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 (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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