‘Lightning’ electrifies Dickinson’s poetry

Lightning at Our Feet, a multimedia presentation of Emily Dickinson poems performed Saturday at the MainStage of the ’62 Center by the Ridge Theater, combined music, theater and video to portray a modern interpretation of the eccentric 19th century poet. The results of mixing such a diverse array of musical styles and artistic ideas ranged from being innovative to off-puttingly bizarre to ridiculously melodramatic. The performance included 12 poems by Dickinson, many set to music by composer Michael Gordon, as well as excerpts from letters written by the poet.

The production featured four versatile female performers, clad in white dresses that fused Victorian era frills with grungy torn edges. The white dresses contrasted with the dark stage, which was littered with an array of instruments, metronomes, record players and four white panels. The panels, which were moved into different formations throughout, displayed video footage of Emily Dickinson’s house, women walking through fields and scenes of nature.

Most of the poems were presented as songs, composed in a variety of styles including jazz, rock and contemporary classical. The backgrounds of the four performers reflected this eclectic mix of music. Three of the musicians, Leah Coloff, Bora Yoon and Courtney Orlando, received classical training in college, and Orlando now teaches at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. Coloff and Yoon used this training to move in a new direction; Coloff’s band Lucibel Crater just released an album, while Yoon is a composer who experiments with sound mixing. The fourth performer, Jennifer Charles, who has a background in theater, was a member of the band Elysian Fields and served as the primary singer for this production.

Each performer seemed to channel a different aspect of the personality expressed through Dickinson’s poetry, both by their individual performance and by the style of music they played. Coloff, who both sang and played cello, was featured on the jazzy compositions, performing with an air of defiance and fire. Orlando, on violin, had the most classical sound, but not of the Mozart variety; she exhibited a dazzling talent for skittering up into the upper edges of the violin’s range and used some unusual techniques, such as moving her bow in a circular motion atop the strings. Charles sang the majority of the poems, drawing on rock influences. Charles was the one performer who disappointed the most for me, mainly due to the sultry way she whispered out her songs. Clearly, the artists behind this production had a different view, but I generally don’t think of Dickinson as a closet sensualist.

Yoon presented the most unique material, which fit the quirky nature of Dickinson’s poetry. She played several instruments, including guitar, violin and something resembling a harmonica with a keyboard attached. But her greatest asset was her beautifully pure voice. For one poem, Yoon recorded herself speaking the first few lines on a cell phone, and then played it back, creating an echo effect as she recited the rest. Towards the end of the same song, she dropped metal sticks on the ground in rhythm, creating different tones with each object. In another piece, she created a variety of sound effects by stroking wind chimes, flipping pages of a book and pouring water to accompany the music.

The performance incorporated elements of theater by presenting them as one continuous unit. The four women stayed in character throughout, moving slowly but purposefully across the stage and always keeping a solemn expression on their faces. The most theatrical and weakest points of the production were two seemingly random soliloquies by the violinist Orlando. The first came completely out of the blue; the previous song ended abruptly, leaving Orlando sitting at the piano and speaking directly to the audience in the first person. She appeared to be making it up as she went along, talking about a visit they had made to Dickinson’s house in Amherst a few days before. At first, it seemed like a commentary on the production itself, but then devolved into Orlando talking about her personal life. The second monologue was again focused on Orlando herself. Although it seemed more prepped than the first, they both amounted to meandering ramblings you might find in an angst-ridden teenager’s diary.

Lightning at Our Feet certainly rendered a unique interpretation of Dickinson’s poetry, with mixed success. The most effective songs took advantage of modern musical techniques to express Dickinson’s individuality, while others failed because of the artists’ attempt to force a breathy, sensual mentality onto her poetry that simply isn’t there.