18th- and 19th-century American hymns by William Billings, William Walker,
Abraham Wood, and Jeremiah Ingalls
Alexander Brady and Rika Okamoto
Original Costume Design
September 20, 1996; Tharp!
Made for an ensemble of Tharp’s own dancers, Sweet Fields is dressed in Norma Kamali’s all-white “delicates,” at once casual and crisp. Pythagorean geometry and its related harmony and restraint inspired Tharp all through Sweet Fields: Geometry as a key to Godliness. Simple, distinct patterns keep recurring, as basic geometric material evolves while one theme grows out of another. These themes, which get rendered in half- and double-time recurrences, include diagonals, spirals, straight lines, and circles. Five of its six men, lead off the 10-part “score” of 18th– and 19th– century American religious hymns. The suite’s five women perform the second hymn, and so on, the danced numbers go, mostly keeping the men and women “congregants” separated. Their striding gaits and their shuffling and loping paces make physical the plainsong music of the hymns. The vocabulary of details hews to the direct and the elemental in movement and posture, with simply flexed feet overriding a tendency toward prettily pointed toes. The geometric floor patterns and designs remain clear and crisply defined. Canonic, counterpoint, and 3-part counterpointed moves animate the geometry. Simple diagonals evolve as linked lines forming chevrons. The shaking of the women’s hands responds directly to “Shaker” community articulations associated with the specifically “Shaker Hymns” included in the musical mix. “Chesterfield” involves all the men, including a sixth, and takes the form of an austere funeral cortege. Its passage from one side of the stage to the other involves the carrying and lifting of an inert man, who, by way of musically timed moves and/or sudden rearrangements, changes from being one dancer to being another. For “Jordan,” the hymn that invokes the title’s “sweet fields,” the men and women intermingle but don’t meld for long. “Brevity,” which follows, showcases a lone male dancer, in an physically athletic, yet dramatically private moment. Some the dancer-to-dancer interactions involve softly pummeling hand moves that appear to hammer at the music as they represent the healing gestures that are part of such Shaker religious activities. The final two songs—“New Jerusalem” and “Northfield”—both date from 1804 and are from the “Sacred Harp” tradition, which involved the use of an idiosyncratic system of charming pitch-indication pictograms instead of standard, traditional stemmed and flagged notes. Here the 3-part counterpointed moves become prominent. The dance paces, pictures, and gestures work toward a similarly sophisticated simplicity. The pervasive discipline and playful rigors of the choreography overall, could not, in Tharp’s own words have been possible without her own Quaker origins.