ANGEL REAPERS Martha Clarke orchestrated the lives of the Shakers as a progression from the members’ recitations of monastic rules to confessions of sin and doubt, and mounting sexual tension.

Angel Reapers, by Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry, was ArtsEmerson's one and only dance offering for 2011-2012. At the Majestic, the engagement seemed a kind of tryout for the piece's upcoming New York premiere at the Joyce Theater. With a cast of 11 dancer-singer-actors, the work is a modern interpretation of the lives of the Shakers, a Protestant sect who established several utopian communities in the Northeast and Midwest beginning in the 1700s.

Choreographer-director Clarke is known for her sensational theater pieces, notably Vienna Lusthaus and Garden of Earthly Delights. The Shakers' main attraction for her seems to be their celibate lifestyle. "Forbidden sex, unchanneled lust!" yells a press release for the Joyce performances. This teaser accurately describes the show, but it's not fair to the Shakers, who lived an industrious and frugal life. Strictly divided into male and female groups under their leader, Mother Ann Lee (here played by Birgit Huppuch), the Shakers worshipped with dancing, singing, and spoken testimony, eventually working themselves up into ecstatic states to receive the "gifts" of God.

Clarke has orchestrated the show as a dramatic progression, from the members' recitations of the monastic rules of Shaker life, to confessions of sin and doubt, and mounting sexual tension. Their personal witness and torments take place against the group's hymn-singing and formal dances with built-in stamping rhythms. When temptation overcomes them, the strict patterns disintegrate.

Their religious ardor builds, along with their guilt and shame. Furtive glances become stolen embraces. Their dances become more frenzied. The men jump straight up and turn around in the air. The women writhe on the floor. A man and a woman, who were married to each other in their former life, make passionate love and then run away.

By the time the troop runs through the shadowy woods, whooping like imagined ghosts (accusations of witchcraft were made against them by lapsed members), the evening looks more like a cross between Tennessee Williams and the Salem witch trials. I think the Shakers were more complex and less neurotic than Clarke's Freudian projections. They lived in a time when faith could be stronger than desire, and their idea of divine love bound them to their companions through work, not passion.

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