Sunday, September 13, 2009

Where's the focus?

A certain kind of seriousness is a pitfall when we deal with an artform in a religious context. It arises from several sources: confusing the artform itself with what motivates the artist, insecurity about technical and choreographic skills, and secret uncertainty about the appropriateness of art in church.

These confusions and uncertainties account for the unfortunate self-importance of some dance made for religious settings. It is time for us to admit that the ludicrous stiffness and - dare I say it? - self-absorbed earnestness of this kind of 'religious' dance is not only highly questionable theologically; it is down-right off-putting to those who watch.

We may respond that we are not dancing for the watcher, we are dancing for God. But is that really what we are doing? Surely we do not believe that God needs our dance. We may be helped out of this confusion by remembering that even the Benedictines, those unsurpassed singers of Gregorian chant, emphatically state that they do not chant 'for God;' they do not chant because God somehow needs their chant. To be sure, they chant 'to the glory of God.' But they are quite clear that it is they - the community - not God, who need the healing, soaring, timeless beauty of the chant.

In the same way, it is our communities that need the communication our dancing has to offer. When dance is made to be watched, its primary flow of communication is outward toward real people, people like us.

What I am trying to say is astringently summed up in the comment of a cleryperson about dance he had recently seen in a cathedral liturgy. Very perceptive about the arts in the church, and also aware of his own physical reserve, he expressed his disappointment wit what he had seen by remarking, 'It was so tight and solemn! I could have choreographed it myself.'

This is from pp 34-5 of Performer as Priest and Prophet, the book I wrote about the other day. I found this comment about the Benedictines chanting to the glory of God rather than for the glory of God something that strikes a particular chord with me. When I played in church regularly, I always found it difficult to somehow get myself into a place where I was focusing on God in the playing. What I was mostly focusing on was my own self and my playing and whether it was good, bad or incredible; what I also focused on was the response of the congregation, not to me, but to what the music itself was doing amongst them.

The first of those two is something I suspect most artists have difficulty with: getting yourself out of the road. But there was considerable joy in having a sense that the music and you and the congregation were at one.

On the other hand, being a performer is a gift. The music will be different if you
don't perform, if you merely play it. In church, if you don't lead the music, and draw the congregation along in that leading, then things are half-hearted and dull. Whether a performer can ever stand outside him or herself and just let the music take over is something I'm not sure about. I hear great artists saying it happens; I'm not sure that I'm convinced.
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