En Pointe 04 - April 25

Apr 25 2020 | Posted in Blog, En Pointe

80 Years – Angels in the Architecture

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s 80th anniversary season was originally planned to conclude with a one-of-a-kind performance featuring three monumental ballets celebrating the artistic directors who brought them to our stage. Unfortunately, owing to COVID-19 and the social distancing measures inherent to stopping the spread of the virus, the performance called 80 Years – A Retrospective was cancelled. The RWB cherishes our history and although we can’t perform these pieces, we still want to share pieces of these memories with you. This week, En Pointe has prepared a special retrospective on the creation of Mark Godden’s Angels in the Architecture, one of the beloved performances planned for 80 Years – A Retrospective.

When Mark Godden, the resident choreographer of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet from 1990 to 1994, flipped through an unassuming coffee table book in 1991, he had no idea it would provide the inspiration for his next ballet.

Inside the book was an article on the Shakers, a religious sect founded in the latter half of the 18th century. The Shakers were known for their simple living, egalitarian ideals, elegant architecture, and practical furniture. The article, which depicted the Shakers’ simple lifestyle and described in great detail the beauty of their hand-built surroundings, captivated Mark, and he began to seek more information about the sect in museums and history books.

The Shakers believed that making something well was in itself, “an act of prayer,” and their dedication to hard work and perfection has resulted in a unique range of architecture, furniture and handicraft styles which are still influential today. Mark wanted his newest ballet to embody the spirit and practicality of the Shakers and so he set himself to work creating what would soon become Angels in the Architecture.

Mark’s creative process for the piece was lengthy, spanning an entire season. Tara Birtwhistle, one of the original cast of Angels in the Architecture, recalls rehearsals going on for months.

“When Mark creates, he wants the dancers to hear the music, not count it,” says Tara, who is now the Associate Artistic Director at the RWB. “To get the dancers to feel the music takes a long rehearsal process.”

The music Mark selected for the ballet was Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, an orchestral suite which was premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski on October 4, 1945. The music evokes the spirit of pastoral America, the most recognizable section featuring the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” a tune which was largely unknown outside Shaker communities until its melody was adapted by Copland.

“There’s a lot of reference to prayer in the ballet, but it’s really about community,” says Tara, who performed Angels in the Architecture many times throughout her career as a dancer. “Because it’s an ensemble piece, the dancers have to work like a community. They have to do everything together perfectly throughout almost the entire ballet.”

The choreographic style of Angels in the Architecture is founded in a ballet but refined by Mark’s taste for movement. It is extremely musical and reflects strongly on the Copland score. The choreography evokes elements of Shaker life; hands often come together in prayer, but there are also moves inspired by the planting of crops, cleaning and the movement of a rocking chair.

During his research, Mark identified two Shaker inventions which he used throughout his choreography on Angels in the Architecture: the flat-headed broom and the ladder-backed chair. These household items, which come to us from the Shakers and are still widely used today, serve as the centerpiece of the ballet and provide the inspiration for its name.

Angels in the Architecture opens with six flat-headed brooms standing alone on the stage. When the dancers enter, they begin to manipulate and move with the brooms, first the women, draped in long, cotton skirts, and then the men, dressed in similarly simple, earth-toned clothing.

The costumes were created by Paul Daigle, a long-time collaborator with Mark Godden and one who has contributed costume designs to many other RWB’s ballets. They are not simply reproductions of Shaker clothing, but specifically designed to enhance the choreography, by extending the body’s normal range of movements and pairing with the chairs and the brooms.

Angels in the Architecture features lighting design by Jeff Herd, who also sought to embody the Shaker tradition, by recreating shafts of light often seen in the Shaker-built meeting halls and churches. When these elements are brought together, they evoke the simple stoicism of the Shaker lifestyle. After its premiere in May of 1992, Angels in the Architecture was instantly recognized as a classic ballet, one capable of transporting audiences to a place far removed from today’s society, and it quickly became a staple in the RWB repertoire.

“Every time we performed it there was a sense of silence,” says Tara. “The choreography and music work together to take you on a journey, and afterward there’s a profound sense of melancholy. It’s one of those ballets that reminds us why we use our bodies for communication.”

Angels in the Architecture, Mark Godden’s beautiful and moving homage to the Shakers, which has emphatically left its mark on audiences for nearly 30 years, is perhaps more relevant today than ever before. To see a community come together, like the one depicted in Angels in the Architecture, draws strong parallels to how Manitobans have coalesced to stop the spread of COVID-19. Although the RWB is unable to perform this ballet as planned, the spirit and message it conveys remains as poignant as the day it debuted.