The Cathedral of Trees, in Milton Keynes, is a small miracle: a patch of woodland planted to the architectural plan of Norwich Cathedral, with different species of tree mapping the nave, chapel, transept and cloisters. That synthesis of the natural, the constructed and the spiritual also marks Rosemary Lee’s Under the Vaulted Sky, an event for almost 100 performers – dancers of all ages and abilities, and a small group of musicians – which takes visitors on an hour-long procession through the site.
the dancers' arms reach up and out like branches, with hands as shaped and delicate as leaves
There is plenty of colour: red tunics for most of the dancers, with five figures in iridescent gold who open the proceedings and reappear intermittently, glimpsed through boughs like fleeting visions of splendour. And there are rich seams of symbolism: handbells are swung like censers in the opening convoy; chinking anklets are worn by the golden dancers; metal bowls at a portal are struck like gongs; and the dancers’ arms reach up and out like branches, with hands as shaped and delicate as leaves.
The event unfolds as a sequence of ceremonies. In a cloister, a group of girls carrying wooden caskets weave among trees strung with hanging keys, like windchimes. They open boxes; in each, a gilded leaf rests on a grass lining. In the altar area, the dancers form a series of living icons, each foreground figure framed by an aura of quivering hands, palms glinting with gold. And in the final, magical scene, the long nave fills with darting red figures who swathe its pillared trunks in fabric, like golden robes.
It is, however, a fragile magic, and occasionally fey. Lee rightly builds her choreography for these diverse performers more on commonality than uniformity – on shared actions rather than fixed forms – but sometimes it drifts, its wafting hands, whispery poetry and beatific beauty feeling more sappy than solid. A more robust physicality might have let it become more numinous.