All photography by Sean Ongley
The fifteen-mile drive to St. John’s from my home fostered many daydreams as a ride into the city will. I felt a spectrum of scattered thought-clouds from the last few days folding into the vibrating wind that stirs within the core of each of us — that which I’ve felt especially sensitive to lately. I was driving toward Kelley Point Park to meet others for Anna Halprin’s 35th annual Planetary Dance that would begin the Integrative Arts Festival that I so fortunately stumbled upon last minute.
The Integrative Arts Festival hosted by Be-Space (a multi-purpose movement and expressive arts studio) is a week-long dedication to conjuring presence within the self, body, others and the planet. It’s a communing of individuals bearing witness to each other and the actual translation of these gatherings on our spirits. It features art-making, meditation and conversation, a drum circle, a potluck, the showing of a documentary on Anna Halprin. The Planetary Dance opened festivities.
It was a meditative walk through the park to the clearing where we met, an intentional warming of the soul and the senses. Guiding us were pieces of earth and glass cradled by miniature paper bags that were affixed to branches. The trail opens up to a wide field of parched grasses surrounded by trees, yellow flowers freckling the body of it. Eventually, we are summoned by the voice of Elizabeth Russell of Be-Space to a hill on the west side of the park. I sense that many of us are new to this. We are curious to the power of our own energy and that of others now surrounding us.
We are lucky to have the knowledge and instruction of Tamara Gilbert. She explains that Planetary Dance has been part of the Integrative Arts Festival since its start three years ago but goes back much further than that. I won’t detail the entire story, but in a nutshell it began 35 years ago by Anna Halprin as a way to heal a small community facing spiritual turmoil. Hearing of its success in the community, Anna was visited by a Huichol shaman who encouraged her to continue that dance for 5 years – and it’s been going on all over the world ever since. Through collective spirits a Higher Power is called upon to make peace with the Earth and the beings that inhabit it.
Two by two, we approach a human gate where we submit to being ceremonially smudged with burning dried herbs before entering the dance. Tamara separates us from our partners as we veer off to form a large circle around the drums. When the circle is complete we are asked to move into directional segments of our choosing – I chose West. I don’t believe the poles were without meaning and I wonder if others found their internal compass symbolic to their own lives as I did mine.
We are asked to kneel and immerse ourselves in the Earth as we wish. We are encouraged to seek out the beating heart of the planet, to feel it pulse within us — as us. When we are ready to rise, we do — here I took my time. On my way to standing I hear Tamara as she asks us to call out our intent and initiate the human mandala. Intents vary within the group, ranging from personal vessels to wishes for the participating group to planetary voyages as a species. We verbally call out our intent and begin running the outer ring of three separate circles.
The outer ring, the first and the fastest, is meant to give flight to our intentions, lifting them to the Higher Power. The second, running a moderate pace, is meant to ground them and bind them to the Earth. The third, closest to the drums, sustains the energy and pulse of the offering. Each circle is free-flowing and we are encouraged to move throughout them as we see fit. Much of my time was spent moving back and forth from pulse to release which may have been why in the end, I had so much emotional upheaval. As I ran I remembered feeling responsible for sustaining the flight of the group’s intention as it began to dwindle off, only going back to center to be reminded of my pulse.
I can’t be sure of how long we were moving. However, when we moved to center we all seemed ready to be there. As others crowded around the peaking drums I was one of the few that knelt. I almost fell to the ground in the contraction of our circle. This time I nestled my fingers into it more than before, trying to hang on. I could feel the vibration of our dance in every inch of my body that touched the floor. It was my desire to lay down completely, but it wasn’t long before we were asked to extract ourselves outward again into the large circle we first met in.
From here we exhale together to send off the intention and energy into the atmosphere. We find a partner and sit back-to-back acting as magnetic poles, solidifying our offering to the world; harnessing the energy of it. I lean and rest my head on my partner’s, breathing as deeply as I can, craning my neck to the sky. It’s not until we’re asked to face one another and share our experience that I realize my eyes had betrayed me. I’m crying in the hands of a stranger, her grip is strong and gentle on my heart. And when it hits me that this is happening, I become more visibly upset. “This can be considered your sharing,” she whispers to me. And just before the bell tolls to signify her turn, this heaviness leaves me. I felt the heady weight of it and then it flew on like some migratory bird. I even seemed lighter when I stood again.
Gina, as I come to know her now, shared with me her feelings of calm, comfort, quiet and peace through it all. I found it especially symbolic because there was so much auditory stimulation — guttural yelps, tambourine, drums, howls, whispers, claps. In a literal sense there was no quiet — but I feel I understood what she spoke of. Figuratively, it was as if there was a fog of energy gathering and churning above us as we moved — and within this I believe there was no sound. In it there was only the body of our pure intentions. This we collectively mothered to our Earth. This we gifted to all.
The Integrative Arts Festival will be running now through Saturday, August 1st. Links for detailed information are below this photo gallery.