Down South, God’s ballet company

Years ago, the features editors at The Oklahoman decided they wanted a fresh take on “The Nutcracker.” So they asked someone who had never gone to the ballet to attend and write a review of the holiday classic. That someone — me — wrote a generally positive review filled with witty observations that I am certain would have merited a scathing review on GetBallet.org (if such a site existed).

The Washington Post did not send an amateur — when it comes to dance — to write a 2,900-word Sunday profile of Ballet Magnificat, billed as the nation’s first Christian ballet company. The writer of the piece, reported in Jackson, Miss., is Sarah Kaufman, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. Kaufman was honored for “her refreshingly imaginative approach to dance criticism, illuminating a range of issues and topics with provocative comments and original insights.”

Before discovering her Pulitzer prowess, my first reaction to Kaufman’s Christian ballet piece was threefold: 1. The writer definitely knows ballet. 2. The writer could use a bit more seasoning on religion. 3. The writer satisfied the unwritten rule that elite writers who go down South must include a paragraph somewhere in the piece like this one or risk alienation at Beltway cocktail parties when they return home:

Football, church and country music may dominate Mississippi’s off-hours, but despite the odds, this curious ballet company has thrived in the shadow of Jackson’s gun shows and powerlifting contests.

Whew! Glad we got that out of the way.

In general, the piece — a mix of straight reporting and the writer’s personal observations (read: opinions) — paints the Christian ballet company in a positive light and provides the kind of depth needed to help the reader understand the dancers’ motivations. In my first quick scan of the story, a few characterizations of evangelical Christians struck me as snarky and condescending. After a closer read, I am mostly impressed with the story. Still, the piece fails to get religion the way it gets ballet.

The top of the story:

JACKSON, Miss. — The performance is over, but the dancers aren’t finished. Now they want to come up the aisles and pray with you.

“This is why we dance,” announces Erin Beaver, one of Ballet Magnificat’s tour directors, speaking into a microphone while she paces the stage at the Jackson Academy’s Performing Arts Center. Beaver, an energetic woman with a powerful smile, has the upbeat, insistent delivery of a televangelist, but she’s not ministering alone. As she urges the audience to come to Jesus, slender young women with perfect posture and turned-out feet file into the audience, still in their knee-length costumes. They wait in the aisles for the kind of standing ovation they cherish: audience members so moved by the dancing that they want to leave their seats and worship with the cast.

“Let me get something straight,” Beaver tells the crowd of nearly 500. “There’s nothing magical about praying with a sweaty dancer.” The audience laughs.

“But this is real,” she continues. “You’re real.

“Let’s go to a real God.”

The upbeat, insistent delivery of a televangelist? Not sure that description works for me. Seems a bit forced — and even cliche. I did like the reference to knee-length costumes. That says so much in a tiny amount of space.

As I read the lede and a few other sections of the story, I found myself wondering: Is this the writer’s first experience with an altar call?

One of my problems with the piece is that it paints the ballet company as “evangelical,” and even “fundamentalist” at one point, but never provides any details on the specific denominational bent of the founders’ faith. For example, early in the story, the writer references the challenges faced when the company started 25 years ago:

Fellow dancers warned the former Jackson Ballet dancer that it’s hard enough to keep a mainstream troupe afloat, let alone one with such a specialized focus. Her church friends told her that dance and Christian ministry don’t mix — ballet is immodest, too flashy, too sensual.

In the company’s early years, the dancers would get letters telling them that what they were doing was wrong, that the Devil uses dancing to provoke licentiousness and immorality.

They would console themselves with Psalms 149 and 150, which urge the faithful to praise the Lord with dancing. This, they felt, was a scriptural commission.

Now, I grew up in a tradition that frowned on “mixed bathing” (read: boys and girls swimming together with lots of skin showing), not to mention the high school prom. So it doesn’t surprise me that there would be a church where folks might frown on ballet. But, and correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t believe the mainstream of evangelical Christianity has a problem with ballet, now or 25 years ago. Given that, more explanation of this group’s specific faith and beliefs is needed.

To me, a vague reference to critical church friends without a meatier exploration of the theology — and denomination — involved qualifies as incomplete, even lazy, reporting.

At one point, the story quotes Luke 1:46, “where the pregnant Mary says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord.’” That’s from the King James Bible, which makes me wonder whether the ballet company uses that Bible — which would say something — or if it’s just the one the writer chose. A little clarification would be helpful as most evangelicals would be more likely to choose a more modern translation, such as the New International Version.

