Laban, Butoh, and the Christian Movement Choir

By  Michelle T. Summers

The Doors performed at Trinity Church

The old church on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Michigan is unbearably hot. The pews stick to the skin on the back of my legs, and the flutter of impromptu fans made from program books creates a strange shuttering sound as audience members flap them back and forth, back and forth. While the Sacred Dance Guild’s Festival Concert only slated six performances for the night, the lack of air conditioning and formidable humidity made the time slumber by. My mind drifts to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations as I mentally compare my current situation to the impeccable fan-ography of the women in the final church scene of his work. The “Call to Hope” of the first five pieces oozes together in my memory, like the countless swings of fabric on the endless liturgical dresses or the multitude of high releases of the upper torso toward the heavens. It is into this haze of sweat and fabric that Marilyn Green’s Trinity Movement Choir first appears. 

Program for “The Doors” October 27, 2013

The final piece in a Sacred Dance Guild concert that has presented multiple groups and styles of dance, “Reconciliation” does not fit the liturgical mode of those pieces that came before it. As the choir members slink down the aisles of the church toward the stage, their black-clad bodies stealthily blend into the dark wood around them. Their faces are distinct, however, as they bear the intricate markings that resemble the cherished stained glass of so many church windows. New York based “Living Mask Artist” Ryan Campbell has masterfully melded the colors on the face with a hat that makes the glass’s design appear as a continuation from face to head. As the eleven dancers move in incredible slow motion, the recorded music oscillates between heartbeats, underwater surrealism, drumming, mechanical swoops, and even screaming. First performed at the Trinity Church on Wall Street following the aftermath of 9/11, the choreography echoes the struggle of the city, with the first section representing daily life interrupted, the second section embodying heroism then exhaustion then numbness, and the final section evoking a coming back to life.  Utilizing Green’s knowledge of Laban terminology and butoh technique, the choir presents a unique contribution to a Christian dance concert that had before been composed primarily of modern and ballet dancers. The choir is interracial, although the costuming and makeup readily obscure this fact, but many of the bodies betray an aged and knowledge-laden stoicism as they stand, walk, and then lean upon one another. It is as if the awareness that their bodies remember has made them heavy, drenched in a technique that can only come from lived experience.

This sense of bodily-knowledge is made ever more apparent when it is juxtaposed by the performance of one child, approximately 8 or 9 years of age, who dances with the elders in the group. In this durational piece, she cannot seem to maintain the fortitude of her elders. Her eyes wander about the arches of the building and search the faces of the audience. The corners of her mouth break into an occasional grin. Her presence invites comparison to the bodies that surround her, as her momentary lapses indicate techniques learned, but not yet engrained, a different relationship of the body to its knowledge of the world.

In the United States, a society obsessed with children and youth and in a dance culture predicated on the virtuosic body, groups like the Trinity Movement Choir and the Sacred Dance Guild usurp these dominant narratives, performing and valuing the aging body as vital to the religious practice of Christianity. Tellingly, the danced description of “Reconciliation” accesses the aging body through the Japanese dance form of butoh, albeit in a form that has been globalized through an amorphous history of dissemination. The dance also accomplishes the incorporation of butoh into the Christian church through the model of the Laban movement choir. In what follows, I closely examine the work of New York based choreographer and visual artist Marilyn Green, whose knowledge of art, art history, the humanities, and dance have led her to lecture at numerous universities in the U.S. and also to serve as a Ford Foundation Fellow.[1] In particular, this article will explicate the implications of these two histories (butoh and the Laban choir) for Christian dance practitioners. Bookending this analysis is the description above of the “Reconciliation” piece that I witnessed in the summer of 2012 and The Doors concert that I participated in with the Sacred Dance Guild and the Trinity Movement Choir in New York City in the fall of 2013. 

