Religion gets dizzy in Devotion

Sarah Michelson’s Devotion, playing this weekend at On the Boards, puts Western religion under extremely bright Klieg lights with a loaded cast of characters: Jesus and Mary, Adam and Eve and even someone called the Spirit of Religion.

The full-length dance piece begins with a prologue, a long and powerful solo by Rebecca Warner, whose big and angular movements chase a voiceover narrative about the history of the world. Lulling expository unfolds in a series of chapters while Warner’s often circular movements unspool time and summon the sun. The text meanders—collapsing biblical reverence and occasionally preachy metaphor with an absorbing anecdote about the narrator’s loss of her brother-in-law and one very random comparison to freebasing. 

The prologue ends with the first of several abrupt sound cues, replacing warm, motherly voiceover with booming music made to sound churchy in an old-school Italian opera meets orchestral Sigur Ros kind of way. Mary enters—played by a fragile-looking 14-year-old Non Griffiths—her strength, balance and astonishing series of pirouettes fleshing out themes about gender and sex. By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, the show has slowed to a meditative, sleepy pace, despite blazing beams of lights and a score dripping with exaltation. 

Michelson and collaborating playwright Richard Maxwell paint—quite literally, considering the massive oil portraits that hang above the stage—an unusual picture of Madonna and child, asking what it might have been like for Mary to conceive her son, to know him as an adult, to let him go in life and then in death. They seems to suggest that all of this suffering is about isolation, and it can be traced to the beginning of man: Enter Adam and Eve.

Suddenly the show is no longer just about time; it’s about a race against it. Backward circles replace forward circles. Pirouettes give way to lots and lots of jogging. And the costuming goes a little haywire, introducing an overwrought pair of black and white referees in red bobby socks, and an Eve dressed with uncomfortable likeness to a 1984 Mary Lou Retton.

Michelson does deliver a pair of beautiful images to show Eve spawned from Adam’s rib. And the audience heaves a meaningful sigh of relief when they finally embrace after 100 minutes of dance in which two people very rarely touch. In the design and the choreography, this show gets you thinking. But, as the voiceover says in the epilogue, “The ideas are never-ending,” which makes the performance both challenging and relentless.