Some dances aim at amusement, some to tell a story, some to illuminate, depict, or connect. Other dances aim at sublimity, and at their best, these sublime dances dance for you: Their movement is not only seen, but felt, and in the stillness, you are lifted.
Minnesota Dance Theatre’s Close to Silence achieves this rare elevation of purpose. Directed by choreographer Wynn Fricke, this performance brings together the poetry of the Persian mystic Rumi, the whirling dances of the dervishes, Fricke’s own modern ballet choreography, the talents of MDT’s elastic dancers, David Echelard’s stunning vocal music, simple-yet-mesmerizing animation by Tom Mays, and the guidance of artist, costumer, and cultural advisor Fawzia Reda. All these elements weave together to create catharsis.
At first, I had trouble connecting with this piece. Mysticism offers no stairs to climb, no argument to ascend: You’re either in it or you’re not. It’s one thing to appreciate the connection between the sundial-tracing of Mays’s animation and the kaleidoscopic involutions of Fricke’s choreography, but it's quite another to feel it. In the first half of the performance, I was a mere watcher. The dancers’ control over technique also got in the way. Shoulders in ballet should be fairly fixed, but some dancers seemed immobile. It was hard to believe they felt anything other than stress. Finally, using dance to render poetry of mystic self-annihilation creates a paradox. “They have made for two or three days / A cage of my body,” Rumi says. If the body is a momentary trap for the soul, how can any performance reach ascension?
As the first half ends, a mood of failure sets in. A quartet shows off MDT’s strong men, but each movement, however beautiful, feels curtailed. These false starts made me long to see some simple dervish whirling. But the first half closes with these words: “Our covenant is not of desperation / Even if you have broken your vows a hundred times / Come, come again.” Fricke knows the paradox she’s set in motion. The second half opens with more reality: “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty / And frightened.” It’s hard to arrive.
But Fricke keeps at it. With the words “Let the beauty we love be what we do,” the mood and the dance loosen. A skirt dance ensues, four dancers each taking a moment to cut free, leaping in wild inventions, their skirts a whirl of emerald, azure, sapphire, jade. MDT’s dancers are mostly young, so technique and energy—not confidence and depth—are their strengths, and Fricke wisely keeps them moving. Throwing the self away is a form of transcendence that younger dancers understand. But there are a few exceptions to this rule: dancers Melanie Verna, Abdo Sayegh, and Sam Feipel, for example. In a solo for Sayegh, Fricke has him press in the space around his head as if trying to extinguish himself, and she turns his arms and articulate back into calligraphy. Technique vanishes. The body is a prison, but freedom comes also from the body. As the light dies over Sayegh’s moving back, we have arrived in the heart of the paradox.
“My place is the placeless / My trace is the traceless”: So the dance is not achievement, but continuous motion. Dancers run forward only to be intercepted by other dancers, cut off in dropping lifts. A last gorgeous knot of dancers echoes the beginning. And then, out of darkness, one dancer (Feipel) whirls. Other than his feet, he is still. And we are still and whirling with him.
Like Rumi’s poetry, Close to Silence is a crowd-pleaser. The young woman next to me was so thrilled, she couldn’t keep her clasped hands from her mouth, and the women behind me planned to tell their friends about the show. But also like Rumi’s poetry, Close to Silence is radical at heart. It can entertain you, it can sweeten your evening. But it asks much more. “You must change your life,” Rilke wrote of his encounter with a work of art. Close to Silence makes a similar demand—the decision to comply is up to you.
Close to Silence runs through June 10 at the Southern Theater.