GHDT: Ancient yet familiar story of power, plague, and redemption

By John Lyle Belden

I am the most casual fan of dance programs there is. I appreciate it in a general sense, but have not studied or participated intensively. Still, I continue to be amazed and delighted by the visual storytelling skills of Gregory Glade Hancock.

On April 7-9, a week before Passover, Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre presented its “Exodus,” a modern story in movement inspired by the ancient story of Moses. It premiered in 2019, with plans to perform again the next year, but our modern plagues pushed the date back to this month.

The themes include freedom from oppression, as well as sacrificial love. In consideration of this, as well as Hancock dedicating this – like much of his work – to the memory of his mother, he chose to have the central figure, the Chosen One, performed by a woman. Entrusted with this role is Olivia Payton, full of passion and sacred sense of duty. In place of the Biblical Pharoah, we have The Prosecutor; Thomas Mason struts the stage, projecting authority while at times struggling with it.

Other individual roles, as well as the Slaves and Plagues, are performed by Abigail Lessaris, Hannah Brown, Chloe Holzman, Zoe Maish, Josie Moody, Audrey Springer, and Rebecca Zigmond.

The Persecutor’s army of Oppressors are danced by Ellen Burks, Grace Burks, Taylor Colter, Adrian Dominguez, Zoe Hacker, Allie Hanning, Kloie Hargrove, Audrey Holloway, Molly Kinkade, Moriah Knuth, Kallie Leib, Grace Mazurek, Evangeline Meadows, Rachel Morrow, Leah Pitman, Maria Porter, Sophia Rice, Hillary Riley, Alexia Rumrill, Rachel VonDommelen, and Elissa Weisz.

The Chosen as a young prince was Leighton Metcalfe; other children were Fiadh Flynn, Poppy Lomax, Vincent Kitchen, Violet Kitchen, Elli Thacker, and Megan Webb.

Aside from the Academy of GHDT, the company included dancers from Anderson University; The Conservatory of Dance, Granger, Ind.; and Ballet Arts of Peru, Ind.

Choreography and Costumes were by Hancock, who also credits much of the look and feel to the show to Ryan Koharchik’s lighting and set design. Dance styles vary from boldly modern to living animations of hieroglyphics, exciting and always clear in their intent.

We are presented with the plight of the oppressed from the opening moments, confined by a curtain of chain-link fence. As slave children are rounded up, a desperate Mother (Lessaris) leaves her infant in a basket for the Persecutor’s Daughter (Brown) to find. In time this Child grows (Metcalfe, Payton), knowing privilege but feeling for those in shackles. A moment of compassion leads to violence, and exile. The Chosen encounters a sacred Burning Bush (an expertly flowing grouping of about a dozen dancers, pulsing with life like a landbound sea anemone) and she understands what she must do.

The Persecutor has no interest in freeing the Slaves. He is surrounded by an army, members uniformly unisex and masked, a familiar emblem on their hoodies showing they have the “power.”

The oppressed now appear as pale avenging angels, bringing forth plagues that speak to us in the audience: Desecration (pollution) of the Earth, Gun Violence, Racism, War, Poverty, Crime, Social Media (apathy), uncaring Government, and Selfishness. To drive the point home, like in the source book, finally the First Born are struck down.

In Act Two, we get parting of the Red Sea, the giving of Commandments, and the people’s disobedience. We also get a joyous reunion, saddened by the story coming full circle. As in the scriptural Exodus, we conclude with our formerly oppressed people in the wilderness, but bold and ready for whatever comes next.

The overall program is thrilling, stunning, and inspiring – the effective telling of an epic story without a single word. Let this be an encouragement to see whatever you can attend by GHDT (next up is an adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra” in June) and insistence to experience “Exodus” the next time it is revived.

Performances are in downtown Carmel, get information and tickets at GregoryHancockDanceTheatre.org.

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