HANOVER, N.H. - Alfred Uhry’s fascination with Shaker history and culture began years ago, when he and his family rented a summer house near Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield.
“What interested me so much,’’ the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright explains, “was really trying to deny that sex existed. I mean, it just goes against nature. Men and women had no contact, really, but they did have meetings where they would sit on opposite sides of the room, and they would drink spiritual wine, which is no wine. It’s imaginary. They would get drunk; they would dance. They believed that if you danced naked, you were invisible.’’
Although he saw dramatic potential in Shaker history, he knew it couldn’t be a play. It was “too extreme’’ for that, he says.
Then the playwright best known for “Driving Miss Daisy’’ encountered choreographer and director Martha Clarke, who is best known for “Garden of Earthly Delights,’’ a dance piece based on a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The ensuing Uhry-Clarke collaboration resulted in “Angel Reapers,’’ a Shaker-inspired dance theater piece that runs Tuesday through Nov. 20 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, presented by ArtsEmerson.
One thing Uhry regrets is that the piece doesn’t “get into the beautiful things that the Shakers made,’’ he says by phone. “What they believed was very appealing to me without the celibacy part. It was a wonderful community. Men and women were equal. A lot got done. They had beautiful taste; they invented the clothespin and the seed catalog. They were a remarkable people.’’
The Shakers - more properly the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing - espoused pacifism, gender equality, celibacy, and gifts of the Holy Spirit that included singing and dancing, shaking and shouting, and speaking in tongues. Initially they were even known as “Shaking Quakers.’’
They originated in Manchester, England, in the mid-18th century, but by 1774 a small group led by Ann Lee had come to America. They settled in New York, and Shakerism soon spread to New England, including New Hampshire, where there were Shaker communities in Canterbury and Enfield. So it’s appropriate that “Angel Reapers’’ should have had its world premiere last month at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center, in Hanover, just a few miles from the Shaker Museum in Enfield.
Scholar Mary Ann Haagen, who works at the museum and for the past 20 years has directed the Enfield Shaker Singers, describes a community that had “a very intense and immediate expectation of the Second Coming.’’ Their idea, she says, was that “everything you do is in the sight of God and for the upbuilding of the kingdom [of heaven], so that the work you worked, the way you kept your shop was all part of your sense of vocation.’’
Haagen says that one of the Shakers’ “fundamental theological tenets is that we are progressing in our understanding of the will of God.’’ And as for the restrictedness of Shaker life, she believes that “perhaps there was a freedom there, more like the kind of freedom that Martha Graham talks about, where for some people freedom can only come through no boundaries, and for other people ultimate freedom comes through structure and through discipline. And I think there were certainly people within Shaker life who experienced Shakerism in that way.’’
The movement peaked in the mid-1800s. (By now, the number of Shakers has dwindled to the single digits.) The intermissionless “Angel Reapers’’ is set in the late 18th century, when Ann Lee is still alive. It begins with a Shaker meeting. The five men wear black suits and wide-brimmed hats; the six women wear simple dresses in shades of gray. Seated, they break first into smiles and then into giggles.
The most famous Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,’’ is sung. Over the next 75 minutes, they sing more hymns (“I’m Glad I’m a Shaker,’’ “The Lord Will Comfort Zion’’); they testify, they march, they clap, they stamp, they spin, they roll on the floor. They recite their gifts (“Today I have the gift of repairing the hen house’’).
They admonish one another as to what they may not do. The women fret about being sexually tempting to the men; they all confess their sins. A man and a woman fall in love and leave the community; the men dance naked to prove they’ve risen above temptation. Ann Lee talks with her brother, William. At the end, she rises and walks quietly offstage, toward the light.
Clarke, an Obie Award winner and former MacArthur fellow, has often playfully referred to “Angel Reapers’’ as “Stomp for Shakers.’’ The actual title she and Uhry settled on took a little more thought. The notion of “angel reapers’’ goes back to the Gospel of Matthew (“The harvest is the end of the world, and the reapers are the angels’’), but that’s not where Clarke found it.
“It’s in the Shaker songbook,’’ she points out the morning after the premiere, sitting with her two Pomeranians, Tess and Sophie, in the lobby of a local inn. “I was going through some CDs and I saw the name ‘Angel Reapers.’ At first the show was called ‘Ann the Word’ - she was called ‘Ann the Word of God’ - and it seemed a little heavy. So I called Alfred and asked him, ‘What about “Angel Reapers’’?’ I love the image of it.’’
The piece itself first saw the light of day as a work in progress at Duke University in July 2010. But it had begun back in 2005. That initial version, Uhry remembers, “was a little more biographical, and I think we realized that it was too much to contain in one evening, because what we wanted was the essence of Shaker thinking, not so much the biographical details.’’
Like Uhry, Clarke is drawn to the Shakers’ austerity and simplicity.
“I mean,’’ she says, “I’m kind of a minimalist anyway.’’
Clarke, who in recent years has been gravitating more toward theater, says she made a point of not seeing the two best-known Shaker-inspired dance works, Doris Humphrey’s “Dance of the Chosen’’ (1931) and Twyla Tharp’s “Sweet Fields’’ (1996). She did see and admire Tero Saarinen’s “Borrowed Light’’ (2004), which Jacob’s Pillow presented in 2006.
“But it didn’t influence me at all,’’ she says. “I thought the unusual thing [about ‘Angel Reapers’] was having the dancers sing, whereas he had the Boston Camerata singers, arranged very beautifully, in the piece.’’
In Clarke’s work, having dancers multitask is not unusual.
“They’ve learned to ride horses, do bareback riding, they’ve learned to speak, they’ve learned to sing, they’ve learned to juggle,’’ she says. “I never have a performer do just what their training is.
“And it just seemed very real,’’ Clarke adds. “Shakers sang; they weren’t professional. They weren’t going off and making recordings and performing in the community.’’