SARA PEARSON and Patrik Widrig have a knack for making the ordinary somehow extraordinary. This husband-and-wife pair of New York-based choreographer-dancers crafted the beguilingly simple but deeply resonant "Ordinary Festivals" in 1995. A celebratory work performed with 300 oranges, it can easily suit professional dancers and non-dancers alike. They've made luscious site-specific works for museum atriums, swimming pools, public parks and open fields. "A Curious Invasion" in 2001 featured 18 performers, 24 haystacks, 10 fans, 8 sprinklers, 3 hoses and some 2,000 ice cubes in a tour de force that captured the essence of a place -- in that case, Wave Hill (a public garden on the grounds of a former mansion in the Bronx) -- while melding the lines of what art is, where art happens and who enjoys art.
Taken from Genesis, the story of Lot's wife has fascinated scholars for centuries. Lot was told by God to gather his family and flee Sodom and its amoral inhabitants, for the city was going to be destroyed. Though commanded not to look back, Lot's wife does and is turned into a pillar of salt. Pearson found her way into this text by placing herself in the shoes of her character, Lot's wife, who is never even named in the biblical text.
Pearson and Widrig's latest work, while performed inside a traditional dance theater Saturday and Sunday at Washington's Dance Place, pushes boundaries in other directions. "The Return of Lot's Wife" is, though Pearson may not readily admit it, a biblical midrash -- a creative exegesis of the ancient text. Midrash, Hebrew for searching out, comes in many forms -- literary texts, stories told orally, contemporary artistic renderings in painting, sculpture and mixed media and, like Pearson/Widrig's movement midrash, theatrically performed interpretations.
Pearson's journey toward "Lot's Wife" and movement midrash meandered for a good part of her life. Growing up in a Reform Jewish home in St. Paul, Minn., she recalls feeling Jewish, yet non-religious. "I can remember back to when I was 4 or so that I was an atheist. I only prayed to God when I thought I was going to die," she reveals. As a college student in the late 1960s, Pearson became intrigued by Eastern mysticism, taking classes in Sanskrit and eventually traveling to India to study with gurus, among them Maher Baba.
"I learned from the only paper I ever wrote in college on Chassidism that the highest form of prayer is dance." Pearson's spiritual quest took flight from there. Among the writings she immersed herself in were those of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and her guru Maher Baba. She also studied Sanskrit and deepened her relationship with her artistic partner, the Swiss-born Widrig, a Catholic who himself spurns his religious roots. She says, "I was drawn to people with a close, intimate relationship with God. I could feel their connection with God and, though my mind always got in the way, my heart was smitten."
Eventually the dancer, once a soloist with the Murray Louis Dance Company, came to believe "real spirituality is not a separate category of life. It's something you take with you in every breath, in every action." This formed the foundation on which "The Return of Lot's Wife" grew. Pearson describes dance swirling around her five monologues, the dancers sometimes performing as a Greek chorus, sometimes the external manifestation of the interior monologue of Lot's wife.
Like Pearson, Lot's wife exhibits a changing relationship with God throughout the 65-minute piece. The dancer describes the work as a dance/theater/salt epic and, along with a confrontational monologue spoken in the guise of a 1950s housewife in a Brooklyn kitchen, "Lot's Wife" features the 14th-century poetry of Persian mystic Hafiz, spoken in Persian. An original score composed by Carter Burwell, whose compositions have been heard on soundtracks of the films "Fargo," "Being John Malkovich" and "The Blair Witch Project," accompanies the work.
The boxes of Morton's brand salt that Pearson pours out suggest, she says, more than just the literal replication of the biblical story. "The salt," she says, "represents how we like to take ordinary objects -- like the oranges and haystacks in our other works -- and allow them to become the conduit between the mundane and the sacred."
THE RETURN OF LOT'S WIFE -- Performed by Sara Pearson/Patrik Widrig and Company, Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 4 at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. 202-269-1600. Also Monday at 6 at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. 202-467-4600 (TDD: 202-416-8524).