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She Sang the Body Electric

All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one’s body, male or female. “I Sing The Body Electric” - Walt Whitman

Performance

Koresh Dance Company: “Masquerade”

Place

The Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Philadelphia, PA, May 4, 2023

Words

Merilyn Jackson

Callie Hocter and Kevan Sullivan in “Masquerade.” Photograph by Stephanie Ramones, Contigo Photos + Films

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Perhaps no better poem could train the viewer’s eye to watch the dancing body than Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric.” In it, he sings out most all of the body parts, visible and flesh-covered, on and inside the male and female body. The lines above could apply to almost any dance company but is particularly apt of the signature angularity of the members of Koresh Dance Company.

Founder of the 32-year-old company, Roni Koresh chooses his dancers for their speed, agility, and comedic sensibility over any romantic, sentimental or lyrical leanings. It's especially joyous to see them in daredevil motion from their bare knuckles to their bare midriffs exposing the diaphragms working in and out, breathing to keep the body moving.

Koresh makes dance theater in collaboration with a host of composers over the years poet and friends like Karl Mullen, and longtime lighting designer Peter Jakubowski. He mounted this ambitious spring show, “Masquerade,” at the company’s homebase, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in early May, fresh off their tour in Sardinia. A quasi narrative, the two-part 15 scene production was a collaboration with soprano, composer and performer Sage DeAgro-Ruopp, who added surprising and intriguing dimensions to Koresh’s usual formula of presenting of short sequential dances.

Koresh with Sage DeAgro-Ruopp in “Masquerade.” Photograph by Stephanie Ramones, Contigo Photos + Films

For “Masquerade,” the titles of its 15 scenes’ echo the sense of doubleness throughout framed by DeAgro-Ruopp’s electronically created-musical themes. These may be fewer than usual for Koresh, but I’ve seen Pina Bausch works, though seamlessly linked, with as many as 32 songs.

Koresh’s sections unroll like modular chapters of a novella with constant costume changes, parts added or subtracted to create new characters and shiftings of time and place. DeAgro-Ruopp sets excerpts from poems by Heinrich Heine, Paul Verlaine, Mullen, and texts from opera, pop, jazz, and American country songs, as well as some of her own.

Asked how he and DeAgro-Ruopp met, Koresh said “Sage is also a magnificent dancer and we met in class. She was always running off and never spoke much. One day I asked her where was she running off to. She told me for her singing lesson at Curtis Institute which is right across Rittenhouse Square from our studios. I went to see her in a Curtis performance and then she told me she writes music. So, over the last year and a half we worked on ‘Masquerade.’”

Three of artist/poet Mullen’s paintings hang like stained glass window panels on the backdrop, while Jakubowski’s horizontal and vertical arrows of light change your perception of them, furthering the feeling of being in a cathedral or a synagogue. Jewish, Israeli and Middle-Eastern themes run throughout Koresh’s body of work. Here, they are deeply buried in the more overt motif of the pandemic and our emergence from it, appearing during solos and ensemble sections. Angling elbows with forearms and hands pointing downwards and upwards, for one, is a move often seen in the company’s overtly Middle Eastern works. The music is also loaded with Jewish and European echoes through beats, melodies and instrumentation.

“Masquerade” opens with “Lift Those Eyelids,” a Mullen poem referencing a poem by the 19th Century German-born Jew, who converted to Catholicism in order to have his poems published. He took the Christian name Christian Johann Heinrich Heine, but insisted on the nom de plume, H. Heine. One of his poems has the line “At a Cherman (German) masquerade.” As the work unfolds, we recognize the motif recurring in lines by several poets and artists, cloaked in layers, peeled away or even further disguised.

Koresh Dance Company in “Masquerade.” Photograph by Stephanie Ramones, Contigo Photos + Films

Certainly, the terrific costumes by Koresh with the help of Alicia Tom—place the full company initially in the 16th or 17th centuries where plagues abounded and masks and makeup were worn to hide hideous scarring. The women wear fluffy white ruffled bustles with pert little bloomers that end at the hipline and chest flattening black bustiers. The men wear knee breeches and puffy-sleeved blouses half belted at the small of the back with minimally ruffed collars. In later sections, the costumes turn blood red, suggesting not only the blood let in medical cures of the time, as well as that shed in the many wars ever since, but also the Carmine dye imported from the Americas for coloring in the 16th century during the colonial period. And finally, the costuming goes to black, signifying the Black Death or the color of mourning. The costumes in the last sections mix all that went before, all in all, revealing a brilliant display of how costuming adds and subtracts to the metaphors, meanings and intentionality of a stage performance.

The next section, “Together apart” has Melissa Rector, (Koresh’s perennial star for 32 years) Devon Larcher, Kevan Sullivan, Callie Hocter, Paige Devitt, Savanna Mitchell coupling up in ballroom dances, while Sarah Shaulis flitted among them like a lost child. In “Too Close to the Sun” a seemingly inebriated Micah Geyer struggles to lug Robert Tyler out as if he’s disposing of a dead body. Possibly he is, as the rest of the company comes out to shun and chide him. One of the company’s best character dancers, Geyer is retiring after 16 years.

So many dancing couples danced in their living rooms for a year or more. In “Apart Together” the 10-year veteran and now also departing, Kevan Sullivan partnered Callie Hocter like figure skating dancers swizzling in tandem.

In a particular favorite of mine “Imagine Me to Be,” Devitt and Mitchell in identical costumes with banged black wigs, mirror each other’s movements. Sequestered with nothing but mirror images, hopelessly lonely, yet curiously looking as if to find themselves. Mirror imaging is another subtheme throughout. Indeed, didn’t we all have a little more time to look in our mirrors? Their twinning dances begin to unravel as they become two individuals. There is, finally, company.

Micah Geyer, Melissa Rector, Robert Tyler of Koresh Dance Company in “Masquerade.” Photograph by Stephanie Ramones, Contigo Photos + Films

After intermission “Caro” featured the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosy” which most folklorists agree bloomed from the plague. DeAgro-Ruopp wove through the full company singing her version in German, a Kurt Weill/Weimar inflected mournful tune.

“To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough.”*

From Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan on, dozens of great singers have covered the 1930’s Herb Magidson hit, “The Masquerade is Over.” DeAgro-Ruopp reimagined it here, again meandering operatically and dramatically between the dancers, now gathering together in the fullness of recommuning, faking laughter like the Pagliacci in the song.

DeAgro-Ruopp sings her silvery version of Charles Aznavour’s “La Bohème.” Her final arrangement of “Pawns” from “Shake Sugaree” by the great American folksinger, Elizabeth Cotten, puzzled as I saw little connection to what came before. Yet it was a shivering ending to this deeper than expected take on the masking and uncertainties of the last few years. Masquerade was a serious concept, with Koresh and DeAgro-Ruopp barely scratching its surface. I would hope they further develop the piece, more deeply investigating the many rich veins they’ve already mined.

“I Sing The Body Electric” - Walt Whitman

Merilyn Jackson


Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.

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