by Kathy Bozzuti-Jones
When Coronavirus first hit, the Sacred Dance Guild and Trinity Movement Choir were stopped short by the sudden hiatus, upending so many exciting plans, including the Guild’s annual summer festival (scheduled for Trinity Church in New York City in 2020). Months of planning included premiering Marilyn Green’s complete Creation cycle, and laying groundwork for HumanKind, her vision of a large-scale dance with both sound and projected imagery. Moreover, Marilyn was to teach Reconciliation to festival attendees, for a worldwide livestream on September 11. But the virus changed everything.
In retrospect, it didn’t take very long at all to re-think and switch gears, and we ended up with The Way of the Phoenix in “Virtually There,” the summer festival title that speaks for itself. The decision to make a go of an online sacred dance conference was nothing short of a leap of faith. Dancing online? How could it possibly capture the spiritual exchange between dancers, the shape-shifting and electricity of touch improv? What would happen to the unpredictable forms that arise in moments of interaction with dancers, space, music, and choreography? And who had the technical expertise to pull off the showcase that dancers had come to expect over the years?
Before long – in a record two months, in fact – the festival was reconceived and Virtually There was born.
Before long – in a record two months, in fact – the festival was reconceived and Virtually There was born. Wendy Morrell, president of the Sacred Dance Guild and co-ordinator of the festival and Pulelehua Quirk, SDG resource director and Jessica Abejar, SDG member, stepped in to manage the technology. And it didn’t take long for the planning team to notice that, even though they weren’t able to touch one another physically, they were able to connect, nonetheless, in a virtual medium. They began to sense that, while there are certain disadvantages to virtual dance, there may be certain advantages, too.
“We soon realized the opportunities for international group movement collaboration were greater than ever before,” said Marilyn Green of the Guild and Trinity Movement Choir, “and those who were unable to fly into New York were now able to participate. Suddenly there were possibilities of dance offerings here and abroad that could be included. And the people who followed those teachers wanted to join the conference, too. Then, people began sharing videos with the planning team and interest spread — the festival all came together so quickly.” What the 3-day mini-conference accomplished was every bit as full – or fuller – than what was traditionally shared in a week. The conference showed that the shift to an online platform did not mean offering a diminished or diluted product at all. The variety of offerings, the excitement, the number of attendees, and the participation levels were remarkable.
Around this time, the Movement Choir had begun regular rehearsals online and, about four rehearsals in, Green realized that a distinct quality of energy was coming across: “It was a knockout.” She began exploring possibilities using room lighting, props, and visual effects on the videoconference platform. Though dancers were eager to affirm that, ‘nothing will replace doing this live,’ no one could deny the quality of experience and spiritual joy; it was a revelation. The question was whether the small group experience could be scaled up and maintain integrity for a conference of many moving parts.
Somehow, the intimacy of the small group rehearsal experience was maintained at Virtually There. And the free and confident exploration of the dancers was palpable and contagious, making visible the Spirit moving through the people. One dancer noted, “The experience was grounding and connective. I was able to express myself freely, even in an uncertain time of Covid.” Another commented, “At the same time it brought us together, it also brought us deeply into self – the dancing seemed more emotional – it was wonderful to see how we moved together without being in the same place.” And many expressed, during the festival’s concurrent social gatherings, their surprise at the depth of connection to the Divine and to one another. As one participant put it, “The ability to bring sacred dance and spiritual energy into our homes, at a time when we could not gather in our churches out of concern for safety, allowed us to be in community in a new way.”
The overall experience moved Green to a decision to conceive of the Movement Choir’s future in terms of both live and online seasons, primarily because dancers have continued to rehearse with the group from all over the map.
“Since summer, we’ve become ‘the expanded Movement Choir’and it has been so rewarding,”she said, as dancers around the country, in Canada and Australia engage with the Butoh-based dance form, (the signature style of the Movement Choir, marked by extremely slow and strong-from-the-core movements.) The phenomenon of open groups will certainly continue to expand the outreach of the Sacred Dance Guild.
Judging from the numbers and the feedback, this was one of the best festivals ever, especially because it opened the riches of this festival to participants in Australasia, Europe, Africa, and North America. The success of Virtually There has led to yet anotherwonderful discovery: the availability of the online platform for teaching choreography, internationally. The Sacred Dance Guild has now begun training and certifying dancers to teach and to choreograph.
Realization of the many opportunities for online educational dance is a product of Virtually There that will remain after the pandemic has waned. “When I realized the implications for expanded shared experiences, I was deeply moved,” said Green, who also reported on effusive viewer feedback to the Sacred Dance Guild about the power of dance online to evoke a sense of peace, hope, and powerful emotion in a time of crisis.
Kathy Bozzuti-Jones joined Trinity Movement Choir in 2014 and has enjoyed participating in Sacred Dance Guild festivals. A grateful practitioner of moving prayer, Kathy also serves as chaplain and photographer to the Trinity Movement Choir.