Carla De Sola (center front) and Omega Liturgical Dancers interpret Psalm 45 with music by “The Tree,” c. 1975, at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York City, where she was artist-in-residence for 25 years.
Documenting a “Living Legacy” On-line: Carla De Sola
By Sister Martha Ann Kirk, Th.D.
The psalmist urges people to praise God with dancing! How can that be done from generation to generation? Some harvesting of sacred dance history has been done giving seeds for future growth, but much more is needed. While many contemporary sacred dances become easily available on-line, dances from decades ago have been harder to find and deeper studies of themes developed by sacred dancers over the years are needed. This writing gives a short introduction to easily available film resources on Carla De Sola whom the Sacred Dance Guild has acclaimed as a “Living Legacy.” The Carla De Sola YouTube channel has been created and can be found at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClG5oWfxeFGjRmxIPahDoxg.
In 1960 De Sola graduated from the Juilliard School (in dance) where she studied with José Limón. She founded the Omega Liturgical Dance Company at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, NYC, in 1974 and Omega West Dance Company in California in 1992. She has taught at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, and the “Carla De Sola Collection” is located in the GTU Archives. Almost all of the films mentioned in this article and hundreds more can be found there.
Carla De Sola has worked with some of the most highly trained professionals in the world of dance in New York City and people with no dance training who simply want to praise God with their bodies. See glimpses of both the fascinating complexity and the shining simplicity of her choreographies in the documentation of her work. Though the quality of the older films (often converted from VHS) may be weak, one can enjoy the strength of the spirit behind them.
Whether one would like to consider dance in the developing interfaith movement in the last four decades, to reflect on varied dances and themes in the life of Carla De Sola, or to explore ideas for different seasons of the Christian year, the Carla De Sola YouTube channel gives varied films and commentaries.
Bold print indicates a title which is on the Carla De Sola YouTube channel and the title can be found by a search on YouTube. A URL is provided when a video is not on the Carla De Sola YouTube channel.
Baptized as a young adult, in the late 1960’s De Sola was seeking a more dynamic faith and encountered Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement which she founded to follow Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples as a model of service. For about five years De Sola served the needy as much as she could in Day’s community which also encouraged creative artistic expressions, including De Sola’s dance. Her choreography of “A Dance Reflecting on the Last Supper, Holy Thursday” includes a gesture inviting all to serve, an echo of Day’s invitation to De Sola. As the Catholic Church considers if Day should be canonized a saint, De Sola has been invited to be an official witness sharing her experience of this friend of God.
The Temple of Understanding is a network of people which began in 1960 with the endorsement of Eleanor Roosevelt, Pope John XXIII, and the Dalai Lama among others to overcome prejudice, and to build dialogue, understanding, and respect among religions. Diverse spiritual leaders including Dom Helder Camera of Brazil, Carla De Sola and the Omega Liturgical Dance Company (from 6:16 to 8:11 minutes), followed by the Dalai Lama, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, Swami Satchidananda, and others shared inspiration. See “Temple of Understanding Spiritual Summit with the Dalai Lama, 1984.”
As a child, De Sola learned of nature from her father who is known for the discovery of the De Sola Tortoise on the Galapagos Islands. As an artist-in-residence and director of the Omega Liturgical Dancers at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, she helped develop the dances included in the Earth Mass or Missa Gaia celebrating and praying for creation. Animals from tiny creatures to a tortoise to a huge elephant process in to be blessed on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. See “The Earth Mass with the Omega Liturgical Dancers.”
De Sola, a lover of creation is a lover of peace, as one must be to protect creation. Her dance was a part of important citizen diplomacy of US and Soviet citizens in the midst of the Cold War. See “February Fling,” A Soviet-American Celebration with Omega Liturgical Dance Company, 1988.
The Omega West Dance Company performed In This Fateful Hour on June 26, 2005, at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco for the “World Celebration” of music, dance and film and a panel discussion on “The UN at 60 –Threats, Challenges and Changes.” See “60th Anniversary of the United Nations, Omega West Dance Company.”
