“Who knows what people see when they’re in a coma, or when they die?” That’s a question Myron Johnson, director of Ballet of the Dolls, has been mulling for nearly a year. His answer: the one-night-only, world premiere performance of “Faith: A Dance for Life,” a new work commissioned by Ordway Center of Performing Arts, inspired by a piece of the same name Johnson staged 21 years ago.
In a Q & A following the show on Friday night, the choreographer explained that the ideas anchoring this new iteration of “Faith” coalesced around time spent with a friend who’d been hospitalized after a life-threatening aneurysm. His friend was gravely ill, in and out of consciousness, but clearly experiencing something extraordinary, if wholly insular, in that liminal state. Such experiences are inherently ineffable – unmoored from work-a-day reality and impossible to articulate with the language and imagery of everyday life. But it’s precisely those inchoate longings, those life-and-death questions, that lie at the heart of the human condition and in the stirrings of religious experience.
In the program notes for “Faith,” Johnson writes, “For me, dance is a way to express those visions that words won’t satisfy… My ballets are my dreams.” “Faith,” Johnson says, is his imagining of what such an experience might look and feel like from the inside.
“Faith” takes us into the mind of our protagonist, Robert (performed by Robert Skafte), as he lay hospitalized and dying. Johnson and the Dolls render the character’s end-of-life visions by way of a series of Dali-esque dance tableaux – a whipsaw mix of styles and genres, from hip hop to old Hollywood, floor-crawling modern dance to New Orleans swing and ballet. We experience with Robert the trippy, technicolor, pop-tastic visions that span the last few moments of his life and cross the threshold with him briefly for a glimpse into what lays beyond.
This production, like all those created by Ballet of the Dolls, was unstinting in every respect – the dancers were expansive and assured, the costumes a cavalcade of spangles, heels, impossible tresses and all manner of gauzy, vampy splendor set to the steady, insistent beat of pop and world music. The questions Johnson and the Dolls tackled with “Faith” may be weighty, but the performance was anything but somber – even in serious moments, the show felt buoyant, and often playful.
Johnson has insisted from the beginning that Friday night’s production of “Faith” would be a singular theatrical experience – staged just one time, never repeated elsewhere. And to be among those in the packed house, taking in the spectacle this weekend, was a rare treat indeed.
“Faith: A Dance for Life,” choreographed and directed by Myron Johnson, performed by Ballet of the Dolls and commissioned by Ordway Center for Performing Arts took the Ordway stage in St. Paul for one night only Friday, May 4. For more about Myron Johnson and Ballet of the Dolls: www.ritzdolls.com.