The music is flowing around the cathedral. Excitement and rhythm tug at the tourists, pulling them to the North Transept. I check I have everything in place. Paper secure on the easel, sharpener, rubber, charcoal, pastels in reach. People shuffle past, whispering and waving to friends. They take their seats and turn their heads to look behind me at Sayaka in her ragged ochre-yellow costume, poised, expectant, as I am. The dance is about to begin.
An article in Faith and Freedom led me to draw here in St Paul’s Cathedral. ’Performance Dance as a Numinous Practice’ by Ross McKim Director of the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. The article described his own experience of the ‘numinous’ and how he had developed his choreography and dance practice to make such experience available to dancers, and through their dance, to the audience. He created ‘Cathedral Dance’ a company that each summer since 1976 has performed ‘Moving Visions’, which he also calls ‘pararituals’, in various cathedrals in England, amongst them St Pails.
As I understand it, what Ross calls ‘numinous experience’ is connected to a heightened sense or feeling for meaning in life, perhaps a heightened feeling for the connectedness of the individual life to everything else in the universe. Ross says of the numinous ‘ I thus seek to identify and name not all experience that is beyond words but a division of it that gives reality to a special kind of meaning’.
Reading his book ‘In the Shadow of the Dancing Shamans’ and his other articles in ‘Faith and Freedom’, I found that Ross had experienced the ‘numinous’ on a number of occasions – sometimes when dancing but at other times arising from sounds or sights of nature. While I find it hard to give a personal definition of ‘numinous experience’ I believe that what Ross refers to is close to something I have experienced whilst drawing the moving human figure. Like Ross, I have also experienced it at other times, mostly outdoors, in the context of the natural world but also sometimes in front of paintings when I have been taken by surprise at the power of emotion they have conjured. I believe that most people have had such moments, and if so, they will be remembered.
I am a secular person and I do not connect ‘numinous experience’ to religion, Christian or otherwise. I am sure that it has always been a part of religious experience, though I am not sure where Christian theology places it nowadays. I find it interesting that while sculpture, painting and music have always contributed to worship in Christian churches, dance and the activity of drawing or painting, have not. I wondered, not what had led Ross to dance in cathedrals, but why the cathedrals had taken part in this innovative project, and whether they, and Ross, might accept an extension of his project into drawing.
I am a sculptor and drawing has always been a major part of my practice. It was a class at the Prince’s Drawing School that led to my interest in the ‘numinous’. This drawing class was for me and a number of others, a very special event. It concentrated on the moving human figure and was a particular project of Glenn Sujo, the tutor. He put a great deal of thought and effort into it. Before our arrival he rehearsed the model/s in the type of movement or scenario they would perform that day. They were most often dancers but also acrobats, wrestlers, mime artists and once or twice a year a mother and young baby. At the start of the day he would address the class and talk us through his ideas, setting an atmosphere of anticipation and focus for the work ahead. At the end, or sometimes in the middle of the day, we would lay out our drawings for a constructive review by Glenn and our classmates.
The class was disciplined, thoughtful and ‘a site of learning’. Many people who attended found it addictive. For me it became a very special day, a day when I knew I would work in particular way- that I would live ‘in the moment’ and make immediate responses to what I saw and felt. This is a different process from other types of drawing and from sculpture, which is by contrast a series of planned activities with a fairly low proportion of time given to ‘creative making’.
The models in Glenn’s class worked through repeated series of movements taken at varying speeds, sometimes holding a pose for a minute or two. This method gave the opportunity to look for significant positions and build up an organised page of marks. I would generally compose a ‘narrative’ drawing where multiple figures, actually all the same person, would occupy areas of pictorial space/time. Another technique is to ‘layer’ the drawings, and allow distinct figures to emerge from the density of marks. This often led to a quite abstract type of drawing. My drawing was not just about the dancers and the intention or meaning of their movements, but also about the room, the space and the quality of light.
Of course the light changed throughout the day. The models became more involved in their role- more creative- or became bored. But it was possible whilst working in this class to experience something that I believe corresponds to ‘numinous experience’ as described by Ross. A feeling would arise from the concentration, the flow of energy, the quality of light and the atmosphere of the room. The mind grasped the whole and for a short while I could draw in a state of elation and freedom. This did not occur in every class, or for more than a few minutes at a time
Looking back, I question what was the real experience I was trying to capture in my drawings? Our models enacted a series of everyday movements, activities and incidents: dressing in the morning, walking in the street. Even when based around a painting such as Rubens ‘Descent from the Cross’ or a sculpture such as Rodin’s ‘Burghers of Calais’, I was not drawing or attempting to draw, the events themselves, but the emotional meaning as conveyed through movement of the models. Perhaps the very impossibility of this project of drawing movement leads naturally to concentration on its true nature, which for me seems connected to numinous experience.
If the true subject, the real experience, of our drawing was unclear to me, a related problem centred around the search for authentic gesture and movement married to meaning. We would sometimes find that the model could not enter into or fully engage with the mood, scenario or subject of the movement. The problem was to find a gesture or movement corresponding to or signifying an emotion. Longing, for instance. The conventional language of ballet or mime could not always convey this. A more prosaic example of the problem arose when the model was asked to do something beyond their experience, for instance an imaginary domestic task such as ironing. It quickly became apparent to some of us that the model had never actually done any ironing! Again we were left with the question-what were we drawing?
The Moving Visions program excited me because it offered an opportunity to work with dance that was itself centred on a search for meaning and the expression of human or spiritual values. It is clear from Ross’ writing that this is the major concern of his choreography. In drawing dance or movement I did not want to draw a narrative such as ‘Swan Lake’. Here was a drawing project that closely corresponded to my own aims and interests. I wondered if I could experience the ‘numinous’ in response to drawing the ‘Moving Visions’ dance and what I could pass on, in turn, to the audience of my drawings?
