The Conception of x-file: m.e.s.s.i.a.h.
Handel's Messiah, arguably the best known religious choral work in the English speaking world, is perhaps not easily envisioned as the perfect starting point for a new dance work. In Messiah, which was composed not as a solely religious piece but as a semi-commercial concert work, Birgit Scherzer and Matthias Kaiser found a powerful piece of music on which they wished to base a theatre piece.
In creating a theater work Mr. Kaiser looks for a basic conflict to motivate the work. In the case of x-file: m.e.s.s.i.a.h. he found the conflict in the different ways the Messiah is viewed in the Christian and Jewish faiths. He then looks to 'people' the work with a variety of contradictory personalities to enliven the action. Some characters will be very normal humans, whereas others will be stressed, hysterical, in love or desperate. Beyond their individuality, the focus is on the characters' interaction. For x-file: m.e.s.s.i.a.h Mr. Kaiser has developed the character of Ahasver, a man destined to roam the earth until the Messiah's appearance on earth. Mr. Kaiser states that he found the genesis of this character in the book The Wandering Jew by Stefan Heym. He also references the gospel of Matthew 16: 28 "Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man come as King."
In x-file: m.e.s.s.i.a.h. there is also a strong sense that man's behavior has changed very little and that history is repeated through the ages.
Perhaps because of the new millennium or because of the natural cycle of human nature Ms. Scherzer and Mr. Kaiser sense that we are entering a time when philosophical ideas are gaining more prominence - that we are becoming more aware of the basic needs for human development. These themes are also explored in the work.
When naming their theatrical work, Mr. Kaiser and Ms. Scherzer had no idea of the popularity of the X-Files TV show and there is no connection between the show and the dance work except that both deal with the idea of the unknown.
In his plotting of x-file: m.e.s.s.i.a.h. Mr. Kaiser has closely followed the structure that Handel laid out but has managed to expand the meaning of the work far beyond its original confines. He has chosen to work with a recording of the music played on period instruments with the same small ensemble of singers as would have sung the work in Handel's day. Just as Handel's Messiah is divided into three parts, so is this dance work with each part being further subdivided in three for a total of nine scenes. The oratorio is not so much a story as a linear series of images. The dance work has many reference points and definitive stories but the illusion of time is often deliberately manipulated. It explores the search for man behind biblical legends, condensing 2,000 years of history into two hours of reality-based and fantastical images. x-file: m.e.s.s.i.a.h. does not run in historical sequence, as Mr. Kaiser states "It is not a question of actually going through 2,000 years."
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The program notes read as follows:
A place for man and dreams to hide.
The day after is the day before - and the day before is the day after.
From the door of his house on the Via Dolorosa Ahasver has turned away Reb Jeshua who, exhausted by the burden of the cross, sought rest there. Since then Ahasver has lost the ability to die. For him the silent words of the young rabbi became a curse: "I go - but you will stay until my return." Now Ahasver's eternity begins with the question of belief. Fearful of missing his chance to die, Ahasver wanders through time and place searching for the one in whom he must now believe. Ahasver, the only one who can testify to the identity of the Messiah, will die in the moment of his return.
Over the centuries the wounded people of earth remain strangely similar to the characters of biblical legends.
Scene 1 "The Expectation"
Ahasver must wait for the return of the only one permitted to walk upon the Torah. Every day is similar to the last: Maria is struggling with her own image as the Madonna, Magdalena is afraid of her customers, Elias is painting riddles in the sand and the Sacristan is waiting to perform his duty.
Scene 2 "The Arrival"
Ancient evils are visited upon new victims. The one in whose eyes Magdalena discovered true love for the first time is unnoticed by Ahasver. Jeshua's blessing is overlooked. Ahasver suffers under his burden. Each individual prepares a personal place for the "anointed".
Scene 3 "The Birth"
Maria wishes her son had not been born. His destiny will not be for her, but for the love of Magdalena, as a burden for Ahasver and for those who are suffering.
Scene 4 "The Cross"
In the forest of crosses Magdalena anoints every victim. Death arrives on the breath of the wind. Ahasver is looking for Jeshua, who has possibly died before he could deliver that same peace to Ahasver.
Scene 5 "The Poison"
Once again the world is poisoned. Jeshua remains concealed to Ahasver. As Jeshua ascends he loses his earthly desires - Magdalena remains on earth.
Scene 6 "The Usurper"
Maria is acclaimed as the Madonna. David, being the strongest, climbs onto the throne of the Messiah. Violence is revealed. Ahasver shows no fear of David. He alone knows the true Messiah.
Scene 7 "The Game"
Ahasver desperately fights for his death, but eternity shows no mercy.
