'Devotion' conveys emotion, faith, personal history, and primal love

The aptly named ballet, playing at On the Boards through Sunday (March 13), powerfully conveys abrupt mood changes and the emotional pull between characters as it explores religion and much more.

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'Devotion,' playing through Sunday (March 13) at On the Boards.

The aptly named ballet, playing at On the Boards through Sunday (March 13), powerfully conveys abrupt mood changes and the emotional pull between characters as it explores religion and much more.

Rarely has a ballet been more aptly named than Sarah Michelson’s new work, "Devotion." Not only does Michelson require total commitment from her dancers, she places an equal demand on the audience, refusing to provide program notes (thankfully, since so often they are confusing or obtuse) and doing away with a curtain call at the end.

Without notes to guide our interpretation of the hard-driving movement that permeates "Devotion," we are left to decide for ourselves the meaning of the characters named Adam, Eve, Mary, Jesus, and Spirit of Religion — and of the almost nonstop running, turning, and leaping they engage in over the course of nearly two hours.

Set to a haunting original score by Peter Drungle, intermingled with Philip Glass’ crashing masterpiece Dance IX, "Devotion," like Twyla Tharp’s "In the Upper Room," to which Michelson pays homage, sometimes feels like an assault on the senses. But Michelson manages to hold all the production elements enough in check that we are completely drawn into the other-world that she has created through a deft combination of text (written by Richard Maxwell of the New York City Players), music, movement, and stagecraft, including a cage-like set hung with paintings of Michelson and Maxwell (including a pieta-like scene), striking red, white and black costumes, and glaring klieg lights.  

"Devotion" begins with Michelson reading a section of Maxwell’s text that loosely tells the story of Genesis. “Before the dawn on the earth’s ninth day, the crisp green gold of leaves and wood, vital and pleasures infinite, and what is sleep, or rest. What is day? What is night? What is sky? What is sea? All are in a stage of discovery and wonder.”

The text then switches to Maxwell’s musings on his personal history, and if the reason for the juxtaposition isn’t obvious, no matter. The combination of Michelson’s hypnotic reading and Rebecca Warner’s repetitive lunges, wing-like arm extensions and arabesques lulls us into a trance-like state that forces us to let our own unconscious take over without trying to make sense of the action before us.

Michelson leaves that for later, after we have gone home, fallen asleep, and allowed our thoughts, dreams and meanings to surface in their own time. 

One of the hallmarks of "Devotion" is the abrupt change of mood, cast and choreography between sections. In the second one, 14-year-old Non Griffiths engages in a riveting series of turns that demand a ferocious intensity that the too-thin Griffiths pulls off with aplomb. Despite her youth, she is more than a match as Mary for the adult James Tyson as Jesus, and together their long balances on half-point, taut swooping movements and stern expressions convey the emotional truth at the core of the Jesus story without making it explicit, except for Tyson’s few crucifixion-like postures.  

That capacity to convey the emotional heart of the interaction between characters is equally evident in the Adam and Eve section. Jim Fletcher and Eleanor Hullihan run ceaselessly to and from each other as they try to build the primal love relationship without knowing precisely how. When Hullihan flings herself into Fletcher's arms from a running jump, then immediately runs away, it’s as if she is torn between being Adam’s dependent partner and her own independent self. Hullihan and Fletcher are powerful athletes and command the same focus from the audience that they bring to their respective roles. 

Rounding out the cast is Nicole Mannarino. Whether flitting in and out in the first section as the Spirit of Religion or executing a punishing series of turns alongside Rebecca Warner, Mannarino matches the rest of the cast in technical skill, speed and concentration. In the end, whatever we make of "Devotion," this is a dance that lives beyond any single performance. And when Maxwell’s text ends with Michelson reading, “I am your custodian,” she speaks a truth that we understand without completely comprehending.

If you go: “Devotion” by Sara Michelson, through Sunday (March 13) at On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle. Tickets are $25 and are available by phone, 206-217-9888, or online.


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