An Aside – Embodiment
I will return to the analysis of the frame for the Akedah story. But I must insert a side blog. This need is occasioned by two events. First, my daughter dropped in for an evening this past week on the way back from Israel to Boston. She was returning there to give a paper called “Wings of Desire: Theophany between the Cherubim and Mercy Seat” at the panel on Divine Embodiment at the Society of Bible Literature 2017 Conference. Rachel left me a copy of her paper for me to read.
The second impetus was seeing Samuel Tétreault’s “The 7 Figures” dance/circus troupe from Montreal perform “triptyque” at the Bluma Appel Theatre last evening. As Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic and General Director of Canadian Stage, wrote in his program notes: “When the body becomes the voice, the eyes learn to listen, and the head connects to the heart.” Marie Chouinard’s opening piece featuring an apparently crippled couple dance with twisted “crutches” was the most profound of these fascinating trio of choreographed works. In the second work, Victor Quijada had the whole troupe balancing in different ways on tall rods or canes rather than crutches with tiny platforms as the artists balanced between stillness and movement as they reached for the heavens and risked greater vulnerability. Sometimes they pulled together; at other times, they tore apart.
The most fascinating visually was Marcos Morau’s third piece, by far the longest, in which a hospital bed was the centrepiece, but a hospital bed that ended up floating in the air and then turning sideways to become a climbing wall. However, in this piece, we were gradually removed from the mundane, from the boredom of reality and the daily news about Donald Trump’s latest tripping over himself and his own words, and taken into a space where dream and reality meet, where vision and the ordinary of human life encounter one another. The artists stumble. They recover, whether on unicycles or using aerial straps, in their quest for freedom through escaping reality.
I should not omit the whimsical duo between the first and second performances to give time for a change in sets. Their short performance of Fred Astaire via Charlie Chaplin offered a brilliantly funny sight gag underwritten by a very serious commentary on play versus drudgery. As one of my fellows quoted in yesterday’s Torah study group, if something is done that you enjoy on Shabat, it is not work. But the same action treated as drudgery is halachically forbidden. Mopping a floor can be a delightful and inventive dance or a robotic and distressing exercise in drudgery.
I will return to the dance company. But first my daughter’s paper on the Mishkan as the place where the fascinans, the alluring and appealing aspects of the divine, meet “face-to-face” with the tremendum, the repulsive aspects of God. This is where revelation takes place at the encounter of the human and divine and the clash between the fascinans and the tremendum. It is another lesson in how the voice can be seen, the oral visualized, where danger and desire intertwine as God’s voice emerges from the midst of the fire to establish a divine presence.
God descends within a cloud in a moment of crisis in the tabernacle tale. In Morau’s dance/circus piece, the dancers ascend from a death bed. The cause of death is evidently watching shadows on the cave wall via TV; humans ascend to escape banality. When God descends in the Torah, it is to dwell in a vacuum, an empty space (a tokh), among and framed by the cherubim. That is the Heaven above the vault of the earth from which He speaks to set fire to earthly vanities.
God remains immanent. In Morau’s circus/dance, humans rise transcendent above the stage challenging the pull of gravity. But the latter, like the sacred text, is part of a “locomotor” rather than a “locative” thesis. Stasis does not stand at the centre of the universe. Change does. We are not intended to be couch potatoes sitting on our hospital beds slowly dying, but doers and shakers. Worship is not centred in the sacred temple, but in the arc of the covenant that moves even in the diaspora, with the people. God sits upon the seat of mercy. But it is a place of danger, a place of risk into which no one can go, except in the ancient world the High Priest, and even then, only once a year on Yom Kippur. God sits upon a “couch” of mystery rather than banality.
The dancers/circus performers in the triptych provide a mirror for that sacred space through men and women rising to challenge nature’s gravity. They can do so even if crippled. They may be constrained by bent limbs and twisted appendages, but, despite such constraints, they express the voice of freedom in the movement of their flesh and bones.
