Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

An elegant dance hall

Music of Bach and dances of the 17th century come together in the perfect place: Mount Pleasant mansion.

Inside Mount Pleasant , dancers (from left) Jaamil Kosoko, Josie Smith, Meg Foley and Melisa Putz rehearse. Choreographer Lisa Kraus says the goal is to "create a work of art within this larger work of art" - the mansion.
Inside Mount Pleasant , dancers (from left) Jaamil Kosoko, Josie Smith, Meg Foley and Melisa Putz rehearse. Choreographer Lisa Kraus says the goal is to "create a work of art within this larger work of art" - the mansion.Read more

Choreographer Lisa Kraus isn't worried about selling lots of tickets for the next chapter of "The Partita Project." Not because she doesn't want people to see it, but because only a lucky 15 or so can attend each of the six performances this weekend at the Mount Pleasant mansion in Fairmount Park, the latest venue of her two-year-old traveling dance-theater "installation."

Previously, "The Partita Project" has been performed, in various forms, at such locations as colleges and cultural centers. Kraus chose this site for her newest version of the hour-long work because it interfaced perfectly with both her choreography and the period music, the violin partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Scouting possible venues, Kraus was in a facsimile of a 17th-century room in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and asked Carolyn Macuga, the museum's program coordinator, if she could stage a dance performance there. Macuga told her it might not be a good idea to have dancers flying around delicate exhibits and instead suggested Mount Pleasant, where all the furniture had been removed when the building was restored.

As soon as Kraus saw the gardens and interiors of the mansion, on an idyllic park plateau off Kelly Drive, she knew it was right. "This house is telling its story through the architecture," she said. Her troupe of eight performs throughout Mount Pleasant, revealing its history and "animating this house with activity that actually took place here."

Kraus punctures the pristine picture of the estate with her live narration during the performance. Its original owner, Scottish sea captain John Macpherson, was an ex-privateer who used his beautiful home to erase his past and claw his way up the Colonial social ladder. Completed in 1765 by master Philadelphia carpenter Thomas Nevell, it was named "Clunie" after Macpherson's ancient clan in Scotland. In 1779, Benedict Arnold became - briefly - its second owner, before committing treason and fleeing.

But that is ancient history for now, because Mount Pleasant's tranquil elegance is a natural theater for restaging dances of the 17th century. Kraus describes them as "the precursors to ballet as we know it - minuets, jigs, gavottes, sarabandes - ballroom dances performed at social functions for the elite."

Kraus, a dance writer, teacher, archivist and curator (and occasional reviewer for The Inquirer), danced with the influential Trisha Brown Company, and was teaching at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2003 when she became interested in baroque dance. Her other passion was Bach, whose music "has such concrete architecture," she said.

"When we did a shorter version in a gothicky music room at Bryn Mawr College, a musician told me it resembled a hall in Germany where Bach lived. So I wanted the piece in a larger place with historical authenticity to the music, the ordered sound of Bach, to strip away our contemporary language."

Violinist Diane Monroe, a classical/jazz virtuoso, provides the music for "The Partita Project." While Monroe has performed with other dance troupes, this time she's right next to and physically involved in the choreography.

There is a synergy, she said, when dancers and musicians are in close proximity that is lost with recorded music: "This combines the chamber music sound with visual chamber music. You can visualize notes through the dancers."

Monroe laces in and out of academic Bach variations and also does some improvising. "We do excerpts from each of the partitas," she said. "In this house, everything speaks back to you warmly and it's just lush. Perfect for Bach."

Mount Pleasant's architectural details - especially those of the second-floor ballroom, with its Palladian windows, ornate entranceways and Ionic columns - are fodder for Kraus' narration during the performance.

"There are a lot of natural stage pictures," she notes, which allows her to fill in details of the house's history and interior as the dancers move through the rooms. Philadelphia designer Michael Biello created period props and Kraus designed the costumes.

The choreography captures the elan of 17th-century life, with dance stylizations of tea parties, social etiquette and musical chairs, as Kraus leads the audience to each scene. Some interlaced modern movement evokes stories of loss and ghostly historical drama (scored to Bach's Chaconne).

"I took a big piece of choreography that keeps flowing in and out of the rooms and hallways," Kraus noted, adding that even without any furniture present, decisions had to be made about appropriate audience size. Though only a limited number of people can see this weekend's performances - and most tickets already have been sold - part of the goal was to "bring people to this Philadelphia jewel," she said.

"Just to see a dancer standing in this light in that window is very different than a reenactment. We're trying to create a work of art within this larger work of art."