The Word in the Wings
Rooted with purpose: an interview with Melody Stanert (Part II)
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.
To kick off this series, I interviewed Artistic and Executive Director Melody Stanert about her sense of purpose that drove her to found GPA and motivates her to create dance productions that inspire Christians in their faith. In Part I of our conversation, we discussed the power of relational storytelling and the difference between valuing and idolizing the body as dance artists. In Part II, Melody shares stories that reflect her heart behind creating honest portrayals of the life of faith.
Kaya: As you reflect on your journey, before and after you founded the company, have you found that GPA’s work speaks to any longings or cries of your heart–maybe even in ways you hadn’t expected when you first pictured it?
Melody: I cannot remember a time in my life where there wasn’t some desire in my heart to be famous. When God first dumped this picture for this company in my head, I sat there thinking, “This is great! I need to become famous first, and then I’ll start this company.”
As I was praying about different ways of getting things started–I literally knew nothing about starting a business, so I was starting from scratch–I went through different thoughts: Do I want to perform more? Do I want a Master’s degree? What will make me good enough to start this company? In the end, I kept my training going, I did more research, and I definitely continued learning, but I never did any great thing to flash on my resume or on our website. I think God has done that to keep my humility in check so that this company is clearly God’s and not mine.
What I hadn’t expected was the very full feeling that I’ll get in the studio working with dancers. We’ve had multiple people come on board to dance with us even though I never danced with American Ballet Theater; I never toured with some company, yet the dancers see what the mission of this company is and they join because their hearts resonate with the mission, not because of the incredible director they get to work with.
I struggled with that for awhile, and it’s something my heart still struggles with: I’m not famous, so why would people want to help with this company? But that cry of my heart, that feeling of wanting to be known–it’s special when we’re in the studio working on a dance, and the dancers have to trust me and I have to trust them. It wouldn’t matter if I had worked with Baryshnikov; the rapport that we have in the studio comes from being with one another, and working together.
Creating these moments of art together has felt more fulfilling than being famous would have ever done, so it’s cool how God continues to draw in people from all different places and backgrounds to be part of the company, and their heart is to dance for God, which is the ultimate goal of this company. It’s been really neat to see God’s faithfulness throughout it all. I’m weak, therefore it’s God showing up in his strength. That’s not something I expected when I was picturing this company. I had this strong feeling of, “All these other people who started Christian ballet companies were professional performers, and I’m not, so how do I fill that gap?” and God said, “I’m going to fill that gap, Melody.”
Kaya: I love how you said that at the core of wanting to be famous is wanting to be known, and you actually receive that in an even more fulfilling way by building those relationships through working with the members of your company. That connects back to our earlier conversation about storytelling, how it’s all about making personal connections and understanding people and our interrelatedness. That’s playing out in the studio; as you’re putting together a story, you’re also living those relationships.
What are some of the ways you’ve witnessed God’s transformative and life-giving power through the work of GPA?
Melody: I’ll bring back Walk This Road! I had plans for an annual Christmas ballet, never an annual Holy Week ballet, but Holy Week is so central to Christianity. It’s been really cool to talk to people after the show, or even just watch them during the show as I’m walking through the auditorium and see how people are connecting to what they see on stage. Talking to them afterwards, there have been so many people who have said something about how watching this ballet gave them tangible images to hold onto as they’re stepping into Holy Week.
We can read the Bible’s words, and words are powerful, but different people process differently, so by highlighting visual and even emotional aspects, we’re able to take the powerful message in the Scripture and put feelings to it, make it go from something you’re reading and thinking about to something you’re seeing and thinking about. We don’t literally go through the story; we just take the feeling of it to put on stage. People’s comments have been related to things happening in their own lives, or they’ve said, “I read through the Scripture and the feelings feel so much more real.”
When I talk about why I made Come Alive, the ballet we did this spring, I always share about how I’ve seen several people who had grown up in Christian homes and had a relationship with God, but then things happened and then they walked away, and that broke my heart. So I thought, “How do I use the arts to help Christians have a stronger relationship with God?” I want to help people feel grounded, like they’re standing on the rock. We go to church, hear sermons, listen to worship music…but for some people that’s not enough to keep them in a relationship with God when things go south. So what are other ways that we can take the Bible and make it real?
