THE seeds of Passion were sown at the Greenbelt
Festival in 2013. The theologian and dance artist Claire Henderson
Davis heard the poet the Revd Malcolm Guite reading his sonnet
cycle on the Stations of the Cross. She describes her response to
his contemporary retelling of the last hours of Jesus as
"visceral", giving her not only a strong physical sense of how the
sonnets might be danced, but also where they should be danced: in
The piece was developed with the cathedral's support, and had a
single performance on Palm Sunday last year. The response was so
overwhelming - an atmosphere described as electric, with a stunned
audience moved to tears - that it returns there on Good Friday this
year, after a Lent tour of other cathedrals. It then goes to St
Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, for the Festival Fringe in August. Its
first performance is tomorrow, in Lichfield Cathedral; and only one
venue on the tour (St John's, Waterloo, in London), is a
There are so many things that the piece is not. It is not,
Henderson Davis says emphatically, a "dancey" dance: rather, it is
what she calls "deeply embodied movement".
It features oboe and saxophone, but is not danced to a score;
nor is it a dancing out, or acting out, of the sonnets, which Guite
narrates. "The sonnets are so alive and contemporary," she says.
"They tell the story in a way that makes it very real within the
present day, and emotionally very real - setting the Passion so
clearly within the context of human relationships, and our
struggles to love, and be loved."
The drama moves between three points in the cathedral, in which
the congregation becomes the Jerusalem crowd. The bodies of the
dancers tell the story, becoming the cross, and playing almost
every role. Henderson Davis portrays Christ, while the dancer
Fraser Paterson becomes the significant characters encountered on
the journey. All of these - be they Pilate, Simon of Cyrene, or
Mary, the mother of Jesus - are projections of the self.
Non-professional actors in each location play the women of
IT IS essentially a duet between a man and a woman, a piece that
takes on the relationship between God the lover, and God the
beloved. Feminine and sexual love become symbols of the Divine, and
the work reflects "the union of masculine and feminine that is at
the heart of God", Henderson Davis says.
"But it's important to say that it's not that I had these ideas
and said, 'Let's dance them out.' It's quite the opposite. I have a
very physical imagination. I knew physically how to dance it. What
came to me were particular movements within the dance."
Guite, who is the chaplain of Girton College and associate
chaplain of St Edward, King and Martyr, Cambridge, had not seen
Henderson Davis's work before; and, although some of his sonnets
had been set to music, he had never worked with a dancer.
At the heart of his sonnet cycle - which comes from his book
Sounding the Seasons: Poetry for the Christian year - is
the belief that, in the suffering of Christ, God is in solidarity,
and connects, with all the suffering of the world; that "what
happened out there, and back then, also happens in here, and right
now." His hope was that the congregation would feel that the
performance had "opened up and touched their own wounds, but with
the wounded hands of Christ".
In "Sonnet VIII", Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem:
He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again,
But still he holds the road and looks in love
On all of us who look on him. Our pain
As close to him as his. These women move
Compassion in him as he does in them.
He asks us both to weep and not to weep.
Women of Gaza and Jerusalem,
Women of every nation where the deep
Wounds of memory divide the land
And lives of all your children, where the mines
Of all our wars are sown: Afghanistan,
Iraq, the Cote d'Ivoire . . . he reads the signs
And weeps with you, and with you he will stay
Until the day he wipes your tears away.
WHEN Henderson Davis asked Guite to be involved, he thought it
would be a case of "standing quietly on one side with a book in my
hand, literally reading the poems while the dancers and musicians
got on with doing what they do best. . .
"Once poems have been published, and are making their own way,
you kind of no longer own them. I had decided Claire would be the
artist, and I would not intervene."
So he swallowed hard when Henderson Davis said that to embody
the poems, he would have to learn them all by heart. Although he
had a large reserve of memorised poems, he had never memorised his
own - a difficult thing for a writer in possession of all the cuts
and lines that do not make the finished version, he says.
