My wife and I drove to Ogden on Saturday to be part of the audience for a huge show at Weber State University’s Wildcat Stadium. I had written a song for the event, and had shepherded the song through a couple of big firesides and a recording session. The event itself was monstrous (and the song a very small part of it): 3,500 costumed youth on the field, performing for a packed stadium. And I’m of two minds about the experience.
I felt badly that the youth didn’t have a chance to actually interface with making art. Because I think that interfacing with making art was part of the charter. They wanted kids to have a huge experience really singing and really dancing. But because of the logistics of performing in a stadium-sized venue, every note of the music – the accompaniment, and every voice heard by the audience – was pre-recorded. And every dance move was defined pretty much by getting to the right place on the field at the right time to make the right picture – each kid just a pixel in a thousand-pixel picture. And since it seemed like actual singing and actual dancing had been part of the stated agenda of the event, and since there wasn’t a lot of actual singing or actual dancing at the actual event, I felt bad. I felt bad because there are 3,500 kids in Northern Utah who think they’ve had an experience with singing and dancing, but who really haven’t. What they did was something different (it wasn’t mysterious what they did, or confusing. It was something that exists and has a name. The name is “pageantry.” That’s the language the church speaks most fluently when it talks about designing large-scale cultural events, and on Saturday night, part of me thought that was too bad).
But that’s where I’m of two minds, because while what they did was something different, it was also something remarkable. Lots of it was simply cute, and some of it elicited responses like “man, that was a lot to memorize,” and once, my wife turned to me in genuine amazement and said “good heavens, where does anyone come up with so many flashlights?” So there was this kind of weird awe at the scope of it all. But there were also a few moments that just blew us away. Like in the first six-or-eight minutes of the show, there were a couple of thousand kids on the field in white robes – spirits in heaven. Then, the spirits all moved to the north half of the field, and onto the south half came this big parachute painted like the earth, carried by fifty or so kids. And then, almost imperceptibly at first, a few kids broke away from the angel force, and ran like mad in these long, winding patterns toward the Earth. But these kids were in brightly-colored t-shirts and not white angel robes. And it was a total magic trick; you had no idea where these colored t-shirt kids were coming from, except pretty quickly you figured out that they were ditching their white robes and handing them to their neighbors, and then dashing off toward Earth. More and more colored t-shirt kids broke the line, until they were absolutely raining down on the Earth by the hundreds and hundreds. And it was gorgeous. Gorgeous! All that color and all of the care with which each kid executed the robe illusion, and then these positively beautiful kids running, pounding, racing away from the pre-earth existence toward the Earth. The moment before, everyone in the audience kind of had their heads around what the evening’s experience was going to be, and they were ready to cheer like they’d cheer for any experience they understood – like for a basketball game – and then along comes this massive, creative, football-field sized moving image that took everyone by complete surprise. Set the whole place on its ear. And I hate pageants, and I’ll probably remember that image for the rest of my life. And the rest of the show went back to being pretty much what you might expect.
I bellyached some (still bellyaching) about the fact that the kids didn’t get to really sing and really dance. On the sheer art-making level, there was plenty to complain about. And I hope that sometime, those kids have a real opportunity to make ‘em some art. But the fact is that we were watching a field full of kids who loved the gospel way more than they loved singing and dancing, and in the particular performance context of that evening – this weird, vast, pageanty show – they communicated that; communicated the heck out of it.