As Nell Shipman began thinking about her choreography for the epic choral Mass “The Armed Man,” she thought about her daughter and how concerned Shipman was about bringing “this perfect person into this scary world.”
As events unfolded last week in Boston, Shipman felt even more protective and concerned about her little girl, now age 2.
“These things happen in our world,” the choreographer said of the Marathon bombings. “These things will continue to happen, and we will try to stop them. But no matter what, the human spirit will race toward who is hurt. We will help. This piece is a testament to my faith in the human spirit.”
Portland Ballet and the Choral Art Society make a plea for peace in “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace,” on stage in dramatic fashion Friday night at Merrill Auditorium.
It will feature about 75 artists, including 50 singers, 15 dancers and an orchestra of 10. Robert Russell, the Choral Art Society’s music director, will conduct. Shipman, associate artistic director at Portland Ballet, created the choreography.
This is a one-time performance, with months of rehearsals coming together for a single hourlong presentation.
The music and dance will be preceded by short spoken-word recitations by five members of the community who have experienced war: Michael Bachem, who served in the U.S. Air Force; Peggy Akers, who worked as a U.S. Army nurse in Vietnam; Abdinasir Ahmed, a Portland high school student who fled with his family from Somalia; Ghormi Rostampour, a Kurd who grew up in Iran; and Bill Nemitz, a journalist for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram who was embedded with the Maine Army National Guard and the Army Reserve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Welsh composer Karl Jenkins wrote the piece to celebrate the millennium as an anti-war piece, and dedicated it to the victims of the Kosovo crisis. He debuted it in April 2000, and it has had more than 500 performances.
Jenkins blends elements from the Latin Mass, the Islamic call to prayer, the Bible and other historical sources. Writers whose words appear in the work include Rudyard Kipling, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Sankichi Toge, who survived the Hiroshima bombing and later died of leukemia.
In its nearly 60-minute arc, “The Armed Man” covers the range of human emotion as it relates to war, from the charged-up euphoria of anticipation and the exhilaration of battle to the horror of the aftermath and, finally, a prayer for a more peaceful future.
“It’s gripping music that covers the gamut of musical experience and expression,” said Russell.
As she began listening to the London Philharmonic Orchestra recording of the piece, Shipman concluded that she was not listening to a story, but instead was on a journey.
That’s how she approached her choreography — by following a soldier, represented by two men as his body and soul, faces the paradox of saving lives by taking lives. When his own life is taken, he realizes that there is always light, no matter how dark.
Eugenia O’Brien, artistic and executive director at Portland Ballet, hopes “The Armed Man” helps people struggling to come to terms with the bombings in Boston — and with violence and war in general.
“One can only hope that it reinforces the attitude of Boston, which is one of resilience and hope,” O’Brien said. “And that is what this piece in many ways is representing: That you deal with what’s in front of you, but you accept it differently because there is a sense of hope.
“Whatever comes, you deal with. And that is what Boston has done.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: