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Costume and context

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  Messages 23-17 deleted by author between 05-15-2015 08:41 AM and 02-23-2016 01:58 AM
Paula Hocking
04:18 PM ET (US)
Thank you Andrew for your posts - they have been intelligent and insightful. I'd like to apologise for not being able to take time to contribute but i have been encouraged by your perspective. I will be ordering Mark Sayers book and put it on the CDFB website as a recommended read.
God Bless
Andrew D ParkPerson was signed in when posted
04:48 AM ET (US)
I'm going to suggest a great book by Mark Sayers, which I think is a worthwhile read for anyone in relation to interpreting the influence of art, culture and postmodernism. It is "The Road Trip That Changed The World: The Unlikely Theory That Will Change How You View Culture, The Church, And Most Importantly, Yourself" (2012. Moody, Chicago). It is particularly useful in terms of interpreting and analysing why Western culture is like it is today, how it grew to be like it is, and how we as artists can learn to relate to the multiple complexities and contexts we are challenged to live within and around us as we go about partnering with Christ in mission through the arts in our own settings and surrounds.
It is an insightful critique about the costuming and context of postmodern culture - something we all interact with in day to day life.
Edited 07-04-2014 04:51 AM
Andrew D ParkPerson was signed in when posted
04:30 AM ET (US)
Around a decade ago there was a lot of criticism of what was commonly described as “girlfriend-boyfriend worship music”.

The chief criticism was that it was overly romanticised in ways which depicted “Jesus is my boyfriend”, to the neglect of the Trinitarian concept of God.

It was also described as far too simplistic and flawed in its theological presuppositions about our relationship with God.

At that time I attended a dance conference in outback Australia.

Like any normal male, I appreciate womanly beauty. And perhaps there is nothing more beautiful than seeing a large group of aesthetically blessed and fit female dancers performing a dance together in worship of our God.

So I am going to talk about that here in relation to this topic.

But first, I am going to mention that a well-known lone dancer immediately following danced in a body-coloured body-suit, which was designed to symbolize nakedness before God physically and spiritually.

In this discussion we have been talking about costuming and context, and most importantly about the sexual connotations and riskiness of dance, which is a physical phenomenon that can be quite controversial and scandalous at times to many people – especially religious people such as Christians (and Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and assorted many others).

To everyone there, the dancing in the body-suit – which could well have been controversial – was not because it was blatantly obvious that it was a body suit made of material and it wasn’t an overly erotic or sexy look. Nobody complained about it, and the theological and artistic point of the dance in that costuming was appropriate and good.

But quite a bit of negative outcry and criticism occurred following the Brides of Christ dance procession, which involved the beautiful women who were all dressed in bright virginal white, and whose faces glowed as the women smiled adoring into thin air as if presenting them-selves before the so-called "Throne of Grace".

I’m quite sure that many of those noticeably young women in the prime of their lives wouldn’t have intended to portray themselves as implicitly or explicitly sexually erotic, overly spiritualised, or to communicate something of a theological error into their ecstatic performance of their dance ritual. But the overall criticisms of what they did communicate were precisely to do with those criticisms.

One criticism I heard about it was that it suggested that only a portion of the Church – those virginal beauties of the feminine gender – were included as Brides of Christ, instead of the whole Body of Christ, including all the babies, children, young and old, women and men from all throughout time collectively constitute the Bride of Christ. Not just unusually beautiful and virginal looking young women dressed in sexy, bridely white with glowing, smiley faces. The white dresses were mostly bright white, knee length and formal event attire in nature. These were not nun-like women, but all aesthetically blessed women dressed and fully made up for a marital occasion.

Another criticism was that it was overly spiritualised. In fact, it represented a spirituality that was latent in hyper-reality. And it suggested that in what could easily be implicitly orgasmic in its heightened sense of sentimental romanticism.

Now I am sure that these women in the procession would not in their dreams have wanted to communicate that. But unfortunately, to many people there, including myself and a quite a few other (noticeably female) dancers, that is precisely what they communicated, even if they didn’t intend to!

The point I am making is that costume and context is highly relevant to us as Christian dancers. And we need to be very aware, sensitive, informed (theologically and culturally) and (contextually) realistic about it. It does effect what we communicate to the people we are ministering to and with.

Costuming and content is not a trivial matter.
Edited 07-04-2014 04:31 AM
Deleted by topic administrator 02-23-2016 01:58 AM
Andrew D ParkPerson was signed in when posted
09:40 PM ET (US)
Hi Noel. My former home city was Melbourne where I lived for 43 years before shifting to Sydney in 2002 after marrying Lucy.

