Thursday, January 22, 2015

Early Shaker Spirituals (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This week the REDCAT downtown hosts a show from the renowned Wooster Group in NYC. Apart from that all I knew going in was its title--Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation. So I began, intrigued. The Shakers, for those who don't know, were (and still are) a religious offshoot of Christianity, who established themselves in North America (along with many other dissident churches) during the 1700s.  The name comes from their ritualistic dancing, but these days most associate them with beautiful (and increasingly valuable) handmade furniture. Shakers believed Christ had come again, as a woman. They live in communal lives of absolute celibacy (increasing their numbers by adoption) and gender equality.

Having heard Shaker hymns before (mostly on YouTube) these renditions felt very different. Four older women confined to a tiny, drab island in a much larger space hit the notes but seemed to feel little--or trying very much to feel little. Previous versions of (for example) "Tis the Gift to be Simple' seemed perky, fun, totally genuine. These four came across as repressed. More, despite their homespun and simple clothes, each wore a headset and mike. We become aware very soon they are singing along with the album Early Shaker Spirituals. The impact is one of cold intellectual examination coupled with a stereotype of rigid Puritanism.

At this point, I felt disappointment. The Shakers were far from Puritans. This almost robotic treatment of hymns that should (in theory at least) be celebratory even felt somewhat offensive.

But then...

Gone was the tiny wall and limiting checkerboard, the worn and ugly chairs, the microphones that helped turn these women--and so the Shakers themselves--into living antiques. With a wide open space, and more people joining them in that space (including some young men) some of the same songs repeat.  Yet this time, they sing with feeling.  And with the slightly odd (to our eyes) ritual dances of the Shakers themselves.

What a difference! I'd never actually seen such. Just woodcuts and illustrations. Now, in this context (and especially in contrast to the first half) we get to see the fiercely living energy expressed in song and dance!  Instead of flesh-and-blood robots, we view genuine worship.  Ecstasy has a sustained habit of body and voice both.  I cannot adequately relate how in watching these I understood (or maybe just got a taste of understanding) what it means to be a Shaker, on a visceral level.

No small thing. No small thing at all.

Early Shaker Spirituals will play at the REDCAT (631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles CA 90012 phone number 213.237.2800) Tuedays through Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 3pm until February 1, 2015.

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