I went to a performance/art installation this last weekend as part of the Philly Fringe Festival. I thought it was sublime, fun, full of wonder and mystery. It changed how my body felt and the thoughts in my mind. It connected me to the hundred and fifty or so other people in the room.
The artists, The Headlong Dance Theater, figured out how to lead a whole bunch of strangers into really participating in a conscious ceremony with a beginning, middle, and end. Neither an exact trajectory nor the outcomes of the event could be predicted. However, the combination of the compassionate and curious intention of the artists, the way they stayed committed to their best creative thinking, no matter how daring, and the way an already beautiful and intentionally holy space was infused with the love of the artists created a huge opening. And, given each audience member’s natural desire to connect and to heal, it was hard for most everyone not to go ahead and walk through towards a transformative and hopeful experience.
It was also hard for me not to walk out thinking about community acupuncture, the spaces where it takes place, and the caring, artful intention of those making it happen. Holy.
The performance was partly about the tension between our wanting to watch, on one hand, and the choice we have, on the other hand, to participate. For most people, each gentle encouragement was enough to go ahead and join as an active part of what was unmistakably ritualistic in nature. All attendees were asked to wear blue. Most did. Everyone was divided into four groups before entering the old abandoned Christian Science rotunda. I was in the first group. In the foyer, we were told a story and invited to think about an unexplainable event in our lives, and, then, led through a fabric membrane into the huge domed cathedral where the old wooden floor had been cleared of everything. Explore the space freely, we were told, walking in. A short piece of music played while 6 dancers in orange made swirls of movement around the gigantic space. We all seemed tiny under the ocular window at the zenith of the towering dome. The dancers’ movements were lovely or silly or solemn or rhythmic or not, connected to the others or not.
The music ended, and we, the first group were divided further into a few organic collections of individuals and invited by the artists to create, when the music begin again and the second group entered, patterns of movement of our own choosing which related to the space and the music. This was just the beginning of a long series of group motion-poems facilitated brilliantly by the dance troupe, which all eventually linked together into a fluid ceremony.
One thing that got revealed was our relationship to the space around us, how Everything is intimate and touching. That as energizing as it is when we’re open as individuals to the universe’s qi, when we’re inviting hand-holding with a hundred people, or at least not actively avoiding one another, the energy is even more vast, complex, awesome, potentially delicious.
Some audience members had initial resistance to being led toward this kind of activity. There were slumped shoulders, puffed chests, turned heads, and nervous laughter. Most of these folks got swept up by fun and beauty, not by peer pressure.
About a week after we opened Philadelphia Community Acupuncture, Ellen and I were readying the space for another day. It was five minutes or so before our first scheduled patient and in my excitement I shouted like a carnival barker “it’s show time!”. I certainly don’t think we’re creating fiction or illusion, or that Ellen or I are playing some role other than ourselves. I do believe there is a delicate choreography we undertake to make the clinic click and flow. And, in best moments, patients find themselves floating not only in the acupuncture-induced Shavasina-like state within their own bodies, but also in a collective swirl of benign reality, a real relief from the just barely capped terror, or sadness, or rage we all walk with quite often.
I just thought how interesting it would be to create a time-lapse bird’s eye movie of a whole shift’s activity, the clockwise flow of patients around our space from coming to going and everything in between. You’d see a constant and calm orbit of arriving, checking in, heading around the corner to the bathrooms and into the treatment space, and out the other way back to the reception area. Inside that circle, you’d see the spoke tracing arrows of Ellen and I moving decisively between needle stands and patients. You’d see the subtle movements of the front desk person in the middle of it all, reaching out to every patient, the shifting light from sunbeams across surfaces and textures lovingly and skillfully prepared by Ellen’s artist husband who had to anticipate at least some of this celestial-like symphony.
Art need not hold the beholder away from its body. Religious experience doesn’t happen for me when being told how I’m supposed to feel gets in the way of connecting with mystery. We get to act with the kind of intelligence and love the Headlong Dance Theater showed me. We get to do something that allows this kind of holy space to move through. We get to know that we join all kinds of artists/medicine people doing this work today and all kinds of ancient traditions where opening and listening and moving to the stars with one another makes sense and mends the world.