Gunnar Montana (Purgatory) Photo Bill Hebert

Death, Damnation, and Darkness in Gunnar Montana’s Purgatory

Gunnar Montana (Purgatory) Photo by Bill Hebert
photo by Bill Hebert

by Gregory King, Visiting Professor of Dance, Swarthmore College for the Dance Journal

“Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven”.


Metal chains.

Skeletons mounted to crucifixes.

Make shift altars.

The stark smell of frankincense saturated the air as we sat expectantly in a common room at the Latvian Society. The eerie mood of the darkened room provided the right conditions for Gunnar Montana’s production of Purgatory, to grow. Philadelphia – based choreographer and performance artist Montana, used pop songs and dramatic sets, to explore life, death and everything in between.

Dancers in black scurried into the space and thrashed their bodies to the floor while delivering the fast paced choreography of Montana. Mildly reminiscent of one of the dance numbers on So You Think You Can Dance, I found myself excited by the skills of the dancers but underwhelmed by the commercial value of the choreography in certain parts of the production. Where the movement vocabulary was lacking in originality, Gunnar succeeded in casting a five – star line up of some of Philadelphia’s best. Performers Ann-Marie Gover, Adrian Plascencia, Jess Conda, Jennifer Jones, Stephi Lyneice, and Dylan Kepp, worked astutely to bring Montana’s vision to life as their roles meandered between stagehand, dancer, actor, drag performer, and host (they greeted the audience with handshakes at the end of the opening, “Damnation”)

With twelve sections named to dictate a religious trajectory, Montana created a pathway that explored human struggles and I couldn’t help but wonder if his structure was intended to echo the 12 Stations of the cross.

Dancer Jennifer Jones was a dynamic dancing machine in “The Last Supper”. Dressed in lace, Jones’ power was neither pretentious nor tame and her physical presence coupled with her technical adeptness, grabbed your attention and held it. She chaînéd her way along the length of an oversized dining table and wiped the space between the floor and the ceiling with her long legs executing glorious fan kicks. Her body became a Frisbee, as she sailed, flew, and darted across the table before melting to the floor, if only to gain momentum to do it all over again.

On the website, it stated that catholic theology takes seriously the notion that “nothing unclean shall enter heaven.” So I was appreciative of Montana’s play on the idea of “cleanliness” as he literally dug through the dirt in a wooden box to reveal a skeleton. Montana partnered the bony creature before wrapping himself in its arms and nestling in the dirt filled wooden box.

Montana and his cast were riveting. Proficient in their physical delivery, dancers and actors alike, added to the crematorium of skeletons, baptismal buckets, supper tables, dancing Popes, stained glass windows, and remote controlled dancers.

Montana’s remarkable performers, prop – choreography, and unapologetic love affair with humor, made Purgatory entertaining. An artist that should be noticed, Montana has an eye for details as he create works that will undoubtedly, transport the viewer.

Purgatory was not a place of uncertainty. It was a place of urgency…. at least the dancers made it so.

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