The Word in the Wings
From the studio: Stephanie Morales on choreographing "Renovare"
By: KAYA PRASAD
For several weeks this spring, a group of GPA dancers have worked with guest choreographer Stephanie Morales on a piece set to portions of Spring from the album Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, the Four Seasons (2014). The piece explores ideas associated with the season of spring as well as seasons of renewal and refreshment in faith. Read on to learn more about Steph’s inspiration for the piece.
Kaya: Thank you so much, Steph, for talking to me about your piece. I’ve loved watching you put it together with the Glorify dancers and seeing how you bring something different out of them than what I see with Melody’s choreography. It’s always amazing, and it’s fun to have a new angle from a different choreographer!
Can you start by telling me the official title of the piece you’ve been working on?
Steph: The official title is Renovare, which is Latin for “renew.”
Kaya: And is there a verse or passage of Scripture that you associate with your inspiration for this piece?
Steph: Yes! It’s 2 Corinthians 5:17, which is, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has passed and the new has come.”
Kaya: That’s a good one to encapsulate the symbolism of springtime. It’s fitting that you’ve set this piece to be performed at the end of April, just as the world emerges from winter. From what you’ve shared in rehearsals, I gather that this seasonal transformation is a metaphor for some of your personal experience with God that inspired you to create this piece for this time. Would you share some of that background?
Steph: Definitely. Last year, I went through a season of dark depression and frustration and anger with the Lord. Covid happened, then I had knee surgery and this long, terrible process, and instead of running to the Lord I stepped away. Not that I didn’t believe that he was real, but it was a lot of questioning: “Why am I going through this? Do you still love me?”
I think we all have those moments where we think, “If you still loved me, you wouldn’t put me through this”–which is not true! He loves us so much that he allows us to go through trials. But in that moment it felt really overwhelming, and it got to a point where I did not want to continue living, honestly. But the Lord renewed my love for him in such a beautiful and miraculous way that reignited my fire for his love for not only me but the people and the dancers around me.
So this whole piece is based off of that experience of going through that depression and what I felt in that new season of renewal and refresh and this joy that I hadn’t felt in such a long time.
Kaya: As you tell this story, you describe not the beginning of beginnings but a re-newal. It’s not that your Christian faith is totally new in this season; it’s new again, which ties in with the idea that spring is a season in a cycle.
Steph: I don’t know where I got this idea that the Christian walk went through phases, so if you went back to a phase then you were failing in your Christian walk. The Lord one day spoke to me and said, “This is a cycle. It’s not a phase, like A-B-C, but it’s a continual relationship.” And that’s what a relationship is: a continual change and cycle. Sometimes you do come back to that season of feeling refreshed. Sometimes you do go through that season where it feels like a desert. It’s continuous, but his love stays the same in all of that.
Kaya: It’s so important to have that reminder when we inevitably experience darkness like winter, we hope and trust that God will bring new life again. We’ve seen it before and it will happen again.
Moving on to talk more specifically about the dance: I’ve heard you give some interesting descriptors as you direct the dancers to refine their movement. “Sprightly!” comes up frequently, and you’ve said the duet section with Audrey and Amber should be “like a run-on script instead of block letters.” Can you share more about these movement qualities you’re drawing out in this piece and how they express the springtime season of faith?
Steph: “Sprightly” is one of my favorite words to use for dance, and I think “sprightly” feels like little bees. You’re here, going to the next and the next–like finding a different flower and jumping to the next one–not necessarily a hop like a frog, but a flutter to the next. When I hear that word, because it’s not so commonly used, it sparks a different kind of joy, whereas when you say “joy” I think we all think of one specific movement quality. But sprightly–what does sprightly look like? It gives you a different thought process. For me “sprightly” means really bubbly, really energized and excitable. In the first piece I really want to see that excitement of being in this renewed season and that refresh.
Kaya: You’re creating that feeling of refreshment that happens in the spring season of faith even by giving a refreshing vocabulary word to describe the movement!
Steph: Then with the duet using “cursive,” cursive has always felt so romantic to me with the continuation of letters, especially since it’s such a lost art. When I receive a letter in cursive, it feels like an extra effort was put into making it special. The beauty of cursive is that it continues, and even the last letter still continues upward. Whereas block letters feel more rigid and have an end point, even at the end of a cursive word it’s not really the end. I love that type of movement quality, where the step ends but the movement doesn’t.
Kaya: What do you hope the audience will notice about the movement you’ve choreographed, about the way the dancers perform the movement, or about the feelings and ideas you’ve poured into this piece?
Steph: I do hope that there’s a sense of refreshment, whether that be a release of oxygen or just an, “Oh wow”–and not, “Oh wow, this piece is amazing,” but “Oh wow, there is refreshment.”
