By Joy Katz
My favorite piece in "Lightning at our feet," a multimedia performance based on Emily Dickinson's work as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, didn't have any words at all.
Bare tree branches in a black-and-white, nearly abstract pattern appeared on layers of screens behind a young woman holding a metronome. The only music was the machine's loud tick-ticking, first in the familiar iambic meter of a Dickinson poem and then falling into a kind of arrythmia, as though a huge mechanical heart had lurched out of control. In the darkened theater the red light on the metronome shone first on the girl's face and then, terrifyingly, her heart; it moved for a moment to her hands, like the passion of Christ. The ticking sped up; the light flashed; now the girl was holding a bomb.
If I had entered the theater knowing nothing and were shown only this part, I would have guessed it was an Emily Dickinson poem.
Lots of contemporary composers indulge in "settings" of poems that have nothing to do with the poems. Their music is like dry white plates lying underneath appetizers floating in air. But composer Michael Gordon and music director Ted Hearne turned Dickinson's words into real live song lyrics. The four singer/musicians (Jennifer Charles, lead singer of the band Elysian Fields; Leah Coloff; Courtney Orlando; Bora Yoon) actually could tour as a band called the Emily Dickinsons, doing brainy jazzy beautiful weird ambient electronica in their sharp frocks and mod trenchcoats. The poems felt like these performers' urgent utterances (even if it was sometimes hard to hear the words). If the band toured with the rolling scrims featuring, among other images, Dickinson's handwriting, which rose like smoke to surround singer Jennifer Charles, so much the better.
Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison in 2002 made the ethereal film Decasia, with found footage of decomposing silent movies. The dreaminess of their vision and that of projectionist Laurie Olinder suits Dickinson, allowing for intuitive translations of the poems such as the one above. In another memorable piece, three cell phones rotate on an old LP, lighting up randomly. "I went to Heaven," a voice sings over and over, as if Dickinson were placing dropped calls from the beyond. The singers' white dresses were wired for sound. When they turned around, you could see tiny green lights blinking beneath the fabric. It was fantastic, as if they were part lightning bug, or secret robots.
Disappointingly, the visuals too often evinced a superficial idea of Dickinson wandering endlessly through the woods in a bun and a white dress. At times the performers sang in breathy, wispy voices, as if they would at any moment break off into mad cackles, and as if the essence of Dickinson poems were a thread unraveling from a sweater. That's a pity. Dickinson was a recluse, not a shrinking violet, and not the crazy girl on the playground. Even what you could call her nature poems are made of steel and rock, not soft stuff; they flinch from nothing. Reading them you know the poet is looking death, heaven, pain, and delight straight in the eye. If Ridge Theater, where the piece originated, had invited a poet to collaborate with the dramaturg, there might have been swords, garnets, dendrites, or atoms among the flora.
On balance, though, wherever Emily Dickinson is, I think she leveled her gaze on this performance based on her work and was deeply pleased.