The Word in the Wings
From the studio: Melody Stanert on producing Walk This Road
By: KAYA PRASAD
At Easter 2021, Glorify Dance Theatre performed Walk This Road, a contemporary ballet exploring the disciples’ emotional journey through Holy Week with Jesus. Artistic Director Melody Stanert has been working tirelessly to bring this show back to the stage for Easter 2022, so I asked her to talk with me about why this ballet is so compelling and meaningful for the church during this season. Listen in on our conversation–and consider helping us bring this show to life again!
Kaya: Melody, I’m excited to talk to you about Walk This Road after hearing about last year’s performance and seeing that the dancers are so eager to dance this show again! Let’s dive right in.
Do you have any particularly meaningful memories of observing Holy Week throughout your faith journey?
Melody: Honestly, no. Growing up I genuinely thought that it was “Monday Thursday” for quite a while. Aside from Good Friday, I didn’t understand the significance. The focus was always on Easter. But I did dance at a liturgical church, so we would do stuff on Palm Sunday, a lot of times with palm branches, but it was never anything I put any thought into until last year when I was going to do this ballet.
The original concept for the ballet was a lot smaller, just Friday-Saturday-Sunday. When I decided I wanted to make it longer I started doing more research and asking, what is the significance of these other days leading up to Easter?
Kaya: What did you learn about the rest of the week between Palm Sunday and Easter that influenced the ballet in its longer form?
Melody: The emotional arc of the week is what really struck me. It goes from the high excitement of Palm Sunday, the cheers. Now we know what happened each of those days, but putting myself in the shoes of a disciple, I would not be expecting that a few days later this person I’m following is going to be dead.
It gave this connection: God doesn’t necessarily make sense, but sometimes in retrospect things make more sense, so in seasons that are high or low, God is always there.
Sometimes it feels like God’s not there at all, but that’s not true–like that old sermon by Tony Campolo: “It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming!” Earlier in the week when they had Jesus with them there were positive things, but then there was the Last Supper. I feel like that would’ve been really confusing! Imagine that moment where you’re like, “I feel like this is really profound and really important,” but not understanding the whole significance of it until later.
It sparked so many different emotions, and it connected with the messiness of life. It’s not always perfect and connected. Sometimes it feels more scrambled, but ultimately God was in control.
Kaya: That reminds me of Ecclesiastes 3: there’s a time and a season for everything. In the ebb and flow of life it doesn’t always make sense how one thing leads to another, yet we assume that one thing does lead to another, and we can look back and understand how God is working through time, through Holy Week’s fall and rise.
To rewind a bit from those thematic ideas, why did you choose to create a ballet about Easter?
Melody: I heard the song Via Dolorosa, the version by Lea Salonga, and was like, I am choreographing a dance to that, so what does it fit in? That was the inspiration for the ballet. I love the arrangement of the music. I feel like the lyrics really get your heart. I have a hard time listening to the song and not crying because I feel the empathy within that song, and the humanity of Christ and the humanity of the people, but also an understanding of the deity of Christ.
Then when my original plan for spring 2021 got thwarted because of covid, I was like, “I wonder if I made this ballet a little bit longer…?” I started looking into other pieces of music and thinking about the rest of Holy Week. That was the point where I connected with the idea of comparing current Christians with the disciples.
If you think about Saturday, if I was a disciple I’d be like, “What the heck? Everything I just believed and thought and did is all gone now! I was such an idiot!” I would be going through all those emotions only to have Christ come back on Sunday. In my current walk, there are so many times where I’m just like, “God, what the heck are you doing? Are you even here?” So to have this ballet and this picture of all those things I’d thought through I could say, “Ok, this is a Saturday moment. Give yourself space for Sunday to come. Sunday’s not right now, but you have that promise because you see it in Scripture.”
Kaya: Even if Holy Saturday itself doesn’t feel like such a downer when we know Easter Sunday is coming, thinking about how the disciples felt lets you apply that feeling–and that hope that we have seeing it in retrospect–to other times throughout the year.
Easter is such an important part of the church year; do you think that engaging this season through the medium of movement adds something to it that can be helpful for the church?
Melody: It’s easy to just celebrate Easter as a holiday and not devote time to reflecting on how the events of Holy Week impact our lives personally. But this ballet offers something I can engage with where I’m not thinking, “Now I must sit and be holy,” but I’m just experiencing it because I love watching ballet. That creates thoughts of reflection and brings me into a time of focusing on the Word and talking to God.
