Movers and Shakers

Shake your thing (demurely) at ArtsEmerson's new musical.

movers and shakers

Photo by Sarah Davis

Most New Englanders who know the Shakers know the same few facts: They lived in communes, practiced celibacy, earned their name by “shaking” with religious vigor, and made some delightful furniture. So when ArtsEmerson started promoting a song ’n’ dance show called Angel Reapers as “Stomp for Shakers,” it seemed like something only the South Park guys could dream up.

Instead of lowbrow maestros, though, we have Alfred Uhry (of Driving Miss Daisy fame) and director/choreographer Martha Clarke (a MacArthur “genius” grantee). Uhry’s interest in the religious group started with a visit to Hancock Shaker Village in the 1970s. He was captivated by Mother Ann Lee, a Joan of Arc–style prophet who built a society around abstinence, equality, and focused hard work.

Instead of sex, the Shakers channeled their energy into music, and they didn’t so much “shake” as perform dance rituals to cleanse their souls. Such behavior subjected the Shakers to mob violence, but in the end, it was their rigid rules that undid them. Marriages strained, young people stayed away, and men fled as the utopia came apart.

As Uhry sees it, “The idea of creating heaven on earth has never worked. On earth, we can only strive to do the best we can, but these Shakers took it to a place where most people couldn’t go.”

Which makes them the perfect subject for a show: drama, dance, and music. Uhry and Clarke load their 80-minute production with hymns and movements based on the Shakers’ life and rituals — and ultimately, their failure. The show opens on November 15 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.