Program Notes : Path of Miracles

Photo by RJ Muna
Most of the time walking is merely practical, the unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train. Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings. Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.

Rebecca Solnit — Wanderlust: A History of Walking, 2000

Since the Middle Ages, the walk on the historical Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, has been infused with spiritual meaning. Pilgrims from all over Europe have been walking the trail to the shrine of the apostle Saint James, located in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. Originally part of the Roman Catholic tradition, the pilgrimage soon attracted participants of all faiths and backgrounds in search of reflection and renewal.

It is this walk that inspired British composer Joby Talbot to write Path of Miracles in 2005. The first time choreographer KT Nelson heard Talbot’s music, about five years ago, she recalls “really, really loving it” but also being terrified by it. “So I had to choreograph to it!” she shared during a showing at ODC last January. Nelson’s piece straddles both the artistic and the spiritual within the structures of Talbot’s piece, which is divided into four movements. How does one translate the solitary aspect of a pilgrim’s walk through a collective of performing bodies? Is it possible for the seemingly monotonous activity of walking and the ever-changing practice of dancing to echo each other?

With Path of Miracles, Nelson had to negotiate several constraints and restrictions. The main one is that she is not religious. However, the fact that Talbot’s score incorporates different musical styles, including Taiwanese chant, and is sung in seven languages, helped Nelson tap into the pluralistic and universal aspect of the pilgrim’s journey. Also, she was not solely choreographing for the ten bodies of ODC/Dance company, but also for the seventeen Volti choir members and their conductor Robert Geary, and always with the audience’s trajectory in mind. In addition, given the monumental score created by Talbot and the majestic space of Grace Cathedral — cold, concrete floors, high ceilings, narrow alleys, subdued lighting — Nelson knew that she had to “simplify the choreography to leave room for the site and the music.”

Nelson’s five and a half-week walk on the Camino with her husband two summers ago informed her understanding of Talbot’s music. The four movements, which correspond to four main stops along the most popular route of the pilgrimage, reflect the inner journey of the pilgrim: enthusiasm and excitement at first; then the physical and emotional intensity of the walk reveals itself and the walker hits a wall. The kindness of people met along the way provides relief and support during these arduous times. Finally, participants celebrate having accomplished the journey and made new friends on the way.

Throughout this performance journey at Grace Cathedral, we may realize that walking -if only to move from one spot to the next- functions as the outer shell of a multiplicity of inner movements that the dancers render visible. The performers create pathways between the subtle and the concrete, between the mental and the physical, putting into motion the fact that, in writer Rebecca Solnit’s words, “the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it.”

Path of Miracles is presented at Grace Cathedral on February 9 and 10, 2018.