Friday, October 3, 2008

Preview: Mass in times of war

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minnesota audiences will be able to experience major musical works rooted in the liturgy of the Mass at least twice during the 2008-2009 performance season.

The more ambitious production will be that of the Minnesota Orchestra when it presents Mass, A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, Jan. 22-23. Composed by Leonard Bernstein at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the work received its first performance at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D. C., Sept. 8, 1971. Its antiwar theme contributed to a climate of controversy around its premiere. I followed news reports and gossip about the gala opening; although I resided in Washington at the time, my finances permitted entrance to the JFK Center only for free public tours.

Music Director Osmo Vanska will conduct the Minnesota performances which will feature 250 performers, including Raymond Ayers, baritone, as the celebrant, along with members of the Minnesota Chorale, Minnesota Boychoir, and James Sewell Ballet.

Owing to the work's scope and the expense of its production, Mass is performed rarely by professional orchestras. However, as 2008 marks the 90th anniversary of Bernstein's birth, Mass will be the centerpiece of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's current season with performances in Baltimore (Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Oct. 16-18), New York (Carnegie Hall, Oct. 24; United Palace Theater, Oct. 25), and Washington D. C. (JFK Center, Oct. 26).

Missa Brevis, a production on a smaller scale, will take the stage of the Northrop Dance Series, Mar. 19. This modern dance classic, choreographed by José Limón, is a 40-minute work for 22 dancers. It will feature members of the New York-based Limón Dance Company joined by eight students from the University of Minnesota's Dance Program. The Oratorio Society of Minnesota will perform the score by Zoltán Kodály.

As one of America's modern dance pioneers, Limón's force and presence as a dancer did much to establish a role for men in dance. Born in Mexico in 1908, he arrived in New York City in 1928 and soon began studies with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. He founded The Jose Limón Dance Company in 1946, with Humphrey serving as artistic director until her death 12 years later. Limón also began teaching at The Juilliard School in 1951. His own death, from prostate cancer, came in 1972.

Limón's choreography has been noted for its dramatic expression, technical mastery, and its expansive, nuanced movement. Many of his works are considered classics of modern dance and continue to be studied and performed widely by students and professionals.

When the Limón Company toured Europe in 1957, sponsored by the U. S. State Department, Limón was impressed by his first-hand witness, particularly in Poland, to the widespread devastation, efforts to re-build, and the indomitable human spirit that marked the post-war era.

According to company program notes, the experience inspired him to create Missa Brevis as a memento to the cities destroyed during World War II and to the human qualities that compel the spirit to rise and survive after near destruction. The dance received its first performance at the Juilliard Dance Theater in New York, Apr. 11, 1958. Deborah Jowitt, the long-time dance writer and critic for The Village Voice, was an original cast member.

The music, Missa Brevis in Tempore Belli – "Short Mass in Time of War" – was completed by the Hungarian composer Kodály during the Siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944-1945, when he extended his original scoring for solo organ to include mixed chorus.

The University of Minnesota's Dance Program sponsors annual residencies by dance professionals to benefit its BA and BFA students. Underwritten by the Cowles Guest Artist Program, more than 120 people over the years have shared their knowledge and expertise with students as creators and repetiteurs of new and existing works.

Sarah Stackhouse, one of this year's five visiting artists, set Missa Brevis on 22 students in a residency that ended with an open rehearsal this week at the University's Barbara Barker Center for Dance. Stackhouse danced with the Limón company from 1958 to 1969, and has served on the faculties of The Juilliard School, the American Dance Festival, and the SUNY-Purchase Conservatory of Dance.

Introducing the open rehearsal, Carl Flink, chair, Department of Theatre Arts & Dance, said that Missa Brevis fills the "classic" slot in this year's repertoire of the University Dance Theatre. Flink, who danced with the Limón Company from 1992 to 1998, noted that the men and women are cast in a traditional structure, something that is rarely done at the university anymore.

In remarks, Stackhouse related that the objective for artists in the 1920s and 1930s was not necessarily great choreography but dealing with social movement issues. Although Missa Brevis follows the order of the Catholic Mass and Limón saw the work as his prayer for peace, it is not a religious piece, she said. "Although raised in Catholicism, he was what might be called a religious atheist."

At rise, 21 dancers stand clumped and motionless at center stage, hands joined. A male dancer, the outsider, stands downstage right. The group greets the music of the Kyrie with a gentle plié and tendu accompanied by a shifting of weight and opening to second position. At its end, the work returns to this same grouping and movement with the final "Amen."

Some of the imagery for the dance was unconventional, if not controversial, for 1958. A trio of women in the Sanctus section represented the Trinity, and a woman offered herself as the sacrifice for crucifixion in another. The latter, Stackhouse explained, represented Limón's mother who died while birthing her 12th child.

As a classic, Missa Brevis is great choreography that deals with social issues. It would be a good primer for those wanting to understand the antecedents of vocabulary, phrasing, patterns, and structures of contemporary dance in 2008. Flink observed that this dance uses time and space in a way that lacks the frenetic energy and tempo of life and dance today. Stackhouse agreed, noting the work's generosity, allowing the viewer to enter in, its use of space and time allowing for metaphor.

Auditions for entry into the University of Minnesota's BA and BFA programs in dance will be held at the Barbara Barker Center for Dance, 500 - 21st Avenue South, Minneapolis, Dec. 6 & Feb. 7. Information: 612.624.5060 or

The University Dance Theatre will perform at the Whiting Proscenium Theatre, Rarig Center, Minneapolis West Bank Campus, Feb. 6-8. 612.624.2345 or

The Limón Dance Company and UDT will perform at Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis East Bank Campus, Mar. 19. 612.624.2345.

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