The Word in the Wings
From the stage: why tell the story of Babel?
By: KAYA WEAVER
The repertoire of Glorify Dance Theatre doesn’t shy away from the challenging aspects of following Jesus. Walk This Road includes meditations on the grief of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday as well as the joy of Easter Sunday. Come Alive follows two characters who wrestle to reconcile the idea of a loving God with their real-life experiences of hardship and death. But even these stories at least show happy endings; Jesus’s resurrection is met with exuberance and hope, and one of the characters in Come Alive has her life transformed by God.
In a company that aims to create dance that glorifies God and tells stories about hope and justice, what place does a story like Babel hold? As we’ve inferred from studying the “tower of Babel” narrative in Genesis 11:1-9, the story does conclude by marking Yahweh’s deeds of power, with the humans’ city named “Babel” because God “baffled” their language. Yet from start to finish, this feels like a story about opposition between human intentions and God’s intentions.
The first section of the ballet is characterized by unison movements with angular arm shapes. At one point the dancers form a circle on the stage and move their arms into square shapes, matching the “bricks” they will later bring onstage. The closed formation and angular arms make it look like they are already constructing a fortification. Other arm movements are sharp, crossed, and closed, reflecting a defensive posture. These movements keep the viewer’s attention on the horizontal plane–or the plain where the humans have decided to settle and build their city. No one’s gaze turns upward toward the heavens, the dwelling place of God. Even in their coordination with each other, the humans are not open or oriented toward God.
Despite the humans’ lack of openness, God doesn’t remain uninvolved. In the choreography, God’s descent into the city the humans are building is conveyed by a sudden change in focus. Initially the dancers are intently coordinated, their hands busy in the task of building their tower, but in a moment their attention is grabbed by a sudden discord between the thoughts in their minds and the words in their ears. Their hands cease to build as they gesture towards their heads, investigating their confusion.
After the moment of God’s intervention, everything changes. There is no more coordinated unison movement, and no more blocks are added to the tower. The smooth dynamics of confident focus give way to frantic, chaotic, futile efforts to continue building together. The ballet concludes with each dancer departing the stage in a different direction, with one dancer remaining front and center, reaching toward the audience.
Though we can see God intervene, the problem of the humans’ orientation away from God doesn’t seem to be solved; they’ve stopped and scattered from their building project, but they haven’t repented and turned toward God. So how does the story of Babel, as told through movement, reveal the God of grace and hope?
Artistic Director Melody Stanert says she was drawn to the story of Babel in Genesis 11 as the subject for a ballet because it’s a story about creating something, but it clearly portrays creativity exercised in a way that runs contrary to God’s desire for human creativity. Our capacity to create is part of how humans reflect the image of the Creator God, but if we create on our own terms and for our own ends, creating without connection to God, even the exercise of this good gift will lead along the path to destruction.
Babel depicts the dead-end nature of creativity without God. God says that “nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6b), but a group of humans limiting themselves to “one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1), to a single creative project, becomes stuck inside walls of their own making. Whatever humanity proposes to do without seeking God’s wisdom does not lead to life of abundance and freedom but to life trapped under insecurity. In this sense, this ballet has a place as a reminder of the tragic alternative to life and creativity with God.
Yet even with its tragic arc, Babel conveys a subtle message of hope. Despite humanity’s neglect of God and absorption in their own plans, God does not abandon the people on the plain of Shinar to the full consequence of their own misapplied creativity; God intervenes to halt the project with all its ominous implications. Nor does God give up on humanity by wiping them out entirely. At the end of the ballet, one dancer remains on stage, hinting at the next chapter of Genesis, when God calls one human, who becomes one family that becomes one nation, to be a blessing to all nations.
Between tragedy and hope, this ballet extends an invitation. As a Christian performing arts company, GPA’s aim is to seek God’s wisdom for our creative endeavors so that the works we create would lead people to life in Christ and point them to glorify God. We should always examine our hearts and be honest about whether we are creating things out of insecurity or pride. By remembering God’s mighty deeds, those recorded in Scripture and those from our own experiences, we can cultivate a response of grateful worship instead. How can you seek God’s wisdom for your creative endeavors and create things that lead to life?
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