Using the mythology and the story of the Minotaur, Omega West Dancers explored a search for inner peace. See “Wisdom’s Way: A Passion Dance for the Earth.”
As a young woman, De Sola participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963, and cheered as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I have a dream . . .” About twenty years later, De Sola was celebrating a great woman who had worked for freedom for Blacks and for women, Sojourner Truth. See two versions of the dance “Sojourner Truth” with three dancers and “Sojourner Truth” portrayed by Maria Mitchell.
De Sola of Jewish background compassionately connected with her roots as she developed ideas from the writings of Anne Frank. Hear a recent interview of De Sola and see the dance from some decades before, “The Diary of Anne Frank” a dance interpretation and interview. Many times De Sola explored the story of the first Jewish prophetess, Miriam an important part of the Hebrews journey from slavery to freedom. See both “Miriam, Dancing in the Footsteps of a Prophetess” and also the dance in the series “The Dancing Icons,” “Miriam,” “Samaritan Woman at the Well.”
Carla De Sola’s Omega Liturgical Dancers made visible concepts of connection emphasized by the Temple of Understanding in the 1980’s. About thirty years later De Sola’s Omega West Dancers shared “Beyond Words: an Interfaith Ritual for Peace” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5l5XLqPq71s revealing ideas of connection. Leaders of various religious traditions pour water, an image of a great underground stream uniting us. This was presented and discussed at the largest interfaith gathering in the world, the Parliament of World Religions in 2015. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIHxec1lJuk.
The mystical vision of Teilhard de Chardin integrating spirit and matter with all spiraling toward Christ Omega inspired De Sola in the early 1970’s to call her company Omega. In 2010 for a conference on Teilhard at the University of Santa Clara, Omega West Dancers explored Teilhard’s “Hymn of the Universe” and particularly his “Mass on the World.” See “Dancing the Vision of Teilhard de Chardin, 2010.”
See “Dancing a Sacred Vision, Liturgical and Ritual Selections, Omega West Dance Company” for excerpts of many creations including “O Magnum Mysterium” choreographed by David McCauley.
Dancing Seasons of the Church Year
Carla De Sola explores the mysteries and graces of the feasts and seasons of the liturgical year.
Priests at Old St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in San Francisco, CA, comment on the joy that dance can bring to worship. For many years Omega West Dancers led by Carla De Sola enriched their worship for the different seasons of the year. See the “Joy of Dance in Worship.”
For Advent, the beginning of the church year, see a dramatic exploration of St. John the Baptist calling all to repentance “A Voice Cries in the Wilderness.”
In the charming Christmas eve dance considering both the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary and the coming of the Christ Child, the mother receives her own recently born baby. All new life is a reminder of the Christ life. See “Newman Center Berkeley Christmas 2011” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NI1t6zf3XPo.
The Season of Lent remembers stories of transformation like that of the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel. See the series “The Dancing Icons,” “Miriam, Samaritan Woman at the Well.”
See “30th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Grace Cathedral, Omega West Dance Company.” This moving service has one of De Sola’s many dances based on the Beatitudes and also a reflection on Isaiah 2:2-4 “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”
For the feast of the Annunciation, one might enjoy the simple “Hail Mary Movement Meditation” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8wTOhb0wb4.
The sacred drama of Holy Week includes a sensitive dance of the Last Supper with Peter resisting having his feet washing, then learning of value of service. See “A Dance Reflecting on the Last Supper, Holy Thursday, April 2, 2015.” Members of the congregation pictured are known for helping Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement serving the vulnerable.
Greg (Christopher) Reynolds in the early 1970’s choreographed “The Passion According to Mary” which Carla De Sola and Reynolds performed extensively for a few decades in many places from the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City to the Philadelphia Catholic Cathedral for the International Eucharistic Congress in 1976. The cover of Dance Magazine, December 2001, featured De Sola performing this dance in 1982. See “The Passion According to Mary.”