Scene 8 "The Seducer"
Dishonesty is once again exposed: The fanatic who guzzles sand, harbors dark desires. The "flock" grows blind and gathers around the shepherd.
Scene 9 "The Feast of the Blind"
The bliss of the blind means disappointment for Ahasver and Jeshua. Nobody is able to see "him," but everyone perceives his or her own Messiah. This age ands with happy blindness, as a new eternity begins in seeing sadness.
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A central role in x-file: m.e.s.s.i.a.h. is Ahasver, a fictional shoemaker who denied a man in need on the Via Dolorosa. While bearing his cross Jesus sought rest on the doorstep of the shoemaker who claimed that he did not recognize him and sent him on his way.
For his indifference Ahasver was cursed to eternal wandering from which he would be released only upon the return of the Messiah. Thus for thousands of years this man has waited for someone whom he must now believe in. Although no one knows when or if the Messiah will return, Ahasver has to believe in this Messiah in order to have a hope of release. Ironically, as the only one who can truly identify the Messiah, Ahasver will die at the moment he can bear testament to others.
In x-file: m.e.s.s.i.a.h. there is not a Jesus figure, as many would expect, but a young rabbi, Reb Jeshua, the son of Maria and love of Magdalena.
The piece also references the characteristics of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalena. The characters Maria and Magdalena are not to be viewed as replicas of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalena but they do embody many of the same qualities and face similar dilemmas in their lives. Maria is a mother. She does not want her son to be taken from her and she does not embrace the concept of herself as the Madonna. She does not want to loose her human qualities so she focuses herself on trying to maintain her preferred part in life. Despite her best efforts to fill the throne so that there is no room left to sit, she nevertheless finds her son on that throne. Magdalena is a prostitute whose life is totally changed when she sees true love in the eyes of one man, Reb Jeshua. She is the one in the work who identifies this man as a special person.
Two other main characters are the prophet Elias and the dual role of Sacristan and Black Angel. The prophet must prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah, but Mr. Kaiser deliberately leaves some mystery here. Is this a childish old man playing in the sand as the world goes on or has he real control? Outwardly he alternates between these images. We do not know what goes on behind his exterior. The Sacristan is the keeper of the place in which the work is set, but it is not necessarily his pleasure to keep everything in its proper place. He does this as he awaits his life's duty which is assuring that Maria bears a son.
During the past 2000 years there have been many false sightings of the Messiah and these are represented in the work by two characters. The outwardly strong and powerful David who is shown to be otherwise weak and John, the "sand-guzzling fanatic" who is distracted with his own pursuit of sanctity. To all John seems a man of God who has forsaken all worldly things for his beliefs, but he is ultimately shown to be easily seduced by the flesh. David and John both have their band of followers.
Ms. Scherzer says that many things inspire her work. "A lot of things-I mean everything." Beginning with the scenario she then seeks to find a movement vocabulary to convey the story. "I use every kind of movement to explain what's written in the script" she says.
The choreography for the work spans from pure dance to very exact dramatic staging. Not only are the steps important in themselves but the context in which they are viewed and the relationships, both physical and intellectual between the dancers, are carefully planned. Ms. Scherzer has a very personal style of movement and she is exacting in her demands on the dancers to execute it to her taste. No single part of the body is left unattended to. Ms. Scherzer also pays close attention to the relationship between the movement and the music.
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Scenic and costume designer Änn has collaborated with Birgit Scherzer on several creations beginning with the 1992 production of Women - Men - Couples. Her involvement in the creative process begins early. As Mr. Kaiser and Ms. Scherzer were conceiving the work Änn was a part of the discussions concerning its content. Mr. Kaiser then laid out a rough draft of the dance piece, at which point Änn set her designs on paper and created a model of the set. The group then got back together to discuss the development and further refinements of ideas. The idea for the location of the work was a joint decision but the execution of it, the elements needed to convey it to an audience and the degree of abstraction was solely up to Änn. In this regard she also had to bear in mind that sufficient space had to be left available for the dance to take place.
The process continues until the piece debuts. The various elements inform each other and the practicalities of dance, including movement ideas, costuming and space keep making demands on each other so that the collaborators must remain fluid and flexible in their execution of the basic concepts. Although the way an effect is achieved may change, the basic reasoning does not alter.
Whenever a designer works outside of their own country the materials at hand will vary from those they were familiar with at home. This can be both beneficial and frustrating but it is important that the designer be able to adjust to the materials at hand. In some cases Änn brought fabric with her from Europe, in other cases she was thrilled by the new discoveries she made here. The original fabric that she wanted to use for the sand-eaters was too stiff and impractical for dance. Änn went through many different choices before finally settling on a knitted fabric that although quite different from the original choice nonetheless presents itself like the original concept but without its drawbacks.
