Pillar of Fire takes us back to 1900 (set in the year the music by Arnold Schoenberg was composed).
Choreographed by Antony Tudor, it’s an almost nightmarish take on a love story. Bleak and dreary, the sets by Robert Perdziola bring us to a dark countryside with an unassuming house on stage left and a possibly unsavory house on the stage right. Prude characters pass across the stage at inopportune moments, snubbing their noses, while “Lovers-in-Innocence” and “Lovers-in-Experience” (wink, wink) pass in and out of town all while the main character, Hagar (danced by Devon Teuscher), is caught in the middle.
Troubled with thoughts of being a spinster like her older sister, she becomes jealous of her younger sister who easily flirts and receives affection from almost every man on stage. Unable to look the man she loves in the eye; she turns to “The Young Man from the House Opposite” and gives herself to him. After having #regrets, she runs into her crush again and he lovingly accepts her.
Tudor drew from the poem Schoenberg used as inspiration for the score, Verklärte Nacht or Transfigured Night. In the poem, a couple are walking in the woods together when she confesses she is pregnant with another man’s child, he embraces her and they walk away together:
“He puts an arm about her strong hips.
Their breath embraces in the air.
Two people walk on through the high, bright night.”
Although there is no pregnancy in the ballet, Tudor infuses themes and imagery from the poem. There are several moments in the choreography when a dancer will bring their thumb toward their face, fingers pressed together, palm flat to the audience, and sharply bring their hand down in two distinct increments. It is possible the steps mimic the poetry,
“Now life has taken its revenge
and I have met you, met you”.
Typically, a ballet with sets and costumes could be inundated with miming to communicate the story but Tudor is able to do so in a way that is masked in more abstract gestures.
Hagar, painfully shy and distraught, often places both hands low on one hip as if grabbing her side and doubling over in pain, a physical manifestation of her inner turmoil.
“Maiden Ladies Out Walking” (representing the town’s judgement) have fluttering, whispered conversations without a cupped hand to an ear or mouth. Instead, they use their bodies, facing in and out, each other and away, to mimic the idea of gossiping.
When “The Young Man from the House Opposite” (danced by James Whiteside) enters the stage, a deep string note hits the air, he makes an aggressive pelvic move, and the audience instantly knows he is going to be trouble. Being shown rather than explicitly told drives home a larger poetic theme.
Teuscher as Hagar is beautiful, not only stunning in her movements but excellent in her acting. She wears Hagar’s feelings as a coat of her very own, her sorrow filling the stage.
Playing opposite her as the love interest is newly promoted principal dancer Thomas Forster. He suits the role well; tall, handsome, and kind-looking, he seems just the person to embrace Hagar. Additionally, he has a good deal of difficult partnering which he completes with stability.
Seeing two new pieces before and after makes me wonder what Pillar might look like without the sets and costumes. It’s a bit tiring always seeing Harlots and other variations of “Lovers-in-Experience” in open-shouldered corsets, no tights, and loose hair. The stuffy dresses and jackets of the townspeople seem almost too obvious, and the sets eventually fly out or roll off, having essentially just been used as doorways.
But what remains if we forgo the decorations is a work of intricate movement and a harrowing love story.