Choreographer KT Nelson said that before she could create a dance work about a legendary religious pilgrimage, she literally had to walk the walk.
Nelson hiked the more than 500 miles of one of the many trails that constitute the Camino de Santiago, an ancient Catholic pilgrimage in Spain. Though not a Christian, she’d been inspired by hearing, in 2015, “Path of Miracles,” British composer Joby Talbot’s 2005 a cappella choral work honoring his late father. Nelson wanted to create a dance piece, but didn’t feel she could understand the music without taking the trip herself, she said.
The walk, in the company of many other pilgrims from around the world, gave her the insight she needed into the hour-long musical piece. Its four movements evoke four distinct emotional states: enthusiasm, self-doubt, realization of community, and celebration.
The premiere, in February 2018, was performed by ODC/Dance, the venerable San Francisco-based contemporary-dance troupe where Nelson is co-artistic director. Its Pittsburgh premiere comes this week, in a special location that highlights its conception as a site-specific work: Just as the San Francisco premiere was at Grace Cathedral, the venue here is Downtown’s landmark Trinity Cathedral. The 10 dancers and 17 singers shift locations within the church for each movement, and the audience follows.
“I wanted the audience to have a really intimate experience with the music and the dance,” said Nelson. “Each movement is done at a particular site in the church. So you feel like you’re traveling together and you’re in this together.”
While the show features another local component – the talents of Pittsburgh’s own Mendelssohn Choir – “Path of Miracles” reflects atypical staging for the Pittsburgh Dance Council, whose roster of internationally touring troupes usually performs at the Byham Theater.
Trinity was suggested to ODC by Randal Miller, who heads the Dance Council (a program of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust). However, it’s not the first venture into collaborations with arts groups for Trinity, which a year ago hosted Quantum Theatre’s immersive work “Chatterton.”
“Chatterton” asked audiences to follow actors up and down stairs and to perhaps a dozen different locations throughout the labyrinth of the 1872 Gothic church. With just four sites, “Path of Miracles” isn’t quite as peripatetic. And Nelson said audience members have a “no-stairs, yes-chairs” option. There are also guides to help ticket-holders -- some 225 for each performance -- navigate from one site to another during the 75-minute run time.
The intimacy Nelson seeks manifests on additional levels. Some audience members, for instance, will have the chance to stand with the choir during certain passages. There’s also the behind-the-scenes bonding of ODC’s touring dancers and the resident Mendelssohn Choir.
“It’s the meeting of these different modes of artistic expression, in the same space together with the audience that creates something very, very special,” said bass-baritone Sidney Chen, an ODC collaborator who toured to Pittsburgh to sing with the Mendelssohn for this show.
Chen said that in prior productions of “Path of Miracles” – in San Francisco, Minnesota, and Arizona – local audiences saw familiar community space in a new light.
“The building itself became a character in the work,” he said. “And because we all move through this space together, it imbues the space with meaning different than it usually has.”
"Path of Miracles" receives five performances Wednesday through Saturday. At press time, some performances were already sold out.
WESA receives funding from Pittsburgh Dance Council.