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Dancing with the Animals at the Missa Gaia

Kara Jhalak Miller

University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

2016 marked the thirty-second anniversary of the Missa Gaia, or Earth Mass, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. In the first week of October over 5000 people and their pets enter the largest gothic cathedral in the world to remember and celebrate their relationship to the planet. The sounds of whales, wolves, and birds are accompanied in the performance by the Paul Winter Consort, several dance companies, and the presence of elephants, llamas, earthworms, cats, and blue green algae.

This paper looks at the embodiment of dance in sacred place, animal representation, and ecology re-imagined in the ritual and performance of the Earth Mass. The Earth Mass is examined through revisiting the dance choreography performed by the Omega Dance Company for twenty-five years until 2011, an interview with Omega Dance founder Carla DeSola, and a 1996 PBS broadcast of the event. As this paper was presented at the PSi 22 Performing Climates Conference in Melbourne, Australia in July 2016, I explore some elements of what Peta Tait addressed in her keynote lecture “Performing Species Kinship and Strange Emotions” in terms of what live performance can productively contribute to current concerns about species and habitat survival under threat of climate change and what live performance might offer to an emotional understanding of climate change at this time in history. I also address anthropocentrism as humans bring non-humans into this ritual space, though I prefer to think it was actually the dogs, cats, llamas, snakes, and birds who were bringing the humans together.

I look at this experience as a performer and choreographer. I performed in the Earth Mass for eight years from 1994-2002, and re-staged and co-directed the Omega dance element of the Earth Mass alongside Sandra Rivera for seven years. My choreographic contribution was a dance that was a meditation on the ocean. The choreography used long thirty-foot ribbon poles with six dancers and music set to whale and dolphin recordings. The original Omega Dance Company choreography was created by Carla Desola and Allan Tung and restaged over the years by company directors Mignon Gillen, Kara Miller, and Sandra Rivera. Current company directors include Katie Bignell, Martha Chapman, Becky Reuter, and Margaret Elaine Plaza.

The Missa Gaia musical score was premiered on Mother’s Day, May 10, 1981, and the music was performed at the first Annual Feast of St. Francis Earth Mass in 1984. Paul Winter, an environmental composer who wrote the music, named the non-denominational mass “Missa Gaia.” He states on his website, “The Earth Mass celebrates the whole earth as sacred space” (Winter “Missa Gaia — Earth Mass”). The Earth Mass Service was the brainstorm of Winter and James Parks Morton. Over the years, the mass has featured a chorus of hundreds of voices and several dance companies, including West African dance by Forces of Nature and modern dance by the Omega Dance Company. This interfaith performance includes priests from Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Christian traditions who perform prayers for peace and unity.

The event happens once a year. Humans bring their pets and begin lining up around the block of the Cathedral at 7 am in order to get a good seat for the 11 am service. Generally, the pets include cats, dogs, parrots, hamsters, gerbils, earthworms, and snakes. People also bring potted plants and boxes of blue green algae. There are no rules posted on the Cathedral website for who can attend or how they should show up. The atmosphere is very calm. The caretakers know their pets intimately, and many people see the non-humans as beloved members of their families. People seem to use their own judgement about bringing the pets into the Cathedral space. My experience was that some people are first-time event goers, and others have attended the service for decades.

Once inside the Cathedral, the pets sit patiently in their caretaker’s lap or on a leash on the floor beside them. When the Missa Gaia mass begins, the event includes liturgical music, dance, prayers, and a silent procession of animals. The procession of animals all come from the “The Sanctuary for Animals,” an animal rescue charity that cares for abandoned and abused animals in Westtown, New York. (Young). From the archives of my performance memory, these animals often included goats, turtles, geese, pigs, camels, and llamas. There is no rehearsal of the animals for the silent procession. On the day of the performance, they are brought into the cathedral, lined up, and are guided to the front altar of the Cathedral.

To create an image in your mind, I would like to begin by sharing from an interview with Carla Desola in 2009: “Why have dance in the Earth Mass? The animals move. The whole earth moves. The cosmos move. We are constantly in motion. When we breathe in and out, our chest moves. We have our thoughts and the blood running through our bodies. Dance is claiming a deep part of our life. Human and non-human” (DeSola).