I always want the audience to leave with however they felt watching it. I don’t want to prescribe, “leave with this feeling,” because dance is its own story, and if you sit and watch it, you will get what you need to. The Lord will speak to you through it however he needs to, whether that is a refreshment, whether that is a thought of, “Where is my walk with the Lord right now? What season am I in?” Or if it’s a reminder, if you are in a season of darkness, that spring will come. Sorrow may last for the night; his joy comes in the morning. I think that’s what I would hope the audience gets out of it: it’s okay to be in whatever season you may be in; just know that the Lord is constant through it and you’ll get to that spring.
Kaya: That’s a beautiful message.
I also want to highlight a point you made, which is that you want the audience to feel what they feel and receive the dance on its own terms. That fits with where we started the conversation. A dance about spring isn’t saying that winter is the wrong place to be, or that there’s a right way to feel when you’ve been following Jesus for a certain amount of time.
Similarly, sometimes audience members might walk away from a dance performance thinking they didn’t understand because they assume there’s a correct interpretation. Maybe they’re not a dancer, so they don’t think they have the expertise to interpret it; but it’s an embodied art form, so anyone who lives life in a body can be encouraged that they already have a lens to interpret dance, and there’s not necessarily a singular right or wrong.
At the same time, you’ve created a piece with a specific theme and you do hope that this refreshing springtime will be part of what people feel from it. Having seen it a few times myself, I believe your choreography is successful at communicating that idea in its specificity.
Steph: Structurally, if you look at the piece through the lens of a ballet class, it starts with preparation, goes through first position port de bras, progresses into adagio with the duet, and then progresses into petit allegro and grand allegro. Through that lens, within the piece there are seasons that you’re going through that mirror parts of a ballet class. If you’re an audience member struggling to figure out what to look for, maybe just think of a ballet class, and within that you’d find a beginning, middle and end.
Kaya: Yes, there’s that way-in for audience members who’ve taken a ballet class. There’s also the Vivaldi Spring music that might be familiar to people with a little exposure to classical music, so hopefully that will be recognizable and a way-in to the theme of spring and associated ideas.
Kaya: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your identity or process as a Christian artist?
Steph: It’s important as a Christian, female artist to stay true to your walk with the Lord and let that guide and influence your movement inspiration or your choreographic process. For any future choreographers out there: as dancers and as humans, we get so wrapped up into what’s trending, what’s cool, what’s relevant, that we can forget the importance of Christ in our movement.
That doesn’t have to always mean a worship song with dance to it. The Lord hears our praise and receives it in all that we do. It’s important to be okay with creating something a little bit more abstract and putting it in his hands, and actually trusting him to use it rather than saying, “I have to have this message, I have to do it this way.” There’s an element of beauty and surrender when you can say, “I think, Lord, this is my motivation for a piece. Use it and speak through it.”
I’ve been learning that approach as a Christian, female choreographer. There’s so much beauty in the worshipful, very clear, intentional pieces, and I love those, and the Lord definitely speaks to me with those, but it doesn’t always have to look a certain way; he can mold and use whatever because he is God. If we remember that, his message is so much more powerful that way.
Kaya: Makoto Fujimura says that God is the “big-A Artist,” and we’re invited to co-create with God. It sounds like, in your process of putting what you create in God’s hands in terms of how it will speak to an audience, not putting all of that on yourself, you’re acknowledging that God is the foremost artist in this process and that you’re partnering with God–which is a huge thing to say yes to! At the same time, you do it with humility.
Steph: I try! And I won’t say that it’s easy, because I am one to get wrapped up in, “Will this look cool?” And then there’s the comparison game: “This choreographer thought of this; why can’t I think of that with this music?” But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter; the Lord will speak how he’s gonna speak, and it could just be a simple hand up to the sun, and that will be something to someone!
If I approach my choreography as that, then it’s relieving in a way. I’m ultimately not fully responsible; I’m responsible for delivery of God’s message, but in terms of bringing people to Christ, he will use your movement, your words, your actions, however he chooses. So it’s okay that it’s not always a word-for-word, biblical way of saying something.
Even the simple, “Hey, how’s your day going?” is a beautiful reminder: God does care! That just happened to me yesterday. I was having a rough night at rehearsal, and my boyfriend’s mom randomly texted me in the middle of a hard conversation I was having with someone and just said, “Hey, I love you. Just remember that.” That, to me, was like, “Okay, Lord, you knew I needed that reminder right now that I am still loved even in this difficult conversation.” That wasn’t necessarily a straight biblical message like “Psalm 1 says such-and-such,” but it was a sweet reminder, so I think we can allow sweet reminders to happen through whatever we do in life.
Kaya: That reminds me of a verse–in 1 Corinthians 3:6 Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” You’re doing work to partner with God in choreographing or dancing, and whoever sent you those words is doing work, but God is in and through it all and making those connections. You can say that bold “yes” to be part of the work because you trust that God is active in all of it, that God is the “big-A Artist,” bringing it all together for good and for God’s glory.
Steph: It should be fun!
Stephanie Morales is the Artistic Director of Cavod Ballet Theatre, part of Cavod Academy. You can read more about her and the school on their website.
Renovare will be performed on April 28, 2022 as part of Created in His Image: An Interactive Arts Event. Get your tickets today!
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