at Piper Hall, Mundelein College

April 7

Dance has always played an important role in worship, from Miriam’s dances in the desert to the atleti dei of the Middle Ages. To many the glory of beautiful movement was proof of God’s beneficence (although others attacked dance as profane because it celebrated the human body). Dance has continued to play a part in the services of various religious sects: the whirling of Moslem dervishes, sacred Hindu mudras, the holy rolling of fundamentalist Christians, and the 18th-century ecstatic dances of Jewish Chasidim.

Recently Jane Siarny, a former member of Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble, put together a concert of sacred dances for the Sacred Dance Guild. Performed at Mundelein College, it was a fascinating example of how music and movement can unite a diverse group. This writer, who has no particular religious convictions, was moved by the commitment and devotion expressed in these dances. The most theatrically effective were performed by Siarny and Maggie Kast, gifted professional artists; and although their dances are based in Christian faith, these were the most ecumenical in spirit and style.

The program opened with a lovely classic Indian dance performed by Beena Christian to a Gujurati hymn. Her hand gestures resembled the classic mudras, and her body and feet were also held in traditional Indian positions. The dance may have had special Christian significance, but it could also be enjoyed simply as a visually beautiful piece, danced by an exquisitely beautiful young woman.

Next on the program was a group improvisation by Joe Hanc, Bryan Saner, and Janet Skidmore–an example, I suppose, of what participatory dance by members of a congregation could be like. The dancers seemed to be having fun; fortunately, the audience was not asked to participate. But in Sophia Weeps, Rejoicing (choreographed by Kast, danced by Siarny, and sung by Dorothy Dwight) the audience joined in, singing along and rising, sitting, and raising their arms and hands on command. Although the modern-dance movements were strong and stirring, the space was too small to allow the audience to participate properly.

Ave Maria, to Schubert, and Panis Angelicus, to Cesar Franck, were the most Catholic of the numbers–danced to a statuette of the Virgin Mary. Dancing Heart, choreographed by Siarny and danced by Lisa Sparrman, was a charming little piece. Ubi Caritas communicated a warm sense of love and sharing through its sensitive choreography (by Kast) and performance (by Kast and Saner).

Siarny’s Lullaby for Kenny, to “Purple Mountain” by Cassu, was dedicated to Kenny Comstock, a dancer and colleague of Siarny’s who died of AIDS. This dance was riveting: with the aid of a folding chair, Siarny communicated love and the final acceptance of loss. The final number, The Sermon–An Improvisation, seemed intended as a comic view of a bored congregation listening to an incomprehensible sermon; it could have been funny if the performers hadn’t been so self-consciously amused by their own antics.

Whether one can experience dance as a part of religion must depend largely on one’s own approach to the spiritual. But for those of us who believe that humanity’s genius is expressed in the poetry of the human body as it responds to life, that may well be a profound religious experience in itself.