couple of extra-long fermatas, a prolonged rall-enn-tann-doo or two. Bravo to live performance and to Deeter who managed it all very well. 

As mentioned in the OAW performance preview, Hobbs did not reference the liturgical text in his creation. Knowing this, I was disinclined to see the image of Christ in Movement IV. To me one dancer in shimmering white being then lifted by black-garbed others into full spotlight perfectly captured the setting sun’s final flare. Later, in the full choir re-orientation to stage left, I flashed to my own upbringing in the Russian Orthodox Church. I recalled holding my Mother’s hand as the entire congregation moved to the narthex closing the entry to the sanctuary behind them. We all left, so my people told me, so God could enter and then welcome us back in. In all the times I’ve listened to or sung the work I never recalled that memory as I did in this performance.

Certainly, the music Rachmaninoff wrote embraces the liturgical text. I believe he also embedded his own childhood memories. Of icons and the incense. Joyous, almost raucous church bells. A ray of light reflected upon the cathedral wall fading in concord with the setting sun. Hobbs choreographed all of these memories and created an atmosphere in which both choir and dancers coexisted to honor the All-Night Vigil. 

In post-performance panel and Q&A Deeter, Hobbs, and singers and dancers (two of each), fielded live and live-stream questions about the performance. In these weeks after, there has been even more post-performance talk. The chatter about this collaboration has been spirited and far reaching. Hooray! When art inspires conversation, the conversation inspires art. 

What’s next? There really ought to be a “next” for this performance in its entirety, same performing forces, same dance design, to not only showcase the artistic product but to introduce more audiences to something so exciting and new. But a road trip? With 100+ people? New venues? What an enormous undertaking! Risky, costly, scary. How will they ever pull it off?

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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