The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > From the stage: two-level gospel drama in Walk This Road

From the stage: two-level gospel drama in Walk This Road

By: KAYA PRASAD

For many centuries, Christians have engaged with performing arts to speak, embody and witness the story of Holy Week. Walk This Road adopts and adapts this tradition of dramatizing Christ’s final week of earthly ministry. Using the medium of movement, this ballet focuses on the emotional experience of Jesus’s disciples, past and present, surrounding those events and their enduring significance.

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In his book History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, biblical scholar J. Louis Martyn suggests a  biblical-literary precedent for this approach. Martyn argues that the portrayal of people and use of vocabulary in John’s Gospel evoke his community’s contemporary experiences of conflict with religious leadership even as he relates historical events from Jesus’s ministry. The Gospel writer’s goal in doing so is to express continuity between past and present experiences of Jesus’s followers. The form of “two-level drama” suggests that Jesus’s earthly life remains relevant for his followers after Jesus has returned to the Father.

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Similarly, Walk This Road contains elements that straddle the distance between past and present. The music incorporates biblical Hebrew language as well as modern English and Spanish. In Kumi Ori, you’ll hear the Hebrew words of Isaiah 60 calling the people of Jerusalem: “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” evoking the experience of the Israelite people gathering to celebrate the arrival of their long-awaited Messiah with palm branches and shouts of expectation.

The very next dance continues to celebrate that The King is Here, but the English lyrics and electric instruments resonate for me with modern experiences of worshiping in Christian community. Seeing Palm Sunday portrayed at both of these levels suggests a comparison between “then” and “now.” Throughout the ballet, the dancers on stage could represent people who were with Jesus at the cross and at the empty tomb, or they could represent someone who is with Jesus in a 21st-century church building. 

Mirroring the linguistic and musical variety, this show’s movement vocabulary blends classical ballet, contemporary and Israeli folk styles. Traditional movements lend a familiar beauty to the choreography even in moments that deal with pain, much as the repetition of familiar texts and liturgies during Holy Week make it easy to imagine the story and see how even the ugly moments of Jesus’s suffering and the disciples’ grief are ultimately woven into something good. At the same time, strikingly unique gestures punctuate the movement with reminders that the lens of recent experience or another person’s perspective can always draw something new out of the familiar narrative.

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The story of this ballet follows the familiar trajectory of events told in the Gospels: crowds celebrate Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover; the disciples wrestle with Jesus’s predictions of his suffering and death along with his explanations of his purpose for living; Jesus is crucified, the disciples grieve and doubt; finally, Jesus is resurrected and the disciples find an even deeper reason to hope that everything is being set right. 

Yet the manner of telling is designed to resonate with contemporary audiences. The abstract form of the ballet invites the audience to interpret Walk This Road on multiple levels. As you’re watching, you might ask yourself: Which events from Jesus’s life are evoked in this dance? How would the people surrounding him have felt in that moment? But you might also ask: What feelings does this story evoke in my own heart? What moments in my life have felt like a triumphant beginning, a nadir of grief, or hope re-emerging after I thought all was lost?

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In the coming week, the church observes Holy Week and acknowledges the tension of God’s already-but-not-yet arriving kingdom. As you experience Walk This Road, I invite you to consider the curious onlookers and disciples who walked with Jesus in the past, and I invite you to feel what Holy Week means for you as a curious onlooker or disciple who walks with Jesus today.

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Secondary reference:

History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, Revised and Expanded, by J. Louis Martyn (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).

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