On-Stage: Pageantry and Performance Art

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.

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15 Responses to On-Stage: Pageantry and Performance Art

  1. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Reminds me actually not of Church productions, but things like the Olympics opening ceremonies, that kind of public performance. China set the gold standard for sheer amazing spectacle–it can be pretty cool looking and I’m sure the participants were excited to be part of it, most of them. It’s a culture celebrating itself, it’s big and corporate/political, and it’s probably harmless enough.
    Me, if I were Chinese, I’d probably have found the Olympics opening ceremony depressing. I would have probably felt the most profound alienation and disconnect from my own culture. I say that, because that’s always how I react to Mormon pageantry. I mostly avoid those things, because I find them so depressing. But I dug the Chinese Opening. But I’m also not Chinese.

  2. Sam Payne says:

    I’ve heard you say things like this before, Eric. I remember very well your post about your reaction to the film "The Singles Ward" (you mentioned feeling so alienated by that film that you had driven away from it wondering how you were going to explain to all your neighbors and friends that you couldn’t be a Mormon anymore). I’ll say that in the case of the "Youth Spectacular," I felt more alienated by the VIP reception in the press box before the show than by the show itself (it was in that reception environment that the corporate/political nature you describe was most apparent). I can see the possibility of feeling, as you describe, "disconnected from my own culture" in the face of all the pageantry, but the show was so obviously constrained by its nature that it was easy to chalk up whatever disconnect I may have felt to the unwieldy nature of the medium, and to what I imagined to be a byzantine committee structure behind the scenes. It was easy to imagine that the Mormon experience of the participants was very much like mine. But those dudes at the reception? Wow. What church was that?

  3. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Those kids may not have been making art, but I suspect that they were doing something else that I, for one, consider very important: they were making unity, they were making synergy.

    Being ONE in a cause that is greater than the sum of its parts has to be something spectacular all on its own, and something that has its own way of stirring the hearts (of those doing it if not of those watching it).

    Maybe that’s why pageantry is something that the Church is so fluent in, because the working together is community building and because it gives the participants a feel for the greater-than-themselves experience.

  4. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Sam, first, I didn’t say this before and I should have–I loved your post. And I have no right to judge how anyone else felt or what they may have experienced. I guess including the guys at the VIP reception.
    I’m not really dissing LDS performance art. I’ve created some in my day, had a great time doing it, and absolutely felt the spirit.
    I also loved your comment about the committee structure behind the scenes. I’m imagining grim squads of take-no-prisoners RS sisters making everyone behave.
    I do think, though, that we shouldn’t think of the institutional art produced by the Church as being, like, unique or something. Big organizations like institutional art, and produce it to celebrate themselves. We do the same. In fact, our big productions tend to be very very Soviet. You ever see the big murals on the walls in the Moscow subway? Arnold Friberg.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Its interesting that Eric says, "Big organizations like institutional art, and produce it to celebrate themselves. We do the same." So these major pageants or festivals in effect, celebrate our own unity or sense of community, our being "one in a cause" as Kathleen says. But taking that in, I find myself feeling a kinship with Sam. I am also of two minds. Isn’t our unity supposed to celebrate the Savior? But we can’t really get to that without proving to ourselves that we are determined to work together toward a unified performance goal. Which kills it, which makes it about us before its about Him.

    It reminds me of the doctrinal notion that Christ is the only perfect person. Why? Because he got nothing out of what he did. This is impossible for us to achieve. Why? Because we know that we [i]will[/i] get something out of everything we do because we know the gospel. So we are told to be like Christ and yet we can not be because we know we are supposed to be like Him. Around and around we go. Maybe it isn’t that we are of two minds, but that we sense the conundrum of being human.

    And there is beauty in that, even if its artistic reach is limited

  6. Katya says:

    "It reminds me of the doctrinal notion that Christ is the only perfect person. Why? Because he got nothing out of what he did. "

    I’ve always disagreed with this definition of perfection or perfect altruism. Christ saved all of his spiritual brothers and sisters, whom he loved. That strikes me as a pretty decent personal reward. The difference between Christ and us mere mortals is that He consistently acted in ways that maximized the good for everyone (including Himself), while we only ever succeed in that on a very local level.

  7. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I like what you say, Katya, and don’t exactly disagree. But there does remain the fact that Christ deferred any reward to his Father. I believe Him on that. I’m not convinced that He really understood the eternal implications of what He did; or more specifically, that he knew he’d assume the role as our Father in the next life. I mean, we do have record in the New Testament that suggests he was coming to grips with what the atonement meant as he prepared in Gethsemane. But I anticipate (hope) the Savior will be happy to have us around. I don’t think, however, that he did what he did for himself, or for a reward. But I’m no scriptorian and have no greater gift of insight than the next person. Maybe I’m off.

    Regardless, my point was that there can be beauty in the simple act of understanding our own limitations–including regarding the nature of Christ’s perfection. I suspect both of our understandings have their limitations.

