Volume 10 Number 4
Making the Soul Dance
01 October 1997

Betsy Lancaster takes part in a conference 'for all who long to discover the creative sparkle within' and finds manifestations in unexpected places.

The hills were alive with the sound of music--and poetry and prayer; acting, dancing and painting; baking and puppetmaking; and much more. For one warm week in August, people from all over the world gathered at Mountain House, Caux, MRA's Swiss conference centre, to explore in theory and practice the full meaning of creativity.

'Psssht', the conference's title, evoked the effervescence and energy released when opening a fizzy drink. A diverse group of 16 from five countries meeting in Britain, Sweden and the USA had conceived and created this extraordinary event on the triple themes of 'creativity, freedom and service'. Their hope: to enable all who came to find new, honest and creative ways to look at themselves and their part in God's creation.

'It is not primarily a time for the "gifted" to develop their skill, but for anybody who wants to explore new sides of their human nature, their relationship with God and their role in society,' they said. Could the creative spark be ignited in everyone and in any aspect of life? British playwright Hugh Steadman Williams observed, 'Love and creativity are two characteristics that we share with our Creator.'

An astonishing array of workshops--from puppet-making to 'painting from within' from pastry baking to the Stanislavsky Acting Method--was offered. Workshop participants were grouped into four 'communities', with neon pink, yellow, green and orange nametags making for easy group identification.

A time for reflection in these communities set the tone for the day. As the early sunlight reflected off the snow high on the Dents du Midi and then penetrated the Rhone Valley, thousands of feet below, a receptive place opened up in hearts where some new thought could occur, something new happen.

A good Swiss breakfast prepared us for a daily 'open space' featuring a Swedish- Austrian mime/clown duo, Eva Lindroos and Charlotte Geissler. What better way than this non-verbal medium to speak to such a multilingual gathering? Drawing on their own life experiences, they amused and moved us, stimulated our minds and helped us laugh at our idiosyncrasies.

'Brief Encounters'--lively interviews conducted by Hugh Williams--introduced us to an American film-maker, an English violinist, a Swedish puppet-maker and an Indian writer, among others. Colourful, candid insights into what in their artistic lives had inspired them, given pain or taken them by surprise became part of the conference tapestry.

For instance, Ian Kiaer, an English painter, told of an injury which prevented him from pursuing his art, leaving much time for reflection. Having taken his ability to paint for granted, he now began to see it as a gift. 'I had to choose priorities. There was ambition and vanity in my painting.' Creating art, he saw, was a choice between serving self or offering a gift to others. 'If an artist is honest in his search for God, perhaps he can help someone else.'

In the 18 workshops, people were stepping across boundaries--often self-imposed--and trying things they had never dared to do: tentative novices side-by- side with the highly skilled. Imagine seven people of seven nationalities creating poetry from the abstract or the mundane to the profound. Or 11 people from eight countries starting with an empty vase, some flowers and pebbles and a twisted stem and creating a floral masterpiece. And what lessons were being learned in the 'contemplative movement' workshop, I wondered, as I joined 12 people, aged from 19 to 70-something, sitting in peaceful silence?

For an only child like her, 'puppets can be the people around you', said Marianne Lindroos, a Swedish puppeteer and educator. Her puppet-making skills seemed ani mated by a great sensitivity to people, which was reflected in the atmosphere in her workshop. The 14 who had signed up swelled to 21: black and white, young and old, Muslim and Christian working at one table in a room with spectacular views of the French Alps across Lake Geneva.

'There is a child within all of us,' she explained. 'You can act out happiness and hope, but also painful experiences.' At home Marianne and her puppets are called upon by schools, nursing homes and hospitals. She told of one elderly man who commented after her portrayal of the Easter story, 'It would be wonderful if I could believe in this. Perhaps I can.'

Lectures and seminars approached the subject of creativity from different perspectives and disciplines. The keynote address was a passionate and philosophical presentation on 'Freedom and Creativity' by former Soviet dissident Ernst Neizvestny, considered to be Russia's greatest contemporary sculptor.

The Czech Chief Director of the Baden- Baden Theatre in Germany, Frantisek Miska, addressed 'Is Theatre Dead?'. He dealt with such pertinent issues as whether the depiction of excessive violence, so often excused as a mere reflection of society, encouraged immoral and inhuman behaviour. He spoke of a flood of film, music and television unworthy of the description 'cultural achievement'. All too often, he said, contemporary culture glorified things which were harmful to society. Children, for whom TV was the main source of information, could start to believe that such behaviour was not only acceptable but desirable.

While theatre also suffered from 'this obsession', its great advantage, said Miska, was its live audience. Their response helped theatre understand that 'the route of excess would not lead to a man or woman revealing his or her true self, but was only a cheap sensation, which had nothing to do with art'.

'The analysis of today's situation is well known,' he continued. 'Morally we are not well. Every person senses this.' What was needed was not endless analyses but 'a synthesis, a beam of light or at least an attempt to find an acceptable solution for a dignified human existence'.

Vjacheslav (Slava) Dolgachov, a director of the Moscow Arts Theatre, gave behind-the-scenes glimpses of theatre in Russia. Some of the struggles it faces are universal; others are particular to post-Iron-Curtain Russia. 'Under the totalitarian state there was creative theatre because all else was closed to us and we put all our energy into an escape from reality,' explained Dolgachov. Today's economic challenges threatened theatre's very survival.