I don’t personally enjoy reading the Bible. I do it because I want to grow closer to God, but half the time I just end up frustrated with more questions than I started with–and I know that’s good, that I’m grappling with my faith and I’m going to grow because of it–but I do look for other ways to engage with it and ask, “How are we making the Bible tangible?” So Walk This Road does that, taking the feeling of, “God, I thought you were going to become the actual king, and you just got taken by the soldiers. What??” That kind of feeling–that’s not exactly what we’re dealing with in the 21st century, but we have other feelings that connect to that. How can we move through it? How can we say it’s okay to question, to wonder, to talk about things and not just say, “Jesus is so wonderful and I love him!” Yes that’s true, but relationships are more complex than that. I want to offer that through the shows we do, having those conversations with people who say, “That was beautiful,” but also, “This is something I have to now hold onto in my mind and in my heart, something my brain probably already knew, but now it feels more three-dimensional.”
Kaya: I found Walk This Road and Come Alive particularly powerful for that very reason: the ways that Walk This Road brought the Scripture to life and made it three-dimensional–and I would even say four-dimensional because of the way you incorporated modern music and helped bring it into our time. Then with Come Alive, the story resonates with a lot of memories I have of college, so in a way it was also bringing my memories back to life and giving those memories three dimensions in a similar way to what you’re doing with Scripture in other instances. I think that’s powerful because, when it comes to my own spiritual experiences, it’s easy to look back later at times of spiritual fervor and think, “Was that real, or did I imagine that? Maybe I just fabricated those feelings.” But I loved watching Come Alive because it reminded me of a lot of very real experiences I had and made me feel the exigency of them again.
Melody: That’s something else that’s interesting about art: everyone’s approaching it from their own viewpoint. I created it from my background, but you’re watching it from your background, and other audience members are seeing it from their life, putting into it faces of people they might know and memories of their own lives, so it has the ability to take on many different forms. It’s one story, but everyone connects with it in their own, unique way.
Kaya: You’ve shared some stories about ways that you’ve already seen God at work, but sometimes the work of God’s kingdom is much slower than what we see bear fruit in just five or six years; what are some other ways you hope God is using GPA to make a difference over the long term?
Melody: I would tie it back to what I said about seeing people who grew up in Christian homes professing belief in God and then choosing to walk away. That breaks my heart so much, so my long-term hope for this company is that people who come to see things connect with what they’re seeing in such a way that, when they’re in a situation where they don’t know what they believe about God, they feel empowered to hold tight to the Lord.
I don’t mean that they’re going to be in a situation and then, poof! A picture of our ballet comes into their mind! That would be great, but it’s my hope that people come to see shows, experience the performances, and talk with our company artists and that their experiences have a long-term impact, that their faith is more rooted because they’ve come to see something we’ve made. Whether it’s an intentional root that they made, or whether it’s a root that grows because of the work God is doing in their heart, I hope that we’re able to help people in their walk of faith through what we do. That’s the most I could ask! I have so many ideas for what I want this company to be able to do to help achieve that, but that’s the ultimate goal.
When we as Christians are honest about our faith, it’s more appealing to people who aren’t believers. But so often we’re just acting like everything’s great. Someone who’s not a Christian might want that perfect life, but then when imperfect things happen, what do you do with that? So I think about how we can be more open about when we’re struggling to believe or what things we find difficult, or even how God has walked us through difficult situations when we’re at the other end of it, and how we can show God’s faithfulness through it all.
I still have so many questions; I don’t know how I’m going to get to heaven if I’ve spent 35 years asking questions! I am going to question and I do want to keep looking, but how do we help people find that faith to seek? That’s the main thing: I hope God is using this company to empower Christians in their walk of faith. I know it’s our mission statement, but it’s our mission statement for a reason!
When we have that ability to hold onto faith through thick and thin, that’s what’s different, and that’s what other people want. We’ll live that way as Christians in this company, and as people come to watch our work, I want our company members to feel empowered when they’re talking with other people who might not know the Lord that what Christians have in their heart is worth it. It is something that people who are seeking can find. It’s not going to look perfect, but it sure is going to make a difference.
Kaya: We’ve been talking about how dance can bring Scripture and memories to life, making them more tangible; it’s powerful how the stories you tell will take the tangible realities of doubt and struggle and darkness and will hold them together with an equally tangible expression of redemption, goodness, life, and hope. I can see that being a way that these ballets are encouraging. When a performance resonates with someone who may see and think, “That’s true, I’ve experienced doubt and darkness like I see in this piece,” and then the story goes on and shows redemption, if they say, “That looks just as real as the things I’ve experienced myself,” maybe it sparks a hope that they can experience that hope and restoration as well.
Thanks for talking with me about your sense of purpose for GPA. I’m excited to share it with our audience and continue exploring these ideas about some of the needs and longings of our world and how faith-filled dance can take root in those spaces.
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