Morgan Thorson says she didn't set out to create a work about religion. She wanted to make something about perfection but, she said, "The more I kind of looked in to the idea, it kind of shifted to the impossibility of perfection."
She became intrigued by how the few places offering perfection were houses of worship, with paradise held out as a reward for being devout.
"And so looking at that, led me to sort of religious structures, and the idea of worship and how often in religion people come to religion because they want guidance," she said.
That led to issues of control, and belief, all material which intrigued Thorson. She got to work with her dancers, developing ideas and movements. There was something missing though -- music. One of the dancers suggested she contact Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of the Duluth-based indie rock band Low.
Sparhawk admits, having never been involved in a dance project, he was a little leery. But everything changed when Thorson showed him some rehearsal video.
"It both caught me viscerally and then just sort of intrigued me creatively right away," he said.
What he saw was an opening procession of dancers walking round the edge of a large dance floor. They moved as a block, in step. At corners the dancers turn individually so the side of the block becomes the front. It's very simple, but very powerful. The followers become leaders, the group essentially reconstitute.
Sparhawk and Parker signed on and provide live accompaniment with a pump organ and electric guitar.
"Low has been somewhat known, for better or worse as a band that is sort of atmospheric and patient with time. And it is something we are intrigued by," Thorson said.
The sound gets louder and louder. It brings a sense of unease. The dancers begin to spin off and move in ways Thorson says are inspired by religious ritual: bowing, walking, even just sitting.
"Sometimes quite literally we borrow from religious structures, and sometimes we rebel against religious structures."
The performers are all dressed in white, but whatever purity that may project is disturbed by the fact that a couple of the men wear dresses. Some of the other dancers costumes favor form over function just like religious vestments. Occasionally the dancers, usually a mute bunch, launch into song.
Thorson admits she was deeply ambivalent about religion when she began the project -- she talks about her own discrimination. She was upset about the impact of fundamentalism both here in the U.S. and overseas. However she began seeing parallels between fundamentalist passion and her own practice as she calls it, her passion for dance.
"I've been afraid, but I also feel like why not draw the comparison because it is kind of dangerous," she said.
Sparhawk comes at it from another direction. He and Parker are practicing Mormons, and he now remembers how his earliest musical experiences were during services he attended with his parents. His spiritual beliefs run deep, but says in the creative realm if you are going to put your artistic stamp on something, "You can't afford to not be asking the hardest and most important questions that are out there," he said. "I think I don't feel right in creating unless it's going all the way." Sparhawk and Parker not only play live in the production, they dance.
While the performances of Heaven at the Walker art Center in Minneapolis on Thursday and Friday are billed as a world premiere the piece toured in workshop form late last year to New York and Texas.
Thorson says she was surprised when a few audience members walked out in Houston. She never found out why, but speculates the subject matter may push audience members beyond their comfort level.
"I think people come to dance and they want to see the triple back flip, and that's not what this piece is about," she said.
Thorson says she's not preaching, but she's not about entertaining either.