The Dancing Jesuit
St Ignatius Loyola, St Aloysius Gonzaga and St Edmund Campion would be rather surprised to learn that the man in the picture is actually a Jesuit, Fr Saju George, S.J., the so-called 'dancing priest,' who begins his English tour later this week. This includes concerts at the Balaji Temple, Birmingham and Farm Street Jesuit Centre in London as well as performances during Sunday Mass at St Catherine's, Bristol (Fr Saju will provide a dance of self-offering, a Gospel meditation and a thanksgiving dance or Keerthanam after Communion).
Fr Saju is attempting to 'Christianize' Bharatanatyam, a sacred dance which (in recent centuries) was often performed by prostitutes in Hindu temples - so much so that it was abolished in 1947. As Fr Saju explained to Brendan McCarthy in this week's Tablet, this ban led to its 'spiritual reinvigoration.' The dance, he said,
involves a commitment of the whole person, body and soul. Everything that is danced is in praise of God. God may be Shiva or Krishna - or one of the other gods of the Hindu tradition...As a Catholic I found that the dance may be in its traditional roots Hindu, but that it had the potential to express a Catholic commitment to Jesus through our own psalms; to make the spirit of the Bible alive in dance or movement.
The website advertising the tour claims that Fr Saju is following in a long tradition of Jesuit involvement with dance:
Alongside the important development of secular and romantic ballet at the French court of Louis XIV sacred ballet underwent a comparable development in many Jesuit institutions of higher learning. Suzanne Youngerman writes that ‘in Paris the students were joined by the most famous dancers of the Paris Opéra, and the ballets were choreographed by the same prominent dance masters, such as Pierre Beauchamps and Louis Pécour, who created the masterpieces of the secular theatre’.
Youngerman writes that the Jesuit ballets ‘differed from their secularly sponsored counterparts in having no female performers or romantic plots and in always having a moral point’… ‘They performed plays at different times throughout the year, but the principal event was during graduation. They generally staged a five-act tragedy with a biblical, classical, or national theme. A four-act ballet was performed between the acts of the play. The ballets were sometimes loosely connected to the play, but they did not deal overtly with religious themes, favouring the Greek mythological or allegorical plots prevalent also in the court and opera ballets. They were performed in the colleges throughout Europe and were immensely popular…’
Indeed, one of the great pioneers of ballet in the reign of Louis XIV was Fr Claude Francois Menestrier, S.J. author of Des ballets anciens a modernes (1682). But can we compare the stately ballet of baroque Europe (still a Catholic culture) to a pagan art form used in the context of the Sacred Liturgy?