The Laban Movement Choir Model 

The emergence of Trinity’s movement choir is not a new development in sacred dance. From the inception of the Christian sacred dance movement in the United States in the early 20th century, the dance/rhythmic/movement choir emerged as one of the predominate and most popular forms of sacred dance, particularly in Protestant contexts where an adult vocal choir was commonplace and served as a complementary model.[2] As early as the 1930s, both modern dance legend Ruth St. Denis and sacred dance pioneer Margaret Taylor were utilizing the term “rhythmic choir.” According to Taylor’s own archival notes, she invoked the term because her local church disliked the connotation of the word “dance” in the title of the choir, but another unnoted link was Taylor’s visit to Germany in 1931 (several years before she choreographed her first movement choir) where she studied in Berlin at the school developed by the German expressionist dancer Mary Wigman.[3] The influence of Rudolf Laban’s movement choirs and Wigman’s group work in Germany during this time (further described below) could not have escaped the young Taylor’s notice, although, again I emphasize, primary credit for this naming is indicated as a parallel to the vocal choir rather than an extension of Germanic experiments in Ausdruckstanz.[4] Similarly, Ruth St. Denis’ travels to Germany and the general cross-fertilization between modern dancers in the U.S. and Germany would have left her with at least a general knowledge of Laban’s mass movement choirs and the large group work of Wigman.[5] Yet, again, the archives that reference Ruth St. Denis’ development of her rhythmic choirs do not reference these German choreographers as inspiration for the name.[6] Both of these women are credited as instrumental to the Sacred Dance Guild’s formation, though none of the Guild’s early archival documentation on sacred dance choirs references Laban’s movement choir. Contemporary Sacred Dance Guild member Marilyn Green, the director of the Trinity Movement Choir, is the individual who makes the link between sacred dance choirs and German movement choirs explicit. She openly references Laban as one of her primary influences for the creation of her modern dance movement choir. Why this omission in genealogy and belated acknowledgment of influence? What is at stake in Green’s reclaiming of the movement choir for Christian dance practice in the United States?

I argue that the movement choirs developed in Germany before World War II were, in fact, influential in the development of the Christian sacred dance choir, but revisionist histories within the archive purposefully neglect this association due to the need for American dance forms to politically disassociate from Germany and the Nazi regime.[7]Tracing a historical trajectory from Rudolf Laban and Mary Wigman in Germany, to Ruth St. Denis and Margaret Fisk Taylor in the U.S., and finally to the present day work of Marilyn Green and the Sacred Dance Guild, the ideas of the movement choir developed as it transitioned from imagined religious rite, turned secular religion, turned Christian practice. Through an analysis of Green’s choreography and personal, historical genealogy, I will show how the movement choir format came to fit the practical needs of a group comprised primarily of aging Christian bodies. 

Gaining in popularity during the 1920s and 1930s, Rudolf Laban’s conception of an amateur movement choir took root in his teaching in Switzerland and flourished in his work in Germany. Harkening back to a nostalgic, imagined Germanic community, the choir was based on chthonic movement and, through its citation of folk dance styles, appealed to a sense of wholeness that was felt to be absent in a European landscape that was fragmented by world wars.[8] The form required simple movements in the dance steps due to both the amateur nature of the dancers’ training and the sheer volume of participants involved, which ranged anywhere from 12 to 1,200 dancers.[9] Dance scholar Mary Ann Santos Newhall asserts that Laban sought to transform sacred ritual to secular practice through the movement choir, all the while keeping the “religious resonance” of the dance.[10] He did so by incorporating old rites and folk dance forms and creating new elements through danced improvisational responses meant to be accessible to the dancers’ everyday lives. The choirs were conceived of as an end to themselves, rejecting spectatorship in favor of a lived, physical experience that the individual felt within the context of a group. The intended absence of an audience ruptured the traditional notions of performer and spectator, and instead, as theater scholar Colin Counsell argues, attempted to unite the two roles in a rejection of the Cartesian derivative of the self/other binary.[11] Laban’s conception of this sense of participation came from the involvement of the entire community: “The dancer in a movement choir discovers an awakened sense of movement in his inner being by representing himself not as an individual but as part of a greater living group.”[12] So while the presence of an audience did sometimes occur for a movement choir (particularly in its later iterations), its original purpose was for everyone to participate, leaving no one as spectator.

Many notable dance scholars have contributed to the complicated narrative of Rudolf Laban and his danced contribution to both the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime. The co-option of the movement choir by Nazi Germany left a lasting taint on the term “movement choir” and its function. A recoiling from the term is often cited because of its use as a mass means of propaganda and genocide. The Nazi staging of thousands of children in a movement choir for the dance “Olympic Youth” for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games functions as a prime example. The regime, for a short time pre-war, renamed the movement choir concept, “community dance,” and promoted it as a form of German folk dance that portrayed national identity.[13] Laban, himself, had an ambivalent relationship with the regime, refusing to see his dances as political and even having his work Wir Tanzen banned just before the Olympic Games due to its ambiguity in political interpretation.[14] Still Laban’s apolitical stance and his assertion of the universality of the movement choir form were complicated by statements he made about the choir as a “new folk dance movement of the white race.”[15] As dance scholar Carol Kew argues and as I have shown in other writings, the relegation of these dance forms to the purely artistic or aesthetic realm was and is impossible. No dance form is apolitical, and Laban’s conception of the “universal soul” upon which he based his dance choir was still racially determined.[16]

