The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > Creating Culture through Heurisko

Creating Culture through Heurisko

By: KAYA WEAVER

How does a ballet for preschoolers work as a “cultural good” for the kingdom of God? Writer and editor Andy Crouch offers these four questions for assessing the impact of a given creative work on culture:

  1. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
  2. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
  3. What does this cultural artifact make possible?
  4. What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)?

(Culture Making, p. 29)

Using these questions as a guide, let’s explore how GPA’s ballet Heurisko shapes the imaginations of our youngest audience members.

 

CULTURE MAKING THROUGH HEURISKO

Like many of GPA’s MainStage productions, Heurisko is presented in traditional, proscenium-theater format. But unlike a typical theater with the stage raised above the audience’s seats and separated by curtains, with Heurisko the stage and seating are on the same level, and two rows of preschoolers sit right up close to the dance floor. This ballet gives visual, kinetic expression to a parable Jesus tells his disciples, offering them and us a metaphorical image for the sake of illustrating the kingdom of God. The concrete images in Jesus’s parable are translated to concrete representations of sheep and shepherds through costumes, including fluffy white tutus with ears and tails, and props, like a shepherd’s crooked staff.

 

HOW THE WORLD IS IN HEURISKO

The world of Heurisko is described by Jesus’s parable in Matthew 18:10-14:

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

(NRSVUE)

One of the reasons Jesus tells parables is to teach his disciples about the counterintuitive values that characterize God’s kingdom (The Bible Project, The Parables of Jesus). God’s kingdom is not yet fully realized on earth, but Jesus inaugurates God’s kingdom through his ministry and points out its activity in his teaching. Within the world of a parable, the kingdom value-system is already visible. In the world of Heurisko, as in the world of Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep, there is a small, present reality which is the seed of a larger, future reality.

Restoration and the joy it brings are themes throughout this brief ballet. When the playing sheep bump into each other or misread cues from the others, the shepherd encourages them to hug and go on as friends. When the shepherd’s assistant gets frustrated by the flock’s mischief at nap time, the sheep finally let her get an accurate headcount and take a nap herself. The characters may playfully tease each other, but ultimately their world is not about competing for dominance; their world is about sustaining care for one another.

The world of the sheep in Heurisko is kept safe and stable because of the presence of their shepherd. The sheep play together and sometimes frustrate each other, but the shepherd leads them to reconcile with each other and to rest. The opening section of the ballet mirrors what the preschool audience might experience in their own day-to-day lives: there may be dangers and hardships in the wider world, but their parents and teachers give them safe spaces to play with friends and to learn how to forgive when things go wrong.

 

HOW THE WORLD SHOULD BE IN HEURISKO

When one of the sheep wanders off and gets lost, all former frustration is forgotten. The shepherd’s assistant ushers the remaining sheep offstage, and a scene of pursuit ensues. The lost sheep and the shepherd alternately traverse the stage, the sheep spinning and looking about with anxious uncertainty, the shepherd leaping and searching with focused purpose. The story of the lost sheep portrays the shepherd, equipped with her staff and confident navigation outside the pasture, using her relative strength to protect and care for her vulnerable, lost sheep.

Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep in the context of instructing his adult disciples not to lead children or childlike believers astray but to embrace them as they would embrace Jesus himself (Matthew 18:1-9). Adults, with their advantages of knowledge and economic resources, are to use their power and insider status not to be domineering over children and other vulnerable members of their society but to value them and help them draw near to Jesus (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1778).

Jesus’s parable reveals that the heart of God is to guide children and those lacking in knowledge to security with God, just as a shepherd brings a lost sheep home to pasture. It is the very opposite of anyone who would use their influence over an ignorant, trusting child to lead them into sin. The counterintuitive value exemplified in God’s kingdom 

is to treat children, not yet equipped for full participation in adult society, as important enough to be given access to the presence of Jesus. 

The finale of the ballet is an exuberant dance where the shepherd and the flock all jump for joy over the restoration of the sheep who was lost. Heurisko, like the parable it presents, asserts that the world should be a place where the lost and vulnerable are given access to Christlike love and are valued enough to be restored to caring community and to be the reason for great rejoicing.

 

WHAT HEURISKO MAKES POSSIBLE

After watching this up-close presentation of the parable of the lost sheep, the preschoolers in the audience are asked to recount a time when they have been lost. Even if many preschoolers insist that they themselves weren’t scared about being lost, they often share that their parents, babysitters, or older siblings are a lot like the shepherd in the ballet, expressing concern when the child is lost that transforms into great happiness once they are found. Watching the ballet, reflecting on their own experience, and hearing how Jesus teaches that God is also like the shepherd gives these children an opportunity to see themselves in the story. Heurisko makes it possible for preschoolers to imagine how an invisible God cares for them personally. It also points out to the preschoolers some places in the world where God’s goodness can be seen, even amidst troubles like feeling lost, lonely, or scared.

 

WHAT HEURISKO MAKES IMPOSSIBLE

One of the fun things about performing a ballet for a preschool audience is seeing how they are dazzled by pointe shoes, tutus, and elegant movement. Presenting a parable of Jesus in the beautiful, captivating form of ballet makes it impossible to push the children away from Jesus’s teaching. Creating a work of art that conveys Jesus’s teaching and is accessible and exciting for young audiences is a means of embodying Jesus’s instruction in Matthew 18. The artists have spent years developing their craft and cultivating their faith, but their experience, skill, and wisdom don’t create an un-breachable barrier between them and the preschoolers; rather, the artists’ maturity equips them to invite and welcome the children to know Jesus as they know him.

 

NOTES

Scripture quotations in this post are from the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition.

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).

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Abingdon Press, 2003).

How to Read the Bible: The Parables of Jesus: video by The Bible Project (Copyright 2023 BibleProject).

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Glorify Dance Theatre Presents

May 3-4

This is a family-friendly ballet that kids of ALL ages will enjoy!