Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Easter Dance of the Cathedrals

Yes, they really did. They didn’t just say that heaven’s a dance, or the liturgy’s a dance, or our relationship with God is a dance. They danced. Led by the bishop, and often playing a ball game at the same time.

Until the early 16th century, there was an Easter dance in many of the French cathedrals. It was a farandole, a circle dance in triple time, to the accompaniment of the Victimae Paschali Laudes (“Praise to the Paschal Victim”), the triumphant chant of the Resurrection. If the cathedral had a labyrinth (such as at Chartres or Amiens), the dance would take place around it.

A bizarre medieval ritual? A pagan hangover? A safe way for clergy to let off steam? Until recently it was assumed that the dance was indeed a pagan ritual which had been semi-Christianised – and for the same reason was swept away by the reforms of the 16th century. But working as I do in dance, directing the Cosmos project , I decided to research the Easter dance and found that in fact it goes back to forgotten Jewish and Christian mystical traditions.

Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who was a contemporary of Jesus, knew a double monastic community of men and women called the Therapeutes, which means both “healers” and “praisers”. They came together to chant in their sanctuary and danced in what seems to have been circle dances. Their inspiration was the men’s and women’s songs and dances led by Moses (Exodus 15.1-18) and Miriam (15.20-21) after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea.

Eusebius, the 4th-century church historian, thought that the Therapeutes were Christians. This is very unlikely, but the fact that he thought it suggests that for Eusebius, as a Christian, praising God through dance was not a strange idea. In fact, the early Christians knew a mystical tradition that Christ, the Logos (Word) of God is leader of the angelic dance.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, from the generation after Eusebius, tells of how, when the world was first created, Adam and Eve danced with the angels. At the Fall, Adam and Eve were tripped up by sin and fell out of the dance, becaming estranged from the angels. But by his Cross and Resurrection, Christ has restored us to the dance.

Why should the angels dance, though? The Bible sometimes speaks of angels as stars, perhaps because the angels watch over the earth and shed God’s light on it. God tells Job that “the morning stars sang together” at the Creation of the world (Job 38.7). In Revelation or the Apocalypse, the seven stars are the angels of the Seven Churches (1.20), and there is Wormwood, the fallen angel/star (8.11). The stars are seen to move around the sky, and with the benefit of modern astronomy, we know that the planets move in an orbit, as if they were circle dancing.

The Church Fathers are perhaps better known for preaching against dancing. But what they were attacking was the kind of orgiastic, alcohol-fuelled dancing which went on sometimes at parties, and could have exactly the same consequences as that office Christmas party or ‘lost weekend’. St. Basil, a contemporary of Gregory’s, is no exception – he condemned lewd dancing at Easter. But he encouraged the spiritual dance, saying that a place in the dance of the angels was a gift of the Holy Spirit: it came with “understanding of mysteries, apprehension of hidden things”, and even “becoming God”: a profound and total union with the Trinity.

By the end of the Middle Ages, people had forgotten the amazing significance of the Easter dance, and perhaps as a result it fell into bad behaviour: little by little the cathedrals suppressed it (though it survives in a different form in Seville and Cordoba).

But times have changed. Today many contemporary dancers see dance as something profoundly and essentially spiritual, and many people who say they are spiritual but not religious practise dance.

Why? St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval philosopher and theologian, said that all knowledge comes to us through our senses. Just like dancing: you can only really dance if you’re absolutely present to what you’re doing, and then we perceive all the things we miss, when we’re distracted. Dance is a space where God speaks to us through our senses.

Or is that all theory?

At the recent Recreation conference at The Holy Biscuit Christian arts hub in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, we put the Easter dance to the test. To the original music, and the original step, we circle danced in the garden (watched by our bemused neighbours). The step required both a kick up and landing with both feet on the ground. As you go up, you see the stars. As you come down, you feel the earth. And everyone is united, in a circle: a great way of praying “on earth as it is in heaven”. But the best bit for me was the ball. It probably represented the world, dancing because it had been recreated from chaos into cosmos by Christ, the risen Logos, who “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4.10).