Just as the characteristics found in people transcend time, this work is not set in an exact place or time. The stage setting is suggestive of a ruined church, its method of destruction unimportant. A pile of rubble, broken columns, stones with religious texts and a shattered bell are among the visible elements. The broken bell is the area where the prophet Elias resides. The door is symbolic of the door at which Jesus sought rest. This is a gathering place for the cast of characters, perhaps drawn there by curiosity or need. The space is manipulated during the course of the work to suggest many different locations and many elements are used to suggest different items. By the end of the work the setting returns to how it began, the cycle complete but the journey continues.
Änn's designs combine stark symbolism with precise historical research and demand a painstaking attention to detail. As with the setting, the costumes too reflect many different eras. For example, the basic trousers change their look with the application of different upper body wear and the crinolines, shown as uncovered hoops, suggest the 1922 designs of the Triadisches Ballet as well as a much earlier courtly period. The design for these crinolines was arrived at in an attempt to strip away the unnecessary elements while maintaining the essence of the style. This new look allows the choreographer to use the crinolines in a very different an inventive way that would be impossible with a more conventional design.
There are many other details in the design which function on different levels. For instance the fallen church bell becomes as throne, a symbol of power, and the eyeglasses focus one's attention on the eyes and the many implications of what sight and seeing can mean. The glasses are also the mementos left behind after death.
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The overall structure of Messiah is similar to Handel's other English Oratorios, but it is not typical of them. Messiah is in three parts (in this case Part one is the Nativity, Part two the Passion and resurrection and Part three the Promise of Redemption and Eternal Life) but there is less recitative and more chorus sections than the norm. The story is carried by intimation rather than direct narrative, thus it lacks dialogue. In his other works, name changes are common but in Messiah the names are in tact. Most likely this was done to avoid perceived blasphemy.
The wealthy English country gentleman, the Reverend Charles Jennens, an outspoken and often maligned friend of Handel's, offered the text for Handel's consideration. He had already written the texts for Saul and Israel in Egypt. In November 1739 he wrote "Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, and perform it for his own benefit in Passion week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah…."
The text is drawn from the King James Bible (1611) and translations of the Psalms from the Great Bible of 1539 preserved in the Book of Common Prayer. Jennens often abutted text from Old and New Testament together and wisely edited the text to make it more singable.
Handel borrowed freely from his previous compositions as was the style of the day. He completed the oratorio remarkably quickly. Commencing work on August 22, 1741, the piece was completed by September 14, taking seven, nine and six days respectively for each section and two additional days to fill out the orchestration. Handel included traditional Italian Opera set pieces such as a rage aria ("Why do nations?"), a pastoral sciciliano ("How Beautiful are the Feet") and a coloratura soprano showpiece with competing violins ("Rejoice Greatly!")
Although Handel altered some of the music of Messiah over the years he hardly made any changes to its text. The largest section that was discarded occurred at the end of the Duetto and Chorus version of "How Beautiful are the Feet" which ended in a choral setting of "Break forth into joy." It was cut after the London performances of 1743.
Handel traveled to Dublin on November 12, 1741 and began rehearsals for Messiah there. The Dublin News Letter reported that even in rehearsal Messiah was "in the opinion of the best Judges it far surpasses anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom." The premiere came on April 13,1742 at the Musick-Hall at a charity event at which the ladies were requested to come "without hoop" and the men without swords "as it will greatly increase the Charity, by making Room for more company." They did indeed cram at least 700 people into a space that was designed for 600. The event, which raised some £400, was reviewed thus "The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear."
By contrast the reception of Messiah in England was less enthusiastic. Part of the initial problem was convincing the Christian middle class that it was not blasphemous to perform a work with a Christian theme in a public theater. In hopes of avoiding controversy the work was not advertised as Messiah¸ but instead as "A New Sacred Oratorio". The ploy was not successful. "An Oratorio is either an Act of Religion, or it is not" says a letter to the Universal Spectator. ". . . if it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God's Word… [I fear] it gives great Opportunity to profane Persons to ridicule Religion at least, if not to blaspheme it…"
Handel's friend and writer Jennens wrote "His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho' he said he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus'd…"
It was not until a 1750 charity performance benefiting the Foundling Hospital, of which Handel was a Governor, that Messiah gained popularity in England. The work was performed some fifty six times during Handel's life, which, to put it perspective, contrasts to the 34 performances of Judas Maccabeus and 29 for Samson. Since 1749, Messiah has been performed every year at least once, somewhere in the world.
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