The Word in the Wings
Peace's resolve: a discussion of choreography from Alive in Us
By: KAYA PRASAD
This summer, The Word in the Wings will feature stories of how the work of Glorify Performing Arts addresses problems with the ways our culture often views the human body. In the 21st-century US, even at times within the church, it is common to discount, abuse, or idolize the body. But in GPA’s work of creating professional, empowering, Spirit-inspired dance productions, we aim to value the body’s God-given capacities for meaning-making and beauty. We aim to protect the body from exploitation by the art and industry of dance, and we orient the body’s efforts toward the glory of God.
This week, let’s pause to examine a sample of movement engaging with the theological idea of peace. A snippet from Melody’s choreography in Alive In Us exemplifies how embodied ideas in space and time can communicate complex ideas in a unique, palpable way that resonates with common embodied experience.
Last week I shared my conversation with Megan Staub, a member of GPA’s Board of Directors. When I asked about her experiences of being moved by seeing dance performance, she shared about watching Alive In Us:
One of Glorify Dance Theatre’s first ballets was based on the fruit of the Spirit, which takes abstract character traits and moves them into the realm of physical and emotional experience that people can connect with through imagination…The one about peace was especially moving. From what I remember, it showed the contrast between the chaos of the world and the inner peace we can find in Jesus–that we can find peace in the midst of conflict and challenges. It is not the worldly definition of an absence of unpleasant things; it’s not simply sitting by the ocean with no troubles at all, but it is finding the source of peace to guide you and quiet your heart no matter what might be happening around you.
The piece opens with the stage in near-darkness with four dancers walking backwards. They can’t see where they’re going–a situation that could be disquieting.
But soon a motif of transformation is introduced. Each of the corps dancers is kneeling when the soloist enters; then the soloist approaches each corps dancer in turn and swirls her wrist over their heads. Each corps dancer responds by rising.
In light of Megan’s interpretation, I find this development striking. The transformation toward peace is not a settling of chaos into stillness; rather, this dance represents peace as steady resolve. Once the corps dancers have risen to their feet, they engage in a few different even-tempo phrases, matching an even bass line in the music. The steady rhythm and standing posture suggest that peace is simultaneously calming and empowering.
The motif of change from kneeling to standing repeats a few more times throughout the piece. In its last iteration the motif is accentuated as the dancers each kneel and stand in turn while arrayed in a straight line facing the audience. In this moment, no additional movement elements distract from the resolve to rise again after each pitfall.
Another moment in the middle of the piece highlights the tension Megan observes between “the chaos of the world and the inner peace we can find in Jesus.” The corps dancers occupy the upstage space and are jumping on the beat. In contrast, the soloist moves through the downstage space with smooth sweeps of her arms and legs, ranging from the floor to above her head. The energy of whatever is happening behind her–whether it’s read as excited or frenetic–doesn’t disturb her calm, but in fact creates an interesting counterpoint.
Excerpt from Alive in Us. Choreography: Peace by Melody Stanert. Music: Forgiven by Bethel Music.
As I commented to Megan in our conversation, I see this ability to hold contrasting ideas in tension as a distinctive capacity of dance for meaning-making. Artists of many media make use of juxtaposition to hold contrasting ideas together, so the unique contribution of dance is to set the juxtaposed ideas to movements of the human body. As I relate the movements in this counterpoint sequence to my own embodied experience, I recognize the relative control required for the kind of slow movement the soloist performs.
We could compare this to running versus walking slowly. In running, each footfall leads directly into the next. You throw yourself into the air, but you’re ready to catch yourself on one foot and immediately jump into the next step. But if you try to walk as slowly as you possibly can, you have to spend a lot more time balancing on one leg than when you’re running. Slowing down requires attentiveness and muscle engagement; it requires discipline to not slip into a typical walking pace where you immediately catch yourself on the foot you just lifted off the floor.
To return to the counterpoint sequence in the dance: in order to not be swept up in the pace of the music and the jumpers, the soloist commits wholeheartedly to her slower, sustained movements. She doesn’t distance herself completely from the development of ideas throughout the dance; she interacts with the other dancers and their contrasting movements, but she does so with confidence that she doesn’t need to conform to the patterns around her. These juxtaposed movement ideas illustrate peace as an intricate, complex, dynamic system. There is development and growth, but it is persistent rather than harried.
This concept of peace is reflected in Scripture as well. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians,
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NRSV)
Paul doesn’t instruct his readers to forget about their needs and desires but to entrust them to God and thereby do away with anxiety over them. The peace of God–the assurance that all things will work together for good–passes understanding, following a logic we can’t quite grasp in our minds or our bodies. But this dance at least allows us to engage with that tension for a moment, to see it from a different perspective, and to feel that such peace is real.
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