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MDT and Oratory Bach Ensemble collaborate on St. John Passion

On Saturday, April 6, the Oratory Bach Ensemble, conducted by Carleton Choir Director Matthew Olson, collaborated with the Minnesota Dance Theater (MDT) on a performance of St. John Passion, combining music, song and dance in an outstanding two and a half hour celebration of art. 

“We thought, how interesting would it be if we took the undercurrent and foundation of dance that lives within this music and then added amazing choreography,” said Olson, who approached MDT Artistic Director Lise Houlton with the idea of a collaboration. 

“It is such a joy to be sharing the stage with both the musicians and the singers,” said Houlton. “There is a tremendous energy that the dancers feel just breathing the same air and feeling the vibrations of everyone on stage together. It is a magnificent piece of music and we feel so honored to be a part of it.” 

In his introductory talk, Olson discussed the life of Bach, composer of St. John Passion. Olson told the story of how Bach, at age 10, broke into his older brother’s room to steal a score by Palestrina. “It wasn’t booze, it wasn’t cigarettes, it was Palestrina,” said Olson, demonstrating how Bach was “so engaged and so intrigued” by music. Later in his career, Bach started working on the score for St. John Passion, which tells the biblical passion story through music. 

The author of the accompanying libretto is unknown, but scholars believe Bach played a role in its creation. Several characters are presented throughout the libretto, centered around the narrator—the Evangelist—whose words were taken from the Bible’s Gospel of John. Unfortunately, the Gospel of John contains language viewed as anti-Semitic, which Olson addressed in his opening remarks, explaining how in Saturday’s performance the lyric “the crowd of Jews” had been changed to simply “the crowd.” In the program notes, Olson wrote: “We do so not to sweep this Anti-Semitism under the rug, but rather to bring a 1724 libretto with a two-thousand-year-old text source into our 21st Century organizational values of inclusivity.” 

On stage during the performance was the Oratory Bach Ensemble choir and orchestra with space in front of them for the MDT dancers. During each movement, different dancers would perform, providing visual representations for the song and dance. Occasionally, there would be no dancers during a movement, giving the audience time to follow along in the passion story by reading the translated text of the libretto, sung in German, displayed on a screen above the stage. 

The MDT performance included members of their company as well as their training school, all of whom were extremely professional and talented. The style of choreography was contemporary ballet, which blended classical and contemporary moves for an almost jarring effect. The female dancers alternated between use of pointe shoes and flat shoes and danced in pairs with the men as well as individually. 

One of the performance’s highlights was a section in which one woman and two men danced with a long piece of tulle. The men wrapped the woman in the tulle, twisting it around her, twirling her and dragging her across the stage through manipulation of the cloth. The technicality and emotion displayed by the dancers was impressive, and they executed the incredibly complex and athletic choreography skillfully. 

The performance was met with enthusiasm from the audience, which included members of the Carleton, St. Olaf, and the Northfield and Twin Cities communities. “As a dancer and also someone who plays and instrument, I really like seeing dance with live music,” said Eliana Durnbaugh ’21. “It’s a really unique experience.” 

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