When the Spirit Moves: Choreographers Who Draw Inspiration From Prayer

July 26, 2007

“Every great religion…has used dancing as the finest medium of expressing prayer…the surest means to attain union with deity.” -Ted Shawn, 1948

When members of Evidence Dance Company gave a lecture demonstration in North Carolina, the home state of artistic director Ronald K. Brown, an audience member asked a question about the choreography’s religious quality. “After I answered, my grandfather, who was in the audience said, ‘That’s right. Keep God first!’ And,” Brown says laughing, “my dancers were like, ‘Oh, OK, so that’s where you get it!’ ”


Brown says all of his work is “about trying to get to God.” His fascination may have been launched way back when he first attended his aunt and uncle’s Pentecostal Church as a child, but it has expanded to include the religious practices and dances of many cultures. And recent world events have changed his interest into a compulsion. “Before the Iraq war I was thinking about opening a health food store,” he says. “But now I feel called to affect people in a deeper way.”


A belief that dance has the power to be world-healing-or at least compassion-awakening-seems to be a common trait among choreographers like Brown who create works that deal with divinity. Their creative process may or may not include personal prayer and meditation, but their works are often active prayers that are intended to affect change.


“What is prayer? I’m not sure I know,” says Liz Lerman, founding artistic director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, Maryland, who explores questions about God from a Jewish point of view. “But our new piece called Radical Prayer looks at radical action as a form of prayer-at how you create change. I used to think it was through political activism, but now feel I can accomplish more with my art.”


Perhaps dance dissolves barriers between people because it viscerally expresses the human condition and transcends religious differences. Choreographers who explore God in their work may come from specific faith backgrounds, but most say they create works that speak more broadly. Sandra Rivera, a former member of Ballet Hispanico who now performs her own work, often in religious settings, says this is one reason she finds flamenco suited for expressing religious ideas. “It comes from many cultures-European, Sephardic, and Muslim through the Moors,” she says. “I remember performing just after 9/11. I felt all those cultures living in me and coming out to speak, to all cry together.”


Brown’s early days in church are a part of what feed his creativity. But when he began creating Walking Out the Dark (2002), which follows four dancers on a journey from self-doubting isolation, through wrestling with those doubts, to finding the love that allows for community, he found inspiration in other religious places. His visit to a convent in Portugal inspired the dance’s sense of isolation and contemplation. At a funeral ceremony on the Ivory Coast, Brown walked for miles with mourners to a gravesite. As they traveled together, each grieved in his or her own way, some shouting, some crying, some silent. The experience led Brown to give his dancers isolated, very personal phrases while sharing a collective journey.


Ranee Ramaswamy, founder and artistic director of Ragamala, a Minneapolis-based dance company, creates works based in the classical Indian dance form bharatanatyam, which was originally part of Hindu temple rituals. Traditional bharatanatyam uses codified gestures to tell stories, often of gods or goddesses. The form arose thousands of years ago from a single faith, but the message, says Ramaswamy, is much broader. “The dances are very specific, very word-based,” she says. “But the stories they tell are the same ones you hear every day on Oprah.” To illustrate this point, she once set a bharatanatyam-style piece about a jilted lover to a blues song that expressed the same feelings.


Traditional bharatanatyam prayer pieces are solos that focus on the hands and face. “They are emotionally heavy and very difficult to do because the expressions must be just so,” says Ramaswamy. “They are very specific and set, but each dancer must find a way to interpret the stories poetically and believably.”


Kevin Iega Jeff, artistic director of Chicago’s Deeply Rooted Productions, says that dancers these days tend to focus on being physical and technical. “Their depth of physicality is a wonderful thing,” he says, “but there’s not a lot of subtlety, breath, or stillness. For that, they have to get to a place where they can feel. As technique advances, humanity decreases.”


Jeff says movement with a spiritual meaning comes “from the pelvis, the core. It reverberates from there. It generates from the inside and moves out.” He also believes that spiritual connection is created when the dancer has an awareness of the chakra, or point of metaphysical energy, that lies between the eyes. “I can tell when a dancer is moving with that sense,”‘ he says. “There’s a deep, concentrated focus.”


Brown says his dancers must be “physically generous and interested in sharing their whole selves. They can’t want to protect their souls.” When performing Walking Out the Dark, Brown sometimes experiences intense emotions. “There’s a part where I’m playing a brother saying to his sister, ‘I can’t come to you because I’ve got nothing, nothing to give.’ Sometimes I look over at my partner, Diedre Dawkins, onstage as I dance that part and I can’t stop crying.” When that happens, “the performance feels like prayer,” he says. “It’s a deep experience that you can’t control.”


Lerman, who is currently a visiting professor at Hebrew Union College in New York City, has also considered similarities between performing and prayer. She once made a piece that gave members of the clergy speaking parts within the choreography. Just before the curtain, one of them came to her and said, “You know I won’t be performing tonight.” When he saw her panicked look, he added, “Oh, I’ll go out there. But I won’t be acting. When I speak I’ll really be praying.” Lerman quickly assured him that would be fine. “His intent was to pray,” she says. “When I perform, my intent is to bring myself to an undistracted, pure place. Many religious people would call that prayer, too.”


Jamel Gaines is artistic director of Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn, which performs in churches as well as theaters. He says part of the purpose of his dance ministry is to show harsh historical realities like slavery so they won’t be forgotten. And for Rivera, whose flamenco solos often express the suffering of women worldwide, it’s not always necessary to show victory. “By just going deep into the sorrow and struggle,” she says, “you’re already empowering yourself.”


The drive to break barriers that separate people has led some of these choreographers to topple dance world tradition and invite the real world onto the stage. Lerman uses dancers whose ages span six decades. Gaines’ company includes dancers from diverse backgrounds and he embraces each member as a whole person, problems and all. Because Creative Outlet is associated with Saint Paul’s Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, congregation members get dance training from the company and sometimes join the group. “One person may be late because they’re having an emotional problem,” says Gaines. “Another is homeless and has no place to go after rehearsal. Part of our ministry is to help them and make it possible for them to perform. As a result, they are deeply committed to the work.”


Brown has also melded church and dance by inviting gospel choirs to perform with his company in the theater. When Evidence danced a section of a work in progress called Truth Don Die in Arizona last April, the choir from Phoenix’s Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church sang the song “‘Your Steps Are Ordered.”

That was the first time Brown ever tried bringing a bit of real church to the theater-but he’s long known the power of taking dance to the pews. “Whenever I am in my hometown on a Sunday, I must go to church with my grandfather and I must dance,” says Brown. “In church, the congregation doesn’t feel like an audience, but like part of it-part of the praise.” In Arizona, after hearing the Pilgrim Rest choir at their church, Brown decided that his dancers’ first encounter with them should take place in their sanctuary. “I just wanted the dancers to listen and mark the piece,” he says. “Instead, they danced it full out right away, on the carpet, three times. And it was perfect. Everything was right.”

Janet Weeks is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.