“The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace,” as performed at Merrill Auditorium Friday evening by The Choral Art Society and Portland Ballet Company with members of Portland Symphony Orchestra, was a feast for the senses, with rich musical texture made hypnotically visual in choreography by PBC associate artistic director Nell Shipman.
The music, by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, was commissioned in 2000 by Britain’s Royal Armouries Museum in honor of the millennium and dedicated to the victims of the war in Kosovo. Its unique musical structure and anti-violence message have made it popular worldwide, but Shipman’s may be the first full-length ballet choreographed to the score.
Jenkins’ composition interweaves a wide variety of source material – from the 15th-century fight song, “L’homme Arme,” to Biblical and other religious texts, 19th- and 20th-century poetry and “Now the Guns Have Stopped” by Guy Wilson, master of the royal armouries – into a cohesive, often very moving, whole.
Likewise, Shipman’s choreography spoke from a vast dance vocabulary and demonstrated cohesion in variety. While creating the movement, she had clearly absorbed the score until it was second nature, so that the dance resonated as an extension of the music. In one moment the dancers executed a relatively classical lift, in the next a series of completely original arm movements, in the next an inventive piece of footwork. Throughout, there was never a break in the marriage between sound and movement.
The chorus and dancers were well matched in overall excellent quality and in the “sync” among performers. Under the direction of the renowned Robert Russell, the sections of the chorus often sang with the clarity of a single voice rising from the fullness of many.
The dancers, too, impressed with their unison work, especially since so much of the music was minimalistic or minimally rhythmic, including a cappella chant, making such precision more challenging. In their calf-length dresses with full skirts, the sweeping movements of all 12 women moving together were breathtaking.
Musicality and structure were foremost in the choreography, which portrayed inner conflict, physical conflict, the struggle between life and death and the journey through grief to hope, all in highly abstract terms. The women danced around a lone man, Soldier in Body (James Kramlich). Life (Jennifer Jones), Death (Erica Diesl) and Conscience (Morgan Brown Sanborn) alternated in interaction with the Soldier.
When he died, he was joined by Soldier in Spirit (Joseph Jefferies). The two danced a duet to “Now the Guns Have Stopped,” with special poignancy in the lines, “For you, my dearest friend, who should be with me now …” Shipman created a fascinating lift for the two men, with Kramlich’s arms linked over Jefferies’ shoulders, evoking crucifixion.
As the music and poetry made the transition from dread and glory through death to hope, the dancers’ faces and bodies made a parallel transition. Throughout most of “Armed Man,” they faced starkly forward, faces neutral. Their movements were often subtly militaristic or suggestive of suffering.
In “Benedictus,” airy lifts and turns brought a touch of joy and the “blessing” of the text. In the final section, “Better is Peace” (text: Sir Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Revelation 24:1), the dancers’ faces came alive, lit with natural smiles.
Although its vignettes were musically diverse, the “Armed Man” has brilliant overall structure. The music opened with the sound of marching feet, leading into “L’homme Arme” performed first on drum and piccolo and then by the choir. Jenkins’ orchestration followed the original tune, with a period-appropriate sound, and Krysia Tripp produced a wonderfully fife-like sound with her piccolo.
At the end, “Better Is Peace,” while presenting an optimistic message (“…there shall be no more death…”), echoed the early-music tones of “L’homme Arme.”
Among the three pieces of the Catholic Mass, “Sanctus” had a loud, threatening aspect, especially in the line “Hosanna in excelsis.” Later, the line was repeated in “Benedictus” with similar sound quality but with a joyful tone more appropriate to the text.
This is the third collaboration between Portland Ballet Company and The Choral Art Society in recent years, following Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Mozart’s “Requiem.” This partnership is truly worthwhile, providing a grand addition to Portland’s artistic offerings.
Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer who lives in Saco.