I think that art, and dance in particular, can portray brokenness in a way that also has hope. When you’re watching something talking about Christ suffering and dying–a lot of Holy Week is heavy and sad and hard on our hearts, so to be able to show that heaviness through the medium of something beautiful is a way to experience and process pain without necessarily having to go to those dark places specifically in your heart.
Kaya: Whether you’re the dancer on stage or the audience member watching, you’re putting yourself in the present to experience whatever comes as the dance develops. It’s a way of exercising that emotional muscle by engaging it through the physical medium of your body.
Jumping back a little earlier in our conversation to the music choices and how those have grown: Walk This Road opens with a reading of several scriptures–Jeremiah 31, 1 Corinthians 11, and Isaiah 49–that are attached to the opening song. How do these passages shape the opening segment, or the work as a whole?
Melody: When I was coming up with the ballet, I had every song in place except the opening. I knew I did not want a big, flashy group number to start the show. I wanted it to be very small, and I wanted it to be one person dancing. But theoretically the show would start with Palm Sunday, and I want that one to feel more celebratory.
So I stepped back and started looking for a song that would encompass the idea of the whole ballet. Instead of wrapping it up at the end, it would wrap it up at the beginning so you could see it unfold as it goes.
I found this piece by Joshua Aaron, a messianic Jewish musician, and I loved that it brought old covenant and new covenant and tied those together through the three verses because even though it wasn’t talking specifically about the events that happen during Holy Week, it’s talking about what Holy Week represents..
I absolutely love that it starts with what sounds like a heartbeat. There’s this thump-thump, thump-thump that starts at the beginning and then at the end it also fades out. The movement I picked for that is just the dancer walking super slow, and then she slowly starts to speed up, and it was this picture of how God walks with us wherever we’re going. We can choose to walk with God or not, but God is always present, and the love that God has for us as talked about in those Scriptures is so powerful.
Kaya: That connects really well with what we were saying earlier: in the Saturday moments you remember Sunday’s coming and God is with you. Then these Scriptures connect that back to the whole biblical story, seeing how God is with Israel through the entire history of the old covenant and how Jeremiah 31 ties that in with the promise of the new covenant. Then 1 Corinthians 11 re-narrates the Last Supper where Jesus institutes the new covenant. I like how that sets the stage.
While you work a lot with classical ballet vocabulary, Walk This Road also has its own “dialect” of stylized movements, and these stand out in the choreography. Can you share about where some of these gestures come from and what they evoke for you?
Melody: I loved throwing in some Israeli folk dance-style movements within one of the pieces, throwing in a lot more modern movements in some of the pieces. There are a few movements that involve a small amount of sign language. In Ubi Caritas they do half the sign for “Jesus” but not the whole thing; they just put one hand out and gesture, then stretch it around.
With each of the dances, I started off asking, what does this dance represent? For The Sound of Silence, for Saturday, this comes from a very hollow place, very sad and very hurt, so a lot of the moves that come from there are low and long and stretchy. Some of them are reaching because it’s a space where you want to have hope but wonder, is there a point to trying anymore when everything feels so empty?
Then with Underground, which is one of the songs that represents Friday, I was like, well, one of the stages of grief is anger, so that number was a deep, sorrow-filled anger. That evoked movements that were a lot sharper, that hit more and were reaching but not in a slow way. There’s a movement at the very beginning where they swirl and then stop with their upper body, and that’s like how sometimes we stop ourselves because we don’t want to feel something all of the way.
For all the movements that aren’t strictly classical, it was like, what’s the emotion that I as a human feel in my relationship to God in these moments? As someone walking with Christ back then, what would they have been feeling?
There are a lot of moments where I told the dancers, “I’m not going to prescribe how you’re emoting in this moment. This is the overall feeling of the piece we’re portraying, but how you feel about God and what’s happening is totally personal and I need to see that from you.” They had to go to really vulnerable places to be able to show that. Some dances you can pop on a smile and fake it, but this is not that kind of ballet.
Kaya: That makes sense given what you said earlier about trying to connect with the humanness of Jesus and the disciples in this week.
Melody: Whenever I read the Bible it can be like, ok, this person did that, but these were humans! They had feelings–and very strong ones at that! It’s really easy to gloss over that: “Peter denied Jesus three times.” Ok, well, Jesus said it would happen. No! That hit hard! To give validation for what they went through was also part of where I was going with this ballet.