See “O Sacred Head Surrounded” and the Veneration of the Cross As part of the Good Friday Liturgical Service in the mid-1990’s, Omega West Dancers reflected on the ancient hymn “O Sacred Head.” The universality of suffering is shown and at the same time the tenderness of compassion and consolation as can be seen in Veronica wiping the face of Jesus.
For the sacred night remembering Christ’s resurrection, see three dances: “Women at the Tomb,” a dance at the Easter Vigil, 2013 which brings the emotion of the gospel to life. A spectacular focus on the altar table prepares us for the Holy One who appears sharing bread in the Upper Room, in Emmaus, and by the seashore. See “Come to the Feast,” a table-setting dance, created by Carla De Sola and David McCauley, and then the beauty of participation in “Lord of the Dance” Closing of the Easter Vigil, 2013.
Carla De Sola choreographed the story of the Risen Christ and Mary Magdalene for the Investiture and Recognition of Marc Handley Andrus as Bishop in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. See Carson Cooman — “I Have Seen the Lord” (2006) for chorus, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44AcTCgWI8M.
On Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes with both power and gentleness, fire and wind are evoked by waving flags. See “Pentecost Opening Procession” and also “2016 Pentecost Preparation of the Gifts Dance.” Both young and old are invited by the Holy Spirit. On the birthday of the church how good it is to remember “We Are Many Parts, We Are All One Body.”
The long season of Ordinary Time is full of gospel stories. De Sola’s “Mary and Martha” dance humorously and wisely calls disciples to both contemplation and action.
For a new reflection on a familiar gospel story, see “Woman with a Flow of Blood.”
Any season of the year, we pray as Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father.” See a meditation “Eternal Spirit,” the New Zealand Lord’s Prayer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9e_CJk5jFM.
As the days grow shorter, one can remember that our lives are growing shorter, but we have hope dancing with the saints. Explore the “Dancing Icons” and watch the congregation that weekly dances around the Eucharistic table in the company of the saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco. See “The Dancing Icons,” “Miriam,” “Samaritan Woman at the Well.” A twelve foot Christ in a leap of resurrection is in the center. The saints include both traditional people and unfamiliar figures and they represent musicians, artists, mathematicians, martyrs, scholars, mystics, lovers, and prophets from many faiths and backgrounds. See a dance about a spiritual woman who was burned at the stake “Marguerite de Porete.”
Carla De Sola and some of the Omega West Dancers lead members of the congregation of St. Gregory of Nyssa in joyous circle dances to “Laudate Dominium” and drum improvisations done by a founder of the church, Father Richard Fabian on November 8, 1998. See “Circle Dancing, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.”
De Sola dances with the congregation in the St. Gregory of Nyssa Church, Easter Vigil, 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XO5iEMTCrE8
In the church with the dancing saints, December 24, 2015, De Sola’s choreography graced a unique televised service “May Peace Prevail on Earth: A CBS Interfaith Christmas Special” which was hosted by United Religious Initiatives http://www.uri.org/cbs (See 26:02 to 28:00 minutes). May people of all faiths and cultures dance in circles of compassion and peace around the earth. Carla De Sola continues to teach steps to do this!
Learn more of De Sola and of the forthcoming biography of her by Sister Martha Ann Kirk, Th.D. http://spiritmovesomega.weebly.com/ (We are grateful for help from Carlos Ivan Acevedo, Graduate Research Assistant supported by the University of the Incarnate Word Office of Graduate Studies and Research.)
[Martha Ann Kirk, CCVI, a member of the Incarnate Word Sisters International Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Committee, is currently writing about the sacred dancer Carla De Sola at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. Kirk recently authored Iraqi Women of Three Generations: Challenges, Education, and Hopes for Peace, based on her exhibit of photos and interviews.]