Garrett + Moulton explores mourning, joy
Company unveils emotional works ‘Stabat Mater’ and ‘Mad Brass’ at YBCA
In the New Orleans jazz funeral tradition, mournful dirges and hymns accompany the parade of dead from the church to entombment in the cemetery. But once the body is laid to rest, the musicians cut loose and raucous playing and dancing are de rigueur for celebrating the life of the deceased.
A hint of that tradition comes to San Francisco this week when the dancers of Garrett + Moulton Productions hit the stage at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, presenting the premieres of “Stabat Mater” and “Mad Brass.”
The version of the Stabat Mater used in this production was composed by Italian Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who died shortly after writing it, at age 26 in 1736.
Choreographers Charles Moulton and Janice Garrett have previously collaborated on such works as “Speak, Angels” and “The Luminous Edge,” so delving into the spiritual is nothing new for them. Moulton points out that “the Stabat Mater dolorosa is the sadness of a mother at the death of her child, of Mary at the death of Jesus. It is Judeo-Christian, but it speaks to a sense of mourning that is nondenominational.”
Garrett adds, “We started with the idea of doing an eveninglength work and the underlying theme of it was the irrepressibility of the human spirit. As we got further into the investigation of what that would look like, through a long circuitous journey, we came to the Stabat Mater because we had listened to it for a long time and we had always talked about doing a piece to it. That caught me by surprise, but this was the time.
“As we started to feel the weight and spiritual aspects of
the Pergolesi (composition) we began to look for something that would counterbalance it, that was related but really different.”
The choice was the Romanian Roma music of the renowned brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia for “Mad Brass.”
“The Romanians just pick up their horns and they blow,” says
Moulton. “It’s not particularly introspective. It doesn’t deal with sadness, loss or mortality. It’s completely joyful, dynamic and colorful.”
“In ‘Stabat Mater,’ it’s being able to transcend deep states of inexpressible grief. In ‘Mad Brass’ it’s joy — living life to the nth degree,” Garrett says. “I think they are really connected. In the Pergolesi, even though there are very deep and low places in the human psyche, because of music’s uplifting and soaring you can come out of those undercurrents.”
Watching a rehearsal of “Stabat Mater” confirms that the company is comprised of five very expressive solo dancers who have the technical skills to execute whatever Garrett and Moulton throw at them choreographically. The addition of an 18-member movement choir, the equivalent of a corps de ballet, brings
the total to 23 dancers on stage.
The effect, Garrett says, is “People are experiencing something together, going through it and transforming the journey of collective experience. There is a lot of nuance in it and it’s been a challenge working with the movement choir of younger, less experienced dancers and trying to draw out certain qualities in them.”
Moulton adds, “It’s been interesting working on both pieces. ‘Mad Brass’ is very easy to make. The music is incredibly simple. The way it’s structured, everybody is infected by that music. ‘Mad Brass’ is a series of different scenarios within a connected whole. In the ‘Stabat,’ all the formal elements in the the work need to cohere and progress in a fashion which in the overall statement is clear, and with the ‘Mad Brass,’ the overall statement is clear from the first and we’re just going to
run with it.”
The two works employ several visual elements, Garrett says.
“There are red arrows and letters on flip cards to spell out words,” she says. “Working with props is a lot harder than you’d think.”
“The arrows and other objects become something else when manipulated,” Moulton adds. “They become elements of a farce and the stage is loaded with information.”
Is it sacrilegious to juxtapose these two diametrically opposed pieces of music on the same program? Pergolesi was primarily noted for his light comic operas and even his Stabat Mater was criticized for not being ponderous enough. Perhaps he, relishing the irony, would give his blessing to the marriage of sorrow and celebration envisioned by Garrett and Moulton.
From left, Haiou Wang, Nol Simonse and Gretchen LaWall employ brightly colored props in the performance of “Stabat Mater” and “Mad Brass.”