Last night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, Garrett + Moulton Productions presented the first of four performances of its latest world premiere, a uninterrupted one-hour piece entitled Speak, Angels. Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton collaborated in creating the choreography for their company of six dancers (Alison Adnet, Vivian Aragon, Carolina Czechowska, Michael Galloway, Nol Simonse, and Ryan Wang), accompanied by a “Movement Choir” of eighteen dancers (seventeen women and one man), which served somewhat in the capacity of a Greek Chorus and, according to a note provided by the choreographers, contributed much of the vocabulary of their movements.
Musical direction was provided by Jonathan Russell, who served as conductor, composer, and clarinetist. (He is half of the bass clarinet duo Sqwonk.) He compiled a pastiche consisting primarily of short movements by Marc Mellits alternating with excerpts of his own work, two excerpts from Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans suite, and four short selections of Gustav Mahler, three from his Rückert-Lieder collection and the first section of the “Urlicht” movement from the second (“Resurrection”) symphony. All this was arranged for an ensemble of seven instrumental players, Russell and his Sqwonk partner Jeff Anderle alternating between clarinet and bass clarinet, Emily Packard on violin, Hannah Addario-Berry and Kelley Maulbetsch on cellos, Kate Campbell on piano, and Jordan Glenn on percussion. Several of the selections involved a vocalizing quintet of sopranos Cecilia Lam, Allison Zelles Lloyd, and Phoebe Rosquist, mezzo Stacey Helley, and contralto Karen Clark.
The “spinal cord” for Russell’s score consisted of the Mellits selections, which included five of the movements from his “Prometheus,” one of which (the fifth) was repeated towards the end of the piece. Mellits began his studies at the Eastman School of Music in 1984; and, in many ways, the pieces performed last night could easily be taken as a “second-generation” approach to follow up on Philip Glass’ pioneering efforts to make music with “repetitive structures.” Mellits has clearly found a voice to distinguish himself from Glass, and there seems to be an extra kick to Mellits’ high energy levels, making his selections an excellent accompaniment for the intense energy of many of the movements conceived by Garrett and Moulton. Russell’s own contributions, on the other hand, suited the more introspective and affectionate choreographic turns. He took a lyric approach to his vocal resources, but that lyricism occasional ran the risk of getting too syrupy.
Far more impressive was Russell’s skill in arranging Mahler’s scores for his far more limited instrumental ensemble. Fortunately, the three Rückert settings all used relatively limited orchestral resources. However, Russell clearly knew how to sort out the contributing threads of Mahler’s textures and then assign those threads to the available instruments. Clark, on the other hand, was not quite up to the vocal side of this partnership. Her pitches were frequently uncertain, as were her phrasing and her diction. Russell did an excellent job of selecting Mahler at his most intimate; but, for all the virtues of her contralto voice, Clark could never quite honor that intimacy, even when it knowingly underscored the choreography that Garrett and Moulton had created.
Overall, the choreography was satisfying, if not always stimulating. It was hard to know what to make of the title. In many ways the control of energy levels and the occasional injections of wit recalled Martha Graham’s “Acrobats of God;” but, in spite of its title, that dance was about mere mortals, even if viewed from a witty perspective. The Movement Choir work, on the other hand, seemed to reflect back on the sorts of dance-music relationships that Doris Humphrey had explored, particularly when working with music from the Baroque period. On the whole Speak, Angels could be taken as a series of studies of abstract structures that did not require dwelling on the title. Things may have gotten a bit repetitive from time to time as the hour unfolded, but there always seemed to be new flashes of expression to keep the attention from flagging.