Laban’s ideas were transmuted west as he moved to Britain during the height of the Nazi regime, and also as his many famous pupils disseminated his techniques to other countries, particularly the United States. Mary Wigman, one of Laban’s most notable German students, established the Mary Wigman School in New York City in 1931 under the direction of Hanya Holm (later renamed the Hanya Holm School due to political considerations). Holm would be instrumental in introducing the German Ausdruckstanz to U.S. dance students and would go on to influence the leftist dance groups of the 1930s such as the New Dance Group, the emerging postmodern dance movement in the 1960s, and, of course, the Sacred Dance Guild.[17] In fact, the postmodernist movement itself shared many similarities with Laban’s ideas about movement choirs. Postmodernism in the U.S. and community dance in Great Britain both valued the pedestrian body, and in the case of community dance, the amateur body. These dance forms allowed the aging body to participate due to the democratization of the form and its negation of virtuosity. Noted disability scholar Petra Kuppers reiterates community dance’s emphasis on process rather than product, as we saw with the Laban movement choir.[18]Prominent U.S. dancers and choreographers such as Anna Halprin and Liz Lerman publicly embraced the aging body on stage. As dance scholar Nanako Nakajima argues, however, there still remained a demarcation between the postmodern avant garde comprised primarily of younger dancers and the emergence of community dance comprised of older amateurs. Nakajima claims “…the presence of professional old dancers, such as Butoh artist Kazuo Ohno, challenges the Euro-American structures that relegate young professionals to contemporary dance and older amateurs to Community Dance.”[19] I will argue in the next section, after Nakajima, that butoh bridges this gap and becomes an ideal medium for the aging body in Christian worship.

In the article “How to Form a Sacred Dance Movement Choir,” written for the Sacred Dance Guild, Marilyn Green opens with an homage to Laban, worth quoting at length here:

Laban’s definition of Movement Choirs still holds; numbers of people joined in using choreographed movement together, with varying degrees of personal expression. Spiritually based Movement Choirs add yet another element. The spiritual energy of a group can be enormously greater than that of a single person alone and a Movement Choir combines the joy and freedom to dance the sacred with the power of the group, benefiting both the dancers and audience.[20]

Green’s accessing of a Labanian genealogy acknowledges its secular origins but reclaims its spiritual power. Green’s choir makes explicit the “religious resonance” that Laban claimed as a universal spirituality and the Nazi regime claimed as national fervor, redirecting the politics by making it sacred in general and Christian within the Trinity Church context. There seems to be no hesitation on Green’s part about the historical politics of calling this form “Laban’s Movement Choir” or accessing its narrative of community. She does however sometimes echo Laban’s assumptions about universality. Since this document was created for the Sacred Dance Guild, there is an ambiguity in the claiming of Christian, causing the language to rehearse the universality of “soul” or “spirit” in an attempt to make the movement choir format accessible to all belief systems, while still assuming the majority of readers wishing to implement the choir are Christian. 

Her ending statement to her article communicates the following advice: “In my experience, if you can unite the group vertically – with the Divine – many of the horizontal issues evaporate…”[21] Green’s statement echoes the cosmological worldview of a Christian deity and its relationship to the body and community, much in the same way we saw the modern liturgical dancers invoke the Divine. Her quote cites the old adage that conceives of dance as a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. She strategically reframes this adage to insinuate the spiritual-not-sexual argument that the early modern dancers invoked: a spiritual focus somehow negates sexual connotations in dance. Importantly though, Green sees this as a function of the unity of the group with the divine – not just the individual – which enables horizontal (i.e. sexual or social) concerns to become a non-issue.