I particularly like the creativity and innovativeness of the costumes you describe in your post, and your reflection of history and the biblical text into what appears to be a fairly rich choreography, story telling and journey.

You've introduced a brand new word `dramaturgy' into our vocabulary, which I think is a quite useful one.

Also like that you are presenting opportunities for members to become involved in your projects.

So far there have been 119 unique looks at this topic. So people are reading the blogs, even if they are shy about posting themselves at present.
Deleted by topic administrator 02-23-2016 01:58 AM
Andrew D ParkPerson was signed in when posted
06:15 AM ET (US)
I’m a big one for looking culturally authentic when it comes to costumes.

So a few years ago at the ICDF conference in St Andrews, I decided to go all out and invest in a rented kilt to feel as Scottish as my Robertson clan ancestry would allow me to.

But…! And there is always a `but’ with costume availability… At the shop in St Andrews I hired from, I could only hire a St Andrews kilt. They had no Robertson clan kilts in stock.So I went with that.

Now as I said, I like to be as authentic as possible to, in this case, the indigenous tribal culture when trying to identify costume-wise.

A few years before, in 2003 in Dallas, I purchased and chose to wear a raccoon hat (certified road kill) in order to identify with the local Western frontiersman culture. And I also mixed it with learning drumming from Apache pastor, Robert Soto’s dancer group.
However, nothing was as challenging as deciding what to wear underneath my kilt when attending the Scottish dance-fest night at St Andrews.

If I was to go totally “authentic” just like the kilted warriors in Mel Gibson’s Brave Heart film, it would have meant wearing no underwear under my kilt. And given the prospects of leaping and kicking up my heels in a rigorous dance over swords without any underwear on at a major Christian dance event, I decided, quite easily in fact despite a few jokes about it the time, to go with my gym shorts underneath instead of `going tribally authentic’. That was my concession to both my own dignity and to the dignity of all others, as well as, obviously and wisely, to ward off the seaside chill of what was a very rain-soaked night. So despite my concessions to authentic culture, there was no real chance of being a “kilted flasher” on the night, whether I glided in waltzes, prides of Aaron or in more robust highland flings in which leg kicks were involved. Common-sense had prevailed as well as self-preserving shyness.

Weirdness – I think a little weird (or Bohemian) in costuming so long as you don’t go overboard or deliberately try to be culturally or morally offensive to people can be refreshingly entertaining in the right setting. For me as an early 1970’s Jesus People/Hippy movement born Christian – a bit of counter-cultural “weirdness” can be appealing and good fun to people of my background culture.

There is however, a flamboyance I have observed in the costuming of some dancers which I think sometimes goes way, way ‘over-the-top’, even for someone like me for whom a little weirdness is sometimes a welcome thing to see. And this flamboyance has little to do with scantily-cladded dance performers, but a lot more to do with costume choices that are profoundly hyper-spiritual, hyper-sensational and overly triumphalist and hyper-realistic in the kinds of messages they exude about the Christian faith and theology.

I’m also not a big fan of the so-called `Baptist burka”, which I think is taking moralistic protectionist things too far. But, I am far less offended by that, and the reasons behind it, than I am about what I just described. That `over the top’ flamboyance is not only very weird. It is spiritually dangerous! And it’s because it often is companioned with unrealistic expectations that we have to somehow go spiritually `over the top’ in our dress and behaviour in order to invoke and please God, and earn God’s favour and blessing in some rash of over-enthusiastic foolishness and passion. And yet the Christ I know loves us and wants us, just the way we are and in fact we don’t have to do the outrageous in order to receive the fullness of His mercy, grace, forgiveness, and abundant blessings in this life.

On the other side of Baptist Burka stuff, I also aren’t into the PM Tony Abbott red `budgie smuggler’ (brief) bathers look either, which is so admired by surf club life savers worldwide and body builders alike.

I am both an occasional swimmer and a body builder of some 40 years, but I favour board shorts and a singlet in working out in gyms and in swimming in public pools and beaches for both health and personal dignity reasons.

So you may now be asking – rightly – “Well! What has swimming and/or body-building have to do with costuming and dance?”

So I’m going to tell you now.

Scanty costuming on the beach and in the gym often has as much to do with shock value and self-indulgent narcissism as it does on the dance stage for many in the secular entertainment world because of its `Wow’ and `shock moment’ effects on audiences.

But as Christian dancers, I think God expects far better and far more from us in terms of what messages and values we are speaking out about through our performances.

I noted in observations over the years that most of the strongest criticisms of costuming on moral grounds came from people who focused almost entirely on what the women wore, and not much on the men. That bothers me somewhat, because I think that can often be quite unfair toward the females, and made the men less accountable for how they presented in their costuming and dancing.