"It was clear from the outset that she wanted me in the frame,
in the action, moving round the characters. There is one point when
I'm reciting the poems on my hands and knees," he says. "But it has
brought revelations in what I think about poetry. I have talked in
lectures, and written in books about the line from Shakespeare in
A Midsummer Night's Dream about imagination bodying forth
the forms of things unknown. I've even related that to the
"Working with Claire made me realise that I was still really in
the realm of words. Getting up off my knees, and doing it again and
again has really made me know what it is to 'body' something forth.
. . And her picking up the beat of the sonnets has made me bold.
When you do poetry readings, you simply stand behind a podium and
He describes his poems as stress-tested, able to take the weight
they are asked to bear. In performance, in sacred space, he had to
hold back the tears, and, quoting a line from Seamus Heaney's poem
"Personal Helicon", says: "I had a very strong sense of my own
voice being given back to me with a completely new music in
THE gendered reading is very much part of the vision that
Henderson Davis has brought to the piece, Guite acknowledges. "She
has taken the old patristic and biblical typology of bride and
groom, and done some quite edgy and challenging things with it. It
is her vision, but I can see them as legitimate extensions of
something else I am doing in the poems, which is to bring
ourselves, and where we are right now, to bear on the Passion, and
the Passion to bear on us."
When Henderson Davis made the initial approach to the Canon
Missioner at Ely Cathedral, the Revd Dr Alan Hargrave, he pointed
her towards Jan Payne, who had a strong desire herself to do
something on the Stations of the Cross. She is a professionally
trained oboist, who is a lay canon and Bishop's Adviser for Music
in the diocese, and has led the cathedral's adult choir for the
past eight years. She was instrumental, together with Henderson
Davis, in conceiving a monthly alternative evening worship
programme at Ely.
She describes the cathedral, with its six-second echo in the
Lady chapel, as "a phenomenal space to make music in". Oboe and
saxophone, played by the jazz improviser Dan Forshaw, are in
conversation in Passion, creating the space between the
sonnets, and accompanying them at certain moments.
"Malcolm's sonnets are powerful in the extreme, and the dances
are an astonishing interpretation," Payne says. "Musically, both
Dan and I have in our heads what might be called motifs - ideas
that work round and complement each other; but what happens on the
night will be in God's hands, and very much where we feel led. We
know where we're going to play music, and what we have to convey,
but we don't have notes.
"The beauty of the sax and oboe is the range of emotions
available through those instruments. Dan brings an edgy quality to
the sound, and I'm doing the plaintive, lamenting bits - the sax
has more of the grunt factor, but I have my moments. It has been
incredibly exciting putting this into a cathedral space, and I
thank the Chapter for letting this go ahead last year, and then
endorsing it so firmly for everyone else."
THE piece is an act of worship rather than a concert performance;
entry is ticketed, but free. "People left in tears, and speechless,
because they just didn't know what to do with themselves at the end
of it," Payne remembers. "For it to be going now to other
cathedrals is amazing. Every setting will be a thrill. And doing it
in the summer, completely devoid of Lent and Passiontide, makes it
a work transcending the seasons of the Church."
It took grit and determination to get the piece off the ground
last year. Henderson Davis describes it as "a miracle, but tough.
It's really hard to fund this kind of work, which is outside
ordinary categories, and the Church isn't used to funding art,
Fund-raising, organising, directing, and dancing, she describes
herself as so caught up in making it happen that entering the
performance was "like having built a house and then moving in. At
the point of the crucifixion, it was immensely emotional for all of
Lichfield Cathedral, 21 February
St John's, Waterloo, 28 February
Coventry Cathedral, 7 March
Chester Cathedral, 12 March
Ely Cathedral, 3 April (Good Friday)
St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, 11-13
Sounding the Seasons: Poetry for the Christian year by Malcolm
Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £9.99 (Church Times
Bookshop £8.99); The Word in the Wilderness: A poem a day for Lent
and Easter by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at