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The Easter Oratorio

In 1967, Charles Weidman choreographed Easter Oratorio, a beautifully simplistic and joyous dance that premiered at the Expression of Two Arts Theater in NYC. It featured multiple sections including ensemble numbers and a trio for women all surrounding the topic of rejoicing at the resurrection. In the later part of Weidman’s career, his pieces took on spiritual tones which was unique to his previous genres of  choreography. He especially focused on classical music by composers Brahms, Bach, Beethoven and choreographing joyous, grand, exalting movement.  His first pursuit in this new tone was Christmas Oratorio to music by Bach created in 1961 followed by  Easter Oratorio six years later also to music by Bach.

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Tisch School of the Arts dancers performing “Fugue” at the 92nd St Y
Photo by Julie Lemberger

Weidman believed that music and dance were one, and Easter Oratorio is a prime example of how his movement was inspired by the composition of the music. “Fugue”, the opening dance of the Oratorio, features an ensemble of dancers moving in structured sections in time and sequence with the music. A fugue is a compositional structure where a short melody or phrase is taken up by other instruments/voices at sequential, overlapping timings (think of “Row, row, row your boat” sung in a round). Weidman took these overlapping sections and did the same with his choreography; the women start moving with one theme followed by the men taking up the same or different movement overlapping the women to create a beautiful, yet mathematic assembly of elated bodies.

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“Fugue”
Photo by Julia Lemberger

Though Charles enjoyed following the structure of the music with his dance, he did so in an interesting way. Margaret O’Sullivan (Foundation Vice-President and Weidman company dancer) reflects on how Charles choreographed to the music in a unexpected way. Instead of starting on the 1 of every six counts, the impetus for the beginning of the phrase was always on the 6, making the movement seem to spurt out and grow in a way the was organic with the music, but simultaneously following its own rhythm and flow. This gives the Fugue the impression of always rolling forward and creates a play between the push and pull of the music and the dancers.

Margaret O'Sullivan in "Branches"

Margaret O’Sullivan in “Branches”

In 2010, the Charles Weidman Dance Foundation partnered with Tisch School of the Arts, NYU to re-stage and perform two sections from the Easter Oratorio. Janet Towner assisted by Margaret O’Sullivan taught the Tisch dancers the “Fugue” and the trio “Branches”. The two performances of these excerpts at the 92nd St Y and at Baryshnikov Arts Center were not only the first instance of Weidman/Bach performed to live music, but also the first time the excerpts had been shown in NYC since Weidman’s death.

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Janet Towner working with dancer Michael Gonzalez 
Photo by Larry Hall

The trio, “Branches” features three women holding laurel branches and circling around one another in sweeping and jumping movement. Each woman has a solo moment involving the first dancer with one branch, the second soloist with two, and the final woman wielding three branches in the formation of the cross. Each solo also contributes a different mood to the piece, the first stretching and arching on the floor with the single branch pointing to the sky, the second reaching and honoring with arms outstretched in a V shape , and the third swirling and whirling in praise and delight beneath the cross shaped branches.

The third solo moment in "Branches"

The third solo moment in “Branches”
Photo by Larry Hall

Elinor Rogosin in The Dancemakers: Conversations with American Choreographers speaks to how “the expression of the joy of the resurrection is the overwhelming mood in the piece” and how as an audience member, you “could have been eavesdropping on someone at prayer”. Rogosin comments on the simplicity of the choreography and the absence of acrobatic movement “creating a refreshing impact of naive expression”. When learning Easter Oratorio, Tisch alumni Elizabeth Montgomery reflects on the technique of the face and chest in order to achieve the look of ecstasy: “I remember Margaret explaining to us the intention of “space in the face;” it should be as though you’re looking past whatever is in the room in front of you, as though you’re looking out into the horizon from someplace very high. Maintaining that energy in an of itself is exhausting. Now add the jumps, hinges, and pivots, and Easter Oratorio becomes one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever danced, in spite of its choreographic simplicity”.

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“Fugue”
Photo by Larry Hall

“Bach’s dramatic intent in the Easter Oratorio is the expression of the joy of the Resurrection.  Despite the fringes of melancholy added by the adagio, and by some of the recitatives, the overwhelming mood is one of rejoicing”. -Charles Weidman on a 1971 program

1971 performance of Easter Oratorio

1971 performance of Easter Oratorio

Post by Julia Jurgilewicz


1 Comment

  1. […] at the fundraiser also had the privilege to see Weidman’s trio Branches from the Easter Oratorio performed by Phoebe Rose Sandford, Sarah Hillmon, and Julia Jurgilewicz, all three Weidman alumni […]

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