Dolgachov sees theatre as a mirror trying to reflect reality. With freedom, the reflection has become less clear. Writers have needed to stop and reorientate. 'We are all living through a process of finding our way,' he said, 'and it is difficult to reflect the process at the same time as experiencing it.' He pointed out that even with modern tech nology and the Internet, people still go to the theatre. 'Only there do we get the live reaction of people to what is happening around them. We haven't run out of the magic yet.' He spoke of recently seeing some excellent musicals and of feeling like a child again: 'a good condition for the soul'.

Kenneth Campbell, a Scottish-born director and Professor of Theater from Virginia, sees theatre as 'connecting tissue', which brings alive both the past--'the riches and treasures of which are at our disposal'--and the present--'which helps us to explain ourselves'. The journey continues into the future. Campbell believes that theatre 'helps us through the process of explaining our form and identity' and thus helps to answer the problems which arise from 'the cry for a knowledge of self'.

Mixed-media presentations by Lisbeth Jaegli Lasserre and Bill Cameron-Johnson introduced the rich colour and inspiration of Chagall's stained glass windows, and the history of theatre. A former lecturer in theology from Britain, Timothy Firth, led us from the design of medieval cathedrals to that of a Turkish carpet depicting the journey to heaven--just two examples of the signs and symbols that surround us. By way of illustration, a slide of an empty chair came to life: people on stage acted out the offering of hospitality to friends with an empty place at the table. Each of them shared what the chair signified for them-- old friends no longer seen, loss of a loved one, someone from whom they were estranged. What did that empty place represent for each of us?

Elisabeth Smith, a Norwegian living in Zimbabwe, offered a patchwork quilt workshop. Symbolism came to life as another diverse group stitched and transformed scraps of fabric into enchanting designs. As she describes it, 'Life is like a patchwork. Some of the pieces are very dull, even ugly, and some are bright and happy.' Put together, 'they can make a striking patchwork with lots of depth. All the different kinds of patches make a special harmony.'

'I am a rebel,' said Roshan Kalapesi, a writer, actress and businesswoman from Bombay. As a child sitting at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi she was captivated by his message. In today's India, celebrating its 50th anniversary of Independence, 60 per cent of the population live under the poverty line, and the wealthy have a certain sense of guilt. Some shut it out but, while in university, she found she couldn't.

Kalapesi offered perspectives from a culture thousands of years old: 'In India art is worship; we dance in the temples to wake up the gods. An artist asks God to use his tools to create something. God has given us each a pot of creativity. It is up to each of us how we use it.' She had found more satisfaction in teaching drama to students than in pursuing her own glory. She now works with craftspeople in villages and slums, giving encouragement and helping to find markets for their crafts.

This rich diet continued into the evening hours with performances which inspired and entertained. The Apple Tree, a humorous yet profound musical based on Mark Twain's The Diary of Adam and Eve, was offered by members of the Blue Ridge Theater Festival from Richmond, Virginia. Studio Ararat of Prague presented a riveting, bilingual performance of Urfaust, Durrenmatt's reworking of Goethe's Faust.. Letter to Wollongong, by Czech diplomat Jaroslava Moserova-Davidova, portrayed the tormenting choices which confront anyone living under a totalitarian regime.

Another feast for the soul was the internationally acclaimed British Fitzwilliam Quartet's Haydn, Borodin and Shostakovich concert. Their personal association with Shostakovich, who entrusted them with the Western premieres of his last three quartets, gave special meaning to the music. Violinist Jonathan Sparey likened the artist's role to that of a conduit through which talent can flow. His own ambitions emerged at age seven out of jealousy of his older sister's talent. But he left no doubt about a deeper motivation. 'The sound of a stringed instrument,' he said, 'can physically change you. Music can express (to borrow the words of Wordsworth) "thoughts which lie too deep for tears".'

A visit to the kitchen revealed another side to this amazing gathering. A Buddhist nun and a Croatian were preparing fruit bas kets to feed 400 people. Roshan Kalapesi was garnishing french beans with fried onions: a London set designer was slicing watermelons. Nigerian and Argentinean worked side by side. And was this really the concert violinist--who so recently was feed- ing our souls--slicing hard-boiled eggs?

In the dining-room, others waited on tables; still others washed up. Where, I wondered was the egotism and self- promotion one so often associates with such a star-studded cast? There was evidence everywhere of the creativity and freedom which result from truly serving others.

Is this the magic of Caux? The liberation of the spirit which brings true creativity--and true satisfaction? 'I commune with the Almighty when I am dancing,' said Vijayalakshmi Subrahmanyan, from India. Her journey as a classical dancer went from seeking fame for herself to wanting to dance in a way that led people to find something new in life. When dance is 'pure, unselfish', she said, 'it goes beyond pleasure and reach es out to the realm of joy'.

Another dancer, Laura Trevelyan, spoke of her love of Irish dancing and the deep pain of questioning her right to dance while people were dying in Africa through war and starvation. Then the realization struck: every person has a unique role and dancing was her gift to offer. 'If dance made me happy and gave joy to other people then that was a good contribution to the world.'

And so, at the end of a remarkable and thought-provoking week, the farewells were made and the ripples of creativity began to spread. We took away with us the words of the Scottish divine, Henry Drummond: 'We esteem too little the mission of beautiful things in haunting the mind with higher thoughts and begetting the mood which leads to God.' And the comment of the Irish dancer, 'All of us should do those things which make the soul dance.'
Betsy Lancaster

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0