LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Marlene Dickinson: Our Universal Language

Marlene Dickinson, choreographer and dancer, has worked in theater most of her life. She has choreographed over 25 musicals and revues and has developed several original dance works for the conferences of Dr. Lori Salierno of Celebrate Life International. Marlene has toured Asia, Europe, and Hawaii with Operation Appreciation, a military outreach, and has entertained on numerous cruise ships throughout the Caribbean. For ten years she was Director of Theater Arts at Church at the Crossing in Indianapolis where she also worked at Indiana Repertory Theater and Beef and Boards.

In addition to countless workshops and Master Classes, she has continued to study dance throughout her adult life at Butler University’s Jordan Dance Academy and at The Georgia Ballet, among others. Marlene has served on the Board of Christians in Theater Arts. She holds a B.F.A. in Theater from Northern Kentucky University where she attended on full theater scholarship. Marlene and her husband Curtis have two children, Lily and Tommy.

LeAnne: What is your background in dance?

Except for a few weeks surrounding pregnancy, I cannot remember NOT taking dance. My childhood teachers were all about creative communication, so I grew up thinking of dance not as spectacle but as language. Ballet, modern, jazz, lyrical, tap, etc., were like dialects of this wonderful universal language of movement.

For me, dance in performance has to be about something, and the more specific, the better. This seems like a no-brainer to theater artists, but it is actually fairly foreign to the way we train young dancers to think. Look no further than your local dance school recital [for proof].

So, my background is mostly about dance functioning in or as drama. Other functions of dance are perfectly legitimate, of course, but only interest me as they might serve my work to this end.

LM: How do you decide what projects to work on?

I use a number of criteria in evaluating an opportunity, the primary being Audience Worthiness. My notion of “Performances Worth Asking People to Show Up For” grows ever more limited as I age and as art becomes increasingly more accessible through electronic media. I have to be sure that what I offer in live performance is worth leaving your house to go see. (This is to say nothing of the cost of a ticket; I am only speaking of time and energy here.) For me, live performance has to be an experience that cannot be brought to you on DVD, CD, or iPod, nor can it be found in a cinema, book, or museum. It must be experienced live, in community, where both artist and audience are known. The distinctive of live performance is that it can, on some level, nurture this insatiable desire for intimate exchange which is so basic to our nature.

LM: How has your faith affected your passion for dance?

Sadly, I spent the first twenty years of my life completely oblivious to the fact that faith and dance had any relationship whatsoever. Church was Sunday and Wednesday, dance was Tuesday and Saturday, and never the two would meet. Fortunately, dance was not forbidden in my faith culture, as it was for many Christians in generations past. But for me, dance and faith were not adversaries, they were complete strangers.

Sometime around 1982 I began to discover what has been known since the dawn of time: Movement has the power to move us. It is for this reason I name my pick- up performance companies “Moving People.” Dance is our universal, primal language. It transcends all barriers of time, culture, and communication.

Now, we know that all powers can be used for good or evil. I choose good. As dancers, we literally offer our bodies as living sacrifices and our work as fragrant offerings to God. It is His work to transform. So, I see dancers as translators of truth and dances as spaces for God to move—not that He needs us to do so. I am thankful for a host of studios and professionals across the country that are now connecting the dots for young dancers, teaching and mentoring them in these principles.

LM: Have you faced challenges from the world because of your faith?

The dictionary defines challenge as a call to account. So, that would be “yes,” as an artist-believer I have been called to account by the world in many ways. The most prominent has to do with artistic integrity. As believers, our heart’s desire is to honor the Lord in both the content and execution of our work. I am encouraged that our generation is witnessing growth in both areas, but we have a long way to go. I think the Church has allowed itself to lose ground in the arts for a number of reasons.

For example, aside from the music industry, we have neglected, even bad-mouthed the arts communities for so many years, withdrawing our presence and discouraging our children from taking a rightful and necessary seat at the table of artistic influence. Now we are indignant that our worldview is either misrepresented or missing altogether.

Can you imagine if we advised our children, “Whatever you do, avoid going into business, son. It’s full of self-serving, greedy scoundrels who sleep around. And some of the product is questionable at best. You won’t meet many Christians there, and you’ll probably fall into the same lifestyle.” No. We are salt and light, working as unto the Lord in all we do.

So today we find ourselves in a spiritual battle to regain our voice, led by a handful of courageous and unrelenting visionaries. We have a lot of lost ground to cover since we have been M.I.A., especially in dance and theater, for far too long.

More from Marlene Dickinson on Thursday.

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