God neither wants us to be yoked to hard moral taskmaster codes of dress which require us to dress as modern day neck collar to toe dressed puritan or Pharisaic strictures, or to the opposite pressures of popular culture which dictate that sexy and suggestive eroticism is best to provide people with a new `Wow’ moment at the expense of people’s dignity, morality and humanity.

We need to be conversant with contemporary and local culture, and to be in relevant dialogue with it through our art. And that might mean adapting our costuming and language to communicate meaningfully with the people we are reaching out to there as Christ’s servants. But we are also Ambassadors of Christ. And so, in order to all that, it may mean making compromises in some things, and innovations in others, but it never means selling out our benchmarks when it comes to common sense and decency in our costuming and performing.

Now the thing is, just what are those costuming and performing benchmarks? And how do those benchmarks weigh up against our `freedom in Christ’ to be creative, flexible, innovative, culturally relevant in a highly pluralistic and diversely (morally) coded world society?

It is because these things are unclear issues for us in this highly diverse Christian dance community that, from time-to-time, controversies occur, especially around this costuming issue for us as a fellowship.
Edited 06-19-2014 07:36 AM
andy raine
11:56 PM ET (US)
If we were to legislate what everyone was to wear according to what might be a trap or temptation for some viewers we could have some pretty weird prohibitions. We can't be responsible for what happens in other people's heads. To the pure all things are pure - but there's a corollary to that. Sometimes I've seen 'modest' dance-wear that is totally impractical or inappropriate - 16 layers may look good on a stick-insect, but a larger lady can look like a carpet delivery under the bondage of someone else's ideas of propriety. Perhaps Rabbie Burns' words about wishing God would gi'e us the gift to see ourselves as others see us would be the most helpful. Ideally each dance would be costumed by a bigger view - are the dancers a shape? [eg the movement of water or the inhuman use of brutal power, an expression of corporate identity, individually indistinct] - or how does the outfit enhance the choreography or character development? is the outfit culturally alien to the audience, and if so is that deliberate? Too often Christians get hung up on the offense aspect and forget to ask more demanding and innovative questions - will this costume stop me moving freely? or does it render half the dance invisible? can a distinctive costume add whole new choreographic elements? [ I remember Pinto in South Africa had dancers wearing longer shorts, but they also had tall hats each with a letter written on the crown. This was the main feature of one piece]. Often for a dance-group there will be a set of costumes which will be worn for a whole series of dances with different modifications accordingly. We like the dancers to look individual, but together have a unified style - same outfit in different colours, often not apparently a costume at all until we are seen together. We found with one team in Boston we could do the same sets of dances one day in costumes and another day in our own street-clothes, and that without 'costumes' we had to work harder to get people's attention at first, but the audience identified with us more readily. In costumes we were a distinctive visual spectacle, but had to work harder to climb the 'us-and-them' barrier. One tour we designed a whole set of outfits under clear direction in rich colours, traditional styles that seemed historic and dignified, and watched how they seemed to create an earlier world where relativism and secular values could be set aside. It informed our whole performing repertoire at that time. Why had we been given these costume designs and invested time, money and endless work to create them [and make them adaptable for dancers of different sizes and colourings ]? We also tend to design dance costumes for a team to be different complimentary styles for men and women. If their movement is distinctive and so is the costume that's our trademark. But on other occasions - eg dancing the demons in 'Gethsemane' men and women are dressed in indistinct black clothing with stocking-masks that suggest menace and faceless violence.
09:28 PM ET (US)
While I believe in dressing modestly for dance in a worship and/or ministry context, I am wondering if the layers of skirts, shirts, culottes, and over tops (once humourously referred to in my presence as the Baptist burkha) may be a bit excessive. I think I want to make it so the shapeliness of the leg is covered, but the lines are preserved, same with arms and body. Cleavages, bulges and a multitude of smaller sins (i.e. middle age spread) is likely best hidden except for in the intimacy of a married person's home. The message is the important part - we want the Holy Spirit and God's message to be what is seen, not the individual doing the dance that relays it, lest it be distracting from the message.

And great to find out about this forum. Thanks for organizing it!
01:46 AM ET (US)
My short response would be: We spend so much time and care developing a dance. Choosing music with a particular message, choreography to develop it and train and rehearse the dancers to bring that same message across. Surely as much thought and care should be taken to make sure the garment worn by the dancer(s) enhances the telling of that story and does not distract from it.
I believe the intimacy level of the performance also also dictates the amount of " covering" the dancers would wear.
As a choreographer it is often the area which worries me most in a new piece. Particularly as my context varies from secular stage to church ministry. Either way I want to point my audience to Jesus and want nothing to distract them from Him.
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