I contacted Ross and one sunny July morning set up my easel in a dance studio at the Rambert School with Linda Mattock, a friend and fellow student from Glenn’s class. Linda and I had been present at a meeting with Canon Warner of St Paul’s where Ross outlined the dances for that year’s performance. We had grasped that the first dance, Earthsong, was about the beliefs of the First Nations peoples of North America. The second dance was about pilgrimage and was based on poems by Li Po and Thomas Merton and the third dance, the ‘ The Peace Maker’, was based on Christian teaching centred on the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. The last part of this dance, the ‘Dance of Love’, was based on Corinthians 1 and Mathew 6 about love and the peace to be found through the power of love.
We had anticipated that drawing in rehearsals would be quite a struggle since any repetition would be for the benefit of the dancers. I had expected that we would find music a great bonus, as indeed it was. Song, rhythm and drumming were an important part of the whole and were mostly down to Barry Ganberg, resident composer at the Rambert School. Music is of enormous help when drawing as it aids the concentration and creates a physical rhythm for the drawing activity. However I had not expected the benefit of what the dancers call ‘class’. This is a series of warm up exercises performed at the start of the day, a physical and mental version of Glenn’s preparatory talks. I know now that the exercises of ‘class’ are rooted in Ross’ beliefs about dance and the numinous. ‘class’ became important to Linda and I as a means of focusing – the music for ‘class’ was inspiring and it was during ‘class’ that we were first able to learn the type of movements deployed in the pararitual choreography and to anticipate sequences of movement.
The dances were not rehearsed in a chronological order. It took the whole two weeks of rehearsal, until the rehearsals in costume, to understand how the sequences would fit together. During this time we covered many papers and sketchbooks, only gradually beginning to hope that something worthwhile would emerge on paper. We worked fast and tried out a variety of media: charcoal, felt tip, pastels and wash. We knew we would need time to accustom ourselves to the new locations in St Paul’s Cathedral and we planned to spend a day or two drawing there before the company arrived. Two performances were scheduled every day for three days in the North Transept, with a final performance under the dome as part of a special evensong. I decided to work on the same four or five drawings over the three days in the North Transept, putting up each sheet in turn as the dance progressed.
During rehearsals we were surprised to find how much of the music was accompanied by speech. Ross has written that in making ‘The Peace Maker’ he found great power in the Christian imagery and the intoning of words chosen from the Gospels. He discovered that the emotional and spiritual power of dance is enormously enhanced by the spoken word and song. It was only as I came to write this article that I realised how much of the drawing in Glenn’s class also revolved around mythic or Christian imagery. Glenn referred to Renaissance drawings and paintings as ‘exemplars’ in his talks and based sequences of movement on scenes from a painting. In particular we spent a number of days on a scenario based upon Rubens ‘Descent from the Cross’. Drawing in Glenn’s class I often found to my surprise, that I was thinking of a figure, pose or composition familiar to me from an historical painting or drawing which usually gave my drawing a greater resonance.
The project was very positive for both Linda and myself. Our previous experience of the moving figure allowed us to trust that out of the initial uncertainty and difficulty something worthwhile would emerge. My hope had been to experience the numinous whilst drawing. It did not happen. I cannot say that I felt anything approaching a ‘numinous’ experience during the drawing sessions. But there are a number of good explanations for this. The format was new and constantly changing and there were many different elements to contend with- the music, the varied clothes worn by the dancers during rehearsal and later in costume, moves from the studio to St Paul’s, a move within St Paul’s. Finally St Paul’s itself, an enormous and unfamiliar subject, and the presence of an audience as we worked.
I learned a great deal. Firstly an enormous respect for the dedication of the dancers and for the intelligence they deployed in learning and performing the dances. Second that dance and drawing have many similarities. Both require endless rehearsal/practice and concentration. Both work best if conscious and unconscious thought are available to the practitioner and this is probably developed from confidence in technique and the ability to focus. Ross discusses pararitual choreography in his book. Drawing the dance I did not question the authenticity of meaning of individual choreographed movements but accepted them as part of the whole dance experience. I tried to draw an equivalent experience through selected line, shapes, tone and colour.
The dance and the act of drawing only exist whilst the dance is in progress. The audience watches the dance (we were happiest if they did not watch us too closely). At the end of the dance we generally had a great sense of relief and achievement. We had usually worked on several drawings. In St Paul’s quite a few people would then come up to look at our drawings and talk to us, maybe even ask about buying them, which was lovely, but quite difficult to handle. A self-assessment of our drawings is a process that might happen over weeks, months or years. Visual art like dance is time-based. But visual art is slow release. The drawing made moment-by-moment must offer its audience an experience worth returning to, time after time.
I regret that there was never time to stop drawing and watch the dance. I only stopped once during a rehearsal of ‘The Peace Maker’. And for this one time I did feel that the ‘numinous’ was not far away.
Linda and I had permission from Canon Warner to draw during the last performance, held under the dome at evensong. It was a very unusual occasion, both exciting and serious. I had many varied hopes and feelings about it. I am sure Linda felt the same. I wanted the audience/congregation to appreciate the dance and I wanted them to be moved by it. I wanted them to understand the intentions and significance of the dance, perhaps to find ‘numinous’ experience in it. I did not dare to hope that our drawings would give rise to a ‘numinous’ experience for our ‘audience’. I think that for us the making of the drawings was of the most importance. We were of course hoping that the audience would be interested and appreciate our work, and they did.