Onstage, the performers twist and contort to the soundtrack of their own voices -- sometimes murmuring together in a low hum, then chanting one by one before breaking out into ecclesiastical harmony. Sacred words ebb and flow around the members of the audience, coaxing hearts and lungs to beat and breathe in ethereal rhythms.
The stoic words of Hebrew scriptures, meditations from the Quran, and poetry from Persian Sufi mysticism are set into rhythmic motion together in the new “Dangerous Curve Between Jerusalem and Jericho” by director-choreographer Alexa Salamé, playwright Christopher Albrigo, and designer José Rivera, Jr.
“Dangerous Curve” will run at the multi-disciplinary theater Dixon Place, located on the Lower East Side, from June 11-13, starting at 7:30pm at 161A Chrystie Street. Advance tickets are $12, at the door is $15. $10 for students.
Featuring a highly visceral theater form that unites voice and movement, the piece fluidly moves from holy text to holy text. As each text moves into and becomes the next, viewers will experientially travel into each text as well, recognizing familiar religious words done into new forms while realizing that the words of other religions are not so foreign after all.
“For some people,” playwright Albrigo told A Journey through NYC religions during a dress rehearsal for "Dangerous Curve," “just the fact that we’re going to do a play and we’re going to use words that Jesus said with words that Muhammad said, some people will, just from the nature of that, be upset.”
But the team hopes that the piece will be received by an audience who will empathetically place themselves in the position to chuck ”preconceived notions [and] grow from a place of unmanaged expectations,” said designer Jose Rivera, Jr. Viewers may be surprised by which words move them as they listen to the piece.
Which does not mean the team wants the audience to think uncritically about what they are experiencing.
“It’s a little bit hypocritical to say, ‘I’m gonna be open to everything but not [to those who think differently],’” Albrigo recognized.
“Openness can mean dissenting [from] what we’re saying as well,” reaffirmed Rivera.
Salamé’s unique theatrical format places the performers in the middle of a swirl of words, some clearly discernable to the audience, some an unclear mumble of an overheard conversation that is going back and forth between the performers about religion. Projecting their lines without microphones, the performers alternate between conversing with only each other and then addressing the audience as participants in the discussion. While they are on stage, the performers speak their lines with the earnest conviction of devout believers.
“There’s just no way to be detached from the experience of doing it,” said dancer Kerry McEnerney, “because when your breath is connected to your text and your breath is inside your body, you’re embodying the text.” The director-choreographer wants to embed the actors and audiences in an almost cinema verite experience.
Salamé began developing her form of performance three years ago in her final years at the Experimental Theater Wing of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Trained in the three disciplines of acting, singing, and dancing, Salamé was frustrated when she saw performers on stage stop acting to begin singing, and stop singing to begin dancing. She wondered what it would look like if all three happened simultaneously.
One way she explored this combination was by designating every physical movement with a correlating sound. As the performer’s voice projects, their body also acts.
Then, the director began to wonder what it might look like to place this exploratory scramble within a permanent cultural monument “like a big famous piece of text.”
After playing around with Shakespeare and Greek mythology, Salamé and playwright Christopher Albrigo narrowed in on Rumi, a Persian Sufi poet most often translated by Coleman Barks. This translation is a free-flowing rendition of a landmark in religious literature that explores the idea of a union or return to God, which Rumi calls “tawhid.” Barks says that his American-style free form translation better captures the essence of Rumi’s “spaciousness and longing.” It also sets the tone for the dancers who have explored beyond their original religions but still have deep spiritual sensibilities.
Albrigo, raised Roman Catholic, had long loved Rumi’s poetry and proposed those works for the center focus of the performance. To more fully understand the Islamic context of Rumi’s poetry, Albrigo read the Quran for the first time and incorporated lines from that scripture as well.
Being of Lebanese Christian descent, Salamé was intrigued to explore the Quranic side of her culture. She recalled the times that she has received aggressive treatment after being mistakenly identified as a Muslim, particularly during her travels. She wondered what it is in the words of the Quran that has the power “to make people so angry and so fearful and so passionate about what they believe and so ready to hold onto that in the face of everything else.”
“That must be because these words and how we treat them and how we live them in our life mean something. They matter,” Salamé decided. “If you really are in contact with the words from any piece of religious text it will have an effect on you.”
To complete the context, Albrigo also used words from Jewish and Christian scriptures.
Then, the piece started to become “very bubbly” as the different texts danced together.
