In the midst of a plague of bullets and nasty people, it’s a joy to stumble onto something significant yet unexpectedly beautiful. And on social media, no less. Performance art by Dance Revolution is one of these rare and under-appreciated gems. Nestled away next to YouTube videos such as “Orgasmic Meditation” and “Alien Brains” are the inexplicably moving dances of Ingredients Dance Company.
One of these is the story of “Barabbas,” a character despised and rejected. In the Biblical account, the notorious criminal Barabbas was spared by a mob while Jesus was crucified in his place. Barabbas may be a bit-part actor in history, but he is the anti-hero and moral lesson of this production.
Set to something close to a spoken-word sermon by pastor Judah Smith, there is minimal music in the background. Action follows Smith’s message almost word-for-word in this six-minute piece. “Barabbas” is loaded with theology and emotion and is choreographed by Ann-Marie Heilman.
Jesus, Barabbas and Pilate are the central characters, but Smith’s sermon becomes introspective and personal. Speaking as a fallen man, he identifies with Barabbas more easily than Jesus, while struggling with the need of a savior. Action is complex and interwoven, following both the crucifixion and a parallel theme of personal turmoil.
“When I look at the story, I realize who Barabbas really is,” Smith says. “That’s me – that’s you.”
(Ingredients Dance Company performing Barabbas)
With the air of a big production, there are several areas of simultaneous activity on stage most of the time. Dancers emulate the screaming crowds, mourners and worshipers. Tension between feelings of guilt and desperation battle against a backdrop of the great injustice about to take place. These are interpreted through dancer’s bodies as they fluidly merge into groups and disband.
Smith’s speech is dramatic in itself, but dancers also use facial expressions to amplify the effects of the choreography and their shifting roles. In one instance they looked like what I imagine the chorus to a Greek tragedy may have appeared centuries back. Toward the end of the piece, the troupe moves in tight unison as Smith narrates: “It is still Jesus, it will always be Jesus, it will never stop being Jesus.” It’s as if they are saluting and semaphoring him into their midst.
It’s an unexpected pleasure to find trained dancers spreading the universal message of Christ and common needs of mankind. Ingredients is a professional-level dance troupe from Southlake, Texas, run by Alec and Michelle Brogan. It is connected to their school and traveling dance studio, Dance Revolution.
I was startled to find this level of artistic quality and professional choreography in a Christian venue. It’s not that religious people can’t dance. Christians are making a mark in all the arts, but many have been very quiet about it. Some of our best ballet dancers (such as Jenifer Ringer, who was long with New York City Ballet; or Joy Womack, previously at the Bolshoi) are openly Christian. It’s just that the Church hasn’t been exactly hospitable to dancers or dancing in general. There has been almost no venue for them, and I salute the Brogans and their dancers for their vision.
It’s no accident that “Barabbas” has a slight Broadway tinge to it in places. Michelle Brogan writes most of the big productions, aiming for “Broadway quality” and tours the nation with them. In one scene, Barabbas and assorted villains snap their figures and look menacing, like the gangs from “West Side Story.” These cultural appropriations in no way mar the gravity and intensity, which feels sincere and intense. With a harmony between frantic activity and slower adagio movement, Barabbas is balanced in emotion and tempo.
Another piece by Ingredients, “Reward,” is possibly even better. At least the choreography feels tight and almost perfect to me. It is brief, with no words – but the title and movement are easily translatable. A sower is center stage and is the lead dancer. He brings a frozen person to life, and they multiply until the stage is full of joyously leaping dancers. With a rising crescendo of music, it feels like the last chapter of a long drama full of challenges.
(Ingredients Dance Company performing ‘The Reward,’ 2017)
Parent organization to the troupe, Dance Revolution, has a broad vision with classes offered in all types of arts: music; drama; visual arts; and many forms of dance. Based in Southlake, Texas, they are housed in the Epicenter for the Arts. Since 2001 they hosted a traveling dance conference with competition, classes, performances and corporate worship.
The elite training and professional company known as Ingredients Dance Company was birthed in 2007. Brogan describes this as a training program for college-aged individuals aspiring to dance professionally yet growing “in their knowledge of the Lord though a rigorous, yet rewarding, three-semester college-level curriculum.”
Why did watching “Barabbas” make me cry? I’m not certain. Maybe it was appreciation or surprise. “Barabbas” is beautiful and elegant. When it isn’t expected, it’s like coming across a da Vinci painting on the wall of a public library.
Sheer beauty of movement can make me weep: what humans can do with our bodies through discipline and work; how we overcome gravity, exhaustion and our limitations; the appearance of being effortless, of flying. And there were the rough bricks as barefoot dancers spun, turned, leapt and landed on them without a grimace of pain – although there may have been blood.
All these have spiritual implications too. I can’t say why I wept watching this (twice), but it’s a common reaction to beauty and a form of high praise. Dance Revolution claims their mission is to represent “God and God alone.”
They have done it well.