The Word in the Wings
From the studio: Audrey & Katie on dancing Kumi Ori in Walk This Road
By: KAYA PRASAD
With performances of Walk This Road coming up this Easter, I wanted to talk with a few of the dancers about how they experience the story of Holy Week through this ballet. Join me for a wide-ranging conversation with Audrey Hammitt and Katie Mills-Yatsko where they share about themes of expectation and the tension between light and darkness that give the ballet its emotional shape.
Kaya: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me about Walk This Road. I’ve made some observations watching you and the other dancers rehearse, and I’m curious to hear how what I see relates to what you feel when you’re dancing.
I want to focus our conversation today on the beginning of the ballet, and specifically the piece Kumi Ori that you both dance in. So, to start off, how would you describe the kind of movement in this piece?
Katie: There’s a lightheartedness to this movement. It’s very jovial and upbeat and excited, whereas a lot of the other pieces are more somber or reflective. This is a very “present” piece, in the sense that we could be in that audience of people who are laying down palm leaves and experiencing Jesus’s coming firsthand. It’s very tangible for the performers, feeling like you’re a part of the story.
Kaya: What is it about the movement, the music, or any aspect of it that makes you feel part of the narrative?
Katie: There’s a lot of chorus work and there’s a lot of us coming together and dancing together, which is pretty atypical for Melody’s work, for us all to be dancing in unison for as long as we do in that piece. But that piece is very communal, in the sense of unison and the repeat of themes–of the chorus–in different formations and variants.
Kaya: So there’s enough repetition that it feels more like something social or ritual as opposed to choreography.
Audrey: I watched the episode of The Chosen with the wedding and was like, that’s Kumi Ori! It is a dance that everyone knows, and it’s like, “Hey! Come join!” Even how we enter the stage, like, we’re in this together. We all have our own work, but we all came together for this moment.
Audrey: Expanding on the marriage celebration idea, back in those days it would be drawn out over the course of a week. There’s going to be some fatigue! We can only carry so much excitement and joy for so long. But it’s a good thing to draw it out more. There’s some exhaustion from celebrating some holiday with lots of people. It’s a joyous occasion, but it’s like, wow, this is ki
nd of tiring!
Kaya: One thing that I keep hearing from everyone in that piece is that it requires stamina! As you’re engaged in the dance, pushing yourself to keep jumping and holding your arms up even after you’re tired, do you think about how the persistence required for the dance plays into the story of Palm Sunday or Holy Week more broadly?
Audrey: “For the joy set before him, Christ endured the cross.” It’s a foreshadowing ofhow this joy is going to carry us through all of the hurting places–even though we don’t realize we’re proclaiming that.
Katie: There’s definitely a patience and perseverance aspect to it, even with that line about darkness overshadowing the earth. We all take that moment to come together and be somber, and then again rejoice, back to skipping and jumping, really celebrating the arrival of Jesus again.
There is a foreshadowing to how the week will play out, but also how our lives as followers of Christ will play out. It’s not always going to be this celebration, despite the fact that we have the Holy Spirit, the helper, with us throughout this life, as we’re anxiously awaiting the second coming. There are still those moments of darkness, and there is still a need for perseverance and patience in the celebration and in the hard times as well.
Kaya: You’re bridging the story in the Gospels and our experience as Christians today–and just within this piece, there’s one moment where you have to bridge between celebration and light, on the one hand, and coming together and acknowledging the darkness, on the other hand.
Kaya: How does Kumi Ori move between those ideas of light and dark, or move between the past narrative and its present application? What does that express about how you transition and navigate between light and dark in your own experience?
Audrey: I think of waiting, and how Palm Sunday is this time when we’ve waited and it’s here–but not yet; right now Jesus has come and has saved us, but in the present age he’s still coming back. We’re still waiting for him to return.
Tying in the light and dark: in the past year, I’ve experienced really dark times and realized that it was a waiting game, but realized that it was worth waiting for the morning, for the light, for Christ to redeem it. It enhances the light more when you remember the dark times. You can rejoice seeing that he has brought light out of a seemingly forever-dark place. The line about darkness identifies the reason we have to praise his name.
Katie: That’s another foreshadowing moment, thinking about this piece versus the final piece where we’ve seen the events of Holy Week play out, and we’re holding the tension of all the mourning with the excitement of the second coming. It’s about that tension of the dark and the light, both on the small scale of the week and larger scale.
Kaya: I hear from both of you this sense that the narrative is not totally linear. The nation of Israel was waiting in darkness for their king to come, so Palm Sunday marks that the light is coming. Then it comes again at the end of the week because Jesus was in the ground, but now Jesus is alive. And then it comes again in our experience today; you go through dark times and you’re waiting for the light, and even now being in a happier place, you might anticipate the darkness coming again, but you can bear that with strength and patience because you know that after the darkness comes the light.
I’m curious if there’s anything you want to say about the movements in that verse about darkness. The song is in Hebrew, so it’s on the dancers for our mostly English-speaking audience to communicate that that verse is different, so how is that happening?
