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Faith Based

Religious Beliefs Shape The Dances in Full Circle's New Production

Michael Northrup
HOLY: Full Circle Dance Company members rehearse Sacred Body.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 2/13/2008

Full Circle presents Sacred Body: In Response to Religion

Baltimore Museum of Art Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. For more information visit

Five rhythm-driven Africans stomp their feet and flail their arms, slaves only to the staccato pulsation, before leaping skyward in praise of an imaginary drum. Soon, their dance is interrupted by slavers who transport them to the American South. Upon their arrival, they are met by another group of dancers who deliver physical blows symbolic of slavery. The Africans fight back, forming a human chain of protest--a physical bond and a futile effort to hold onto their culture, their heritage, and their faith.

The social commentary being danced is not a just a treatise on the enslavement of Africans and their journey to slavery in America. "Unforsaken," which appears in the Full Circle Dance Company's Sacred Body: In Response to Religion this weekend, is only one part in the program's larger story. The Full Circle dancers are trying to dismantle some of religion's unclean parts, hopefully to find that although some of religion's history isn't pretty, belief can offer hope, solace, and overwhelming transformative power.

"One of the things we want to see happen in our work is acceptance of diverse views," says Donna Jacobs, founder of Baltimore's Full Circle and director of Morton Street Dance Center. On a Saturday evening a few weeks before Sacred's debut, Jacobs has assembled her dancers together for an intense rehearsal. Buddhists, Christians, atheists, and the spiritual have all put aside their personal views long enough to try other beliefs on in dance. "Here, in this program and in this dance company, we wanted to provide a safe space," Jacobs says. "Here there is acceptance of diverse religions."

The idea came about last year when Full Circle was preparing its Borders Uncrossed, a production about unspoken racial hatred. "And so we asked ourselves again, how can we challenge ourselves and draw people in at the same time?" Jacobs says of Sacred. "What can they take away and how can we provoke thought?"

As it has with all of its thematic works, Full Circle held a community forum to discuss these issues before choreographing them. Although they invited Christians, Jews, Muslims, Protestants, atheists, Buddhists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others outside of the dance company, the Christians were the only ones who showed up. So Jacobs had to solicit other faiths either one on one or via individual question and answer.

"After talking about it [at the forum] I realized that it was more difficult to talk about religion than it was to talk about race," Jacobs says. She chalks some of the resistance up to the fact that being a non-Christian is somewhat unpopular in America, and to the fact that, as opposed to race, for religion there is no formulaic response.

"I think that people have become a little more accustomed to having discussions about race, or what their thoughts are about it," she says. "And, in a general sense, there are fewer races of people than religions. Christianity has all kinds of different subparts. People celebrate in different ways. And there is a plethora of religions that people don't touch."

In Sacred, however, religion shows up in multiple forms in the seven choreographies performed. Longtime Full Circle collaborator Travis Gatling translates prayer as an act of surrender in his piece, "Supplications." Although heavily influenced by Christianity, a variety of peaceful prayer poses can be found, from the traditional kneeling image with clasped hands to prostrate poses. Jacobs introduced repeated rocking motions into a prayed dance based on her observations at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

"Unforsaken" is a natural succession to Gatling's dance, and was heavily influenced by Jacobs' belief in Christianity and The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible. Released in 2006, The Talking Book explores the African-American experience from slavery to hip-hop. In this piece, fiercely individualistic pleas for salvation amid expressions of pain show up in duets and solos that express the confusion that persists when religion is used simultaneously as a tool of oppression and a source of comfort. In this dance--as in history--slaves look beyond what they had learned from white slave owners about the Bible and begin to shape their own interpretations.

It wasn't an easy dance to choreograph. "It's difficult to know that something that can be so beneficial in one's life day to day was used in a difficult way," Jacobs says of the Bible's use as a tool of oppression. "Nevertheless, that doesn't negate it all--what a love for a higher being can do for you in terms of your own personal development and how you interface with others and how you live life."

Georgia native and photographer Erica Feriozzi knows something about religion influencing every aspect of life. Her mother practiced Buddhism even though she was raising two girls in the predominantly Christian South. Buddhism showed up in Feriozzi's life when her mother would try to wake her girls up for school by practicing a meditative walk up and down the hallway, culminating in a pose Feriozzi describes as a tiger standing on all fours to claw at a bedroom door. This behavior--a little odd--didn't win cool points with the teenage Feriozzi. "It hadn't occurred to me until now that I can actually see the benefits of why she was doing these things," she says about it today.

For Sacred, Feriozzi choreographed "Balance," which juxtaposes the mind-body connection she observed in her mother's focus on qigong and Tibetan meditation with a tribute to Christianity. "It's about finding your balance in the world, and where your focus is," she says. "That's where your ch'i comes from--the center."

A different path is found in a dance by Misty Borst, "Alternate Paradigm." Although she grew up Catholic, in Borst's house, science was God. Her father was a physician, her mother and grandmother were nurses, and these influences have led Borst, a psychiatrist, on a journey from Catholicism to atheism and finally to being just plain "spiritual."

The Sacred program offers a variety of religious views, in agreement and conflict, such as the collaboratively choreographed "Divine Division." "Alternate Paradigm," though, is the most disparate in theory and movement. And for Borst, dance is an ideal vehicle for expressing religion or any controversial topic. "Art is a means of communicating while allowing progress," she says. "In that way alone, it's a great way to take people who are fundamentally from different places and get them to travel someplace together." H

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