The Word in the Wings
How dance does theology: in every present time
By: KAYA PRASAD
Glorify Performing Arts exists to create productions that help artists and audiences grow in relationship with God. Just how does dance accomplish this?
In his foreword to W. David O. Taylor’s book Glimpses of the New Creation, Jeremey Begbie says that any given art medium possesses “singular powers,” or “distinctive capacities” of that medium to generate meaning (ix). “Music,” he says in his own book Resounding Truth, “does its own kind of work in its own kinds of ways” (277). The same can be said of every art medium. This article and others in this series will explore the distinctive capacities of dance that allow it to do its work as an artistic medium. In particular, these pieces consider what features of dance can readily be “drawn into the purposes of God” (Begbie, 277), making dance useful for theological meaning-making and the life of faith.
The first two articles in this series have explained how dance generates meaning by intentionally introducing changes in familiar movements and shapes as well as how timing in dance expresses the interconnectedness among human, earth and breath. This article continues to explore timing, noting how a performance medium like dance requires continuity of expression and possesses a physical logic that is distinct from the logic of verbal means of communication.
Like other performance media like theater and music, a work of dance must be experienced over time–not all at once like a painting, and not line by line like a poem, but as a continuous development from one movement through a transition into the next. Since the instrument of dance is the human body, which exists continuously throughout the time of the performance, dance requires intentional expression of the intermediate development between main ideas.
Humans are accustomed to communicating with language. Since words are discrete meaningful units, each word in this sentence means something on its own. The way they’re combined in the sentence generates a thought composed of the combined meanings of all the individual words. This works in part because words are symbolic signs, assuming conventional understanding. For example, most native speakers of English would probably agree that “earth” refers to the planet we live on, the ground under our feet, or the dirt that composes that ground.
But there is no movement in dance that refers unambiguously to “earth,” or any other word. Rather, movements in dance have associations based on what is familiar to a given viewer. Some movements communicate in a pictographic way, recreating an action that occurs in daily life and has social meaning. But many movements in dance communicate by resonance rather than representation. Whereas hearing the word “earth” evokes a small set of related images, seeing a dancer stomp their foot on the ground may bring up any number of physical, narrative, or emotional associations; it is not necessarily a gesture toward the ground under the dancer’s foot.
This doesn’t mean that movement can’t communicate meaning; on the contrary, anyone living in a body, of whatever age, shape, size or ability, has a unique capacity to interpret embodied movement through the lens of their own embodied experience. An audience member sees a dance movement and compares it to their own experience, generating a movement metaphor. Movement metaphors, which are the vocabulary of dance, may allude to many things at once (Morgenroth 197), and the field of possible associations likely doesn’t overlap exactly with the semantic field of a particular word in spoken language.
So rather than try to communicate through a series of discrete meaningful shapes, dance communicates through the development from one shape to another. This is inevitable since dance is an embodied medium; a person can’t go from slouching to sitting up straight without transitional movement in real life, and neither can a dancer go from curved spine to straight without passing through an infinite series of intermediate shapes. Embodied movement is necessarily continuous.
When dancing emotion by portraying its physical manifestation, intentional expression of this intermediary movement can make the dance more believable because this is how bodies show emotion in real life (Humphrey 113). To return to some earlier-cited words of Bill T. Jones, compelling choreography feels “like breathing” because it “flows” with a different logic than that which is “too much out of the mind” (Morgenroth 145). Movement based purely on intellectual logic feels too contrived because it’s not attuned to its instrument, the human body which exists in space continuously through time. Intellectual logic operates like language, taking several discrete thoughts and interpreting the connections among them. But breath can’t skip from one inhale to the next without an exhale in between, so it provides an apt paradigm for the logic of other embodied movements. Physical logic of movement in dance differs from intellectual logic because it flows continuously.
Choreographer John Jasperse agrees, “I often find that a coherence emerges that is not guided solely by the intellect” (Morgenroth 191). Jasperse’s observation also introduces a subtly new idea to Jones’s assessment: the necessity of continuity does not limit the sophistication of physical expression, but rather physical logic offers a new way of thinking by allowing more of the body, not just the mind, to engage in the process of meaning-making. When intellectual logic takes us as far as it can with its minute leaps among disparate words and ideas, we can turn to physical logic to look at another dimension of the same idea or question–a time-bounded dimension that must emerge through continuous development, a series of transformations in the ever-changing present.
“Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.”
(Ecclesiastes 1:2, Robert Alter)
Occurring throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, the image of breath, or vapor, as a metaphor for everything suggests that much of what humans experience in their lives is “insubstantial and transient” (Alter 679). Vapor is a substance that a person might be able to see or feel in the air, but they cannot grasp it before it dissipates. The image itself appears paradoxical–an insubstantial substance–and it represents the apparent enigmas and paradoxes of life. According to “Qohelet,” sometimes called “the teacher,” of Ecclesiastes, life does not progress according to a simple moral logic where good actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished, although this makes sense as an intellectual theory. Instead, everyone is subject to the passing of time, to chance, and to death (Mackie & Collins). In Ecclesiastes 3 the teacher expounds,
1 For everything, a season,
and a time for every delight under heaven.
2 A time to give birth and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot what was planted.
Life is an alternating pattern of birth and death, growth and decay. Humans must deal with a variety of circumstances in whatever time God deems appropriate. Whereas an intellectual logic of morality might suggest that life consists of a series of choices between right and wrong, experience shows that life and death, growth and decay are alternately “thrust upon us” regardless of a person’s moral stature. The choice in any of these moments is not between doing right and doing wrong, but instead whether to resist or accept the things that simply happen (Davis 184).
This suggests that we need another kind of logic by which to engage the human experience–not just the intellectual, moral logic of doing good to earn good returns, but a wisdom that helps us make sense of how one circumstance connects to the next in the ebb and flow of life.
The teacher goes on,
9 What gain for the doer in what he labors for?
10 I have seen the occupation which God gave to the sons of humanity to be occupied with it.
11 He has made everything beautiful in its time;
eternity too he has put in their heart,
without humanity finding the task which God has done from start to finish.
While humans labor daily for goals which may endure for mere hours, days, or possibly centuries, God works to sustain creation in a way that gives everything a season to flourish. Humans wrestle to establish our place on the timeline from forever-past to forever-future, but we can’t quite grasp the eternal scope of God’s own work.
12 I have learned that there is no good in their lives
except to celebrate and do good with them.
13 But even every human who eats and drinks and sees good in all their labor–
this is a gift from God.
According to the teacher of Ecclesiastes, good in human life does not consist in looking to the future to shape it according to our ambitions, but only in appreciating what is at hand. The same God who works in eternity gives humanity the gift of the present: whatever food, drink, and work we have now to experience and enjoy. Ellen Davis points out the irony in the teacher’s conclusion: “the pattern that God is working in time is perceptible only to the mind that can stand, at least for a moment, outside time–that is, stand wholly in the ‘now’” (185). It is important to experience the gifts of God as each one comes, not clinging to the past or grasping after the future. We can begin to understand how God works a pattern into eternity through time if we cease striving to make our own labors last and experience the present.
The time-bound medium of dance is one way in which we can consciously engage ourselves wholly in the present. Much as Qohelet observes that life moves continuously from birth to death, from planting to uprooting, dance moves the body continuously from one shape to another. The physical logic of dance–its inescapable continuity–acknowledges the continuity of our time-bound existence as humans, and it invites us to consider how the God who transcends time still engages us in relationship within time.
The story of God’s covenant with humanity as told in Scripture is the story of humans living through time and God relating to humans in time. In the beginning humanity falls away from God in the garden, but redemption begins in that same garden. Davis comments that “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are for Christians the assurance that God’s work in time is at the last brought to perfection in Christ. The changeless God entered fully into time and its vicissitudes. Through time, time is even now being conquered and redeemed for God” (186).
Even now God’s kingdom, though inaugurated by Jesus, is not so fully realized as to eradicate the presence of sin. God continues to work in time, in our time, bringing birth and death, planting and uprooting, to develop relationships with us who are living now. So while we remember God’s past covenant with Israel and while we hope for Christ’s future kingdom, we can also dance as a practice of receiving God’s gift of the present, to explore and experience God’s goodness in each moment as it comes and goes.
Biblical quotations are my own translation except where otherwise noted.
“Qohelet,” in The Hebrew Bible Volume 3: The Writings by Robert Alter (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).
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