Then there’s this paragraph:

There’s no denying the emotional power of this company. As it turns out, the bright eyes and broad smiles one associates with born-again Christians are excellent stage qualities. These dancers have the kind of lit-from-within presence rarely seen outside the premier companies, and even there the radiant projection of feeling can be spotty. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Renee Robinson and the Mariinsky Theatre ballerina Diana Vishneva come to mind; is it a coincidence that these artists have also claimed their dancing has a spiritual dimension?

Bright eyes and broad smiles one associates with born-again Christians? Um, really? A person who has seen some of the cranky people with bloodshot eyes who show up at church on Sunday morning might not write that. (I am only half-joking.) But in the next sentence, the “lit-from-within presence” reference actually works for me because it seems to illustrate an effort at “getting religion,” while at the same time — intentional or not — using phrasing that will resonate with actual Christians.

Speaking of phrasing that tells you why Kaufman won the Pulitzer, this is one of my favorite paragraphs — even though it’s one that strays far off the path of straight reporting:

Yet the unusual repertoire sets this company apart. It may be an exaggeration to say that Ballet Magnificat is single-handedly keeping the fading narrative tradition of ballet alive, but I don’t know of any other company that exclusively performs original works, most of them full-length story ballets. And Ballet Magnificat’s dancers live their ballets — such works as “The Scarlet Cord,” about underground missionaries saving souls in communist Russia, or “Deliver Us,” a whirlwind mash-up of the Moses and Jesus stories. (Think “The Ten Commandments” meets the Rockettes’ nativity scene.)

But right after that is this paragraph:

Of course, the fact that they are pushing their beliefs through ballet makes them a lot more charming than those evangelical preachers and fundamentalist public figures whose sermonizing can have a more divisive and judgmental sting. Ballet Magnificat’s members combine the born-again’s resolute earnestness with the demure vulnerability and warmth of dancers, and it’s a package with considerable appeal.

Whew! Now, we’ve stereotyped the South and evangelical preachers. Me thinks we are getting real close to mission accomplished.

This paragraph here should take us straight to the finish line:

Fundamentalism poses some personnel challenges. No Catholics, no agnostics, no gays — no wonder the company has a hard time finding male dancers, saved straight men who can dance and put up with the touring and the code of conduct. Which means they can’t frequent bars or casinos. Members of the opposite sex can’t be alone behind closed doors, even for a rehearsal. No swearing, no smoking. Only two men are in the Alpha company, and none are in Omega. Tough circumstances for the choreographer: Laments Voborsky, “One hundred percent of the biblical material has a guy in it somewhere.”

Jackson is the home of Belhaven University, which has what may be the top dance department among member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. How did the Post reporter miss out on that potential feeder program for the ballet company? The Belhaven program certainly has lots of males, although they wear more traditional garb. Does the university have the same philosophy as the Christian ballet company or a different one? That would have been an interesting question to explore.

This also makes me chuckle:

“Ballet was the catalyst for me to kind of come out of the closet as a Christian,” Vandervelde says, over a salad and a glass of wine. (He is perhaps the only one in Ballet Mag who drinks — but then, as he points out, he’s not a Southerner, and Jesus was big on wine.)

Am I the only one amused that the reporter managed to find the one person in the company who drinks? Good thing we’re not into stereotypes here at GetReligion.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Martha

    So this is a sort of professional liturgical dance troupe or what?

    I’m still a little confused, but I did laugh at the “gun shows and powerlifting contests” remarks, and I have to admit, since liturgical dance brings me out in hives, I’d probably rather go to a gun show, even though I don’t like gun shows :-)

  • http://crappychristian.com Marie

    I read this (the dead tree version) and wished they would go a bit further with the no catholics rule, but realized on my own with the touring schedule how the one catholic they did have didn’t work out.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Replying right after “Marie” and “Martha” makes me think I should change my name to “Lazarus,” but I’ll resist.

    Martha, as I read the story this is a ballet troupe that performs explicitly Christian narrative ballet. I’ve seen my share of both icky and amazing liturgical dance, but this sounds different.

    And Bobbby, I agree. As a former newsman (in the town of El Reno), I am proud to see the reporter’s instinct show forth so well in finding that one dancer in the troupe who drinks.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Replying right after “Marie” and “Martha” makes me think I should change my name to “Lazarus,” but I’ll resist.

    Love it!

  • Jerry

    the “lit-from-within presence” reference actually worked for me because it seemed to illustrate an effort at “getting religion,” while at the same time — intentional or not — using phrasing that will resonate with actual Christians.

    That is not a Christian-only phrase but it’s a joy to behold no matter what is the professed background of the performer.

    whose sermonizing can have a more divisive and judgmental sting.

    The key word is can not does. Can is accurate since that can and does happen. I personally think sometimes would have been a better word to use or too often perhaps.