Katie: For one, the tempo changes. It gets slower. There’s this wrapping of our upper arm that comes over and casts a shadow on us, whereas the beginning section is more open, upward, towards God, praising. This is almost like we’re going underground, being covered by the darkness, until we have that relief from that moment where we burst forth and we open our arms again and come back into a celebration with the quicker movements and the more open presence onstage.
Audrey: That reminded me of how night falls, and how you can see the covering of darkness coming over, but then when morning comes–we do this movement where our palms are up and we’re looking to the heavens, and it bursts!
Katie: I like what Audrey said about the dawn breaking. It’s like bursting. With the sun, at nighttime you see the sun set and the sky getting darker. It slowly creeps upon you, whereas in the morning, all of a sudden it’s light outside.
That can be true of our lives and our relationship with Christ. It’s easy for things of this world to slowly overtake our faith and our hope, and it creeps in without you noticing, but when you finally snap out of that it’s like a weight is lifted, and there’s this brightness as you see the glory of God burst through, showing you what God was doing in that time of darkness.
Kaya: That timing image is so vivid! I think that’s an accurate description of the movement in Kumi Ori, so it’ll be interesting now to pay attention to how that happens over the course of the whole ballet as well.
Kaya: As you think about the biblical narrative of Palm Sunday, what elements of that narrative are at the forefront of your mind? Are there emotions that the piece highlights?
Audrey: Because it’s in Hebrew, that helps to set it in that time. You’re invited in–even if I don’t fully understand what they’re saying. Like Katie said, this is a participation dance as opposed to more internal dialogue. It feels more external. I can really show this with my body, do these really big motions, versus the other dances that feel like I need to pull from somewhere deep inside. Rituals and holidays and other structured things throughout a year feel like, okay, I can function within this structure, rather than straining to feel like it’s Easter. It’s there for you.
Katie: The celebration aspect is inherent to the song and the music and the movement. It’s not something that has to be found within; it’s inherently there within what Melody has created. You don’t necessarily have to think about it. You could come into this ballet as someone who’s new to our company and learn this repertoire and immediately feel like you’re celebrating with the other dancers on stage.
Audrey: It’s like line dancing.
Katie: It does have that very communal feel.
Kaya: A ritual creates space that’s easy to enter into because you have the structure, and it provides a pathway into aspects where you have to get a little bit more into your own heart and engage on a more personal and emotional level.
Audrey: I feel like that’s the perfect framework for this ballet, because we will perform it right before Holy Week. We’re saying to the audience, “Here’s a structure for you to process it and reflect on–what it could look like.” Without having space to process, it could be more of a superficial thing. But having that space we can ask, what is the Lord teaching you?
Audrey: Back to the endurance idea–Jesus resolutely goes to Jerusalem, and he wasn’t thinking just about this entering into Jerusalem, it was a celebration in view of his full mission, where it was going to go and end.
Kaya: One of the things that stands out to me about the way the story is told in John 12 is that Jesus comes into the city and sees people hailing him as a military victor, but the way Jesus interprets that leads to his response of getting on a donkey, reminding them that Zechariah 9 says the king will come humbly, bringing peace. So Jesus is not only resolute in the face of knowing what’s going to happen to him, but also resolute in the face of expectations that are not aligned with what he knows is going to happen to him.
How do you express that tension and resolve in this dance that takes place at the beginning of the story? What are the expectations that you embody at this moment?
Katie: I’m so focused in storytelling and portraying this as it would have been without the hindsight of what happened, so I almost had to turn off that part of my brain and the recognition that I know what happens with the rest of the week to focus on being a character in that moment of Palm Sunday.
Audrey: And I think that fits with Kumi Ori! I don’t think about the other dances that are coming because if I did I would hold back. In a different ballet I would save my energy, but it feels in its own realm. I’m here to celebrate and give whatever I have at this time!
Katie: Energy-wise, I give 120% to that dance as a celebration and don’t even worry about what’s next. I relate to King is Coming with that bigger picture in mind, and I feel like it is this beautiful parallel. Kumi Ori is our naive excitement; we don’t have all the information, but we’re so excited for Jesus’s entrance.
Audrey: It’s childlike expectation.
Katie: This is it! This is the moment we’ve been waiting for! Later we’re waiting again, but we have hope. It’s a different hope because we’ve seen the promises that have played out and we know the power and gravity of the situation, and we know how good this God is. It’s beyond what we imagined for the first time. It’s better than if he was just a king who crushed our oppressors in that moment. It’s a much deeper understanding and joy and excitement for our king.
I probably will continue to separate those in my brain, and I hope that if you were to see this ballet you would see a difference in the joy of that first piece that then pales in comparison to the joy of the final piece in the ballet.
Audrey: It starts with the idea that God is a great God, I’m so glad he came, he’s going to save us, but then ends with realizing the glory and the amazing grace of that week: Whoa, the God of the universe is going to save us by dying? We’re saying, “Hosanna! Save! Save!” and thinking it’s one way, but then realizing that God’s still the same and can carry through and redeem going to the cross for us by being raised again. That’s the God we serve! Not some God that just snaps everything perfect real quick.
