The Word in the Wings
The Word in the Wings > Creating culture through Dance & Dialogue
Creating culture through Dance & Dialogue
By: KAYA WEAVER
Writer and editor Andy Crouch contends that God created humans with a calling to make things with the potential to shape “our imagination, our mental picture of what is in the world and what matters in it” and make a real difference in how we live (Culture Making, p. 27). At Glorify Performing Arts, we create works of art in the medium of dance and work to shape the imaginations of artists and audiences in ways that deepen people’s understanding and love of God.
Often, we seek to do this directly by presenting an audience with a dance production which may leave them with a particular impression of theological and personal significance. In our Dance & Dialogue series, we also incorporate verbal discourse, both presentational and conversational, to mediate a small, in-studio audience’s experience of a selection of dances.
In a culture where dance education isn’t universal, what kind of impact could Dance & Dialogue have on people’s ability to engage meaningfully with dance? How could Dance & Dialogue help to realize the capacity of embodied movement to make God’s kingdom visible on earth?
For the final installment of this series, let’s examine Dance & Dialogue through Crouch’s questions:
- “What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?”
- “What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?”
- “What does this cultural artifact make possible?
- “What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)?” (Culture Making, p. 29)
CULTURE MAKING THROUGH DANCE & DIALOGUE
In Glorify’s 2022-23 season, Dance & Dialogue was a series of in-studio performances, each with a theme related to the ways dance communicates theological meaning. In October 2022, we explored how dance tells stories. In February 2023, we focused on how dance expresses emotion, and in April 2023, how dance can help us connect with God.
At each Dance & Dialogue event, the audience sees a handful of short dances, but before each piece, Artistic Director Melody Mendoza describes her inspiration for the piece and shares the theological ideas and personal experiences that shape her choreography. After each dance, I facilitate a conversation with the audience where they have an opportunity to share what they observed and what significance the details of the piece held for them.
HOW THE WORLD IS IN DANCE & DIALOGUE
Every Dance & Dialogue event begins with the assumption that embodied movement has the capacity to communicate theological meaning in specific, describable ways. Whereas other Glorify performances are unified by a story or a biblical theme, Dance & Dialogue is arranged around a methodological theme with the intent of demonstrating the internal logic of dance as an art form.
For example, when we explored how dance tells stories last October, each piece performed had an identifiable setting, characters, and plot. When we focused on how dance expresses emotion in February, Melody selected pieces that each evoked strong, complex feelings, ranging from buoyant delight to passionate grief.
In the dialogue portions of these events, we discussed ways the audience might already be familiar with interpreting stories or recognizing emotions. We identified how costumes and props, as well as facial expression, could help convey character and setting, and we talked about how choreography may use repetition and change in movement motifs to convey plot development, much as the Bible uses repetition of key words and images to link disparate scenes into a cohesive narrative that culminates with Jesus. With respect to emotions, we considered how people use body language to express emotions in everyday life and how familiar expressive movements might translate into choreography that evokes similar emotions.
Dance & Dialogue not only assumes that the communicative capacities of dance can be described, but it also assumes that these capacities of dance relate to how people interpret meaning in other areas of life. Dance & Dialogue assumes that the audience enters the studio with some existing capacity to understand dance, regardless of formal dance education, and that their experience can be taken as a starting point for everyone present to learn together how to engage with dance more deeply.
HOW THE WORLD SHOULD BE IN DANCE & DIALOGUE
The first biblical creation account says that when God formed humanity, “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). St Athanasius writes that being formed in God’s image means that a human can gain understanding of reality through their own similarity to God (Against the Gentiles, 2). Being formed as embodied creatures, this suggests that the body is among the faculties which God has given humanity for knowing about the world and knowing God; the body is part of the creation which reveals the character of the Creator.
The human body’s capacity to reveal God is most evident in Jesus, an embodied human but not corrupted by sin and therefore able to reveal in his life, death and resurrection the full extent of God’s love for humanity and power over death. Our own bodies, insofar as they are restored to life through Christ and living by the Spirit, are also able to point to God by making God’s kingdom visible, palpable, and tangible.
Encountering God through embodied experience is not the exclusive domain of professional dancers but a gift from God to every human. If dancers have particular talents and training to intensify aspects of embodied experience and its capacity to mediate understanding of God, these are talents and training that they apply for the enrichment of those who watch dance as well as those who participate by moving themselves. Dance & Dialogue assumes that everyone should be invited to engage with dance as an activity through which the body can point to God, and that the invitation should be extended through a relatable medium that may serve as a bridge, whether that medium is language, music, or already-familiar aspects of embodied meaning-making.
WHAT DANCE & DIALOGUE MAKES POSSIBLE
Assuming that the world should be a community where people of different skills and experiences share their understanding with others for the sake of growing in knowledge of God together, Dance & Dialogue creates a space where it is possible for audience members at a dance performance to contribute to the meaning of the performance as experienced by everyone present.
Dance & Dialogue’s in-studio setting invites audience members into the space where choreography takes shape. While the pieces presented at Dance & Dialogue are rehearsed and polished before this performance, the studio space nonetheless signifies work-in-progress. In the same room where, a day or two before, the director and dancers learn new movements, give each other feedback, and practice difficult sections repeatedly, the audience joins in the process of creating a meaningful work by experiencing and responding to what the artists have made. One audience member might say, “This movement stood out to me.” Another might say, “I saw that too, and this is what it meant to me.” Their improvised verbal contributions become part of the performance and part of everyone’s experience of learning about how the art of dance works theologically.
Dance & Dialogue as a singular cultural good consists of the dances, the prepared explanations, and the audience dialogue. Because the audience’s unrehearsed responses are an integral element of Dance & Dialogue, it is a cultural good that, even more obviously than a conventional theater performance, takes shape in the time of the event as it unfolds, as befits the studio setting. The way conversation about one piece informs how the audience views the next piece, as well as the way audience members respond to one another’s interpretations and build on each other’s emerging understanding, demonstrates the relational significance of this format. As the audience becomes part of the performance, they become one in purpose with the dancers, working together in the task of deepening and renewing people’s experience of God through the medium of embodied movement. A work that begins as something the dancers and director are creating for an audience becomes something that artists and audience create together for each other.
WHAT DANCE & DIALOGUE MAKES IMPOSSIBLE
When the audience participates in Dance & Dialogue, one viewer’s reflection evokes new imagery for another and adds dimensions of possible interpretation for everyone. As the audience shapes the event as a whole, it is impossible to view the dances as static or self-contained. Everyone who speaks their response or interpretation is expressing the fact that the danced movements point to something other than the body in motion itself. Additionally, Melody’s explanations and my questions nudge the audience to consider each dance in light of how it intends to communicate something about God.
Choreography and conversation work together to construct a shared sense of how the body and its capacities engaged in dance point to God. The dances are designed to evoke theological ideas and turn hearts and minds toward God, and the dialogue makes it impossible to think of the dance only in terms of a human body focused on itself as the words and ideas exchanged pointedly relate the embodied experience of dance and life to viewers’ own encounters with God. Dance & Dialogue makes it impossible to view the body only as a barrier to encountering God, for the body is shown through this art to be a means by which dancers and viewers of dance can all see and feel God’s reality and goodness.
Scripture quotations in this post are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Essays by Morley van Yperen, Theologian in Residence at Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet, inspired me to analyze GPA’s productions through the lens of Crouch’s four questions in Culture Making.
Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch (InterVarsity Press, 2008).
“Against the Gentiles,” in On the Incarnation, by St Athanasius the Great of Alexandria (d. 373), translated by John Behr (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011).
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