The Word in the Wings
The Word in the Wings > From the studio: introducing company artist Gabrielle Byrnes
From the studio: introducing company artist Gabrielle Byrnes
By: KAYA WEAVER
Kaya: The first thing I want to ask, just to get a big-picture sense of what motivates you: what inspires you to dance?
Gabrielle: In general, I just love to dance! It makes my soul and body feel good when I dance. You have the athleticism, the artistry, the creativity, the technique–there are so many different aspects to it. For a sport, you just do it. With dance, you have to express yourself. There are all these different layers that you have to produce to perform that. It’s one of those things that feels good because you have all these things you can work towards.
Kaya: There are lots of layers to your response there! It sounds like there’s always something new for you to explore within dance.
Can you identify a person or an experience that has left a significant impression that shapes you as a dancer?
Gabrielle: Ever since I was younger I tried a bunch of different things; I tried sports and everything. Something that really drew me towards dance was watching it. When I was younger, my mom put me in a studio, and I kind of liked it. It was one of those jazz classes with a bunch of different dance styles. Then my mom brought me to see Swan Lake at the studio that I went to for years, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I want to do that!”
I also continued to watch this one Nutcracker production from the Royal Ballet. It was a super old VHS tape that I would watch over and over again. I got so excited seeing it, and I created my own ballets inspired from it.
Kaya: Now at this stage in your career, you get to be on the other end of that and inspire other people! Have you ever noticed that shift where you know other people are watching and being inspired by you?
Gabrielle: For younger kids I would see that, because I teach the young ones, but… I always thought about everyone who was older than me. I was inspired by them, and I continually think that I’m the young one who’s watching other professional dancers. Now that I am one–that’s so weird to say–watching other dancers, like ABT or New York City Ballet, I still have that childlike feel. When I look at even younger kids than me, maybe I consider that [a chance to be] inspiring. But everybody at my level, I still think of [inspiring me].
Kaya: That fits with what you said earlier: there are all these layers, there’s always something you can learn, there’s always somebody you can learn from. It’s great that even as I’m sure there are younger dancers looking up to you and being inspired by you that you are still looking for other people to inspire you and feed your artistry and your development in dance.
How has your faith shaped the way that you approach dance as an art form and as your profession?
Gabrielle: It’s hard, because dance can be so critical, in a way completely opposite of faith, just because of the way the dance world is in general. Sometimes the dance world doesn’t give that feel of a faith basis. But for me, because I am a Christian, I try to find those areas where I can look to God and say, “Give me the strength to perform this,” or I think of praying while I’m dancing, or I find joy in something that I’m doing and think, “I’m doing this for you, God, because you gave me this gift so that I can perform for you.”
It’s refreshing to feel that presence, because sometimes when you’re in the studio and you’re so worked up about technique and working on different things, you forget that God gave you this body and gave you these things to make it something that’s enjoyable.
I also dance at church sometimes, and it’s something that’s inspiring to me because when I see different areas of worship on stage–they do the singing, or preach the word–when I’m adding the dance to it, it’s another layer of worship.
Kaya: I love your answer. You’ve described resting in God as you are working in dance, and delighting in the art you’re creating. That way it doesn’t become a grind and you don’t let competitiveness take over. Instead, you’re delighting in God and delighting in the gifts that God has given you.
I would love to hear more about your experience with dancing in church. What has that looked like for you? What’s an example of something you’ve done that’s felt like a meaningful part of worship?
Gabrielle: I started as part of a drama camp that we did at my church, and then in middle school I was asked to start dancing in church. There was another woman who would always dance in church as well. There would be a song, and she would interpret it on stage with improv. When I started to do it, I would choreograph a dance to the song. It would be a worship song, like Hillsong Worship. I would pick a song, and it would go along with the message for the church service that day, and I would go onstage during that song and perform my choreography in front of the congregation.
I was always nervous when I was younger, but when I got older it clicked in my head: What am I actually doing right now? What is actually happening on stage? It was refreshing to be able to dance for God, being that person who was showing the audience: This is another way that you can worship God.
Kaya: Do you feel like it gave you another layer of connecting to God through worship or of understanding the message of the song or the sermon when you got to embody it through your choreography?
