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Angel Reapers

Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry's dance-theater piece takes a questionable view of life among the Shakers.

Asli Bulbul and company in Angel Reapers
(© Rob Strong)
The program for Angel Reapers, now getting its New York premiere at the Joyce Theatre, contains a note that goes a long way towards explaining the impetus for this initially effective but eventually questionable dance-theater piece -- focused on Shaker theology and practice -- by Pulitzer Prize winner Alfred Uhry and award-winning director and choreographer Martha Clarke.

The note -- written just after the start of the 19th Century by William Rathburn after observing a Shaker community's routines -- refers to, among other things, "a-groaning," "trembling," "muttering," "singing," "dancing," "agonizing," "jumping up and down," "fluttering," "shooing," "hissing," "drumming," "laughing" and "talking." What creative artists wouldn't strongly consider leaping Shaker-like on the possibility for an intrinsically dramatic work underpinned by those evocative stage directions?

Using six women and five men -- including actress Birgit Huppuch -- Clarke and Uhry see that every verb Rathburn inserted in his report is worked into the piece's dance-and-song fabric. And that means there are several characters who roll around on the floor, several who spin, a character who speaks in tongues and, yes, a character who shakes uncontrollably.

Beginning by having her troupe's male members facing the female members as they sit on 11 Shaker ladderback chairs that serve as the set, Clarke goes for a spate of spontaneous laughter prompted by a single woman getting the giggles. Then Clarke seamlessly segues into the sect's best-known anthem "Simple Gifts."

Progressively, Clarke sets the group into individual and communal patterns that involve skillfully danced rhythmic stomping -- often following religious routines the Shakers themselves formulated. Yet, as imminently watchable performers like Whitney V. Wolfe in an accelerating solo, and Luke Murphy and Isadora Wolfe as a couple quitting to become pregnant take stage, anyone flashing on Michael Flatley and Riverdance and even Bill T. Jones' Spring Awakening routines is undoubtedly right about the inevitable similarities.

Indeed, Clarke runs out of choreographic ideas for refreshing the group's foot-pounding and human whirligigging long before the 75-minute exercise is done. But what becomes a larger problem is Clarke's take on life among the Shakers. Rather than giving over any time to suggest some of the endlessly lauded ways in which the Shakers contributed to arts, crafts and agriculture, she and Uhry zero in on the sect's troublesome celibacy vow.

Clarke sees the requirement for celibacy as incontrovertibly impractical, fostering sexual repression. There's no denying the validity of her to view to some extent, and some members of the Shakers did balk at the strictures and break their community ties, as she shows with the married Darrows (Andrew Robinson, Gabrielle Malone).

But weren't there true believers who may have been expressing their pent-up sexual urges with all the shaking and spinning but at the same time remained content to serve their Lord through their daily labors? For them, a humble existence may have been a pleasurable acceptance. Unfortunately, that's not what Clarke or Uhry feel compelled to demonstrate for fair balance.