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DANCING DIVINITY

Vibrations shake the threshold of the Moore Theatre. There is a loud dance party in the lobby, so my friend and I hurry down the ramp where we join the cast of Leviticus or Love and to Walk Amongst Humans and other audience members. A dance party! This is the first sign that this show by dani tirrell and The Congregation is like no other I’ve seen, or rather, participated in. There is an atmosphere of joyful community as we shimmy together. I read in the program later that the audience has the role of The Assembly, but it is Sunday, and I don’t need the program to know that I’ve entered a kind of dance church. I’ve never been a church goer, but this already feels like the kind of acceptance that breaks down my preconceived notions of how “church” can cultivate a spiritual freedom of expression.  

Photo by Eric Tra.

As the audience settles in their theater seats, twelve cast members thread their way down the aisles and shed their street clothes until they stand in black undergarments as if ready for a kind of baptism. It is an equalizing gesture, a shedding of outer identity. They stand before us united as humans, but unique in their individual bodies. I read in a Seattle Times article that tirrell intends Leviticus to “portray the joy found in the Black church specifically, and more generally in Black culture in all its manifestations.” Two of the performers are white, so it is clear tirrell’s vision also extends this joy beyond boundaries of race.

The dancers are called “Neophytes”—people new to a subject, skill, or belief— in the program, which is ironic in the sense that they are all uber accomplished performers. The dancers’ resumes include such big names as Alvin Ailey, Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Julliard, BANDALOOP, the Late Late Show with James Cordan, as well as many celebrated local dance makers. 

The performers slowly cross the gleaming white Marley floor, under the disco ball, past the white wings and toward the back white curtain arms raised to the strains of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, singing Give Yourself to Jesus. They dancers pull on white and black tulle clothing allowing the audience to see-through the outer layer of costuming in much the same way tirrell’s Congregation is about seeing past stereotypes and labels to, as the program states, “promote creative collaboration and provide a space for everyone to share their experiences, joy, love, anger, Queerness, and feminism.”  

What follows is a dance sermon of the highest order narrated by tirrell as the Ecclesiastic standing next to Keyes Wiley, the Missionary of Music and lighting designer. The hair on my arms stands up as the energy of Nina Simone’s Take Me to the Water coalesces with the audience hollering and cheering as performers move through a blending of Afro-Cuban, hip hop, ballet, Voguing, and street-style dance that defies categorization. Snatches of lyrics and text wash over me.

“We are shape shifters depending on who are in proximity to…demonizing false selves. Every gift is born of a wound. Listen for the sound of your own name.”

Photo by Eric Tra.

The stage is glowing in pink light, swirling in multicolored dots with a crescent moon as performer Abdiel dances with abandon in their silver-heeled hustle shoes. The assembly/audience barely needs an invitation to join dancing in the aisles. The call-and-response dynamic is well-established. The incredible smorgasbord of dance styles includes tap by performer Cipher Goings. Goings’ tapping becomes the beat moving the dancers. The dancers jerk to his rhythm almost feeling an outside force act upon them.  

Dancers rotate through a series of solos. Their falls to the ground echo tirrell’s words. Angels hear how she weeps. Each wound is divine anguish. At the end of each solo, other dancers come and lift their fellow congregates up, hold them in long embraces. Inside dark, raw open places where love leads. The jumps, particularly during Olivia Anderson’s solo, become leaps of faith untethered from social negativity. 

The Bible references religious dancing as an expression of joy and worship, and enslaved Africans in America preserved some of their cultural rhythms and dance by blending them into Black Christian church services, providing hope, perseverance, and connection to ancestory. That history is present as the performers form a diagonal aisle and tirrell dances down it. When the Leviticus Congregation opens into a semicircle the audience barely needs an invitation to join. The lyrics, “Finding your own divinity without permission,” echo the sentiment. On stage the man next to me from the audience leans over and says in amazement something about how he came to this performance on a last-minute whim and had no idea that an experience like this existed. 

Photo by Eric Tra.

 The performance ends with the Neophytes leading the Ushers (invited community dancers) through a parting in the back curtain lit in a warm glowing circle. I hear, “When angels speak of love, there is no separation.” Afterward, it becomes clear that these community dancers are part of the larger community family that helped shepherd Leviticus to life. As Aisha Noir introduces the cast rap-style, special tribute is also paid to all those behind the scenes that make it possible including tirrell’s husband, Marlon Brown, and production stage manager Dominque Thomas for whom Leviticus is his last show before moving out of town. 

We filter out of the theater newly energized, bathed in love, and rejoicing in this life in which we are all neophytes. The message I got from that sermon is that we should speak our own names with reverence so as to be able to lift others up with love. Poet Cole Arthur Riley, whose book Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Staying Human is one of the texts tirrell based the show on, said it this way, “If you aren’t in your body, someone else is. The systems of this world have everything to gain from your disembodiment. Stay near to yourself. Listen to your body.”

Leviticus or Love and to Walk Amongst Humans Book I ran April 20-21 at The Moore Theatre.