Ping Chong’s “Angels of Swedenborg” at La Mama

Photo by Damia Cavallari

Ping Chong‘s Angels of Swedenborg, which closes up this weekend at La Mama after a three week run (tickets $10/$20/$30), is both a remarkably beautiful piece of dance theater, as well as a subtle and thoughtful meditation of the limits of material philosophy to satisfy the spiritual longings of humanity. But sitting through the roughly hour-long piece, I honestly couldn’t stop thinking that it looked like a piece of 1980s sci-fi.

It really began, I suppose, when a furry little beast creature bearing at least a passing resemblance to an Ewok scurried across the massive drift of white feathers onstage. But by the time the corps d’anges in their inscrutable white masks and plastic, sculptural wings entered, with the odd one out creepily approached by a solicitous archangel whose voice emanated from the surround, there was a decided Star Trek factor at play. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Emmanuel Swedenborg was an eighteenth century philosopher and scientist who–after an early career as an exponent of progress and the Enlightenment–turned in his later years to a fascinating sort of spiritualism, recounting in dozens of books his stories of angels helping him travel about the (known) solar system.

I’ve heard a couple versions of the story of how director Ping Chong settled on Swedenborg as the subject of a work by chance (something about opening up an encyclopedia to that page) which ultimately worked. At the time (the show originally debuted in 1985), Chong was interested in exploring the limits of material philosophy for satisfying humanity’s deeped needs. In the context of the late Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, this was hardly an uncommon sentiment. The story of the Enlightenment philosopher who turned from reason to spirituality as a means of answering the deepest questions about human experience provided an all too useful vehicle.

The show opens with Swedenborg coming to center stage. The character is a man of the present, resembling nothing so much as a graduate student at university. The opening monologue, itself an abstract collection of associations, links materialist philosophy to the more contemporary concerns over materialism. We know what sort of car this post-modern Swedenborg drives, and we know he’s proud of it.

From there, Swedenborg retreats to an office decorated from the Ikea catalog (so much beige!) and proceeds to bury himself in his writing and research. A red-dot-matrix readerboard on the wall behind him projects quotes and fragments throughout touching on various concepts.

The real action throughout takes place at centerstage. A large area of the stage is fenced off on three sides (except for downstage) to produce a huge pool, about a foot deep, of white feathers (some six hundred pounds’ worth). It’s here that the rest of the company (the work is performed by La Mama’s resident company Great Jones Rep, featuring our own Maura Donohue, among others) enters as a group of angels to perform a series of emotionally resonant solo and group dances, with some theater thrown in, that contrast powerfully with the dry, anemic world that Swedenborg occupies.

It’s a truly beautiful piece (the feathers, in their texture and movement, are a wonderful device), and my comments about Eighties sci-fi shouldn’t be taken a criticism. Yes, the piece looks like a work from the Eighties because Chong remained faithful to the original designs. There’s no video, per se, but rather a series of projections of occasionally eight-bit-graphic-style icons and images, suggesting both the iconography of the Freemasons and early computer graphics.

But oddly enough, the affect actually adds to the work, and at a slight remove now I can’t help but thinking about Apple and the legacy of Steve Jobs. Everyone agrees that Jobs excelled at industrial design, but let’s face it: Bauhaus still looks contemporary, while an Apple 2 looks like an outdated joke, right up there with brick cellphones and the Omni. The stylistic elements that make Angels of Swedenborg look older are nevertheless classic enough that it doesn’t look outdated, and insofar as they reminded me of shows like Star Trek, I was actually charmed by the synergy. After all, shows like that espoused a belief in a human dimension to science and progress that dovetails with the crisis of faith(lessness) that Chong explores. It’s an idealism painfully absent from much of contemporary intellectual discourse, because it’s so painfully earnest. Angels of Swedenborg carefully walks the line between the two, embracing a deep optimistic humanism missing from a lot of contemporary art, while at the same time avoiding, through the sophistication of the work, the same ridiculous fate.

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