A native of Germany, Handel made his name in England as an opera composer. However, by 1741, musical tastes were changing, and Handel was in debt. A job came along from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who commissioned concerts in Dublin during Lent when theatrical performances were forbidden. In place of opera, Handel turned to another increasingly popular form of musical storytelling: the oratorio, a dramatic choral work performed with orchestra, and often based, on Biblical text. And so, despite its modern associations with Christmas, the first performance of Messiah was on April 13, 1742, on Fishamble Street in Dublin, Ireland.
Fast-forward some 250-plus years: In 1999, Robert Weiss, former Artistic Director of Pennsylvania Ballet, was putting together the first season of his new company, the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, North Carolina. He needed something for the Christmas season, as The Nutcracker, the traditional favorite, had already been scheduled by another company. Weiss seized the moment to set dance to Messiah, the music of which had intrigued him since the first time he heard the work as a 9-year-old.
"I was taken to a concert and I felt like dancing down the aisle. I always loved the music. It's very joyful, spiritual, uplifting music. Its very rhythmic, a lot of it's very bouncy. It just makes you feel like dancing."
The oratorio has melody, and rhythms, but not an explicit narrative. Handel worked with Charles Jennens, who created a libretto that was unusual because it didn't use an intact Biblical text, nor did it tell a traditional story with characters. Yet Philadelphia Singers artistic director David Hayes, who has conducted Messiah many times, marvels at its cohesiveness: "If you look at where the references come from‹It's from the Old Testament...its from the New Testament. It's a phrase from one book attached to a phrase from another book. Yet somehow the librettist managed to create a sense that this was the story the way it was laid out.... It's a brilliant libretto...you never feel it's a patchwork."
To this libretto, Handel often wrote notes that musically describe the words. There is a lot of text painting, says Jeffrey Brillhart, who teaches organ improvisation at Yale Uni-versity, and is music director of Philadelphia's Singing City Choir. "The crooked shall be made straight. So the [melody] line is very crooked, if you will. And when you get to the word straight you just hold the note. The image of darkness is portrayed by the lowness of the voice."
With such descriptive text and commanding music, the idea of adding dance could have been daunting. "Before I did it, people said to me, the music is so powerful, what can you add to it?" Weiss says, chuckling. "I said, well, come see when it's finished."
Skeptics were proved wrong when the ballet was finished. It worked with audiences in North Carolina, and beyond. Weiss says Carolina's performances were sold out for five years running, and a 2003 concert in Hungary played to overwhelmingly enthusiastic crowds.
A Tale Within a Tale
The dancers act out a tale within a tale‹the story of the Messiah, within a story of a congregation celebrating the Messiah. In part one, a congregation gathers for worship in a church. Part two goes back to Biblical times to tell the Passion, and part three‹the aftermath‹is a ballet in white, symbolizing purity, harmony and balance. Some sections are literal, with dancers dressed like sheep, angels or warriors; others are more abstract.
The order of music, for the most part, follows the oratorio. In one notable exception, Weiss moved the "Hallelujah" chorus to the end of part one‹and no, it's not expected that the audience stand, as has been traditional with the oratorio ever since King George reportedly stood during that movement in 1743. "The first few performances, people did stand up," Weiss recalls. "Then I think they got the gist of it and realized it was a theatrical performance, and they didn't have to stand up."
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Roy Kaiser, was drawn to Weiss' Messiah because of the way the dance and the music enrich one another. The dance, with costumes, and dramatic lighting, adds a striking visual experience. The music, with "the different textures that are woven throughout the score, lends itself to so many types of movement."
While most of the ballet is en pointe, there is a pas de deux danced barefoot, and Weiss resists classifying his dance style as strictly classical or contemporary: "I like to say ballet is the great gobbler up of all other dance forms. Ballet incorporates whatever it wants to since classical times. You have the past and the present all mingling together. To be a good choreographer you have to understand the traditions but you have to innovate as well. What I tried to do here was to incorporate everything I knew from Petipa to Paul Taylor to Martha Graham. Everything I knew goes in here."
Putting it all together it with live music is the final feat, requiring a conductor who can bring together orchestral and choral elements‹all the while being sensitive to what's happening on stage, especially in terms of tempo. Kaiser says, in general, this is why ballet conductors like Pennsylvania Ballet's Beatrice Affron, are such a special breed, "She's in charge...she has the fate of every dancer in her hands every night...there's a fine line between pushing too hard as to tempo and not enough. There's a time for a conductor to ease up on the tempo, and a time for the conductor to really push."
While the dancers learn the movement, the singers in this production, Philadelphia Kantorei, learn the music. Kantorei Conductor Elizabeth Braden says in a dance performance, the singers must be able to sing quickly and clearly, to be both precise and flexible with tempo. Messiah, in particular, has a lot of fast moving runs: "We need to practice them at tempo, a little faster, and a little slower, so they can change however the music director needs them to change."
For her part, Affron says, although she leads the way in the performance, the ballet continually evolves: "There's negotiation that goes on throughout the whole series of performances...we talk about what works well, what could work better. It's always a work in progress."
A Universal Message
A work in progress, and a living art tailored to each set of performers‹not unlike the way Handel himself adapted his oratorio to the artists who would perform it. "There are many editions of Messiah," says Affron, "none of which is definitive. Handel himself redid it, reordering the numbers, at least twelve times."
In the end, the ballet provides another way to experience dance with glorious music and colorful text, to be moved with emotion, and to contemplate what Weiss said he hopes is a universal message that extends beyond just Christian theology. "I did it because I loved the music and I wanted to choreograph it, but I hope when people come see the performance they come away with a renewed sense of their own commitment to their own spirituality and goodness."
Susan Lewis is an arts reporter for the classical and jazz music station, WRTI. You can hear a radio version of this feature on "Creatively Speaking" at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 8.