Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams talks about The Golden Legend

Christopher Williams, The Golden Legend, 2009. Performance views, Dance Theater Workshop, New York, 2009. Left: Nicky Paraiso, Rommel Salveron, and Keith Sabado. Right: Silas Riener, Ryuji Yamaguchi, Sydney Skybetter, Clay Drinko, Paul Singh, and Jonah Bokaer. Photos: Stephen Schreiber.

In 2005, the choreographer, dancer, and puppeteer Christopher Williams received a Bessie award for his Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, a dance that was presented as part of a shared bill for the “New, New Stuff” series at P.S. 122. His latest work is a companion piece that focuses on Jacobus de Voragine’s thirteenth-century text Legenda Aurea Sacorum (The Golden Legend). Here Williams discusses this work, which premieres May 12–16 at Dance Theater Workshop in New York.

I STARTED WITH THE WOMEN. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, which featured eleven “solos” loosely inspired by some rather macabre virgin-martyr stories, was my first foray into the making of dance “portraits.” I chose the solo form because I feel that it’s the hardest to choreograph, and I wanted a challenge. In the end, I introduced puppetry and movement choruses and live music, so there are actually few proper “solos.”

After Ursula, I began searching for a larger body of saint texts written in the style of the vita or passio, and the hagiographic scholar Tom Head pointed me toward The Golden Legend. The text is a compilation of over 150 liturgical festivals and individual saint characters; it reads a bit like a comic book—an ur–comic book, perhaps.

From this group, I selected seventeen stories that I thought were particularly choreographic—or simply graphic. With each solo, I gave myself a new kind of challenge. Saint Paul the First Hermit, for instance, was a character that was isolated in the wilderness of the Thebaid for eighty-plus years of his life. The text says that he lived to be 113 years old. He didn’t have any human contact except with Saint Anthony, who was another desert-ascetic character. Wild lions assisted in his burial. I thought about extreme isolation: In choreographing his section, I lay down in the studio for hours on end and just waited for something to happen to me. (Inevitably, if you lie somewhere long enough, something happens to you.)

There’s a devotional piece for Saint Thomas of Canterbury called “Thomas gemma Cantuarie / Thomas cesus in Doveria.” It’s in a medieval style—a rondellus—and it’s filled with this kind of call-and-response effect that resembles the hocket (“hiccups” in Latin), where the rhythms pop up and down in relation to one another. You get a solid melody, but it’s popping through several voices. I began choreographing his section with the idea of rhythm in mind; I considered this when casting as well: The dancer who plays Saint Thomas is David Parker of the Bang Group, who’s known for his rhythmic expertise.

Many of these ideas began as a literary sentence that I then tried to transpose into a choreographic reality. This process mirrors for me the act of reading a book. Your emotional life and visual-imaginary life ignite immediately upon reading. I wanted to enact that effect in a three-dimensional space, which is reflected in the set. There’s a white floor space with a white backdrop, as though a book had fallen into Dance Theater Workshop and opened out toward the audience. When they’re not onstage, the dancers are sitting in thrones that line the wings.

I wanted the piece to be ambiguous, between metaphor and mimesis. It’s not intended to be a literal interpretation of The Golden Legend. I feel very adamant about this: I’m not necessarily a fan of narrative in dance, because it’s not what the form does best. Narrative is more suited for the book. The Golden Legend is not an adaptation but a visual and visceral response to feelings that arise from reading the text.

Ursula and The Golden Legend are companion pieces, though they work individually as well. From the beginning I had intended to make a full lunar cycle's worth of portraits—many of these characters originate before the solar calendar was codified. I have a fantasy of doing a gallery installation in which I show a full cycle of all twenty-eight saints (the eleven from Ursula and the seventeen from The Golden Legend) as a daylong marathon event where viewers can come and leave as they’re happening.

I’ve long been drawn to illuminated manuscripts and art from the Medieval and Renaissance period. In monasteries, the expression of lust and love and other passionate emotions was utterly sublimated into the artwork. The music and literature of that period is like direct change of phase—it goes straight from solid to gas. These were love songs composed to the Virgin Mary. The sacred texts in illuminated manuscripts were surrounded by marginalia composed of apotropaic devices, a sort of protective shield for the text. You see guys with recorders coming out of their anuses and hybrid beasts fucking in the strangest positions. Repression results in an efflorescence of the passionate or wild or savage or risqué.

There are three types of male saints I’ve been interested in: the effeminate, the heroic, and the reclusive. Through these categories, I’ve been able to make subtle comments on contemporary society’s harsh views of marginal lifestyles. I still get flak in New York; I’ll get called “faggot” on the street for a certain choice of garb. We have a lot to learn with regard to how we look at one another. There’s a gossamer bridge for me from the thirteenth century to now.