How Do You Write Down Heavenly Choreography?
by Marvin Payne
My wife is a dancer. One of the first encounters we ever had that might be construed as “date” was a dance concert she had partially choreographed at one of the larger universities in Provo, to which I showed up, on her invitation. (It was great choreography. Shortly after we were married, as she and I stood near the summit of Mt. Timpanogos, she pointed out the symphony of peaks and sweeps and cliffs across the meadow and said, “Remember that concert? That’s where my choreography came from.”) I said hi after said concert and then left for home, thinking “Dang, I wish I were sitting with her in Alpine right now drinking hot chocolate,” whereupon she pulled up next to me at a stoplight and I yelled through my window, “Hey, would you like to drive to Alpine for some hot chocolate?” Whereupon she did. The first time we kissed (an exceedingly respectable good while later, I hasten to add) was after a pretty magical dance concert at the Capitol Theatre. So you can believe me when I say that dance is a vital and necessary art form.
I myself am not a dancer, which is tough luck when you’re trying to make a living as a song-and-dance man. That personal gap gives me boundless respect for choreographers. Let me explain with an example. Ten years ago I was cast as a principle player in a production of Guys And Dolls at Sundance. Jayne Luke was the sorceress choreographer. In “Luck Be A Lady Tonight” she had these guys with wings on their feet flying all around me.
“Marvin, you stand here and sing.” Guys would fly around me. “Marvin, walk over here and sing.” Guys would fly around me. My main job was not to get hit by a flying guy. At another point in the show, occurring in Havana, as I recall, the lady missionary I’m escorting has become dangerously inebriated and is expected to communicate her condition and commensurately liberated world-view to the audience through dance. “Marvin, stand still and let Janine lean on you.” “Marvin, when Janine lunges at the waiter, get in the way.”
“Marvin, when Janine collapses, hurry and get underneath her.” I did all that stuff, as commanded, and (at the end of the performance) people walked out of the theatre whispering to one another in awed tones, “Martha, did you see how well that guy could dance? Wow!” And you would hear the hushed answer, “My name isn’t Martha. But yes, pretty amazing for an old guy.” Then he and what’s-her-name, alias Martha, typically fell in love and got married, having together experienced art.
I have a friend who describes beneficial encounters, junctures, synergies, and freak accidents as “heavenly choreography.” If that image is indeed apt, who (or “Who”) is the choreographer (or “Choreographer”)? And is He worthy of respect? Can He bring grace to even the clunkiest of movements? Would a couple dozen angels round about us, going before us, and at our rearward tend to make us look like pretty good dancers?
A few weeks ago we closed a show at one of the larger universities in Provo called Soft Shoe. (The university is not called “Soft Shoe.” That would be silly. The show is called Soft Shoe.) Playwrights George Nelson and Daniel Larson chose to use dancing as a metaphor for loving. The owner of a fading vaudeville theatre (me) wonders if, having danced (loved) carelessly as a young man, he will ever dance (love) again. The play begins when a comely young woman (Tia Marie Majeroni) knocks on the stage door asking for directions to an extinct hotel where she’d hoped to find the father she never
knew. The vaudevillian’s gifted young apprentice (Tom Every) promptly falls in love with her, but he’s afraid of his feelings because, although he’s a phenomenal hoofer, he’s never been taught this new “dance.”
Well, nobody’s particularly surprised when they discover who the dad is. (After all those church films in which I am invariably, incessantly, the dad, who would you have guessed? Also I’m the only grown-up in the three-player cast, so go figure.)
Back to the metaphor in the play: I think it works, not so much because the writers understand dance, but because they understand love. George Nelson, who wrote the script, has eight glowing children and a perpetually smiling wife, so I’m taking their word for it that he’s qualified. Daniel Larsen, the composer, who is disappointedly single but tells everybody at family reunions that he’s writing a sister missionary, is nonetheless a fountain of love to his friends and coworkers, and has crafted some great big beautiful songs that hint that he understands love, in numerous forms, pretty well.