    I also was struck by that reference to no Catholics since it seems they are stating the Catholics are not real Christians or at least the story raises that question.

  • Julia

    The band’s form of ministry — the performance, the evangelistic call — would serve as her guide when she started Ballet Magnificat, taking the name from Luke 1:46, where the pregnant Mary says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

    No Catholics in the group, but the company is named “Magnificat”?

    What’s up with that?

    At one point, the story quotes Luke 1:46, “where the pregnant Mary says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord.’” That’s from the King James Bible, which makes me wonder whether the ballet company uses that Bible — which would say something — or if it’s just the one the writer chose. A little clarification would be helpful as most evangelicals would be more likely to choose a more modern translation, such as the New International Version.

    Here’s the New American Bible from the USCCB Catholic site:

    And Mary said: 16 “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
    47

    Here’s another Catholic one with the Latin from the Vulgate, I’m assuming, and the Greek:

    46 And Mary said: My soul does magnify the Lord.

    46 Et ait Maria : Magnificat anima mea Dominum

    46 ??? ????? ??????:

    Source: http://www.newadvent.org/bible/luk001.htm

    The Magnificat is sung all over the world in Catholic churches, but particularly in monasteries and convents as a routine part of the Liturgy of the Hours. It’s about as Catholic as you can get.

  • Julia

    The following #1 and #2 are the most common ancient chants of the Magnificat, which is traditionally sung at Vespers.

    1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mHO1YWMMso

    This is the version my girls’ choir sang most often.
    2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPL2wtxO_vM&feature=related

    3) This is the 2nd part of the very old version by the Spaniard Tomas de Victoria:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9a8AAQjxzQ&feature=related

    Magnificats have been written by many, many others, but the chant versions are still sung liturgically in the Catholic Church as they have been for many, many centuries.

    How could the author have missed this irony?

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    As I read the story, there is no policy against Catholic members — only the anecdote from one of the company members about “a Catholic” who “didn’t work out,” with no backing quote from either company director confirming the story or clarifying whether or not there is such a policy. Nor does the story outline which “matters of faith got in the way,” so there’s no way to know whether it was a doctrinal disagreement or even if the problem was on the part of the dancer or the company.

    Kaufman seems willing to use that story without digging into it to help her paint her picture. Plus, she seems little enough aware of southern evangelical Christian culture (and may not be much better with Roman Catholic liturgy) to either ask the question or to perceive the irony that such a policy would present if it truly existed.

  • Julia

    Kaufman would surely recognize that Magnificat is Latin. I don’t think that word appears anywhere in the KJV.

    It’s ironic whether there’s a anti-Catholic policy or not.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Julia, Why are you so certain that she would recognize a Latin word? Just curious.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Didn’t mean to sound like I was disputing the possible irony — just noting that whether it’s there or it’s not, I don’t think Kaufman was going to notice it.

  • Julia

    Bobby:

    The writer says the name Magnificat was chosen because of its connection to Mary’s song. The word doesn’t appear in the KJV Bible verses indicated, although magnifies does. The New International Version you thought would be more likely for Southern born-again Christians is even less connected to the word magnificat:

    46And Mary said: My soul glorifies the Lord

    The word magnificat isn’t English. It’s not Spanish; it’s not French; it’s not Italian.

    A distinguished, musically-sophisticated dance critic in DC would surely have been exposed at the Kennedy Center concert hall to at least one of the many classical versions of the Magnificat by the likes of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Arvo Part, Charpentier, Vivaldi, Pergolisi, Gibbons, Stanford, Talbot, Monteverdi, Pachebel, Scarlotti, Byrd or Vaughn Williams. Those are just the ones I found on YouTube. In any case, tons of classic choral music is in Latin; as a person working in the oft-classic milieu, it would be pretty strange if she hadn’t been exposed to Latin.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Re: the name’s origin, I agree that I would expect a professional music critic of this stature to be familiar with the origin of the word “magnificat.” Plus, the dance company itself is up front about the origin:
    http://www.balletmagnificat.com/A_aboutus.html

    I’m not sure how “ironic” it is that the company has no Roman Catholic dancers, though. Yes, Mary and the Magnificat are most closely associated with the Catholic Church, but it’s part of the broader Christian tradition. After all, Julia’s list of composers begins with a Lutheran and ends with the son of an Anglican vicar.

    Looking over the company’s website, I didn’t see anything approaching a statement of faith. In fact, the only thing I saw about the faith of the dancers was in the trainee application form, which asks potential trainees to include a “personal testimony” that includes “when you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior; (2) what God is currently doing in your life.” “Personal Lord and Savior” is definitely evangelical language, not Catholic, but I have seen it used in ecumenical groups that welcome Catholic members.