Thus, the needs that Green’s document addresses are somewhat different than liturgical dance imperatives. Determining a purpose for the choreography, who is going to participate, and what physical elements are to be included provides definite overlaps with the modern dance model for liturgical dance. However, Green is careful to assert: 

The most successful pieces are beautiful, but within the compass of the least accomplished person in the group so there is satisfaction in achievement that allows the participants to fill the movement with their individual spiritual connections and build the collective power.[22]

This emphasis on individual expression within collectivity shifts the conversation around spiritual-not-sexual bodies slightly, allowing more room for thinking about a community dance model for people with diverse knowledges and bodily experiences. Collectivity enables a focus on the group as a whole rather than just on an individual’s body. So many of the issues of spectacularizing the body, putting it on public display and thereby making it visually/sexually available through that publicness, is dissolved in the group mentality that does not allow one body to stand out over another. Thus, in the movement choir model, the assumed relationship between spectacularity and sexuality can be circumnavigated in service of the group project. But there are limits to this formation, for while Green allows for this community model in the dancing itself, she still claims the directorial, choreographic role as the primary method for avoiding dances that “look like calisthenics,” therefore not allowing a complete democratization of structure.

            Similarly, Green’s choreography negotiates the ambiguous relationship between performer and audience with which Laban also struggled. She acknowledges that some movement choirs have no audience, but rather serve as “established rituals for connecting members of the group with the sacred.” Those that do have an audience use the “group as a focal point to bring the sacred to others.” In both of these models, the presupposition becomes that everyone is participating and no one is watching, thus the visuality of the assumed male gaze on the female body can be usurped.[23]The tension in this mode of participation, and the resulting differences in a sense of community, were clearly demonstrated in the conclusion of “Reconciliation.” At the end of the piece, Green came onto the stage and stated an unusual expectation – she hoped to repeat the entire piece, this time with her audience participating throughout. After nearly two hours of the concert and the Trinity Movement Choir’s close to thirty minute piece, many in the audience shifted in their seats, looking perturbed or disgruntled at the prospect of remaining in the searingly hot church for another thirty minutes, much less executing an impromptu performance. The compromise that was eventually reached was that some audience members, called by the dancers through movement, would dance the last section in the aisles and on the stage together. A handful of viewers stood to improvise in the eerily slow butoh style, while I sat toward the back of the church, fanning vigorously, occasionally lifting my sweaty legs off of the wooden pews. The choir, the community, was somehow closer, but still impersonal, limited, inaccessible to me. The audience participants, however, seemed very invested in the process, and it would appear for, a moment, that the divide between spectator and dancer had been temporarily bridged, as everyone, regardless of age or ability, moved together throughout the church.

The Doors “Birth”

Butoh, Aging, and Christian Sacred Dance

            After attending the Sacred Dance Guild Festival in 2012 in Holland, Michigan, Sacred Dance Guild President, Wendy Morrell, sent an email to me in May of 2013, asking if I would be interested in participating in a special SDG event called The Doors in New York City. Set to take place at Trinity Church in October, the Guild pulled together its members into four groups from North, South, East, and West under the direction of the Trinity Movement Choir leader, Marilyn Green. Rehearsals primarily took place in New York, leading up to the performance, and I quickly discovered that we were using butoh (a form I had never been trained in) to convey the story in this performance of Christian dance. Unfortunately, I had very little time to speak with Marilyn Green during the rehearsal process for The Doors concert. As the coordinator for multiple groups that had converged from Canada and the U.S., many of whom had not yet met one another much less rehearsed, Green’s time was spent organizing, motivating, introducing, and coordinating the thirty or so dancers. One of the first to don an elaborately made-up face, I did manage to corner Green right before the performance as others were having their makeup applied. I asked her the question that I had been mulling about over the course of the prior three days of rehearsal, quite simply “Why butoh?” She looked at me with her huge, probing eyes, cocked her redhead sideways and stated the obvious: “Because you can do it until you are very old.” I was somewhat taken aback by the practicality of this statement, for most women I had spoken with about Christian sacred dance usually responded to questions about technique with a philosophical response to a deeper spiritual meaning. The utilitarian response was both a surprise, but also a revelation, a momentary insight into the relationship Green perceived between the aging body, butoh, and Christian dance.

The plainness of this summation is deceiving however. A closer examination of both Marilyn Green and butoh elicits a conversation that Western culture, particularly the dance world, struggles to enunciate – what about the aging dancing body? Ultimately, through the aesthetics and ideas put forth through butoh, Marilyn Green’s artistic work, the Trinity Movement Choir, and the Sacred Dance Guild declare the aging dancer’s body to still be relevant and necessary precisely because of the plainness of the knowledge that this body possesses. Still, while the implementation of butoh as a Christian dance form may enable the aging body to occupy these spaces differently, in what follows, I will also analyze the history of sexuality within butoh and how this complicates readings of The Doors performance in a Christian context.