There were moments when the ball got dropped. But it wasn’t a disaster. Someone picked it up, we all laughed, and rejoined the dance. Perhaps, with the perspective of eternity, that’s how the Fall looks to the angels of God. “O happy fault”, we sing in the Exultet, the great hymn of cosmic praise at the Easter vigil. Adam and Eve fell, but Christ came and raised them up, higher than they had been before. The dance teaches us not be dragged down by sin and suffering. Instead, let’s follow the dancing ball of the New Creation, rejoice that Christ has remade us, dancing us to union with God.

This article was written for the Bard school blog by our priest Fr Dominic White ,OP

The picture of the octagonal labyrinth of Reims, can be found can find on the website Revista Transcultural de Musica - where there is a fascinating article by Michael Eisenberg which dicusses Performing the Passion, Music, Ritual and the Eastertide Labyrinth - by Micheal Eisenberg)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Come to the Fair!

Here is page one of our flyer inviting you to the Bard Fair! Saturday 22nd October 6 - 9.30pm, the first ever Feast Day of the poet, playwright and social and cultural inspiration Pope John Paul II.

If you are tempted by the mix of people and arts on offer then please do reply to and let us know that we can expect you.

There's Holy Mass at 6pm,
food and wine at 7pm,
performances at 7.30pm
and the Bard Fair at 8pm.

We are launching the new publication from Tignarius Press, an anthology of 21 Christian poets - 'Heartspeak: a Contemplative Chorus'.

It was edited by Piotr Stolarski to mark the Beatification of John Paul II. You will be able to hear readings and performances from the anthology. Some poems have already been set to music.

Mass at St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater will be celebrated at 6pm by Msgr Keith Barltrop with concelebrant Fr Dominic White OP, freshly returned from his MA in Theology of the Arts in Paris. He will be preaching and we look forward to his dynamic view of the arts in the expression of the mysteries of liturgy and of ordinary life. He now ministers in the lively University Chaplaincy in Newcastle.

And here on page two of our flyer you can see some of our other stall-holders who will be launching new products, exhibiting art work, or sharing new ideas in progress:

Jane Radford will be exhibiting her exquisite painting under glass, which is a technique she has pioneered herself and calls Nature Sous Verre.

Helen Munt who is also a singer songwriter will be sharing her new idea for a religious card business based on her rather arresting and memorable contemporary calligraphies of Scripture, which she calls Scripture Doodles. We have several other bards who design cards and we are developping a range called Cards from the Bards. If you know people who distribute cards then do bring them along!

I'll be launching workshops of some of my previous scenes and poems, now designed especially for use in the community, educational and business settings - Poetry Opens the World. This project was funded by the wonderfully supportive and innovative Faith in the Community. It's been great fun designing the visuals with Leo Earle and Claire Barrie our resident Bard designers. I love covers of the workshops from the next 2 Downloads which will also be launching on the day.

Asian fusion fans will not be disappointed by Hammad Baily's inimitable singing and guitar playing which has a breadth of classical indian and pop references to dazzle and move anyone. His latest album of Christmas songs in the Asian Dance mode are unique and impossible not to leap onto the dancefloor with!

Then you can relax with Roseanne Kinvig's striking and contemplative Hour Lilies - which she calls Designs to Dream to. If you are fans like we are of 'Momo' by Michel Ende, you'll understand the Hour Lilies reference. It was the only word we could come up with for what sprang from her imagination in times of peace and meditation. There'll be a separate bardschool post about those as we approach the Day of the Bard Fair.

Some Bards who are abroad or working, are still going to be represented and you'll be able to hear their music and read their workshops to see if you might be able to use them in your church, community or school, campaign, contemplative group or maybe just party!

Edwin Fawcett wrote a magnificent contemporary setting for voices (sung and spoken) and strings - for one of John Paul II's poem 'Shores of Silence' which has now been performed several times. You will be able to hear it at the Listening Station. Sarah Fordham who is presently ministering in Canada has researched and written wonderful workshops to use John Paul II's poetry in a pastoral setting. Come and browse through some of those materials and have a go at writing a poem, inspired by the man whose very first Feast Day falls on 22nd October - the day of the Bard Fair.

