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Experiment for the ages

'The Song of Songs,' a 1967 project based on biblical passages, is re-created by two of the original performers, working with a new crop of talent.

May 18, 2003|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

The year is 1967. Norman Mailer's "The Deer Park" is playing off-Broadway with Rip Torn. Top ticket prices go for a whopping $4.95. And there is a review in the Village Voice of "The Song of Songs," composer Al Carmines' take on the biblical book about love that featured six singers and three dancers, including a 27-year-old named Deborah Lee, and one dancer-choreographer, 36-year-old Aileen Passloff.

Theater critic Michael Smith described it as an oratorio with dances and sparse action that seemed to him to suggest a wedding feast. The combination of forms had its limits for Smith, but, he wrote, "somehow the elements merge into an event that is disarmingly direct in feeling. What gives this music its uncommon weight is its honesty of emotion. Whatever it is, it's beautiful."

The show had a limited run at Judson Memorial Church, where Carmines, who founded the Judson Poets' Theatre and administered the dance and gallery branches of the alternative arts space, also served as associate pastor. Judson would become one of the birthing spots for the New York downtown arts scene, a home to conceptualism and minimalism in dance, a place where Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs cut their teeth. Carmines stayed in the ministry, but he also stayed in experimental theater: He would go on to receive five Obie Awards and four New York Drama Desk Awards. But "Songs" was never seen again.

Flash-forward to L.A. and 2003: Deborah Lee, now Deborah Lawlor, co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre, rehearses a group of performers, many of whom were born after 1967. The stage, drenched in brilliant red, a giant scarlet rose painted on the floor, is like a lush Georgia O'Keeffe painting brought to life.

It's Carmines' "Song of Songs," finally getting a second run, and Lawlor nods approval as Christy Bolingbroke, clad in a floral-appliqued shawl, elegantly pirouettes across the stage. Passloff sits in the small house taking notes and watching intently.

She is now creating movement on a new generation of dancers who will bring this all but forgotten work into the 21st century.

Lawlor, 63, and Passloff, 71, kept up their acquaintance from the Judson days, and although both pursued careers in the arts and talked by phone periodically, their lives rarely intersected. But late in 2001, their chatting turned to "Song of Songs" and the notion of resurrecting the work.

"I had so many memories of it," recalls Lawlor, whose life after Judson took her to India, Tasmania, France and finally, in 1986, back to Los Angeles (she was born and raised in Riverside). "I used to sing those songs to myself, walking through the canyons of south India. That music was never written down, but it stayed with me all those years, as it did with Aileen."

Reel-to-reel; now real

Passloff, an animated woman seemingly born with the dance gene, once played Topsy on Broadway in "The King and I" with Yul Brynner, had her own New York-based company for a decade and headed the dance department at Bard College for 27 years. She now holds an endowed chair as a professor at Bard, but she's on a six-month sabbatical.

It was Passloff who managed to dig up an old reel-to-reel rehearsal tape of "Songs," and she has been working with Lawlor on the revamped production since coming to L.A. in March to do the project.

"I thought the tape would be dust-ridden and useless, but we were able to digitize it and put it on CD," Passloff says. "Deborah had it transcribed onto sheet music -- somebody did that by ear. It's gorgeous music to me," she adds, "full of heart and a kind of innocence and simplicity. It feels divine to come into that work again."

Lawlor, who is directing the production, refers to their work as a kind of archeology, and to the current rendition as a dance opera, because it has more dancing than the original: They've added a dancer as well as Passloff's new choreography. "But it's in the same spirit," explains the soft-spoken Lawlor, a model of seriousness in wireless glasses and neatly trimmed hair.

"It's really a collection of love songs that found its way into the Bible by some fluke," she continues, "because it doesn't mention the word God. Ever. Some scholars think it's [from] the Hellenistic period -- 300 BC, but the language is all 17th century, from the King James version of the Old Testament."

And what rich language it is. "The chief metaphor," the director says, "is woman's body as a garden. It paints an Eden-like picture, where sex is not forbidden. It's celebrated."

"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine," is one of the famous lines used in this 50-minute production. Lyrics also speak of aromatic spices and herbs -- myrrh, cinnamon, saffron. Each song, such as "I Am the Rose of Sharon," is meant to be a tiny jewel, a little like a Schubert lied. With dance added, the songs expand, their emotions made tangible.

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