An Angel Takes Flight (With Some Help)
Posted June 21, 2018 3:05 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — When the dancer Ron Todorowski, who has performed with Twyla Tharp’s company and in numerous Broadway shows, was asked if he wanted to audition for the part of an Angel Shadow in “Angels in America,” he recalled, he told his agent “probably not.”
“I was like: How will I fit into this?” Todorowski said. “I’m a dancer. I’m used to dancing and acting through movement.”
The Angel is a messenger from heaven who visits Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS, to tell him that he is a prophet. In the production of Tony Kushner’s two-part play currently on Broadway through July 15, the Angel is not an ethereal creature who flies gracefully through the air with the help of a complicated rigging system, as she has done before. Now, when she flies she has five bodies, or Angel Shadows, to support her.
The Angel Shadows — three dancers and two puppeteers — are among the most remarkable elements about this Tony Award-winning production, directed by Marianne Elliott. Through intricate choreography and cues, the Shadows are responsible for propelling the Angel into the air and operating her heavy wings.
This Angel is broken down and dusty, wearing a tattered, disintegrating costume. Her movements are jerky and frazzled. She twitches. She can fall into a rage in a split second.
“I had an idea of this clean angel coming from the ceiling,” said Amanda Lawrence, who originated the part in London and performed for weeks in New York. “But she is like a cockroach, she’s an insect, she’s damaged — she’s like his disease.”
In order to manifest that quality, an Angel needs her Shadows. In this version, the original movement was created by Robby Graham, who worked in close collaboration with Finn Caldwell, the puppetry director. For the New York production, Steven Hoggett was the play’s movement consultant. (He’s also the movement director for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”)
Early on, Graham said, he thought of the Shadows as a hive or a colony. “From the very first meeting with Marianne, she had a very clear idea that she didn’t want to do the conventional staging of the Angel,” he said. “I work primarily with dancers in a partnering and lifting context, so as soon as she started to talk about the concept, visually, I could imagine what that would look like.” And from the beginning, he said, “the idea that the wings would be puppeteered was set in stone.” For the auditions, Todorowski said, dancers had a week of performing exercises while moving together. “It was as simple as walking in patterns in a unit,” he said. “One person would be the Angel, and we would have to stay connected following this one person. A lot of it was getting used to moving slightly if she moved, but not taking focus away.”
Hoggett set up improvisations in which dancers were told to imagine that they were blind creatures and that their only way to find a chair was to taste the room. “Chins and jawlines and fingertips start to do very strange things,” he said. “You see, oh, that looks very rich over there. Let’s hold onto that.”
And how to make the Angel fly? Graham and Caldwell studied the mechanics of bird wings, and how birds take off and land. “We tried to incorporate those principles of biomechanics into the choreography,” Graham said. “We really wanted to create that suspension of disbelief — where you feel she could just fly off into the distance.”
But the Angel doesn’t soar smoothly. “Marianne always wanted her to be really rough around the edges,” Graham continued. “It was important that the coughs and those jittery moments were a part of her language.” And that filters back into the way she moves — or the way the Shadows move her — through the air: At times, there is a jerkiness that meshes with her character.
The Shadows have two big movement scenes, both in the second play, “Perestroika.” One is a long dialogue scene between the Angel and Prior in which the tension of the words comes alive through movement; the other is a wrestling match between the two in which Prior wants to fight his disease.
Hoggett reworked the wrestling scene to make it more manic. A fight or a wrestle, he said, “a genuine one, is really haphazard and messy.” It doesn’t operate on logic, so Hoggett purposely made it out of order.
The scene is now clunky and disjointed, never fluid — and that’s what makes it scary. “Every night, it has a certain manic energy and a slight desperation to it,” Hoggett said. “It doesn’t become slick.”
And that matches how the Angel flies. “If something is beautifully airborne, it doesn’t really speak of rich human emotions,” he said. “It feels above everything. It needs blood and guts.”
Beth Malone, who has taken over the role of the Angel for the play’s duration, moves with a fearless relish. She isn’t a dancer, but she studied movement under the choreographer and director Annie Loui in graduate school at the University of California, Irvine. “When I went to the audition, it just all came back to me,” she said. For one rehearsal exercise, pencils were placed on three chairs, and Malone’s job was to fly with her Shadows from chair to chair to chair while collecting each pencil with a different frame of mind: curiosity, despair, rage. The order was up to her. On top of that, each lift needed a different height — low, medium, high.
“At the end of it, you have a scene, and it’s repeatable,” she said. “All of a sudden, a narrative emerged from this little exercise.”
In the show, she cues the Shadows with her breath, which becomes, in a sense, part of the text. “You take in a breath, and everybody goes down with you,” she said. “And then you’re in the air. It’s incredibly human.”
Malone, who skis and rides mountain bikes, has always been active and in good shape. But performing the Angel has transformed her relationship with her body. “Certain beliefs about my limitations have evaporated,” she said. “I could be in a movement piece now, and before I would always think, no I can’t do that. That’s for those people. But now I think it’s for me, too.”