"Narrative ballet is a particular art," said Robert Gladstein who was responsible for restaging the 1986 San Francisco Ballet production of Shadows. "Dance has a limited ability to establish relationships between characters." As George Balanchine said, "there are no `mothers-in-law' in ballet" referring to the difficulty in narratively expressing real but complicated emotions. The limits of this medium were well understood by Christensen who was a master of suggestive narrative.
In Shadows the women, dressed in simple yellow leotards represent reality while the men in gray are their shadows. Often the men dance behind a screen, their shadows projected, imitating the actions of the women. The principal ballerina carries a small lantern which she uses to try to `illuminate' her shadow, exposing it to the glare of inspection-- but in doing so her shadow vanishes. As the heroine realizes the profundity of her loss the music shifts suddenly to Hindemith's brooding Trauermusik. "It is one of ballets most magical transitions," wrote one reviewer, "for the mournful sadness of Hindemith's score vividly intensifies the sense of solitude." In Christensen's moving, but never dogmatic scenario, the heroine, in order to regain her shadow must become a shadow herself.
"Like many of Christensen's abstract works," wrote San Francisco Chronicle dance critic Allen Ulrich of the 1986 revival, "Shadows `suggests' more about tangled emotional relationships that it actually states. The contrast of dark and light proposed by the title permeates the music and the central visual device, a screen behind which the dancers occasionally slip only to emerge in silhouette. The lighting conjures much from little and the uncredited costumes-- slate gray and canary yellow-- accomplish a lot with the utmost simplicity."
"Within this framework," Ulrich continues, "Christensen fashions a reverse Orpheus and Eurydice situation in which a central couple tangles, separates and finds reconciliation in the world of the shades. Images of impermanence proliferate in fleeting combinations of the four corps couples. Repeatedly, Christensen reveals himself a master of visual metaphor. In one heart-stopping moment, the women drape their arms around their mates who slip into the blackness, leaving a thicket of outstretched arms."
"Shadows met with immediate critical and public acclaim," recalls Gladstein. "It was one of the polished gems Christensen tossed off in those years. Hindemith's music is very expressive of the shadowy mood. Christensen had a knack for finding the right piece of music for the concept he had in mind."
Writing of the 1961 premier performances, dance critic Jack Loughner wrote: "Last night, Christensen presented Ballet `61 with a handsome, unpretentious masterpiece called Shadows. Combining ingenious lighting effects with highly tasteful, stylish choreography, Christensen projected a lovely mirror image to his other work on the program, Lady of Shalott. The heroine of Shadows, however, doesn't shy away from shadows, rather, she falls in love with one and becomes a shadow herself. Reduced to print this doesn't sound like much but wait until you see it. Seeing the work a second time merely underlined the immense beauty of this ballet, a beauty of concept that is fully realized in its execution. Everything that happens in it has an element of surprise, yet everything grows logically out of what has preceded it."
Photograph: Victoria Morgan in the San Francisco Ballet performances of Shadows (1986). Photo by Marty Sohl.
Back to:The Choreography of Lew Christensen, Home Page.