Chouinard’s piece takes off where the binding of Isaac ends. One dancer is hung all bound up in mid air. Her partner comes to her rescue and carefully, deliberately, slowly, unbinds her. He came to her on crutches. And she rises like a newborn calf, unsteady on her legs and herself needing the aid of deformed wooden appendages. While the tribe descended from the people of the book obtain their “breakthroughs” via restraint and constraint, in the first dance/circus piece influenced by the Japanese Kinbaku art of bondage, restraint is refined into an aesthetic. That which initially appears ugly and abnormal becomes a thing of beauty.
Are the ropes cut, are the chains which bind us smashed? Or are they carefully and systematically unwound and then transformed into a way of freedom as in the dance performance? Does a woman lay on railway tracks totally tied up waiting to be rescued by the heroic male before the train runs over her as we left the movie theatre as kids waiting a week for the next episode. Or is she rescued, not from the danger of a seaming monster, but from her own constraints and limitations, and then allowed to move and prance, to swing and dance? The rope becomes part of an erotic means of rising from the dead in a dream or oneiric state rather than, like the snake in the Garden of Eden, like the penis in western culture, crashing down in a flabby mess, collapsing, wasted and diminished and no longer with a voice.
This artistic expression becomes much more pronounced in the third choreographed piece by Marcos Morau’s oneiric rope performances when the dancers bind themselves to rise to the heavens. The binding itself is not meant to constrain by ropes ineptly wound around them, but by ropes aesthetically twisted so that the constraints themselves become integral parts of their bodies as they dance in mid-air. The Kazami-Ryu strappado suspension becomes a thing of awe and wonder as we delight in the relaxation rather than tension enabled by the skill of the performers. It is not as if we were watching human artists portrayed as divine or semi-divine beings, as in Superman or Wonder Woman, but rather the emphasis is on the effort to raise and transform the human form into its highest heavenly presence. Thus, though clearly influenced by Japanese art and bodily performance, the choreography remains within the Western aniconic tradition that rejects the portrayal of deities in a bodily form.
But the Western tradition is one preoccupied with sin and failure and the need for atonement. In the choreography we saw last evening, constraints and limits are simply part of the natural world, part of our collective birthright, and we escape from sin, not by browbeating ourselves, not by thumping on our chests in remorse, but by using gravity itself to rise above the world, to become a force of nature oneself. We can stand upside down, balanced on small poles with a relatively miniscule platform. Last evening offered a remarkable demonstration of how natural forces can be balanced and held still, not simply to balance upside down on one’s hands, but to project oneself sideways with only the pole and the tiny platform for support.
In the biblical text, the Israelites are punished for idolatry, for worshiping a calf made of solid gold. One might transform that weighty object into gold leaf in the Mishkan. Last evening, the performers left the inert metal behind and opted for a life in empty space. Yesterday morning, the silver ornaments and velvet cover were removed from the Torah scroll I held to allow and encourage an encounter between the divine and the human through reading of words. In the performance yesterday evening, there is neither a dependence nor an expectation of any divine intercession. It was not about God only helping those who help themselves, but demonstrating how a tribe could help one another and rise into the heavens. In the Hebrew Bible, God descends. Humans only walk and climb to the tops of mountains. But that is where pagan gods lived. The God of the Hebrews did not live in a single space. In the performances last evening, humans could not be confined to our normal spatial range, but could strive and soar as apparently effortless as birds without any divine being hovering above and without any net below to catch them when and if they fall.
On Saturday morning at synagogue I was “chosen” and rewarded with the honour of carrying one of the sacred scrolls. In the evening I was carried away by rising, turning, bending and twisting to try to rise above the pull of mediocrity. It was an evening in which I could listen with my eyes and my head could move closer to the seat of mercy, the heart, vicariously by a very different route. In the morning, God was not present but experienced as an absence. In the evening, God was absent; humans rose to fill the heavenly space.
Will that path through the beauty and magical performance of the body have its own hubris even as it attempts to balance centrifugal and centripetal forces to somewhat overcome the pull of gravity? In that vision, do we pull ourselves upwards by out own bootstraps or our own canes? We are uplifted by beauty instead of raised up by a commitment to the written word, to law and ethics.