Christopher Williams has long been fascinated by the stories of martyred saints. He is especially captivated by Legenda aurea, or Golden Legend, a lushly illustrated collection of hagiographies first compiled in the 13th century by the Italian chronicler, Jacobus de Varagine.
“It’s basically a comic book describing these superheroes,” says Williams. “It’s very graphic.” For the book’s many readers in the Middle Ages, he speculates, the saints “were these superhuman beings who were able to defeat evil in miraculous and fantastical manners.”
Take, for example, St. Margaret.
“The legend is that she was swallowed by a dragon and she made divine symbols and was able to rip herself out of the dragon,” Williams says, chuckling. “That image really stuck in my mind.”
So did many others. Williams, now 42, is an award-winning New York-based choreographer who’s staged work around the world. This week, he makes his Pittsburgh debut courtesy of local troupe The Blanket. Williams is setting on Blanket dancers solos from his saints-inspired 2005 work Ursula and The 11,000 Virgins, plus one solo from 2009’s Golden Legend, all at the New Hazlett Theater.
Williams, who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., has been a professional choreographer since 1999. His collaborators have included legendary stage director Peter Sellars; he has a long list of international credits, and has been critically acclaimed by the likes of the New York Times, which called him “one of the most exciting choreographic voices out there.”
Ursula was an early work that helped make his name: Its premiere, at New York’s famed PS 122, earned him a coveted Bessie award. The collection of 11 solos for women features two of Williams’ trademarks: elaborate costumes and makeup, and early music (the latter another longtime interest of his).
The name of the work’s title character translates in Latin to “little bear,” and Williams costumes her appropriately, with furred claws. St. Christine of Tyre, who legend says was subjected to a myriad of tortures for renouncing paganism, wears a costume that suggests, among others things, how she was flayed alive. While Williams assures that the production lacks any realistic gore, it does include such props as a prosthetic tongue. “She bit out her own tongue and spat it at her tormentors,” he says. “Her father is one of the tormentors. She says, ‘Eat the flesh that thou begot.’”
“The tortures described, I kind of translated into dance material,” says Williams. “She’s flayed alive, or she was stretched on a rack, or she was penetrated by hooks. So I used those verbs and those ideas to create material that references that, but stands on its own as a work of contemporary dance.”
The Blanket production includes seven of the original 11 solos in Ursula (the complete work has been staged only once) and one of the 17 solos for male dancers from Golden Legend.
The movement style is contemporary, says Williams, whose training included a stint at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio. The women dancers in Ursula are intermittently joined by a four-member male movement chorus. And the production is scored to a combination of ancient and original music, performed by members of New York-based vocal trio ModernMedieval, supplemented by a Pittsburgh-based musician. The music includes songs composed in the 11th and 12th centuries to honor the saints portrayed in the show, Williams says.
“It is a smattering of ancient music combined with through-composed original musical compositions for each character that didn’t have music I could find,” he says.
This is the second production by The Blanket, co-founded in 2016 by professional dancers Matt Pardo and Caitlin Scranton to foster modern dance in Pittsburgh. Both also perform in the show, with Scranton in the role of Ursula.
Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins and Golden Legend receive three performances at the New Hazlett Theater, Friday and Saturday nights and a Sunday matinee. The theater is located on the North Side, and tickets are available here.