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Thursday, June 11, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Liturgical Dance Full Of Color -- Pacific Ballet Choreographer Rises To The Challenge

Seattle Times Dance Critic

------------------------------- Dance preview

"Music at St. Mark's, Organ and Dance - The Music of Olivier Messiaen" 8 p.m. tomorrow, St. Mark's Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E. Seattle, $12-$14. 206-323-1040. -------------------------------

When dancer and choreographer Manard Stewart first listened to Olivier Messiaen's "Pentecost Mass," he thought it sounded like a cat had jumped onto the keyboard. But encouraged by Mel Butler, the organist at St. Mark's Cathedral, he kept listening until he found meaning and structure.

Stewart went on to create choreography to this Mass, which he and three other Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) dancers will perform tomorrow at St. Mark's Cathedral as part of a program of organ and dance. Butler will play the difficult piece on the cathedral's grand Flentrop organ.

Stewart is a member of Butler's choir. In a conversation after practice, he expressed regret that although there's a great body of church music and art, dance is a poor cousin in Christian liturgy. Butler convinced Stewart to create a ballet for the cathedral setting and encouraged him to listen to Messiaen's "Pentecost Mass."

"It's a bit like Stravinsky, always catching you off guard," Stewart said. "It's not melodic or harmonic but it's full of color."

Messiaen, who was organist for Trinity Church in Paris for many years, was a religious man.

"His music is like nature - with tides flowing in and out - but nature as representative of a divine order. It may not seem like order but there is a pattern even if we don't always recognize it," Stewart explained.

Music that does not lend itself to choreographic counts was only one of the difficulties Stewart faced. The stage is one-seventh the size he and PNB dancers Timothy Lynch, Alexandra Dickson and Lisa Apple are used to working on. It's made of concrete, so he could not ask for jumps or put the women on point. Sightlines are such that he could not have the dancers moving on the floor.

Stewart has turned these limitations into strengths. "I was freed up," he said. He developed a handful of movement phrases and uses them in various ways, including retrograding them, taking the same pattern in a reverse order. "There are periods of silence which the dancers take as cues. Then they erupt into movement," Stewart said.

Stewart describes the only liturgical dance he had seen as being fairly kitschy, with dancers cloaked from head to toe in long robes.

"I was in Rome lately and was struck by how many of the churches were filled with naked bodies, paintings and statues of naked bodies wherever you look. They are not about being erotic, or sexual. They're about being beautiful, an embodiment of spirit on earth," Stewart said.

Stewart said some of the movement was inspired by Michelangelo's paintings in which the bodies are always twisting and turning back on themselves.

The costumes will be violet unitards. "Color was of major importance to Messiaen and violet was his favorite, so it seemed right," Stewart said.

In addition to the "Pentecost Mass," Butler will play Messiaen's "Ascension Suites."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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