Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Church and Dance

I find it interesting that the Christian church has, through the ages, embraced and helped foster many of the arts – painting, sculpture, architecture, music – but not dance. Why is this?

Well, I think one reason is that dance, being highly physical, is often very sensual. Sensuality, of course, is connected to sex – well, good sex, i.e., sexual activity that puts us in touch with the transforming and liberating presence at the heart of all things. This ultimately mysterious presence, theologians James and Evelyn Whitehead remind us, “courses through the world, enlivening and healing hearts.” We’re talking here of erotic presence and energy, known “through and beyond sexual arousal.”

Of course, religious institutions like to think of themselves as the sole conduits and administrators of such powerful sacred energy. (Not that they’d label it “erotic,” mind you. Their understanding of the term is, after all, far too narrow – fixated, as it is, on the physical mechanics of sex.) Still, because the clerical caste of Christianity perceives itself as the arbiter and gatekeeper of sacred power, it has through the centuries devised and enforced strict rules aimed at controlling and limiting sexual experience – experience which, like artistic expressions such as dance, utilize the body and sensuality to connect people to the transforming and creative energy of the sacred within and among us all.

I mention all of this because this evening I continue The Wild Reed’s series on dance by sharing a second excerpt from Jamake Highwater’s insightful book Dance: Rituals of Experience. (For the first excerpt, click here.)

In this particular excerpt, Highwater examines how the Church of the Middle Ages, even while accommodating many pre-Christian practices and rituals, suppressed dance. Well, at least theoretically. For as Highwater documents, creative ways were found to keep the artistic expression of dance alive. And although it did not bloom in innovative ways like other artistic expressions that were under the Church’s patronage, forms of theater and dance nevertheless “crept into the depiction of Christian legends performed in churchyards and town squares.” In this way, writes Highwater, “these mysteries, miracle plays, and sacred mines were the antecedents of contemporary theater, opera, and dance.”

Fascinating stuff, wouldn't you agree? Anyway, here's tonight's excerpt from Highwater's Dance: Rituals of Experience. Enjoy!


The Middle Ages has sometimes been viewed as a time of high-minded churchmen and their powerful authority. In theory, life was regulated by elaborate forms and codes, hedged in by religious rules that had the most awful sanctions. In fact, however, life ran wild, with a defiance of all rules upon which Christianity believed salvation depended. Not until the sixteenth century, when organization finally was imposed upon the wide-open university towns, and the Inquisition fell into the hands of an elite, did a sort of terrible order descend upon the Western world: a triumph of righteous aims and powers used toward private aims, and a triumph which, in turn, impelled the mass migrations of minorities to ancient lands newly invaded by Europeans.

This was a frantic era of transition from the classical world to the modern world. Subsequent ages have evaluated the medieval upheaval as both horrendous and sublime. In the late Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, writers coined the word “Gothic” to express their contempt for the Middle Ages. The Goths, who were the most effective destroyers of Rome, were looked upon as notorious barbarians. But the Romantic movement reversed this evaluation on discovering the sublime piety of Gothic art. Romantic novels glorified the ideals of chivalry and spiritual love, and recreated a wholly illusionary medieval world. This enthusiasm for the Middle Ages ran its course in the nineteenth century, but it left its residue and recently it has been revitalized by the writings of John Gardner and the music of Carl Orff, among others.

The Church offered the Middle Ages a staunch unity of mind, but it failed to lend a unity of lifestyles. A strong regional diversity of customs, which greatly enriched European cultures, was the result of this laxity of Church authority. Today many European patriots look to the Middle Ages for the sources of their national pride. In the breakdown of Roman homogeneity came the birth of individual cultures and of European nations.

“We have come to the last age of the world,” wrote Dante, propelled in his viewpoint by the Faustian spirit, that insatiable, inextinguishable willfulness that distinguishes Western civilization from all others. The power of Rome, which had subjected the lesser regional rulers, and had all but annihilated the concept of the common man, was gone. The restraining influences of the empire gave way to ambitious district rulers and to a resurgence of identity among common people. The very barbarians the Greeks loathed now found themselves center stage. The Church offered salvation indiscriminately to all, and through holy communion it forgave sins. To be part of the flock one merely had to come to the Church and abandon heresies. But the old gods were not abandoned. For the peasantry, the echo of fertility magic and fetishes still possessed strong appeal. The Church quickly recognized the force of such prehistoric practices and the more recent influence of Persian divinities as the sun-god Mithra. To curb the influence of the Mithraic and Cybelic rites, the Christian church permitted the distortion of its own ceremonies by wedding old rituals to new Christian concepts. Thus, the Teutonic rites of the dawn (Eastre) became the Christian Easter. A Druid ceremony, with its adoration of trees and the burning of a Yule log, was incorporated into the rites of Christmas – necessitating a decided shift in the date of the birth of Christ.

The accommodational policy of the Church had its limits, however: Roman drama was considered obscene and blasphemous. In fact, all forms of dance and theater were suppressed, at least theoretically. This meant that while the Church of the Middle Ages sponsored music, painting, and architecture, theater and dance were ignored, left in the care of the common people. The Church looked the other way when the commoners flaunted their quasi-ritualistic dances and the nobility welcomed traveling entertainers into their courts. Without Church patronage, dance could only reiterate old forms and did not enter the mainstream of innovative artistic expression which bloomed in the Middle Ages.

The brilliant paintings of artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder [right] depict the exuberance of the dancing of peasants in half-forgotten rites of harvest, marriage, and fertility. But dancing found no patronage, and its social exclusion aided its decline. Acrobatic dances, which probably came from the Orient, became central attractions of song festivals, fairs, and the theatrical pageants. There was a revitalization of ancient dances, whose steps were recalled but whose significance was largely lost. The maypole dance was a focus of fairs and weddings, but its ritual purposes were forgotten. The newly acquired sense of identity among the common people was epitomized in folk pageantry, with its assertive throngs in the marketplace. It was a recovered identity which resounded from a time before dominance of Rome almost obliterated the tribe’s awareness of itself.

In a manner not terribly dissimilar to the strong generational influence of pop culture in the 1960s, the dances of the Middle Ages were as aspect of a politicized culture which provided the masses with a sense of their own priorities, as distinct from the remote and literate powers of the Church. Dance was immediate. Salvation was eventual. In the Middle Ages, the peasantry accepted each in its own time.

One consequence of this situation was the rise of a nationalistic folk dance related to the emerging nations. Another influence was the Roman pantomimic dance tradition with its affinity for the theater that gradually crept into the depiction of Christian legends performed in churchyards and town squares. These mysteries, miracle plays [left], and sacred mines were the antecedents of contemporary theater, opera, and dance.

– Jamake Highwater
Dance: Rituals of Experience
Pp. 46-48

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
The Dancer and the Dance
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
Reclaiming the Queer Artistic Heritage
An Ideal Vision
Dark Matters
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake Returns to New York
Istanbul (Part 4)

1 comment:

brian gerard said...

It's great to get back to reading "the wild reed", Michael. This post is just the sort of thing that you rock! Connections among the spiritual and artistic become more clear and meaningful when you describe them.