At Armory, a massive song/dance maneuver

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By Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer

Inside the Armory of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry on the prosaic block of 23d Street just below Market, art, architecture, and nature collided Saturday in near-mystical blasts as choreographer Leah Stein and Mendelssohn Club music director Alan Harler mustered their forces for composer David Lang’s Battle Hymns.

Part of the current Hidden City Festival project, which highlights rarely seen landmarks from Tacony to South Philly, it will be performed again next Saturday.

Arriving in the cavernous space for rehearsal mid-week, I noticed that there was no echo, perhaps because the concrete floor was covered in black rubber.

Harler noted, “Acoustically, it’s not entirely dead. And a lot of Leah’s choreography takes us through the space so people hear better depending on where they are. But,” he added, “the risk of trying something that isn’t in the standard venue is invigorating, and we have the forces to overcome any auditory problems.”

Viewing problems were harder to overcome; the audience, seated in two diagonal rows and one across, would have had better sightlines from bleachers.

“And the rubberized floor isn’t any more comfortable for the dancers,” Stein said. “It’s all part of how we adjust to the space and budget.”

When rehearsal began I saw a lot of running and lifts, but not much jumping. Harler called Stein as she walked away from making an adjustment with the singers and she did a 180-degree turn with military precision. The space’s 235-year history had invaded her, in what dancers call “muscle memory.”

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lang, commissioned to write the music, noted that his other choral works had been performed in standard concert halls. “What intrigues me about this space is that there will be nothing else to compare it to,” he said. “And that these singers are so willing to move around like this – while singing.”

In the hushed opening moment at Saturday’s performance, the massive wooden doors swung wide to the street. A lone rider on a copper-colored horse clopped in, examined the waiting assembly, shrugged, turned, and rode out. Eight dancer/soldiers invaded the space stealthily from different directions. The main doors slowly opened and the 75 singer/officers strode in, scores in hand. They wore Heidi Barr’s costumes – the soldiers in filthy, sweaty tatters; the officers in spiffy gray-blues.

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