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Passionate poetry in motion

20 February 2015

The cathedral tour of a contemporary-dance performance based on the Stations of the Cross opens tomorrow. Pat Ashworth talks to the main players


Claire Henderson Davis and Fraser Paterson

Claire Henderson Davis and Fraser Paterson

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 Ely Cathedral.

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 non-cathedral space.

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 Jerusalem. 

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 incarnation.

"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 hold forth."

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 it."

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, either."

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 us."

Tour dates:
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 August


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 £12.99 (£11.69).

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