First consider theology: the study of God and the logical framework for our beliefs. Theology intersects and impacts every facet of our lives. So often our theology slams up against our experiences and we are forced to make sense of our beliefs and actions. Such as, when you have a hard season, do you turn with hope to God—believing He is refining you? Or do you see God punishing you? In circumstances like this, dance can help us recognize and work through these clashes with our theology.
Like any art form, dance is the result of walking the creative process: seeing, reflecting and making. Seeing happens in our experiences: a specific event sparks a new emotion or insight. Then, reflecting on what we just saw, we try to make sense of it. This is where theology enters the creative process—as our framework for thinking through issues. Then, as the dancer moves on to making a choreography, experiences and ideas are combined in movement; theology is explored and expanded.
A dance I helped choreograph, Last Supper Suite, is a great example of how dance and theology intertwine. Bill Drake composed the music of Last Supper Suite with different musical sections portraying the night before Jesus’ crucifixion: gathering for Passover, foot-washing, predicting His betrayal, confusion among the disciples, giving thanks for the bread and wine, praying in Gethsemane and finally the moment of betrayal in the garden. We began our creative process with multiple readings of the Scripture passages, looking at the events of that night and the time leading up to it. As we read, the general choreography began to take shape, as well as each dancer's specific choreography to portray Judas, Jesus or one of His three closest disciples: Peter, James and John.
With such different musical sections, our choreography also needed a lot of variety in moving through the piece. The gathering had a joyful quality filled with jumps and steps danced connected with each other. The foot-washing began with Peter’s refusal and then acquiescence; then eager John, dignified James and finally the toe-dipping Judas. Each character had been shaped by our interpretation of their biblical accounts. And so these first sections were strong examples of how our interpretation of those passages shaped our movement.
When we began to choreograph the scene where Jesus predicts His death, our theology was challenged and deepened. We knew the story. We thought we understood the agony of Jesus that night, along with the tidy doctrinal statements about Jesus and the cross. But our simple perspective slammed into the messiness of real human emotion as we considered each disciple's response to Jesus' prediction—how Jesus Himself would have felt. The disciples' movements begin in unison, representing their collective confusion with hands stretched out as if to say, "Not me, Jesus!" Short solos follow, portraying personal reactions. As each one pulls back sharply, studying their own hands, they wonder, "Could this be the hand that betrays Jesus?" Art at its best allows us to see in new ways. In choreographing these responses, we certainly saw the passage afresh and our identification with theology deepened.
The disciples' turmoil is cut short by Jesus re-entering with the communion elements, showing how Jesus completely interrupted the traditional Passover meal with the new covenant. This is also the most powerful moment of the dance. The first time we rehearsed with the bread and wine we were all quite reflective. It seemed only right that Judas should throw his piece of the bread back at Jesus’ feet as he stormed off stage. We all shuddered, realizing the theological significance of this movement. It brought us face to face not only with Judas’ rejection of Jesus but also the realization that every time we choose sin we are throwing the bread back at Jesus’ feet. The sacred meal, which we had previously participated in countless times, was suddenly new and meaningful.
From communion we move into prayer in the garden. Initially dancing with Jesus, the disciples swiftly fall asleep, leaving Him alone in agony. Seeing Christ’s agony portrayed, again the passages of Scripture came alive, deepening our understanding of Christ’s suffering and in turn expanding our gratitude for His saving work on the cross.
In the final moments the disciples awaken and return to the movement from the gathering, demonstrating the disciples’ ignorance. The performance concludes as Judas’ kiss reaches Jesus’ face and reality sinks in. The political king the disciples think Jesus is about to become is being arrested. The dream of ruling beside Him is shattered and the last three years of following Him are thrown away as they all flee at a kiss.
We had often read this prelude to Christ’s crucifixion but had rarely considered it from the disciples' perspective until we danced it, finding ourselves in the Easter story and having it come alive in each movement. Dance and theology are powerful individually but, when intertwined, they become greater than the sum of their parts. To date, Last Supper Suite is the most powerful piece I have ever danced. When we finished its first performance, it was the only piece that night to not receive applause. The audience was so deeply moved there was no room for anything but reflection, reliving for themselves the story of the crucifixion, seeing anew Christ’s love for them. For those of us who danced it, it became an act of total worship involving our minds, hearts, bodies and spirits. Embodying in dance the potent truths of Scripture transformed each one of us to our core.
So as you dance your way through life, may you not separate movement from meaning, but rather allow them to intertwine and become your total act of worship.
This is the first in an occasional series from the OM arts archives. This article first appeared in ‘Vivid’ Magazine, December 2017.