Kaya: It’s interesting that you mention Peter because I was already thinking of Peter when you were talking about anger on Good Friday. When Jesus is arrested, Peter wants to react with violence. There’s a huge range in the feelings expressed in the Gospel narrative, so it’s cool that the stylized movement of the ballet is exploring that range and depth of emotion.
You started to allude to this earlier, but in 2021, how did you experience Holy Week differently as a result of producing this ballet?
Melody: This ballet got me through a lot of stuff around Easter time in 2021. The week of tech week I got terrible news, and I felt blindsided by it.
When you’re in tech week you’ve got so many things going on, and being the person in charge of everything, I’m the one who has to do the things! So I’m like, I can’t fall apart right now, so I went into doing this show just like, God, you have to be in control.
My brain was in such a weird place to try to process and get through all of the things that have to happen to put on a show. Then one of our dancers got sick and couldn’t dance, so I ended up dancing in the ballet!. I had to hop into two pieces, so I’m learning choreography, trying to make sure I have a costume, on top of these things.
Those couple big things that happened that were not positive things really made it feel Saturday-ish. As we were going into performing and after we finished, during Holy Week and a couple weeks after, my mind and my heart had this very tangible picture of trusting God that Sunday is coming. That’s something that as a Christian I struggle with so much: God, could you appear as a human so I could shake your hand? I see God in all these things, but I don’t literally see God! So to have something that felt tangible, watching some of the pieces or even doing the movements myself, it felt like such a powerful way to connect to God, getting to that place where I know that the Scripture says that Jesus rose, and therefore that means all these other things are true, and it was a helpful way to cling onto that and gain a different level of thankfulness.
Kaya: Thanks for sharing that. It highlights some of the threads that have already emerged in this conversation, and it’s a testimony to the power of the work you’re doing in producing this kind of ballet that you feel the work that it does–and you’ve experienced that audiences feel that too. Hopefully there will be an audience who can experience that this year!
Walk This Road was well-received in 2021, and you’re dreaming of staging it again this year. After a year of new experiences and time to reflect, is there any part of the work that you intend to revisit? How will you approach the process of staging it again?
Melody: The first time around was getting it onto the stage, creating the choreography and developing the flow of it. This time, because we’re coming at it with a lot of the dancers having already done the ballet before, it won’t have to be as much about learning the choreography as it will be about finding those nuances that we didn’t necessarily have time for the first time.
I struggle with revising choreography. Some people will set something and then make all these little tweaks to it as it goes along, but usually once I set something I’m like, no, I’m good, I like that. I’ll be trying to challenge myself to look at it with fresh eyes and say, are these movements all there is to say, or is there something that can be slightly adjusted? Giving myself that challenge to dig a little bit deeper.
Kaya: I like how that idea of process relates to this thing we’ve been saying all along: every day something comes. It might be good or bad, you might not understand how it connects, and you definitely don’t know exactly what’s coming. But every day you’re going to walk into the studio with the dancers, and you’re going to work on this choreography, and you’re going to see what God moves you to go deeper with, and God’s going to be walking with us the whole process!
Kaya: Is there anything else that you would want potential audiences and partners for this show to know about Walk This Road?
Melody: The title of the ballet is significant because it comes from the song Via Dolorosa. I was going through and I was like, what do you call a ballet about Holy Week? “Jesus Died for You?” No.
There’s a line in that song: “And he chose to walk this road out of his love for you, for me, down the via dolorosa on the way to Calvary.” For me that wrapped up the story of this ballet: God chose to do this for us. Jesus could’ve said, “Peace out, friends, I’m not going to do that.” But he didn’t; he had this capacity to love that we don’t understand, and made that choice for us. We also have that choice to walk with him along that road, or just try to walk our own road, which doesn’t necessarily work so great. I loved that there was a two-sidedness to it: we are currently walking a road, and God is being like, hey, come walk this road that I have planned for you.
Kaya: That’s beautiful. Thanks so much for talking with me. I’m excited to get all this out there and get everyone else excited about bringing Walk This Road back in 2022!
Melody Stanert is the Executive and Artistic Director of Glorify Performing Arts. If you haven’t already, get to know her more by reading her bio.
If your church is interested in hosting a performance of Walk This Road for Easter 2022, please contact us!
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