David Danced Before The Lord – On singing and dancing Francis Grier’s Missa Aedes Christi

by James M. Potter

Liturgical dance. What does that phrase mean to you? For a lot of people it’s a loaded term, coming pre-packed with images of multi-denominational faith services and perhaps some uncomfortable cultural exoticism. Until last year I’d had no direct experience of dance in the liturgy – a straight-down-the-line Anglican upbringing will do that for you. So when it was announced that a ‘danced eucharist’ would form part of Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s concert season last year, there were some bemused faces in the back rows of the stalls (my own among them). It turned to be a rare and enriching experience.

The project came about as a collaboration between the choir and the Rambert Ballet School’s Cathedral Dance project. The school offers a specialisation in ritual dance studies, as a part of which students dance in cathedrals across the country. Francis Grier was commissioned to write a setting of the mass, which the choir would sing and the dancers would dance. There was to be a concert performance and, more intriguingly, a liturgical one in the context of the Eucharist.

The idea of dance as a form of sacred expression has been a controversial one in the church. King David ‘danced with all his might before the Lord’, we are told in the Old Testament. In the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, however, liturgical dance as part of the mass is forbidden by Canon Law. We are aware of Augustine’s worries about music, that its beauty might remove his mind from the contemplation of God. How much more might music and dance together, the “fair and varied forms, and bright and soft colours”, have bothered the old chap? I dare say he would never have left the confessional booth.

My most immediate worry, apart from being able to negotiate the complexities of the score, was that the whole effect might tend towards the ‘new age’. Would the gestures and movements already inherent in the celebration of the mass be amplified or watered down by their mirroring in interpretative dance? I looked up the school’s previous work in this area, to see if I could find a context. A short paragraph on the website is worth reprinting:

There exists a distinct category of experience identified as ‘the numinous’ (Otto, R, 1958). This, in the past and at present, has been understood as the experience of the divine. This experience is available to individuals who do not believe in conventional notions of God or of Gods as well as to those who may. It is available even if such divinity is absolutely non-existent. Such experience is, in C. G. Jung’s terms ‘psychically hygienic’ (Jung, C. G. Collected Works, p 532).

I’ll freely admit I sometimes have a knee-jerk reaction to the mere sight of the words ‘numinous’ or ‘spiritual’ which can be quite hard to get under control. These words can seem a little untethered, or at worst so vague in what they refer to as to be rather meaningless. On the other hand, non-believers are always searching for a word for a certain category of heightened experience which doesn’t necessarily have a religious referent. Here though, we have a definition for numinous – the experience of the divine, indeed (perhaps surprisingly) one that can be experienced even if there is no divinity. Ross McKim, director of the school’s research projects, has written extensively on this theory. “Dance,” he writes, “may potentially be naturally numinous”. It follows that we’re talking about the use of dance to confer or channel an experience of the divine. Given that music in liturgy is usually endeavouring to do the same thing, it doesn’t seem too much of a leap to include dance in the service. 

Taken at the concert performance of the mass

I can’t speak to what the experience of the final product in the cathedral must have been like – staying on top of the notes whilst watching the luminous figures of the dancers rushing wraith-like between the stalls was more than enough for my mind’s feeble multi-tasking. I’m also probably not qualified to comment on whether the use of dance enhanced the eventual act of communion itself, since I wasn’t participating in that part of the service. What I will say is that the dancers – who choreographed the dances themselves – seemed to do a stunning job of translating their thoughts on how to represent the various parts of the mass into considered, beautiful movement.

Our experiences broadened my mind into contemplating the possibilities of dance in liturgy. Whilst I’m not sure the chapter will be adopting my enthusiastic recommendation to endow a corps of Lay Dancers to complement the Clerks of the choir – now that would be something – I hope that churches and cathedrals will keep an open mind towards dance, or at least recognise that, in some ways, that’s what they’re already doing.

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Cantata Dramatica, the co-sponsors of our collaboration, have put together a fantastic short video describing the project (keen eyes may be able to spot the author in a natty linen suit). More pictures of the concert performance are on the choir’s website, here.

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