(Real-life Relevant Interruption: In the middle of writing this, dinner occurred, followed by–what else?–dramatic dancing in the kitchen with Snow White, a.k.a. my five-year-old daughter Caitlin, who limits my movement with the same urgency all the choreographers do, but for a different reason. If what I do gets interesting–not good, just interesting–I might draw audience focus from her. In that respect, she is unique among my choreographers.)
Left to my own devices, I would never pretend to dance in order to entertain anybody. But I might pretend to dance if my attempts led somebody to think about love. (Or home teaching, or fast offerings, or whatever other principle of the gospel for which some playwright is using dance as a metaphor. You see, I just can’t forget those angels flying around anybody who’s trying to be useful to the Spirit.)
I had one regret, though, about Soft Shoe. My mother-in-law never saw the show.
She wanted to, she’s been my most effusive fan. But battling widespread cancer for a couple of years had by now reduced her to lying on the couch and watching her granddaughter dance. (This would be the Snow White, who, unlike her dad, actually dances, and wonderfully.) Only a few weeks ago, I watched my mother-in-law shepherding a class of young dancers through some magical expressions in her downstairs dance studio. My wife’s dance talent is an inheritance. Her mother, Joan Koralewski, has always cherished dance as not only a metaphor for living and loving, but also as one of the best ways to perform either of those functions (one would hope, simultaneously). She has liberated uncounted young lives into the holiness of movement, lesson by lesson unveiling for them their own grace and giving them wings.
My first hands-on interaction with my prospective in-laws was helping my stage-managing father-in-law to bind about a half-acre of folded cardboard dance backdrops to the top of their van with about a half-mile of well-used twine.
Sometimes Joan’s creativity took colorful turns. Enriched flour became secondarily something to bake with, and primarily something for my dancing daughter to wear. There was seldom a family gathering that wasn’t threatened with the creation of a didgeridoo band, with instruments fashioned by Joan from PVC pipe. Regularly she would plan a family game with a beginning, a middle, and no end. You’ve been to parties where children blew bubbles with little spoon-sized plastic hoops from half-pint bottles of fluid. At Joan’s parties, the hoops were rope coils attached to broomsticks, and the fluid
filled good-sized wading pools. The resultant undulating bubbles were the size of baby hippos.
At a recent birthday party, Caitlin accidentally let go of her helium balloon. There were tears at first, but they dried during the fascination of watching the celestial voyage–how at a certain height the wind caught that bright little orb and carried it like, well, a balloon on the wind. We imagined, as it distilled to a mere sparkle indiscernible from the luminescence of air, what distant terrain passed below it, what dizzying heights lengthened between it and earth, and the farther we imagined it to be, the closer we were to guessing right. Even before the cancer (does NOT rhyme with “dancer”), Joan was always tethered to the ground by the merest thread. She, better than anyone, would have understood our little show.
We closed Soft Shoe on a Saturday night, and struck the set until the early dark on Sunday. Later that same sabbath, Joan closed her show and nature struck the set. The tethering thread had been cut.
Suddenly the beauty of the choreography she gently (sometimes gently) imposed on all of us fell into clearer focus, bolder relief, and more elegant order. And now we’re carefully writing it down.
My wife tells me there are ways to write down choreography, like composers do, before it’s on its feet. There’s no universal notation, like music on a staff, but apparently there are some widely shared methods. Still, my guess is that most of written choreography is merely the best record we can contrive of the performance we’ve just seen. Heavenly choreography, at least, has to be written down after the fact because the steps are always a surprise. That’s what makes it heavenly. Read the scriptures (or a dancer’s journal) to see that it’s not enough to write, “Then we danced.” Enough of the movement has to be captured, the shape, the nuances, and how we felt when we danced, to ensure we don’t forget how. Even if we thought we never knew in the first place. We have kind choreographers on both sides of the veil.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)
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