Philadelphia has a robust contemporary music scene, but I hadn’t heard much by composer Ursula Mamlok, who escaped Germany at the beginning of World War II. The German Society of Pennsylvania helped give her work a new platform in Philly with Stray Birds, a recent performance from New Chamber Ballet. We get plenty of chamber music around here, but little chamber dance.
After her wartime escape, Mamlok left her family in Bolivia to pursue her music in New York. Late in life, she returned to Germany, where she established a foundation to foster the performance of her music. The foundation commissioned New Chamber Ballet to create a chamber ballet, which promised an intriguing afternoon for a rainy Sunday. So we fought our way past the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to the German Society of Pennsylvania on Spring Garden Street.
Sleepwalking in another time
The small audience congregated in the auditorium for a brief musical interlude, “From My Garden,” played by Stephanie Griffin on the viola. The piece was a taste of more to come: long, sustained, meditative notes interspersed with plucked strings almost like raindrops. Dropping raindrops behind her, Griffen led us upstairs to the library, a dusty room of warm wood and old books from another time.
The troupe’s five women dancers, barefoot and wearing ecru geometric-lace dresses and pants over beige leotards by Sarah Thea, stood poised around the open floor as we passed between them to the single row of chairs that bordered the room. In the corner, the Momenta String Quartet, with clarinetist Pascal Archer, played and the dancers changed places and swayed, eyes closed as if sleepwalking. The dance, “Bagatelles,” was at times meditative and at others playful in that intimate space—at one point I found myself face to face with a dancer, so close that I thought we were going to boop noses.
Poetry, music, dance
My favorite pieces of the afternoon were “Haiku Settings,” and “Stray Birds,” both heightened in their effect by the eerie intensity of soprano Cree Carrico’s singing. In “Haiku Settings,” a dancer stands at the center of a circle of three dancers on the floor at her feet, each with a hand on her leg. The dancers slide in a circle around her while her arms weave over her head in ritualistic patterns. She draws another dancer to take her place and joins the supplicants, and again, until they stop, their heads resting on her legs.
Stray Birds is a collection of 300 short poems by the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The dance was set to six of the poems in a duet between the singer and a single dancer, Traci Finch. In most cases that would mean the singer sings and the dance somehow reflects the song, but for “Stray Birds,” the singer joins the dance in the same ecru lace, bending to the floor so that the dancer rests on her back, and sits cross legged with the dancer, singing mournfully of music like a sword, the restless wind, the boat drawn to shore. Mamlok’s music captures these fragments of poems, which have been compared to haiku, and Carrico’s singing was moving and powerful.
My one disappointment was the size of the audience. Chamber dance creates a world and invites us to participate in it. In 2018’s Le Roi Danse, dancer and scholar Hubert Hazebroucq brought us into the ballroom of the Sun King. Stray Birds made us part of an intimate and meditative performance. Le Roi Danse, with a local musical connection, fared better, but sadly, these performances do not receive the attention they deserve, and the audiences who didn’t hear about them, and therefore did not attend, were the poorer for it.
What, When, Where
Stray Birds: Dances to Music of Ursula Mamlok. Choregraphed by Marc Driscoll, Rebecca Walden, and Miro Magloire. New Chamber Ballet. March 9 and 10, 2019, at the German Society of Pennsylvania, 611 Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia. (215) 627-2332 or newchamberballet.com.