Morgan Thorson's Heaven sounds like Low
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Morgan Thorson is one of the best choreographers working in Minneapolis today. Her 2008 work Docudrama was one of the year's standout pieces in terms of scope of vision. 2007's Faker, which explored the notion of modern celebrity identity and impersonation, drew attention not only for the project’s stunning movement, but for the depth of research Thorson put into it. Her distinctive style, which draws a great deal from the improvisational Skinner Releasing Technique (something she teaches at the University of Minnesota) and frequently involves the dancers’ voices, has garnered her fellowships from organizations including the Bush, McKnight, and Jerome Foundations. Recently, she recruited some other celebrated Minnesotans, Low, to provide live music for a piece about the pursuit of perfection. Prior to Heaven's Twin Cities debut at the Walker Art Center March 4-6, The A.V. Club sat down with Thorson to talk about the work, its message, and Low frontman Alan Sparhawk’s moves.
The A.V. Club: This isn’t the first time Heaven has been performed. What’s different this time?
Morgan Thorson: Each time it’s changed slightly. We do a lot with the venue. The space in [New York’s] PS122 could only hold 150 people—same with Houston. They were more intimate spaces than the Walker. It’s much larger, so it just has different obstacles and options.
AVC: The work deals with the similarities between religious practices and the art of dance. What's common to those two?
MT: It’s not about religion or only transcendence—it’s really about perfection. It’s always held up as the goal of religious practices as something to strive to obtain. So it’s about always working to find perfection in dance and using religion as an inspiration. Both require discipline that is funneled and guided, in that there’s a consciousness in it, in that there’s worship. There are many parallels between worship and the discipline of dance.
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AVC: Are you worried that such a complex message might get lost?
MT: It could. For me the message is important, but so is the movement. I want to respond to inspiration and sequence with movement that will draw people in and stimulate them and that can mean it excites them or angers them. In the piece, a lot of the dancers move slowly at first, and people don’t always expect that, so I can see that not maybe coming across. On the other hand, because the dancers are slowed down, you can see the dancers as people and not just dancers on a stage.
AVC: How do the costumes and the set design work with your theme?
MT: What we tried to convey with the costumes is that perfection is not a static object. So we took the dancers’ different shapes and sizes and put them in costumes that have different focuses, like the arms or chest. They really push the idea that you can become the “perfect 10.” The set really unfolded as a three-way effort between me, [lighting director] Lenore Doxsee, and [costume designer] Emmett Ramstad. Right away I knew I wanted a white space, but I didn’t know in what way. Was it a cloud, a room? I didn’t know. And I wanted it to say dance, not church or palace. It has these adornments that we call cozies that we use to conceal and disguise things like wires and chairs so everything looks clean and fresh. I also wanted to explore the idea of binding and bondage, restraining the body to make it perfect and free. So there are these big reels of bandages onstage, which also creates the suggestion of more when they’re put into use.
AVC: What was the process of working with Low like? It seems like music would be pretty important for choreographing.
MT: I like collaborating a lot. I especially enjoyed it with Alan. He’s very kinesthetic, very in touch with the choreography, and he dances—[Sparhawk and Mimi Parker] both do. He’s a great dancer and he loves to dance. Our very first exercise was something to shed you of all of your inhibitions, and he really responded to it. He got really into it right away. We started out with some simple movements and then Alan came in and got a feel for it and came back with some music. From there it was a sort of back and forth, responding to what the other had created.
AVC: Singing, which isn’t commonly associated with modern dance, features prominently in Heaven. What do you think it adds to the piece?
MT: It’s something that’s involved with religion so it invokes a feeling right away. It also changes the space right away—you can’t avoid it.