Many of the members of my Sacred Dance Guild “South” group were surprised to hear that butoh was in fact a relatively new form of dance – several had assumed that it was an ancient, sacred form of Japanese ritual. This is, perhaps, understandable, particularly in the Christian context, where the slow, methodical development of the movement and the emphasis on reflection seemed to hint toward a historical, spiritual, albeit “other,” rite. I imagine that some of the more conservative women in my group would have been shocked by the origins of the art form and the grotesque and disturbing reputation it had rightfully procured along with its development, but a handful of dancers in the production were familiar with the form. Some were acquainted with it because of Sankai Juku’s performance at the 1984 Los Angles Olympic Arts Festival and the horrific fall of one of the butoh group’s dancers from a building in Seattle in 1985. A few had actually practiced the form in a workshop or through personal training. However, the Trinity Movement Choir’s performance at the Sacred Dance Guild Festival was the first time that most, including myself, had seen butoh used specifically within a Christian context. 

Butoh emerged on the post-war contemporary dance scene in Japan during the late 1950s – early 1960s. The term “butoh,” originally an ancient word for dance, was repurposed by practitioners in response to rapidly-spreading, Western consumer culture and its capitalist focus on the individual, while at the same time the dance form contributed to the reformulation of Japanese identity and politics post World War II. Tatsumi Hijikata, born in 1928, was one of the founders of the dance form, and the first to term the word “butoh” in its contemporary sense. One of his first and most controversial performances, Kinjiki, was organized by the All-Japan Art Dance Association and featured a chicken squeezed between the thighs of a young man and seemingly killed, an appalling sight to the modern dance community, which ultimately signified a break and the development of a new form.[24] The other prominent butoh founder, Kazuo Ohno, often collaborated with Hijikata, but is labeled as one of the gods of butoh in his own right and has many prominent students that have branched off to develop their own sense of the form. His most famous work, Admiring La Argentina (1977), has been performed across the world and was awarded the Dance Critic’s Circle Award. While Hijikata died relatively early at the age of 57, Ohno continued to perform into his 100th year, dying in 2010 at the age of 103.

Scholars and reviewers have described butoh with adjectives such as grotesque, raw, distorted, lyrical, violent, nonsense, tortured, disturbing and bizarre. Performed as a solo or in a group, it first found popularity in the West due to the advent of postmodernism and a growing interest in Asian culture. Bonnie Sue Stein’s seminal essay “Butoh: Twenty Years Ago We Were Crazy, Dirty, and Mad,” published in The Drama Review in 1986, draws upon the Japanese historical work of Kazuko Kuniyoshi, who assesses the relationship between butoh and Western culture in the following manner: 

Western theater and dance has not reached beyond technique and expression as means of communication. The cosmic elements of Butoh, its violence and nonsense, eroticism and metamorphic qualities, are welcomed by Western artists because they are forced to use their imaginations when confronted with mystery. Butoh acts as a kind of code to something deeper, beyond themselves. What is crucial to this code is its non-verbal nature.[25]

Western culture’s embrace of butoh, ironically, legitimated its popularity in Japan. As Stein also notes, although butoh constructed itself as anti-traditionalist, the two most recognizable attributes of the dance– the super-slow motion development of movements and the use of masks and/or painting of the face – are akin to more traditional Japanese performance forms such as noh (slowness) and kabuki (white body paint). Additionally, scholars such as Juliette Crump have noted the relationship between Buddhist Japanese culture and the concepts espoused within butoh, identifying the attainment of compassion as a major driving force in a dance that purports to be about the profane or the “divine grotesque.”[26]

Kazuo Ohno’s life and practice is of particular interest in analyzing Marilyn Green and the Trinity Movement Choir’s version of butoh for multiple reasons. Ohno was a practicing Christian, baptized in his twenties after serving as the physical education teacher for a private Christian school in Yokohama.[27] He cited German choreographer Harold Kretuzberg and Mary Wigman as inspiration for his work, even studying with their pupils Takaya Eguichi and Souko Miya in 1936. He often performed as a woman in a cross-gender incarnation, which probed what Crump identified as “the patriarchal, Western stance of Christianity.”[28] And finally, his performance well into his later life challenged the Western priority on youth-dominated dance, bringing into stark contrast what Nanako Nakajima identifies as an aging process that is celebrated within Japanese culture rather than concealed:

Aging depicts the aesthetics of Japanese dance. It is not that anyone can dance, even though they age, as we can see in Community Dance. The point is that dancers in the field of arts dance better as they get older… As a cultural expectation of Gei, which expects artists and artisans to commit to lifelong artistic and personal development, the old dancer symbolizes lifelong practice…Aging is thus the ultimate status for dancing for those professional dancers, and the audience wants to spend money to watch their dancing.[29]

Both Nanako Nakajima and Anne Basting highlight Ohno as a model for disrupting U.S. dance models that devalue age, presenting his work as a dance that embraces the aging body and understands the “inseparability of youth and age, of life and death.”[30]  These four facets of Ohno’s life, his Christian faith, German inspiration, gender focus, and his aging body, are all very much present in the work of Marilyn Green. Green’s choir is a Christian choir, inspired by the German Laban, outfitted in androgynous clothing for performances, and centered around aging bodies at the heart of the choreographic work.

Even with these overlaps, the butoh-inspired work “The Doors” is still, at best, a very conservative approach to utilizing this “grotesque” form within the Christian church. Green attributes the Trinity Movement Choir’s dance inspiration to butoh group, Sankai Juku – “…from them we have taken a slow, dreamlike movement style that allows us to feel and present each person’s authentic, individual connection with Spirit.”[31] The faces and the bodies of the movement choir are quite different from those utilized in other liturgical and sacred dance forms. Asked to embody emotions such as fear or states of being such as death, two groups of dancers (the “West” group and the “East” group) chose to contort their bodies and their faces to reflect the embodied nature of these realities. Writhing on the floor, stalking across the stage, and beckoning demonically, this dance movement choice stands in stark contrast to the great majority of liturgical and sacred dance groups who concentrate on the emotion and revelation of Christian joy. And while this element is better reflected in the emotion of love and the action of birth (embodied by the “North” group and the “South” group), there was still an element of struggle within beauty that these two groups performed. So while butoh was utilized to break down boundaries around what dance can do in the Christian church, it was fairly tame in comparison to more radical threads of butoh performances that feature the naked body or the killing of chickens or some other shocking, thought-provoking action. 

Additionally, the homoerotic tendencies identified in butoh by scholars such as Catherine Curtin also complicate the narratives of what these aging bodies are doing on the sanctuary stage. According to Curtin, “early Butoh performances depicted cross-dressing and sadomasochistic acts and in Hijikata’s dance, the sensuous and desiring body was frequently combined with ambiguous, bizarre or incongruous images, which perplexed and undermined coherent identity.”[32] So while Green’s costuming choices often embraced androgyny, the homoerotic subtext was largely absent, as most danced relationships were described by participants in familial rather than homoerotic terms.[33] Still, the choice to have aging bodies perform a sanitized version of a form that is widely-recognized as overtly sexual, seems to push against the Christian discourse that sees these women as non-sexual because they are no longer in their reproductive years. Instead, this dance seems to subtly and tactically embrace the label of non-sexual as a veiled opportunity to explore a sexualized art form danced by older bodies in a Christian church. The inability or unwillingness of U.S. Christian congregations to see aging bodies as necessarily sexual is precisely the discourse that these Christian dancers mobilize in order to utilize butoh in the church.

During The Doors concert, dancers improvised over a dramatic score similar to the one heard in the “Reconciliation” performance. The theme for the concert was based upon Green’s favorite quote by Aldous Huxley: “There are things that are known and things that are unknown. In between there are the Doors.” While the great majority of the group were white women (save for the notable exception of the Trinity Movement Choir members whose dancers were primarily African-American with a few men involved), there was very little mention of Christianity specifically (an espoused universal spirituality is common to Sacred Dance Guild events) even though the performance was in the Trinity Church, an Episcopal parish, and the great majority of the dancers and audience members were Christian. There were a wide variety of trained bodies, and very few dancers under the age of 40. Yet, butoh enabled shortened rehearsal times, middle-aged to elderly bodies, and dramatically different technical training to matter little. The utilization of butoh by a Christian movement choir and an assorted group of aging women from across North America seemed to move the audience and dancers alike, transforming love, birth, fear, and death into sacred elements explored and felt through a danced expression that also sought to understand the cosmic. However, the basic precepts of the once radical, now universalized, dance form of butoh were continually complicated by the call to spirituality that Green, the Trinity Movement Choir, and the SDG drew from the form’s practice and meaning.

