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Interview: Claire Henderson Davis, performance artist, theologian

05 February 2016

‘I spend a lot of my time telling people that I’m not doing liturgical dance’

I created a contemporary performance of the Passion for Ely Cathedral in 2014, in dance, poetry, and music. It went on to tour other cathedrals in 2015. We performed at Chester Cathedral in March last year, and this led to a conversation about my engaging with their life over a longer period of time.


This residency is the first time in my career that I have such a sustained level of support. Up to this point, all my work has been project-based, which means that I’ve been relentlessly caught up in short-term funding cycles on top of trying to keep my work going. Knowing that I’ve got three years gives me room to breathe and expand.


I hope to make a significant contribution to the liturgical life of the cathedral, as well as to create a more sustainable framework for my own practice.


My training is in contemporary dance and theatre. We chose the title “performance artist” rather than “dancer” to describe the residency because much of what I do isn’t what most people imagine dance to be, though it comes out of a recognised tradition within contemporary dance. “Performance artist” offers broader scope, and doesn’t set up the same expectations.


I was seriously involved in theatre from the time I was a small child. As part of this interest, I took dance classes; but my focus shifted decisively to dance when I was doing my Ph.D. in theology in Edinburgh. I had terrible writer’s block, and had the intuition that dancing would help me.


I began taking class — including contemporary technique, improvisation, and choreography — at Dance Base, which has significant links to international companies, and had the chance to do masterclasses with some of the most exciting companies and choreographers in the world, including Saburo Teshigawara, Philippe Decouflé, and William Forsythe.


It worked: dance allowed me to carry on working on my doctorate, and to come to some intellectual understanding about where I had come from.


When I moved to London, I continued training at the evening school at The Place, and started taking class with Gaby Agis, who teaches Skinner Releasing Technique, which became a huge influence. I also did some training in contact improvisation.


My own approach emerged from all these different strands. I’m particularly interested in creating work that draws people’s attention to ordinary, everyday ways of being in the body, calling into question and transforming habitual patterns.


My own concern with any art used in the liturgy is that it should connect with people rather than create an alienated distance. This doesn’t mean that it is easy or dumbed down: it means that it creates a relationship. Many, if not most, people are unfamiliar with the language of dance, and the danger is that they’d say: “That’s lovely, but I could never do that.” I’d describe my own approach as parabolic — beginning, as Jesus does in the parables, with a familiar setting, and then making the familiar strange. In this way, the work is always about expanding vision, taking people on a transforming journey.


I spend a lot of my time telling people that I’m not doing liturgical dance. This is probably terribly ignorant and prejudiced of me, but my own limited experience of liturgical dance is of people in long, flowing robes waving their arms around, and I have a great desire to distance myself from this aesthetic.


The choreographer who has influenced me the most is Pina Bausch, and this is the dance tradition I most identify with: an edgy, emotionally articulate, emotionally risky exploration of human relationship through movement.


I’ve always had a powerful sense of God, which I would describe as a sense of connection to a reality greater than myself. I’d almost say that I know God rather than that I believe in God. From very early on in my life, I had a strong sense of purpose and my experience of this: either of feeling connected to my path, or of losing connection and needing to find it again.


The language I use about God has changed and grown over the course of my life, and it’s obviously deeply shaped by the religious tradition in which I’ve been formed; but this language feels secondary to an abiding sense of living in relationship to a mystery which language cannot contain.


The Church needs to move from a parent-child model to a more adult model in its liturgical life. This is significant for the choreography of movement in the liturgy. At the moment, the clergy stand at the front, facing the congregation, in a parental position, while the congregation move corporately: standing, sitting, and kneeling together. As adults, however, there needs to be space for us each to explore our individual bodies and ways of moving.


I’m not talking about losing the communal aspects of the liturgy, but creating space for individual, adult exploration, and for the exploration of adult relationships as the context for our relationship with God — meeting the divine in each other. This approach requires a new form of spiritual discipline and practice, and this is what I’m working on in my dance. I also bring to this approach an extensive background in in-depth psychology, which is an essential ingredient. I did a ten-year Jungian analysis myself, and am now training as a Gestalt psychotherapist.


I was raised inside the Catholic tradition, but outside the authority structure of the Church, and this left me with an urgent need to work out for myself my relationship to Christianity. My father, Charles Davis, was a Roman Catholic priest and theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council, and then left the Church to marry my mother, who was a member of the Grail, a movement of lay Roman Catholic women.


This search took the form of a Ph.D. in Theology at the University of Edinburgh, but I was never going to be an academic. At the same time that I submitted my thesis, I choreographed a piece called Eucharist, and this was as much the fruit of my search as the thesis itself. I would describe myself as a “practice-based liturgical theologian”.


Cathedrals are an ideal environment for movement, because they are large and full of open spaces. Lots of movement already takes place, such as liturgical processions, and the movement of visitors around the building.


Whatever dance takes place, in my view, needs to build on the movement patterns that are already familiar to people in the cathedral context. Dance can open up new possibilities for relationships in the existing congregation and with the wider community. In my first dance intervention in the liturgy at Chester, I included a man who does a lot of maintenance work on cathedral properties. Including someone in a hard hat and high-vis jacket expresses the present life of the cathedral in a way that wouldn’t normally come into a more traditional liturgy.


We’re starting the Chester Cathedral Public Workshop, drawing on the Greek etymology of the word “liturgy”, meaning “public work”, as a new framework for liturgical explorations that go beyond the traditional liturgical structure.


All cathedrals would benefit from this kind of residency, but something particularly exciting is going on at Chester at the moment which made me want to come here. There’s a spirit of exploring new possibilities and reaching out beyond the familiar which created a real synergy and sense of excitement when I came to perform here last March.


I grew up in Montreal, Canada, at a time of considerable political unrest. I was born in Edmonton, but moved with my parents and brother to Montreal when I was six weeks old. At the time, Quebec was under marshal law because of the crisis stemming from the kidnapping of two government officials by the French separatist group, the FLQ. My parents sent me to a French Canadian school not realising how hard it would be to be an English-speaking kid in that environment at that time.


That made language problematic in my life, and it’s part of the reason that the language of the body is so primary for me. I can easily feel lost if I try to communicate with words alone. My father died in 1999, just as I was finishing my doctorate, and my mother four years later. My brother Anthony lives and works as part of the Emmaus Community in Glasgow.


I love the sound of rain on the roof. Before coming to Chester, I lived in a mobile home in the village of Waterbeach, outside Cambridge, and the sound of the rain was incredibly loud and vivid. There is such cosiness that comes from hearing rain on the outside, enjoying the rhythms and patterns that it makes, but being warm and dry inside.


I was trying to sort out car insurance on the phone yesterday, and faced with an intractable bureaucracy trying to fit me into categories that don’t apply to my life. That made me angry. The autobiography of the choreographer Yvonne Rainer is called Feelings are Facts, and I rejoice at that title because it conveys a truth that is often lost. I’m happiest when in the company of the people I love.


I’d say that I have been most influenced by my parents, the songs of Leonard Cohen, the choreography of Pina Bausch, and the theology and mentoring of Rowan Williams.


I pray for the ability to be present in the moment, to still my mind and listen.


I’d like to be locked in a church with Nigella Lawson as long as we could use the church kitchen. She strikes me as both warm and nourishing — a fellow creature of the flesh. I’d like to spend the night cooking a delicious meal with her and talking into the small hours.


Claire Henderson Davis was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.clairehendersondavis.com; www.passiontour.org; chestercathedral.com.

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