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Angels of Swedenborg

Ping Chong's dance-theater meditation on questions of spirituality contains moments of elegance and beauty.

Federico Restrepo in Angels of Swedenborg
(© Damia Cavallari)
Moments of elegance and beauty characterize Ping Chong's Angels of Swedenborg, first presented in 1985 and now being updated and revived at La MaMa E.T.C.

Most of these moments involve those titular angels, who wear costume designer Stefani Mar's grey robes, wings fastened on via an obi-like sash, silvery-white wigs, and white masks that often seem as expressive as a human face.

These creatures appear in the imagination of Emanuel Swedenborg (Henning Hegland), often seen sleeping on one corner of the stage. Based upon the 18th-century Swedish scientist, philosopher and theologian, Chong's Swedenborg is a 21st-century man who -- in his opening monologue -- boasts of possessing such up-to-date devices as an iPad and an LED LCD 3D TV.

For all of his modern trappings, however, this Swedenborg is still preoccupied by one of the central concerns of the original: the location of the seat of the soul. The performance is a dance-theater meditation on this spiritual quest, and while there are no concrete answers offered, there is a clear journey undertaken.

The work is performed by members of La MaMa's Great Jones Repertory Company, which include (in addition to Hegland) Charlotte Brathwaite, Maura Nguyen Donohue, George Drance, Sara Galassini, Renouard Gee, Laurence Martin, Allison Plamondon, Eugene the Poogene, Simeon Pollydore, Federico Restrepo, and Perry Yung. Nearly the entire ensemble takes on the roles of angels at one point or another, with some also portraying spirits, archangels, and beasts.

There are very few words spoken within the show, with several sequences performed in pantomime to atmospheric music that ranges from operatic arias to hard-driving percussion that literally shakes the seats of the theater. The imagery is often striking, even if figuring out how it all fits together is less apparent.

We witness a fight between two angels, with the loser having its wings clipped. There is a seduction of an angel by an archangel who wears a crimson robe, tall hat, and lizard-like mask. A brown-furred beast frolics in a field of white feathers. At one point, the angels dance a rumba.

The overall choreography -- by Chong and John Fleming -- utilizes a lot of open, searching gestures. Some members of the company move with a fluid grace, while others are more heavy-footed. One of the most mesmerizing sequences pairs the tallest of the angels with one of the smallest, in a duet that is at once sensual and celebratory.

Although the show has a running time of just a little over an hour, there are still some rather slow-going sections that make it seem longer. But just as your mind may start to wander, Chong and company will do something to draw you back in.