Another Polish poet once said that - "the Time will come when to be a great poet you will also have to be a saint". Perhaps that time has come.

Do come and join the mix of artists, commissioners of arts, social activists and evangelists as well as those who simply long to see a bit more soulfulness in their day, and see who you might meet, what you might create and what you will discover.

Just email

Looking forward to seeing you there and hearing all about YOUR projects, initiatives and work. If you would like to leave flyers and cards on the Friends of the Bards Stall then just let Roseanne know.

All the best!


Friday, 9 September 2011

Summer's swansong in Bardic Margate for the Fellowship of the String

When I asked for some bardic tales of the summer I was delighted to receive this lovely account of Justin and friends' adventures on Margate sands with guitars, eccentric eateries-turned-theatres and all the quirky joys that only the English Seaside offers. With thanks to Barnaby for the wonderful photo of the sunset over Margate.

Let's not forget that the painter Turner declared that Margate had the greatest skies in Europe.. as you shall shortly hear:

Literary lunch... on sea...!

8 graduates of the literary lunches, and among them 2 contributors to Heartspeak, met up for a musical bank-holiday weekend at the seaside, staying at my parents' house, Ecclectica Cottage, in Margate. We brought guitars, voices and a determination to entertain them on the beaches and wherever cliffs and seagulls would allow.

There is a new feel in Margate of a resurgence of creativity and the arts and the old town numbers different cafes and studios and galleries which have sprung up of late: there was a performance on the beach on the Saturday night entitled 'Blink: Margate' which was amazing:

There were a hundred performers, fireworks, acrobatics, son et lumière, dancers, and the roads were closed and the street lights turned off for maximum impact- the night sky was full of explosions of light reflecting off the glass in the harbourside buildings. Beautiful!

We were due to be performing at a pop up venue cleverly titled 'theatre' (with a bit of paint), at an old cafe, where the shop sign had previously said 'the eaterie'! This was a venue that had been given to the owner of the pop up cafe next door, John McKiernan from Platform 7 (there are 15 platforms at London Bridge- number 7 doesn't exist!) The venue had made a mention in The Times recently.

In the end, however we performed at a nightclub/cafe on the beach and we also found a church barbecue where 40 to 50 people were happy for us to entertain them, and let's not forget our afternoon playing and singing at Bob Dic's wonderful tea garden in Botany Bay in the sunlight the day before.

We also serenaded half a dozen children, their parents and a few seagulls on the Saturday at Dave Osbourn's cafe at Palm Bay on the Saturday, having had a good gander round Margate's Turner Contemporary art gallery, newly built and much reported and seeming to be bringing new life to the town.

The three venues we played asked us to come back some time and we may have generated some business for 'The Fellowship of the String', members of which were playing, formed to entertain at a Christians in Government barbecue at Westminster Abbey this Summer.

A couple of the group said they had liked the feel of the town so much they would be interested to know about properties in the area: I spent much of Monday looking at a couple of houses with Miles Blackley, an Anglican clergyman friend. I saw a sign today down here at R.Scot's furniture emporium, that they had 2 workshops to rent from about £100 a month. There is an artist with a studio shop in the old town that he opens two days a week and paints in at other times right on the street with a large window to see him at work. A two bed house in Margate is about £100k.
The town is two hours from London.

6 of us had breakfast together on the Sunday at the remarkably eccentric Walpole Bay Hotel. As Barnaby Hughes and I grazed our way along the smorgasbord we found the napkin on which he had illustrated a poem of mine, framed on the wall in their Napery gallery. If you go to Margate and have a special memory of the place to share in words or drawing, Jane Bishop the owner may give you a napkin to illustrate and add to the exhibition. It was lovely to see one's work shown in this way and it was hugely encouraging to us both.

Turner reputedly said (somewhat unfortunately) 'The sun is God' as he lay dying. He painted a great deal in the town and described the skies there as the best in Europe: the staircase at the gallery named after him has an artwork exploring the ambiguities and possible meanings and reverses of that statement. Amongst the wordplays produced is 'The Son is God': certainly the skies over Margate are a sign of His Lordship of a wondrous creation.

Justin Harmer.