Albrigo was excited “seeing the ways that things heat each other up; different disciplines and genres start doing that very naturally.” The texts were “talking about the same thing” and “directly communicating with each other.” Albrigo noticed, “There’s a lot more shared fundamentals than differences” between the passages he selected for his script.
It occurred to him that the impulse behind the three distinct systems was a similar “ecstatic expression,” or a physical reaction from an emotional impulse. If all these traditions came from the same internal experience, then maybe understanding between them was more than an intellectual comparison. To truly understand someone else, one has to put themselves in the emotional mindset of the other person.
The Good Samaritan Immersion
To emphasize the goal of sympathetic understanding, Albrigo selected the title from the last speech, “I Have Seen the Mountain Top,” delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. on the day before he was assassinated.
In many of his speeches, King emphasized that “agape,” one of the Biblical words for love, is not a word that means “a tender or warm feeling.” Instead, this agape love is “a fundamental understanding and ability to look at what someone else is saying to you, internalize it and feel what it feels like to be from that viewpoint and be able to talk,” explained Albrigo.
In the speech, King recounts Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. A traveler is attacked by bandits as he travels the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The bandits take everything he has and leave him to die on the side of the road.
First, a priest passes by, but he does not stop to help the man. Then, a Levite, who was also of the temple order, passes by but also does not stop to help the man. Finally, a man of a maligned racial and social group, the Samaritans, passes by. He helps the battered man and brings him to an inn to be cared for.
King explains that the two temple men who pass by likely did so because the road between Jerusalem and Jericho is a long, meandering road, making it perfect for an ambush. The men were scared that a similar fate might befall them. They thought, “If we stop, what will happen to us?” And so they rushed on leaving the injured stranger alongside the road.
However, the Samaritan, seeing the plight of the stranger, thought, “If I don’t stop, what will happen to him?” And he stayed on that remote road to help.
On that “dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho,” King said that a type of understanding took place that comes when a person takes, feels, moves, and portrays the viewpoint of another person.
Albrigo tries to internalize King’s vision in his own exploration of religions in that “if I’m going to read the Quran, I’m going to try to be a Muslim, and if I’m going to read the Bhagavad Gita, I’m going to try to be a Hindu,” and not just study these religions academically from an outsider perspective. Instead, he tries to put himself in the position of a reader who believes the texts to be true.
For the performers, engaging the ecstatic expression of the texts means dancing with their own past experiences of each religious tradition.
“There’s kind of a danger in approaching a text that’s so familiar or well known, that it’s like, yeah, we’ve already figured this out, we all know what this means,” said performer Kerry McEnerney. Instead, the performers are “approaching [the texts] from a standpoint of, ‘hey, we’re all trying to figure this out together.’”
McEnerney, who was raised Catholic, finds the exploration of the words through an immersive performance liberating. Instead of preaching, she’s “interacting with [the text] in a very personal way, kinda deconstructing” interpretations that she unquestioningly heard growing up in church.
She hopes that the audience comes alongside her to experience the performance as she does and not shut down their involvement at the mention of the words “Jesus,” “Muhammad,” or “God.” “I want them to know it can be something other than what they’ve already decided for themselves.”
Another performer, Jessica-Brittany Smith, has returned to the Bible to reexamine the faith she was raised in. From the time she was four she had knocked on people’s doors with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Though her upbringing is still “very dear and precious” to her, Smith no longer follows the church.
“I can only speak for the people I know,” she said, “but there’s this very strong force against religion, and rightfully so, for the what humans have done with it for a bajillion years.” On the other side, “There is this beauty to it, and it’s so easy to hold onto certainty.”
Wanting to connect with the beauty of her childhood faith but explore it, Smith wondered, “How do you go along with that and continue on the journey and see where it leads you?” For young adults who have grown up in religious households, even a sincere exploration of faith can feel like rebellion or like a field trip needing a parent’s permission slip.
At rehearsal, Smith has her Bible with her. She is following her own path and reading it for herself “for the first time...probably ever.”
And for some, engaging the text may mean simply accepting them as words. For performer Andrew Guay, who was raised in non-religious household (“My dad calls himself a recovering Catholic, my mom was a hippie”), the words, though “important text in human history,” have “at a certain point become their own thing, and I don’t know if I need it to pull together.”
Whether you sit in the audience as one who practices or one who questions or one who is bewildered, “Dangerous Curve” will provoke a new perspective of sacred words that are so familiar and yet often unheard.