The Word in the Wings
From the stage: Chesed
By: KAYA WEAVER
“For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed. Yea, and more homely: for all these may waste and wear away, but the Goodness of God is ever whole; and more near to us, without any likeness; for truly our Lover desireth that our soul cleave to Him with all its might, and that we be evermore cleaving to His Goodness.”
— Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love ch. VI
Medieval anchoress and theologian Julian of Norwich describes the love of God as both the medium that facilitates humans’ knowledge of God and the core experience of the divine character. Julian herself wrestles with questions concerning the truth about God and salvation, yet in her experience with divine mysteries, God “will Himself make them more open to us, whereby we may know Him and love Him and cleave to Him” (Revelations of Divine Love ch. XXXIV). God desires to be known so that humanity may participate in the love that God generously pours out.
Contemporary scholar Julia Lamm, in her book titled God’s Kinde Love: Julian of Norwich’s Vernacular Theology of Grace, discusses how Julian understands her theological visions to mediate knowledge of God. Lamm writes, “Revelation occurs by means of a series of exposures: by the exteriorization of what is interior, by the exposure of new openings, by the creation of new spaces of enclosure, and by the introduction of the soul to new worlds” (p. 104-105). Each image or word that God’s Spirit sets before Julian is an expression, or outward revealing, of God’s internal character and activity.
The exposure, enclosure, and generativity that comprise Julian’s experience of divine revelation run parallel to the meaning-making mechanisms at play in the performance of Chesed by Glorify Dance Theatre. This work aims to foster knowledge of God’s love through exteriorizing inner experiences as movement, exposing the performance space to viewing on every side, amplifying the enclosure and generativity of the stage, and prompting multiple meaningful resonances between art(ist) and audience.
In any work of dance, artists exteriorize the inner experience of ideas or emotions by communicating them in the medium of movement. In Chesed, the dancers express feelings that emerge from varying experiences of kindness. Part I of the ballet shows how giving kindness feels like proceeding by an unwavering rhythm, whether with the smooth energy of walking or the buoyancy of jumping. Part II shows how rejecting or neglecting kindness feels like an inward focus and a barrier that compromises connection with others, even when they are close enough to touch. Part III shows how vulnerable receptivity to kindness feels like a secure tether, giving enough freedom to venture out boldly and enough tension to hold you safely in trusting relationships.
When an artist exteriorizes emotion on stage, what was held inside is now available to be witnessed by others. The limit of the stage is an opening that exposes dancers and their danced ideas to the audience that sits on the other side of the “fourth wall.” In a proscenium theater, there is an opening on one side of the stage; for the performance of Chesed in the round, the sense of exposure is amplified. There is no angle where a performer can hide a momentary thinking face or a tired expression. Neither can the choreographer choose one ideal angle to show a given shape. Every moment and every angle on the stage is vulnerable to the audience’s gaze.
But the amplified sense of exposure also amplifies the possibility of enclosure as the audience hems in the performers on all sides of the stage. This newly formed enclosure is a transformation, not a reinstatement, of the artist’s initial interior experience. Enclosure is not isolation but inclusion; as I’ve watched rehearsals of Chesed from the edge of the studio, I’ve felt my heart tugged, my body resonating as if I’m part of the art I see. The inclusion of the audience in the experience of performing arts is fitting for this theme; as much as God desires humanity to receive and reflect divine love, this work of dance is created in order to be witnessed and to move.
The enclosure on four sides of this performance in turn amplifies the generativity of the theater space. Artistic Director Melody Stanert has invited the GPA community to see this show multiple times because the show looks different from each side of the stage. Whatever meaning is already generated by layering the dancers’ expressive movements with each audience member’s interpretative lens is multiplied by the variety of spatial relationships and focal points that become available when every side is opened up and viewers completely enclose the stage.
In Julian’s visions, God’s love is poured out through Christ’s wounds, which leaves an opening in Christ’s body where she is enclosed and within which she perceives new revelations of heaven (Lamm, p. 104). The audience of Chesed, once enclosed with the dancers between the curtains that make up our black-box theater, is able to perceive the variety of perspectives expressed within that space. There is an undeniably unique quality to seeing a live performance; when watching a recording on a screen, you witness the experience unfolding on stage, but when the theater encloses you with the performance, you experience it directly and even become part of the artists’ experience. When Glorify Dance Theatre performed Walk This Road in March 2022, I observed the dancers’ expressiveness deepen and expand with each performance. The attentive energy that an engaged audience brings into the performance space inspires greater nuance and intensity in the communicative intent that drives the movement.
Further, conversation draws out multifaceted interpretation on the audience’s part. At our most recent Dance & Dialogue event, one audience member noticed a gesture in Abide with Me; he said that the way the dancer reaches straight up and grasps something imagined over her head looks like a small child reaching up to grasp a parent’s hand, evoking the image of God as Father. Another audience member followed this by sharing a memory of her little brother running toward an ocean wave and, without looking back, reaching straight up to grab the hand of his mother whom he trusted to be right behind him. From the choreographer’s intention, expressed in a single gesture, many perspectives add understanding from their personal experiences and extrapolate additional layers of meaning.
Now, what does all of this have to do with chesed, God’s loyal love? As we read from Julian at the start, God encloses us with love and reveals the divine self to us through love so that we may know and cling to God. A feedback loop of exposure, enclosure, and new understanding is one way in which Chesed communicates the artists’ hearts. But the heart of these artists is to communicate the heart of God–the heart that Julian epitomizes as love and that also reveals itself through exposure, enclosure, and creativity.
How is God’s heart revealed through divine kindness, loyalty, forgiveness, and mercy? What actions on the part of humanity have us entering into the opening created by God’s revelation of love? What does it look like and feel like to be enclosed in God’s love? What new possible worlds come into view when we enter God’s revealed heart and learn to love God’s kindness? What kindness for others does God’s loyal love generate within your own heart? These are some of the questions the artists of Glorify Dance Theatre have taken up in creating Chesed and questions I hope this ballet gives you space to ponder.
I pray as you participate in this performance that the compassionate heart of God is opened to you, that you are enclosed in God’s loyal love, and that you join us in imagining and embodying a humanity that knows, loves, and reflects God’s relentless kindness.
Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (Public Domain).
God’s Kinde Love: Julian of Norwich’s Vernacular Theology of Grace, by Julia A. Lamm (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2019).
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