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Walking the Thin Border


This essay was originally published in Hallelujah: The Extraordinary Essence in Ordinary Life, a booklet jointly published by Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland on the occasion of their August 2002 co-production of Hallelujah/USA, the culmination of the Dance Exchange’s three-year, 15-city Hallelujah project.

Being the modern secular person that I am, I suspected that as we marched along the Hallelujah trail, we would discover ways in which people considered themselves spiritual. I thought we would find lots of people, like me, who sought meaning in varied dimensions of their lives, hunted in their attics and basements for religious associations that they could live with, delighted in making connections to their spiritual sides, even while being queasy with the word spiritual. We certainly did encounter such people, and often they provided welcome willingness help bind together the various other elements of the projects. But I discovered a great deal more, sometimes in encounters with people of strong religious convictions, sometimes in the frequency with which religious text kept reemerging, sometimes in the way that religious values and artistic values underpinned each other. Many of these discoveries coalesced toward the end of the project in our Michigan Hallelujah.

The night we met Rudy Hawkins and his gospel choir was unforgettable. Hearing the group singing as we walked into the little Detroit church, I knew I had entered a spirit world. I mentally thanked my father for teaching me to recognize and be humbled by true religious sentiment regardless of its denomination. As we often did in starting Hallelujah relationships, we asked the singers what they were in praise of. We encouraged the group to give secular answers, and the first two to speak did so. But after that, each one began to testify. And each person went longer than the one before. I was mesmerized and amazed. Later, we made a little dance out of their answers, and they danced this dance to one of their songs. I didn’t think the room could take any more spirit, and as the emotions expanded, I wondered if the walls would literally have to come down.

That night I fell in love with the individuals in the choir, with the group as a whole, and with Dr. Rudy Hawkins, the man who is its spiritual center and the composer who would be my collaborator over a year later on the Detroit/Ann Arbor Hallelujah. I would need that love as the project evolved, because true collaboration depends on love to survive the hard knocks of artistic disagreement. And we had plenty of disagreement on the Michigan Hallelujah. For starters, we had different ideas about the Bible. Once Rudy and I had settled on the theme of paradise, I knew we would be heading back to the Garden of Eden, where the Dance Exchange had already ventured in our Jacob’s Pillow Hallelujah. We worked both from biblical scripture and from Milton’s Paradise Lost. As soon as we were rehearsing, I asked Rudy to write a song in which Adam and Eve would fight over what to take in their suitcases when they are banished from the Garden. At that suggestion, several of the singers looked at me in dismayed exasperation and said “What suitcases? What argument? They messed up and they have to leave. Period” This led us to an insightful, invigorating conversation about biblical interpretation, a conversation that also underscored ideas about artistic interpretation as well. It was the first of many deep encounters that our two groups would have over religion and art, one where I was particularly struck by how close faith values and aesthetic values can be.

I came away from this discussion thinking we had arrived at a new understanding, but Rudy didn’t write the song for me. When I finally got up the courage to ask him he said “I can’t write an argument in gospel. Gospel is only good news.” He thought for a moment, then grinned and said, “I can write it in the blues, though. But they may not sing it… most of the singers have left the blues behind for gospel.” Thankfully, Thomas and Jill – our singing Adam and Eve – were willing (and very able!) and we had our opening for In Praise of Paradise Lost and Found.

Probably our biggest struggle (and our biggest understanding) was about the act of creation itself. At one point I asked Rudy to play something he had written earlier while two of the dancers performed a new duet we had made. He balked and said he couldn’t because we didn’t “count” any of the movement and it was always changing. I gently asked him to try it anyway, sure in my own mind that the fit between music and dance would be right. It was. Rudy glanced at me after the first try with a bemused look. I said to him, “Our greatest difference is that I always take things apart and try to put them back together in new ways, and you always try to keep things whole and connected. It may sound like we’re opposites, but it you think of us as two points on a circle, we’re not that far apart.” Rudy laughed his beautiful laugh and we went on.

Here were two acts: on the one hand, making connections, bringing things and people together, trying to recreate the whole; on the other making distinctions and pulling things apart (day is not night, people are not animals, sky is not water… just like the first creative acts in the Bible). In the encounter between Rudy and me, we had two essential sides of creation.

Of all the encounters we had in Hallelujah, I am describing this particular collaboration not because it was necessarily the most significant (I learned so much from so many along the Hallelujah trail). Rather, I am struck by the number of recurring themes and issues in our Hallelujah experience that came to the fore in our collaboration with Rudy Hawkins and his inspired group. Here was an experience on the thin border between art and faith, prayer and performance, sermon and story. Here was one of the many encounters we had with scripture as a point of departure (and as much as I anticipated “spiritual” content in Hallelujah, I had no idea we would return so many times to religious text as the basis for ideas). Here was the interplay between the deep traditions of our forms and our two distinct, contemporary approaches to artmaking. Here was a kind of place-based encounter that I somehow can’t imagine happening in any city but Detroit. In a process that required much internal cross-cultural storytelling, here was dialogue – personal and civic, artistic and religious, thriving both in the act of creating and in the thing created.

And finally, here was collaboration, in all of its challenge and glory. One morning in Michigan I woke up thinking, “I will never collaborate with another artist again.” But by the time I went to bed that very night, I was saying, “If we don’t work with people different from us, and make something together where we both have our integrity on the line, then we will never find our way to the willing compromises we need to make in order to survive.”