            …As the heartbeats increase in intensity, I begin to roll myself up in the thick white circle of blanket lying on the cold church floor. Earlier, when our door, the green door, had been opened by the Door Master at the audience’s behest, we emerged through the wooden entry inside the cloth, a virtual representation of an exit from the womb. But now, it is I who is to be born. Clutching the blankets in my hand, I pull the white drapery over my head and struggle to stand up. I feel the hands of six older women laid upon my body as I convulse and attempt to grow. Some are helping me; some are holding me down. As I stand, I try to free myself from the cocoon I have created – first a hand, then another, emerges from inside. Finally, I am free, the sheet stripped from my body as I gaze into the depths of the cathedral ceilings. I visit each of the women who labored in my birth – touching them, seeing them, dancing with them. Then a few final heartbeats, and it is finished.[34]

[1] Marilyn Green, Marilyn Green Art, (accessed May 17, 2014).

[2] These terms – rhythmic, movement, symbolic movement, dance – are often used interchangeably in the sacred dance archives, often depending on which term was most advantageous for a given situation and context. See Chapter 1.

[3] Margaret Taylor,  “Fifty Years of Sacred Dance,” Sacred Dance Guild Newsletter (Winter 1983). 

[4] In an article by Cynthia Winton-Henry titled “Celebrating Margaret Taylor Doane” in the Margaret Palmer Taylor Collection of Sacred Dance at the Graduate Theological Union, Taylor’s first description of her movement choir cites it as not for a group of dancers, but for the actual vocal choir. She encouraged the vocal choir, dressed as angels for the Christmas production at her congregational church in 1933, to lift their arms as they sang. Thus, the movement choir is begun as movement done by vocal choirs, rather than extending from some sort of dance as the primary influence.

[5] See Isa Partsch-Bergsohn, Modern Dance in Germany and the United States: Crosscurrents and Influences, Volume I (Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994), 7, 64. St. Denis toured Germany and Austria from 1906 to 1909 and was exposed to dance in the region, although she probably did not see the work of Laban or Wigman at this time because they had not yet reached the height of their popularity. But, Wigman’s tours of America during the 1930s made German modern dance accessible to the U.S. modern dance world. St. Denis met Wigman in December of 1930 to welcome her to a reception organized by the Concert Dancers’ League, and she probably saw her concert in New York. For more information on the crosscurrents between dancers in Germany and the U.S. see New German Dance Studies, ed. Susan Manning and Lucia Ruprecht (Champaign: University of Illinois, 2012).

[6] See Ruth St. Denis, An Unfinished Life (London: G.G. Harrap, 1939). The last chapter talks about her work with rhythmic choirs and attributes inspiration to Hinduism, theosophy, and Christian Science, but there is no mention of German movement choirs. Similarly, the materials on Ruth St. Denis and her movement choirs (and really all of the sacred dancers working with movement choirs) in the Sacred Dance Guild Archive at the University of New Hampshire are silent on this relationship.

[7] See Partsch-Berghson, Modern Dance in Germany and the United States, Introduction. While there was cross-fertilization between the two countries, the two world wars have made this historical connection between modern dance in the two countries difficult to trace, particularly as allegiances changed and techniques shifted course with World War II and the Nazi regime. Because German dancers such as Wigman and Laban became entangled with the Nazi regime, students such as Hanya Holm in New York chose to dissociate with German dance. Scholarship in the past has largely chosen to see a break in art between the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime, but recent work in German dance studies looks more closely at the link that these choreographers had to the politics of their time. See Susan Manning, Ecstasy and the Demon: The Dances of Mary Wigman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), or for a post-war perspective on dance and politics in East Germany see Jens Richard Giersdorf, The Body of the People: East German Dance since 1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).

[8] Mary Anne Santo Newhall, “Uniform Bodies: Mass Movement and Modern Totalitarianism,” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Summer 2012), 29; Colin Counsell, “Dancing to Utopia: Modernity, Community and the Movement Choir,” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Winter 2004), 160-61; Susan Manning, “Interrupted Continuities: Modern Dance in Germany,” The Drama Review, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer 1986), 34.

[9] Manning, “Interrupted Continuities,” 35.

[10] Newhall, “Uniform Bodies,” 29.

[11] Counsell, “Dancing to Utopia,” 160-63.