Gabrielle: Yeah! It felt different. Even my parents or friends would say, “I could see your joy and what you were dancing for,” and “I could see that you love this and that you are dancing for God.” What people would say would really touch my heart. I would think, “Wow, that was God!” God was there with all these people. It’s such an exciting feeling because God gave us the ability to dance so we can express that to other people, so they can enjoy and also worship God through that. Being that stepping stone is such a cool, refreshing, happy feeling!
Kaya: That’s awesome. You’re mediating their awareness of the presence of God in the worship space because they can perceive it visually through your dancing.
Shifting gears a little bit: when we talked in the spring, you shared about how you started a Bible study for dance majors at Adelphi. What motivated you to do that? Was there anything unique that you feel came out of studying the Bible with a group of people who share an artistic practice?
Gabrielle: Me and my roommate decided to do this. We were involved in Christian Fellowship, and there were a bunch of small groups happening, and I always had this vision for a dance majors’ small group. I was a dance major in college, and I felt like it could be something different. There had never been a dance major Bible study, but it wasn’t just because I wanted it to be the first one; I wanted to inspire other people. I knew a lot of people in the department weren’t exposed to faith, and me and my roommate wanted to open that up for people who were interested, who wanted to come to the study and just learn. We didn’t want to make it something intimidating; we didn’t want it to be forceful. We just wanted to create a safe space for people to come talk about life in general and also read the Bible together.
There were ups and downs. There were times when we would have no one for weeks, and it was frustrating, and then some weeks we would have five or six people! We’d have donuts, we’d have the whole smart-board thing with questions and prayer requests. We would have an opener, like, “Share a good thing and bad thing that happened to you this week.” It was a really fun hour.
It is kind of intimidating if you’re not a Christian to come to this event where there are Christians talking about faith, so we tried to ease it in and share a Scripture about love, or a Scripture about friendship. Like I talked about with dance being so critical–Jesus is the complete opposite of that, and our idea was to express that to these people.
There were challenges, but I would definitely want to continue something like that in the future. It opened up conversations in that group, and there was learning from both ends. It created a sense of community with these people outside of dance.
Kaya: Starting something new can be frustrating, but being able to learn through the process and from the people you’re inviting can be so rewarding, too. And what a bold thing to say “yes” to: not just seeing Christian dancers who need encouragement, but responding to dancers who really need the good news of Jesus in their experience of the dance world.
If you were to do something else like that in the future, how would you articulate that message? What is it that you know about Jesus that you really want to share with other dancers?
Gabrielle: Sharing his love is a big thing. That’s such a big concept to understand, but it can be so simple, too. I would do that by using Scripture, but also expressing that to other people. You can teach someone so many things, but without you doing it and showing them what it actually means, they won’t always understand it.
That was something that I struggled with in college; we would talk about something in the Bible study, but executing that and actually doing it yourself was a challenge, because we are human. If my goal is to show God’s love, I want to execute how that would look in person, not just in the Bible. I’m reading it, but what would that look like in person to somebody else? I think that’s really important.
With the Bible study, I didn’t want it to just be me saying, “We’re going to read the Bible, and I’m going to teach you about Jesus.” I wanted a community. I wanted these people to trust us and for them to be able to come to us for things that they had going on in their life, because that’s what Jesus would do. It’s important for there to be trust and love, for that person to know that they are loved by somebody else.
Kaya: That’s a beautiful vision, so I can’t wait to see how you will continue to walk in that.
To wrap up our conversation today, what are you looking forward to, wondering about, or hoping to learn this upcoming season dancing with Glorify Performing Arts?
Gabrielle: I’m excited to meet everybody at Glorify! I think it’s so interesting that you take Scripture and turn that into a story. I’ve experienced that in some ways, but being part of a company who has a whole foundation on that is really interesting. I want to learn more about how to put a production on with that idea, and to grow in my faith and learn from others. I’m open to everything!
Kaya: I’m really excited that you’re coming on board, and I can’t wait to learn more from you! Thank you for your thoughtful engagement in our conversation today. I look forward to seeing you in the studio!
Gabrielle is a Corps de Ballet dancer with Glorify Dance Theatre. Read her bio to learn more about where she’s been!
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