On Staging the St. John Passion
By Paige Whitley-Bauguess
My love of Baroque music grew out of a chance encounter as a dance student at the North Carolina School of the Arts. One of my instructors worked with us ballet students on choreography to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. I loved the music and probably wore the LP out in the music library. From there I developed a concentration on 17th- and 18th- century dance. I love the subtlety of movement from that time period – bigger is not better and subtle is often more meaningful.
When David Tang asked if I would consider staging the St. John Passion, I was surprised and somewhat apprehensive, as it’s a piece I had not encountered before. My husband is a Baroque trumpeter and therefore I’m familiar with Bach pieces that include trumpet. The St. John does not. I immediately read the text which has many dramatic possibilities and listened to the long, beautiful oratorio.
The tragic story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion by a body of people following strict religious laws unfolds in this haunting work. Although it is an old narrative from a very distant past, today’s performer and viewer can sense the current relevance of the message: we, as humans, can err and commit terrible things to other humans when we see and follow only our own “laws” and beliefs.
As we learn in the writings of 17th- and 18th-century dramatists, singers, dancing masters, and others, expressivity and emotion were conveyed through rhetoric and symbolism. The music’s texture, rhythm, tempo, and instrumentation were complemented and harmonized by the costuming, stylized body poses, and subtle eye, face, head, and hand gestures.
So with one eye firmly on the ideals of the past, I’m focusing the other eye on creating a production of Bach’s work for appreciation in the 21st century in a church sanctuary. My aim is to weave together symbolic elements of staging, religious pageantry, costuming, and props with a subtle mix of period and contemporary movement.
As I often tell artists, trust the composer. Bach’s music is at the center of this work’s expression and symbolism. The music for the Jews who call for Jesus’ crucifixion is forceful, impatient, and angry. But the following chorale is a poignant prayer, calming and gentle with beautiful harmonies. The arias express the gamut of emotions from joy at being one of Jesus’ followers to a sinner’s inner pain and regret at the extremes of which we are capable. Exquisite vocal melodies and heartrending instrumental solos – the work is a thing of beauty, and, taken as a whole, a reaffirmation of all that is, and should be, good with humanity.
Baroque dancer Paige Whitley-Bauguess interprets, recreates, and performs Baroque theatre dance in venues all over the world as a soloist and with her dance partner Thomas Baird. She is Stage Director for Firebird Arts Alliance/VOX's upcoming St. John Passion on April 1 (see Current Season).
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