[12] Rudolf Laban, “On the Meaning of Movement Choirs,” (Schrifttanz 1930) quoted in Manning, “Interrupted Continuities,” 34. 

[13] Carole Kew, “From Weimar Movement Choir to Nazi Community Dance: The Rise and Fall of Rudolf Laban’s ‘Festkultur,’” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter 1999), 79.

[14] See Kew, “From Weimar Movement Choir to Nazi Community Dance.” She fleshes out the complexities of this banning.

[15] Kew, “From Weimar Movement Choir to Nazi Community Dance,” 77.

[16] Kew, “From Weimar Movement Choir to Nazi Community Dance,” 85-86. “Instead what was at stake for Laban was the hidden world of the ‘universal soul out of which and for which we have to create’ where ‘we are all one’…Yet whilst Laban stressed the importance of the non-ideological and universal movement experience of choirs, he also saw dance as racially determined.”

[17] For example, the Fall 1958 SDG Newsletter mention Mrs. George Chenell as a pupil of Hanya Holm – “Chenelle gave a course in preparatory exercise routines for dance choir work.”

[18] See Petra Kuppers Community Performance: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2007).

[19] Nanako Nakajima, “De-aging Dancerism? The Aging Body in Contemporary and Community Dance,” Performance Research Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3 (2011), 100.

[20] Marilyn Green, “How to Form a Sacred Dance Movement Choir,” (2011), (accessed March 15, 2014).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Surprisingly, most of the objections I have read about Christian dance in the church are concerned with dancers arousing sexual feelings in the congregant, rather than the dance itself arousing sexual feelings in the dancer. This is an argument Kathryn Mihelick seemed to have heard a lot, for in my conversation with her in February of 2013, she declared that it is the perspective of the viewer that is important, and it is “their fault if they are having bad thoughts.” I have read very little that is concerned about sexual issues between the dancers themselves, as might be the case with critiques of social dance styles where men and women dance together.

[24] For a description of this dance and its reception see: Bonnie Sue Stein, “Butoh: 20 Years Ago We Were Crazy, Dirty, Mad,” The Drama Review, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer 1986), 115.

[25] Stein, “Butoh,” 114.

[26] Juliette T. Crump, “One Who Hears Their Cries,” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 38, No. ½ (Summer-Winter 2006), 61-62, 64.

[27] For a full biography of Kazuo Ohno, see his dance studio’s website at

[28] Crump, “One Who Hears Their Cries,” 68.

[29] Nakajima, “De-Aging Dancerism,” 103.

[30] Basting, The Stages of Age, 140.

[31] Marilyn Green, “Meet a Member,” (2013), (accessed May 17, 2013). Sankai Juku is an international butoh group founded in 1975 by Amagatsu Ushio. For more information see their website:

[32] Catherine Curtin, “Rose-coloured Dance: The Politics of Cross-dressing in Hijikata Tatsumi’s Ankoku Butoh,” Contemporary Theatre Review,21:4, 473.

[33] This was particularly true in the “Love” group which invoked female relationships based on friendship, comfort, and support and in my “Birth” group, which tended to characterize our dancing together as abstract (“the birth of an idea”) or familial (“the birth of a child”).

[34] See the following website to watch video of The Doors performance that took place in the Trinity Church on Oct. 27, 2013:

Michelle T. Summers

Michelle T. Summers is an active dance scholar, teacher, and choreographer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies and an adjunct lecturer in the Center for Art, Religion and Education at the Graduate Theological Union.

Originally from Arkansas, Summers’ dancing has taken her across the U.S. as she completed her B.F.A. in Ballet and B.A. in English from Texas Christian University, and then received her M.A. in Performance Studies from New York University. She completed her Ph.D. in Critical Dance Studies at UC Riverside in 2014. 

Summers has performed professionally with Montage Arts, Casa Manana Equity Theater, and Contemporary Ballet Dallas. Her choreography has been presented at the Culver Center for the Arts, Dance New Amsterdam, the Barefoot Brigade Festival, Dallas Dance for the Planet, Berkeley Ballet Theater, and Regional Dance America.  She has also served on faculty at Santa Clara University, Texas Christian University, Berkeley Ballet Theater, the Bentley School, the American College Dance Festival, the Bay Area Dance Exchange, and the Pasadena Dance Festival.

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Posted in Art, Christian dance, Dance, Dance festival, Drama, Historic Notes, Liturgical dance, modern dance, Movement Choir, Sacred Dance, World Dance

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