In revisiting the memory of the event and PBS archival footage of the Earth Mass, I asked myself, “How does the viewer experience nature through the bodies of the dancers in a dark, hard, limestone cathedral? Can we distinguish the dance from the architecture and ritual space around it? In what ways do the presence of non-human animals in the Cathedral bring into question the relationship of power, understanding, and species privilege between humanity, climate, and the earth? If the audience is not entirely human, do notions of what comprises an audience need to be expanded? How does space activate and work on us, or, in other words, am I witnessing the performance environment or is the environment witnessing me? What are the tracings of relationships between land, weather, habitat, and atmosphere that become visible when humans and llamas, camels, and algae perform together?

We are having an ecological crisis on our planet. Climate change, toxic wastes, loss of land through overuse of chemical agriculture, over-consumption of materials, and rising sea levels are only a few areas of ecological concern. The Missa Gaia is an example of a performance with a call to environmental activism through music, dance, and spoken prayer, especially as a performance of concern for the extinction of species. After the Missa Gaia performance, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine hosts a festival in the Cathedral gardens with environmental and social justice organization booths and vegetarian food trucks. Many of the human performers are also environmental activists. For example, in the 1970s, composer and musician Paul Winter sailed and participated in Greenpeace V anti-whaling expeditions and attempted to communicate with whales by playing music on the boats. As documented in Rex Weyler’s book, Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World, recordings of his music and the circulation of images of Winter playing music alongside the whales were a protest against whalers around the world (Weyler). The sounds of recorded whales are incorporated into the music of the Missa Gaia.

Una Chaudhuri, in her essay, “Animal Rites: Performing Beyond the Human,” describes animal representation in ecological performance, or “ecoperformance,” as having been “backgrounded by, or altogether excluded from, the dominant discourses of humanism” (Chaudhuri 507). Paul Winter’s website states an intention to create a work for the contemporary Missa Gaia mass that would be “ecumenical and ecological, one that would embrace all the voices of the earth” (Winter “Earth Mass/Missa Gaia”). If the Missa Gaia is trying to invoke a world that is ecologically-balanced, creating a spectacle that imposes the display of creatures inside a human-built space seems at odds and brings into question the agency and consent on the part of the animal participants. However, Chaudhuri also suggests that Steve Baker’s concept of The Post Modern Animal (2000) creates “a reminder of the limits of human understanding and also the value of working at those limits” (Baker 507).

Dance is also working within limits in the Missa Gaia ecoperformance. It is unusual for movement to play a role in a mass as well as to be performed in a site-specific place like the Cathedral of St. John. At the same time, in my experience directing Omega for seven years and regularly touring churches, synagogues, seminaries, and universities nationally, choreographed dance exists in religious structures on the East Coast of the U.S. in a way that it does not occur so abundantly in the rest of the country due to lack of a history of patronage of dance in these settings. Another reason is due to economy. Institutions cannot often afford to sponsor large ensembles of, for example, thirty dancers, as in the Missa Gaia.

In the Earth Mass, the dance is not separate from the space or animals around it. My intention as a performer in the mass is to embody the spirit of felt prayer and chant, to be a link between the words of the sacred texts, the architecture, and the moving bodies of everything surrounding it. Every physical element present influences the choreography and ceremony. One of the dances choreographed by Carla DeSola includes the imitation of movements of deer, swans, and cats, as well as imagining the movements of mythical creatures like unicorns. The round soaring space of the gothic architecture inspires a light quality to the aesthetic of the movement improvisation and the looming pillars of the Cathedral is reflected in the vertical shaping of upright bodies in motion in the dance. The placement of thousands of chairs facing the altar means the choreography cannot bend below the waist or it won’t be seen. The dancers improvise and emerge around stone pillars, tables, and animals making the sightlines for each observer different.

