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Lifting the soul: liturgical dance companies enhance religious rituals.

IT'S FRIDAY EVENING IN SAN Francisco's Chinatown. The narrow streets are clogged with dinner crowds. Inside Old Saint Mary's Cathedral it's calm and hushed. In the empty sanctuary, five of us are quietly marking dance steps around the altar in preparation for tomorrow night's mass.

It's an unorthodox way to use the church's rich, red carpet, but I and the other members of the Omega West Dance Company feel perfectly at home. We have been dancing for special liturgies at the cathedral for almost ten years. For many congregants, our presence has become as traditional as potstickers are to the Chinese-dinner seekers outside.

Omega West is one of a handful of professional companies that perform dances in houses of worship. Some create dances almost exclusively for one congregation, others tour to countless churches and synagogues; and some are secular dance companies whose repertoire includes pieces for religious services. But all are driven by the belief that dance has the power to increase the experience of the divine.

This isn't a new concept. In many traditions, dance has always been as much a part of religious expression and experience as music. But in some religions, use of the body in worship became suspect, even banned. Those who dance in synagogues and churches still contend with people who feel that because dance involves the body, it runs the risk of pulling people's minds in sinful, rather than prayerful, directions.

But, though its use was limited, dance isn't completely foreign to the history of Jewish or Christian worship. Indeed, the liturgical movement that inspired the Andahazy Ballet Company's Los Seises (The Sixes) dates back to roughly 1264 and comes from Seville, Spain.

Los Seises was choreographed by Anna Adrianova Andahazy, who formed the Minneapolis-based Andahazy Ballet Company with her husband, Lorant, in 1952. (Both danced in Col. W. de Basil's Original Ballet Russe before settling in the Twin Cities after World War II.) Anna Andahazy, a devout Catholic, read about a dance still performed by choirboys in Seville's cathedral and was immediately stirred to create her company's only liturgical work.

In Spain, the dance is done to reverence the Blessed Sacrament, a consecrated wafer used in Communion. The boys begin by carrying in the monstrance, a huge, gilded altarpiece that holds and displays the Sacrament. The rest of the dance is made up of military-like marches done at the foot of the altar after the monstrance is placed upon it.

For her interpretation, Andahazy used some of the marching movement and dressed female dancers in replicas of the medieval attire the young boys wore. But she decided the main part of her dance would be a meditation on the death of Jesus. In her piece, the dancers portray the crucifixion story. Since its creation, Los Seises has been performed hundreds of times at many different churches. It is often done on Good Friday, the observed anniversary of Jesus' death.

Using dance to mark so solemn an occasion might seem odd. But liturgical choreographers argue that dance, as a physical expression of the full range of human experience, is as appropriate on sad occasions as on celebratory ones. Solemn liturgical rites do present special challenges, however.

"Excellent dancers can't always do Los Seises well," says Marius Andahazy, the Andahazys' son and now the company's director. "It takes something more. You need to become the part--but it can't be exaggerated. You have to feel it in a real way. It's not that you have to be Catholic or Christian. But the attention you give to the way you pick up and move with a sacred object, like the crown of thorns, is so important." He says the goal is not to wow the audience. Instead, you want to lead them more deeply into the religious experience. "It's like the Zen of ballet," he says.

Attention to the particular needs of the service begins long before the dancers ever enter the sanctuary. The Catholic Mass, Protestant services, and Jewish liturgies adhere to formats that are always followed. Liturgical dancemakers have to carefully weave their choreography into rites that have been set for generations.

AS A CHOREOGRAPHER, YOU HAVE to "dream liturgically," says Carla DeSola, founder of the Omega Liturgical Dance Company in Manhattan and now director of the group's Berkeley, California, sister company, Omega West. "You have to consider not only the mood of the day but also the part of the service you're creating for." Dance might accompany the entrance of the clergy and choir into the church, might replace the sermon, serve as a meditation after a scriptural reading, or accompany an ancient prayer.

And all liturgical works have to be created with particularities of each sanctuary's architecture in mind. Sometimes the dancers must negotiate stairs. Sometimes an immovable altar or ark will sit in the middle of the dancing space and must be worked into the choreography. Andahazy says his group needs twelve to twenty hours of rehearsal time in the space whenever they take Los Seises to an unfamiliar sanctuary.

DeSola's Omega dancers also tour to different churches. But for the last nineteen years, the New York group has been part of an annual, one-of-a-kind liturgical ritual known as the Earth Mass, or Missa Gaia, that's become a tradition at the huge, gothic Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in upper Manhattan. The Earth Mass is an example of how an ancient rite can express specific needs and concerns of today.

