Dreaming the Divine

at Link’s Hall, February 19-March 14

By Terry Brennan

When I first heard about the “Dreaming the Divine” series at Link’s Hall–four weekends of dance, music, and performance art about spirituality–I was intrigued. But a dancer friend said, “Dance is naturally so spiritual. What are they going to do, lift up their arms and gaze into the sky?” I pooh-poohed her objection, but based on the two programs I saw, she was right. Unfortunately, most of the artists were overwhelmed by their subject.

Everyone has a spark of spiritual life, just as everyone has political opinions in some form. But to make art about the spirit or politics, a person has to go deep, to a place where easy answers fall away. The artists who produced the best work in “Dreaming the Divine,” Ulele and Nana Shineflug, have addressed spiritual themes in the past. But even the works that failed revealed some characteristic attitudes toward spirituality.

For some, words dominate. In her solo Here, Carrie Hanson wears a bustle skirt with writing on it and on her bodice; books are strewn in spirals on the floor. She reads the books, embraces them, builds towers of them, and spins with her face literally in a book. Though highly detailed, the piece doesn’t have an overall form and doesn’t arrive at any conclusion. It seems that for Hanson the spirit arrives through books, but that spirit is diffuse and rather ineffectual.

Words pour out of Gurlene Hussey, performance artist Doug Stapleton’s drag alter ego, in Night Battles. For centuries Christians have used sexual love as a metaphor for divine love; Hussey reverses this equation, using cosmic emptiness to explain the emptiness of an abandoned lover and divine love to elucidate earthly love. The piece is funny but unintentionally cuts too close to the bone; for many gay performers, sex has become religion and spirit arrives in an orgasm. Hussey’s words are impassioned but ultimately despairing, an existentialist whimper at God’s absence.

Others avoid words, in effect attacking them. In this approach–one of the traditional paths to the divine–reason is seen as opposed to faith; logic is the enemy, a veil obscuring transcendence. Jason Ohlberg of Same Planet Different World, who curated “Dreaming the Divine” with Federico Hewson, focuses on this split in The 7th Stream of the River. At the beginning of the dance, Hewson sits cross-legged on a table at the back of the stage holding a flashlight in his mouth so that the lower half of his face glows a fleshy pink. He’s alone, playing with blocks and finger paints, while in front of him are Ohlberg and five other dancers in white lab coats holding clipboards, as if they were a doctor and his interns.

One by one the dancers fall into a swoon, which isn’t noticed by the others; then the dancer who swoons catches up with the others. But the last dancer can’t recover in time and becomes an object of study. A long middle section with lots of inventive movement focuses on often aggressive interactions between the scientists. The last dancer again falls into a swoon, then disappears, leaving her lab coat behind; the scientists pass it around, madly scribbling notes on their clipboards. She reappears with a flashlight in her mouth and Hewson greets her, wrapping her in his shawl and bathing her forehead. It seems she’s escaped the harsh world of reason to discover a world of childlike faith. The 7th Stream of the River is satisfying as a dance piece, but disappointingly Ohlberg depicts faith as naive; though it often seems spun of gossamer, faith should have the tensile strength of a spiderweb. Ohlberg rejects reason but doesn’t offer a satisfying alternative.

In many ways, these three pieces are not so much about spirituality as they are about the failure of rationality. For Hanson the divine comes in a thoroughly human form and so doesn’t have much power. Stapleton experiences primarily the absence of God. Ohlberg rejects rationality but hasn’t yet found a grounding faith. All three are also caught up in the question of language, in its use as the tool and expression of rationality. Two works based in pagan worship are genuinely about spirituality, however; in these, language is a tool that can turn the tables on rationality.

Of the five songs played by Stone and Leinaiala, members of the music group Ulele, two are dedicated to pagan goddesses, the Hawaiian goddess of snow and Osun, the Yoruba goddess of rivers and fertility. Ulele’s music–for electric guitar, electric cello, synthesizer, flute, frame drums, and trap set–usually takes the form of a trancelike drone with a strong rhythmic current. But “Another Day, Another Way” starts with a didgeridoo. Their tribute to Osun was accompanied by Julia Rhoads’s luscious improvised dance solo. She immediately found a theme: she began seated, then moved to a huge stretch and back bend; with a quick scissoring of her legs she leaped to her feet, then followed a tendu all the way to the floor again. Absolutely boneless, she seemed to be living completely in the music’s reality. This was devotional dance with a modern sensibility and intelligence.

For Nana Shineflug the spirit arrives through nature–but nature is only an emblem of a less tangible reality, for which mathematics is a better metaphor. Shineflug’s monologue, Shimmering on the Edge, starts with the story of a woman going to the woods and becoming mesmerized by the sound and sight of leaves falling, which don’t attract her as symbols of passing beauty but as physical objects whose descent is crazily unpredictable. Shineflug then falls silent and walks to several piles of white plates at the back of the stage. One by one, she throws spinning plates in front of her; each skitters noisily across the stage before coming to rest. It’s a lovely way of showing us the leaves, and showing how chaos rules the world.

Once again Shineflug speaks, this time about an area of fractal mathematics called the Mandelbrot set, which embodies chaos within order. At the same time she shows slides of parts of the Mandelbrot set on the back wall. Without warning, these images switch to Jackson Pollock’s drip painting Black Poles, revealing the chaos and order within it. Shineflug continues to tell stories, and at the end uses Dr. Seuss-style rhyming couplets to express how much she wants order; one line is “Not ragged and jagged, I want it to flow.” Chaos, disorder, and play have taken over her seemingly logical monologue.

I don’t know whether Shineflug knows about the Erisians, a sect of modern-day pagans who worship the goddess of chaos, Eris. But I suspect she does. Their fundamental idea is that the world is inherently chaotic and that Eris is more powerful than God. They love lies and fiction and play; once, at an Erisian initiation, I saw a priest give an initiate the sacred name of “Lady U-Haul” because that’s what he saw over her shoulder.

Recently there’s been a huge upsurge of interest in spirituality. Neo-paganism and New Age ideas have come into being, and Christian mysticism has reappeared in the form of belief in angels. Fundamentalist religions, whether Christian, Islamic, or Jewish, have become stronger. But all these trends come from a breakdown in our belief in rationality. That breakdown is painful, and both new and old gods beckon.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Same Planet, Different World photo by Michael Filler.