Some audience members have expressed to me that when the dancers begin moving, they experience a kind of alchemy, or deep connection with everything around them, and that the movement is a uniting force that brings ecoperformance together. Susan Leigh Foster, in her article about the kinesthetic impact of performance, writes, “Viewers bodies, even in their seated stillness, nonetheless feel what the dancing body is feeling — the tensions of expansiveness, the floating or driving momentums that compose the dancer’s motion. Then, because such muscular sensations are inextricably linked to emotions, the viewer also feels the choreographer’s desires and intentions” (Foster 49). I propose that the human viewers at the Earth Mass also somatically feel the lines and presence of the non-human species and architecture through the dancers’ bodies. The dance becomes a medium for connecting our physical bodies to physical space, embodying the way energy moves among audience and architecture. An example of this is towards the end of the event when an Omega dancer invites the audience to stand up and participate in the performance of hand and arm gestures while singing Winter’s song “Canticle of Brother Sun.” I have led the teaching and performance of this mass movement and felt a strong experience of interconnectedness and shared community. 5000 beings raising their arms and voices in unison is a tremendous visual image and kinesthetic experience. During the song, the pets remain in the caretaker’s arms or on a leash sitting on chairs or on the floor. Imagine a sea of arms moving together and a sea of cats and dogs howling.

As a performer, when the music of the piano and drums begins, and the 500-member chorus starts to sing, my heart opens. When I stretch my arm and carve the space with my fingers, I feel as if my energy goes beyond the ceiling and walls of the Cathedral. My arms reach around the earth. I feel the porousness of skin, the skin of land, the skin of beings.

The organizers are non-human lovers, and a great deal of care is taken to make these creatures comfortable and well-cared-for. As I swirl and twirl past barking dogs on leashes who are yapping at my costume and the elephant who closes the service with a grand processional, I have often wondered, “What is their experience, and what does it mean for me to represent them symbolically, or perhaps be them, in movement?” With this question in mind, I would like to perform for you on these pages a Missa Gaia experience and felt memory from my personal performance journal notes:

“The Wink” Performance of Felt Memory
October 15, 1995
New York City, New York

As I pass by the front altar dancing my way to the back of the cathedral, I catch the eye of the elephant who is only three feet away. He winks at me. His wink though does not seem to be one of celebration, instead, somehow it feels sad within me. It is possible he is uncomfortable about being contained in this building surrounded by so many people. Through my reflection in his eyes I imagine the plight of the world and how humanity is plumaging it through trashing ecosystems. His wink affects my movement. While the music resounding is grand, my dancing shifts into a quiet state of honoring place, of remembering where we come from as children of the earth, of honoring my ancestors and calling out to everyone through my gestures to retain this memory so that we can return to balance on our planet. In that moment, the elephant and I perform a duet. He sways, I sway. We are moving together in time. (Miller, Personal Journal Entry)

As I reflect on this performance journal note from the 1990s, I realize I was anthropomorphizing the elephant’s experience and privileging the human experience. The experience of the dance from the elephant perspective is impossible to truly know. Was I offending the elephant by swirling in front of him? I am reading into the elephant’s movements in ways that animal performance scholars Chaudhuri and Tait would not accept by attributing human emotion and interpretative meaning. The elephant was brought there in chains. This reality and the elephant’s visible physical state cause me to focus on my own experience of emotion in that moment and to question the experience of the work for the animals and how the idea of animal embodiment might be interrogated further in the silent procession. Chaudhuri argues that in ecoperformance settings where pets are involved, the non-human is forced to perform the human: “As literary symbols and metaphors, as pets, as performers, as signifiers of the wild, as purveyors of wisdom, in fables, in fairy tales, in nature films, in zoos, in circuses, at fairs, rodeos, fox hunts, dog shows — the animals are forced to perform us, to ceaselessly serenade us with our own fantasies” (Chaudhuri 511).

In the face of human coercion, how might the ecoperformance of the Missa Gaia ritual proceed? What the Missa Gaia event could do to address the agency of animals is to move out of the urban environment of a stone Cathedral and into an ecological environment where humans and non-humans are free to attend and participate without leashes.