Kaya: As performers you have this skill of being able to put yourselves in the narrative moment that you need to be in for this piece, and it sounds like one of the things that helps to accomplish for the ballet as a whole is to create that contrast between this piece and the similar idea at the end and to hold the tension over the whole arc of the ballet.
Audrey, what you’re saying brings to mind the wonder that God is both immanent and transcendent. This is the immanent moment: you feel like you’re in the narrative, on the streets of Jerusalem, and Jesus is here. But at the end, after Jesus has walked this road, it’s through his presence and nearness that you gain an appreciation for God’s transcendence, and that deepens and matures the joy.
Kaya: On a more personal note, how has learning and performing Walk This Road influenced your understanding and experience of Holy Week?
Katie: It gave me a much more tangible relationship to it. Easter doesn’t have the same feeling as Christmas culturally in America. My family always celebrated Easter, and we always celebrated Christmas, but you don’t wait for it with the same anticipation. Now, with all the context, you want to wait for it with that much anticipation and more, because it holds such a deeper meaning. Yes, we want to celebrate the birth of our savior, but he’s just a baby then! Not to trivialize Mary’s experience–
Audrey: It’s almost like a Palm Sunday experience.
Katie: Exactly! It’s the first waiting. We waited, the baby is born, and then we wait again thirty-three-ish years to have him arrive on this donkey and do what we really wanted him to do, and now we’re still waiting!
I think the biggest thing last year was when Melody asked us to think about how the disciples would’ve felt–these people who walked with him. If you were one of the people who was with Jesus constantly, you saw him living a somewhat normal life, and then this happens, and all the emotions you would feel–truly that’s how we too should feel. We should be that deeply connected with Christ as we’re living our lives now.
He’s not tangibly with us, but through the Holy Spirit and through the things that we do to feel connected with God, it should have that same tension–that gut-wrenching feeling of the gravity of what it was for Jesus to die on the cross for us and then be raised again.
Audrey: That made me think of the verse today: “He didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped,” or taken advantage of, but he chose to grasp onto humanity. He chose to hold us, being in a body in this world.
I agree with Katie. I don’t feel like I ever thought before this about what kinds of things I’d be thinking and feeling if I was there. Obviously different disciples felt different things. Peter was like, “I’m never going to turn away from you!” and then he rejects him. What would it have felt like to be confused? They didn’t understand, and they were scared to ask Jesus, what does it mean that you’re going to suffer? In the grand scheme of things, we don’t understand everything that we will.
This ballet has helped uphold the value of acknowledging emotions and not counting some as bad and some as good. The past two years have been very emotional, and I’ve felt a lot of conflicting things at the same time: I feel very sorrowful, but also rejoicing, or I feel content, but also hopeful. And Jesus chose to experience all those things! Like, “Please take this away, this is super painful, but not my will but yours.”
The rawness and realness of it really helps me but I hope also encourages our audiences to tangibly grapple with Holy Week and grapple with Jesus. Come to him with your questions, your perplexed feeling, your sorrow, your joy–he wants it all! He chooses to be with us in it all. Having that freedom and sitting in all of those feeling throughout Holy Week is really powerful.
Katie: I had a unique experience to work on this ballet in more ways than one. I designed and then my husband Nick and I built the set for the performance, and that was also a growing and learning experience for us in the sense that we had to find a way to visually portray all of the events of Holy Week within one set–in something that didn’t change but stayed on stage the whole time.
I sat down and had no idea what I wanted to make, and one morning I was journalling and praying about it and I just started drawing. And I drew out the set and knew that this was what God wanted it to look like. Each aspect of it has meaning, but it creates this full-picture, immersive experience that invites the audience in to walk this road with us and with Christ. Taking the extra time I had to spend designing and creating those aspects really drove home each day and how each day worked individually, but also how they all worked together to create the full picture of Holy Week and of our walk with Christ throughout our lives.
I wanted you to not only look at it and see Holy Week play out, but I wanted you to be able to see your walk with Christ play out. I wanted you to see the banality of the fence at the beginning, the day-to-day of the disciples just going in and out with Jesus, and then it falling apart and building up to this cross and this moment of crucifixion, and then silence–it’s just nothing, and then you see the faintest glimmer of hope of that gold wire coming across the back into the gates of heaven, that final hope we have of going home to be with our savior.
Audrey: And even then, it’s one piece.
Katie: It’s connected.
Audrey: And this ballet is contained in this show–
Katie: But it holds so much.
Audrey: And it’s cyclical. One day can go through minutiae, being broken down, coming to Jesus, and seeing God’s glory.
Kaya: We could talk forever, but thank you both for sharing your inspiration and everything you’re bringing as performers and followers of Jesus into this story. Hopefully this will help our audience come away from the show with this understanding of it as a reflection of something they’re walking through now, that Jesus is walking through with them.
Audrey Hammitt is a second soloist with Glorify Dance Theatre, and Katie Mills-Yatsko dances in the corps de ballet. Get to know each of them more by reading their bios, and click here for info about catching a performance of Walk This Road!
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