Monday, November 3, 2014

Dancing with Art by Faith: A Tribute

It is the evening of October 21, 2014, nearing the close of a beautiful and auspicious day.  I sit at home, feeling “full”, as I have felt many times over the course of this day.  On this day, Dr. Deborah Sokolove was celebrated and commissioned as a full professor of Art and Worship at Wesley Seminary, adding this achievement to her directorship of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion. Today was also the day that our community celebrated 25 years of the Dadian Gallery’s presence on Wesley’s campus.  In both of these events, there were festivities full of joy as the Arts proclaimed God’s Word in liturgy, table and presence.  Distinguished Artist in Residence, founder of the Luce Center and pioneer of the Arts in theological education, Catherine Kapikian, gave words of wisdom, grace, blessing and history.

As a liturgical dancer, witnessing and participating in these events, I have felt a profound connection to the Arts at Wesley and especially to my mentors and now colleagues, Catherine Kapikian and Deborah Sokolove. I wish to say a few words of gratitude and try to express what it feels like to be a performing artist in the company of truly great visual artists who combine their art with faith, theological discourse and community engagement.

The feeling of being “full” – do you know this sensation?  It is as if I have been on the brink of tears all day and, at times, have literally felt tears on my face.  Tears of joy? Yes. Tears of resonance, connection, promise, and deep gratitude that are hard to describe in words. In chapel today I danced the spiritual, “I’m going to live so God can use me (work, pray, sing).” Though no one would have noticed, because it was a lively piece and I was breathing hard by the end, I felt my body quake as I knelt before the cross. The scripture lesson, read beforehand, was Exodus 31:1-11. “The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. “ (Exodus 31: 1-5) The dance was meant to embody the commissioning of artists in the Bible – noble, anointed work that gives glory to God. At the close of Deborah’s sermon (see post below), she talked about the way God’s light shines through the material world.  In the words of two of my heroes, Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter, this might be called the “physicality of grace.”

Wesley Seminary is a truly unique environment for a dancer to inhabit. The founding of the Arts at Wesley is decidedly rooted in the visual arts, but the merging of dance with faith also finds a home, alongside storytelling, drama, music, literature and poetry. Perhaps because there is no dance studio on campus (we have spilled over, into every room and hallway on campus), I and my dancer colleagues and students find companions in the artwork that fills the walls of the Seminary. The two classes I teach meet either in our multipurpose room, Elderdice Hall, or in Oxnam Chapel. And in both places of learning, where the body is an important vehicle for prayer and proclamation, I am in conversation with the visual renderings of theology. Take the painting, “Angel and Prophet” in Elderdice. So often have I danced that painting, directly and indirectly – it is always before me beckoning and guiding. Take the moveable space of Oxnam, replete with stations of the cross and sometimes great paper cutting or fabric hangings: often I have asked my students to wander and wonder with bare feet, to stand and move in the crevices of the space, to feel the ground and the breath of a multitude of prayers.

Dancing with Brianne Barrow Little - in conversation with Woong-Sik Chon's,
The Healing Spirit, Wesley Theological Seminary, 2005. Photo by Jim Coates.
My medium is not paint or canvas, not thread, ink, clay or wax. It is, instead, eyes, face, shoulders, torso, hands, feet, muscles, bones, cells and highways of vessels. Yet together, all of this, is the material stuff of life which nuances faith, yearning and communion with God, self and others.
Dance is immediate, revelatory, and is over seconds after it is performed. But I believe that movement generates energy in a space in which the Holy Spirit can dwell and be felt by those gathered. Visual art hangs or sits as a labor of love and also generates an arena in which the Spirit can play. And these two offerings talk to each other: the physical yet fleeting sensation of being touched by the Holy and the tangible renderings, co-created with God, that last for years and years to come. When this occurs, and I believe it does occur at Wesley Seminary, we see the many forms God’s Word can take – yes, we “see” in new ways.

Catherine Kapikian, Bruce Birch, Fredericka Berger, Bruce Stewart and Deborah Sokolove have been the wind beneath my wings. They have guided and encouraged and collaborated with me, a liturgical dancer. Our Art – joyful burden that it is – has been and remains in conversation. 

I give great thanks for the ongoing opportunity to dance and teach beside such accomplished and faithful visual artists. We give form to and are formed by the Word made flesh. Thanks be to God!  


1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting this Kathryn -- having missed all of these festivities I am really grateful for the way you have brought to life that feelng of "fullness" and the blessing of the arts at Wesley -- and I am grateful for the gift and spirit that you bring to your medium of dance! Thanks so much for this! --KATHY STAUDT