The organizers of the event are committed to uplifting and articulating relations among all species and to envision companionship among humans and non-humans. This is evident in the liturgical spoken prayers and the artistic processes. In her book “Wild and Dangerous Acts”, Tait asks pivotal questions about ecoperformance such as, do animals enjoy performing and do they perform for one another? “The claim that some animals enjoy performing, while highly contestable, opens up different possibilities for communication between species.” (197) Tait’s notion of “sensory body phenomenology” (191) raises interesting questions about how trainers of animals might be “bodily and sensorily trained,” (183) and this opens the possibility for considering the reciprocity of humans and non-humans in performance settings such as the Missa Gaia. I argue that dance is experienced by the whole body rather than only the mind on a somatic level. Dance communicates a sense of relatedness among beings and earth bodies and, through this process, can cultivate a connection to the earth that inspires protection, preservation, and compassionate caring for all beings and species. In this way, dance has the potential to create groundwork for social change by literally shifting the way we breathe and becoming aware of reciprocity amongst humans and non-humans in our natural world.

Trees, grass, clouds, rivers, and animals do not need to speak in words to communicate to us a need for survival. What the Missa Gaia does for me is to create a performance of quiet, a liminal place, in the middle of the sounds of whales, dolphins, and music, to sit and reflect with my responsibility for the planet.

Our current lifestyle is unsustainable. Our bodies, the bodies of trees, humans, and non-humans, and the body of our planet are feeling the toll of pollution, deforestation, and industrialization. Our collective body is not well, and the choreography of the Missa Gaia is an effort to begin to heal nature and humanity through the act of awareness and performance of remembrance.

Works Cited

Baker, Steve. The Postmodern Animal. Reaktion Books, 2000.

Chaudhuri, Una. “Animal Rites: Performing beyond the Human.” Critical Theory and Performance, Edited by Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach, University of Michigan Press, 2007, 506-520.

DeSola, Carla. Personal Interview. 24 November 2009.

“Earth Mass: The Feast of St. Francis.” Public Broadcast Documentation. Public Broadcasting Service, 1996.

Foster, Susan. “Movements Contagion. The Kinesthetic Impact of Performance.” The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies, Edited by Tracy Davis, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 46-56.

“PSi 22 Melbourne: Performing Climates July 5-9, 2016: Melbourne Australia.” psi2016.com. http://www.psi2016.com/. Accessed 16 December 2017.

Tait, Peta. “Performing Species Kinship and Strange Emotions.” PSi #22 Performing Climates Conference, The University of Melbourne. Melbourne, Australia. July 7, 2016.

–. Wild and Dangerous Performances: Animals, Emotions, and Circus. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 183-199.

“The Feast of Saint Francis and Blessing of the Animals.” Calendar of Events. The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Devine, 2016. http://www.stjohndivine.org/visit/calendar/events/liturgy-worship/14487/the-feast-of-saint-francis-and-blessing-of-the-animals. Accessed 16 December 20176.

Weeks, Janet. “Religion in Motion.” Dance Magazine. (December 2001), 58-65

Weyler, Rex. Greenpeace: How a Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed the World. Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2004.

Winter, Paul. “Earth Mass.” paulwinter.com, 2017. http://www.paulwinter.com/earth-mass. Accessed 16 December 2017.

–. “Missa Gaia — Earth Mass.” paulwinter.com, 2015. http://www.paulwinter.com/projects/missa-gaia-earth-mass. Accessed 16 December 2017.

–. “Earth Mass/Missa Gaia, Oct. 1, 2017, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC.” paulwinter.com, 2017.

http://www.paulwinter.com/event/earth-massmissa-gaia-oct-1-2017-cathedral-of-st-john-the-divine-nyc. Accessed 16 December 2017.

Young, Jennifer. “Blessing of the Animals at Cathedral of St. John the Divine.”

untappedcities.com. 3 October 2016. http://untappedcities.com/2016/10/03/all-creatures-great-and-small-blessing-the-animals-at-new-yorks-largest-cathedral. Accessed 16 December 2017.

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