The October liturgy honors St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology. Earth Mass composer Paul Winter, who also plays tenor sax, wove animal calls into the music he created for the special service. He built the sound for an ancient prayer called the Kyrie on a wolf's call. The notes of the mournful cry are repeated by Winter's sax, then by the choir.

"The call for mercy is perfectly expressed in the wolf's howl," says DeSola. "The dancers rush down the aisle in response to the cry. Their bodies add urgency to it, and the dance becomes a call to life. Traditionally, the Kyrie is a prayer in which individuals ask God for mercy. But this interpretation broadens it. All creatures join to ask God to save creation." DeSola considers it a timely petition for the times we live in.

Like the Mass, Jewish liturgy has its own moods that must be considered. For her dance called M'Vakshei Or (Seekers of Light), JoAnne Tucker, artistic director of Avodah Dance Ensemble, built on ritual movement in the Torah service. It begins with the traditional donning of the tallith or prayer shawl. In Tucker's dance, these enveloping movements evolve into the sacred way of raising the Torah. "There's a prescribed way of lifting and turning it," says Tucker. "We use gestures that come from that." The dance also has an improvised section based on the portion of Torah to be read on the day of the dance. Often, the piece replaces that day's sermon.

To create choreography that can, like a sermon, take ancient words and make them resonate for believers today, it helps to have an intimate knowledge of scripture. But Tucker points out that such knowledge comes in handy elsewhere, too. "It's great if you can speak the clergy's language," she says, "because they almost certainly won't know anything about dance and may be concerned about having it in the service." An understanding of various prayers and scriptural passages goes a long way toward putting clergy at ease.

Both Tucker and DeSola consider choreography a major part of their work. But they also place importance on teaching non-dancers to move spiritually. Both teach workshops designed to take all levels of movers into a deeper, embodied understanding of scripture. This means focusing on movement as a form of personal meditation rather than on performance. Both choreographers say dancing done for a liturgy calls for confident, trained dancers so the congregation won't be distracted by fears that the movers will make mistakes. But occasionally both women do teach choreography to non-dancers who want to dance for their own congregations. When members of a congregation prepare liturgical movement for their friends and families, the result can be very moving for those who know and love them--even if the dancers don't have lots of training.

Jamel Gaines, a Brooklyn-based choreographer and dancer, has found this to be true--so much so that his liturgical work revolves almost entirely around one church and he uses members of the congregation, along with professionals, in every sacred work he creates. Gaines founded the Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn seven years ago. But he didn't begin to do liturgical work until he met Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, pastor of the 8,000-member Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, in 1992. Youngblood realized right away that dance could help the church's ministry, so he asked Gaines to create movement for their annual production of Langston Hughes's Black Nativity. Since then, Creative Outlet has been a fixture at the church, creating dance for worship services and other events and teaching movement classes to children and adults.

OVER THE YEARS, HUNDREDS OF Saint Paul's congregants have danced with Gaines and his group, and the time they put in isn't trivial. Three months before a church presentation, Gaines has his dancers, novice and professional, rehearsing three nights a week.

Saint Paul's has given Gaines free space and free reign to create, and he has made liturgical works for Easter, Mother's and Father's Day, Christmas, and Black History Month. Often his liturgical works are danced to hymns or spirituals, and can happen at almost any point in the service.

The church also presents a huge dance-theater production, often performed in churches but not during the liturgy, that Gaines choreographed called the Maafa Suite. Maafa is a Swahili word that is used to describe a great tragedy or disaster. The Suite memorializes the millions of Africans who lost their lives to slavery. Starting in Africa, it begins with a village scene. "It's a beautiful, colorful celebration with drumming and traditional dancing. But it's interrupted by gunshots," says Gaines. The Suite takes viewers to the slave block, plantation, and, eventually, to a celebration of freedom. But it ends with people in chains.

"The slaves were led to believe they were free but that they're still chained together mentally," says Gaines. "The Maafa Suite is an educational piece that brings history to life and also heals," says the dancer and choreographer. "Our effort is to restore spiritual order in our time by showing people the suffering our ancestors have gone through." Though the images are harsh, Gaines says audiences are uplifted. "Dance is a total package. It brings together mind, body, soul, and spiritual healing. When all of these elements come together you've got something powerful."

Associate Editor Janet Weeks dances with Omega West and holds a master's degree in theology.
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Author:Weeks, Janet
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Previous Article:Religion in motion.
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