  8. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Interesting (to me, at least): In today’s CHURCH NEWS, the article about the Ogden "youth spectacular" is titled "3,500 Utah Youth ‘Arise’ as one." And in the same issue, is an article about this year’s youth parade that is titled "Days of ’47 Youth Parade unites more than 5000 children."

    If the purpose were unity for the sake of unity, I could agree with your concern, Lisa, but I believe that unity in the church is tied to the scripture where Christ says that if we are not united, we are not His. So working toward unity actually is about Him.

  9. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m not concerned. Not in the least.

  10. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Concern, insight, comment, whatever.

  11. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I didn’t really mean anything too different than you seem to, KDW, so let me add a sentence that I should’ve thought to include in the first place. Seems to me I left out the logic bridge… I wrote, with an underlined addition:

    "Isn’t our unity supposed to celebrate the Savior? But we can’t really get to that without proving to ourselves that we are determined to work together toward a unified [i]performance[/i] goal. [u]The problem can be that, in that process, we begin to focus more on whether we are succeeding in getting others to do what [i]we[/i] want, what [i]we[/i] plan or envision.[/u] Which kills it, which makes it about us before its about Him."

    Does that make what I’m thinking more clear?

  12. Diane Hess says:

    I have to say I thought the kids were WONDERFUL! And I say that because my special needs teenage daughter was one of those kids doing the Hoe-Down from the South Council. I have a step son who sits at movies and performances and cuts down everything because he thinks it should be one way or another, it’s not up to par, the acting sucks, etc. But because this production had been in the works for two years, and the youth took time out of their schedules for six months, that’s during mutual time and early mornings on Saturday, this performance was wonderful. So what if it was like the Olympics! The Church paid for everything that went on, from the sound system, to costumes that volunteers spent hundreds of hours sewing, to the food they provided those 3400 kids during those hot practices, who are we to sit back and judge what others do, what others consider art? Is that what our Savior wants us to do? I don’t think so…so as I sat in the stands many times watching these kids and especially watching my daughter, my heart swelled with pride and a new found love for my Savior. You have no idea how many people, young and old, that these kids touched their hearts. It was a once in a lifetime experience for these kids and I know for my daughter Danielle, her testimony has grown and she has become more active.

    I for one as a Young Woman leader in our ward, I am extremely proud of each and every one of those kids!

  13. anonymous says:

    I was a participant in the spectacular. As far as singing, our directors told us a million times to. They really stressed that we needed to sing. You just couldn’t hear it very well because a lot of the other kids, for some reason, chose not to. And we were dancing. We spent a lot of time learning and practicing our dances. And yes, they were mostly the same and it was a thousand-kid effect. I don’t know what you were expecting. For everyone to make up a different dance and try to stick out? The object of the performance was not to try and look as messy as possible. You don’t need to start whining and claiming how bad you feel for us just because it didn’t live up to YOUR expectations. Why don’t you try to organize a 3,500 kid performance? Then, you can complain. I and at least most, if not all, of the other youth participating really enjoyed it. And a lot of the audience enjoyed it too from what I heard.

  14. Sam Payne says:

    This comment will be kind of (very) long, and really, honestly, you don’t have to read it if you find you’re not interested. I’m writing in response, specifically, to the couple of commenters who participated (or had friends and family who participated) in the Spectacular in Ogden, and who find themselves (rightly) defending it against folks who would disparage it. And they think, perhaps, that I’m one of those folks. I just want to go on record as one who way isn’t one of those folks. I loved the Spectacular, cried real tears, stood and cheered, felt the Spirit, took photos, and commented often to my wife (during the show and since) that I wished our 16-year-old son could have seen it. It was sort of the point of my blog post that while there were all sorts of artistic challenges inherent in a show of this size and scope, it nevertheless affected me like crazy. and while I tend not to like pageantry in general, the Spectacular kind of knocked my socks off. I wrote a song for the event, and was thrilled (thrilled!) to see the song handled with such enthusiasm and care by so many faithful kids and their leaders. It was a real blessing. Some of the other songs from the Spectacular had been written by friends of mine, and during the show, with great excitement, I took photographs of the field during those songs and texted the photos to my friends. I think it made them happy to get those texts. Some of them didn’t even know about the Spectacular or about their songs being featured (most of the songs had been written for other projects, and then chosen for use in the Spectacular), and I was happy to have been the one to share the news with them.

    From some of the comments attached to this blog post (and others that have been shared with me by phone), it’s obvious that I was careless in writing about the show. I’m very sorry about that. I had hoped that readers of the post would hear me say things like, "there were also a few moments that just blew us away," and, "I’ll probably remember that image for the rest of my life," and, "we were watching a field full of kids who loved the gospel way more than they loved singing and dancing, and … they communicated that; communicated the heck out of it." I hoped that would be the take-away message of the post. Instead, I fear that readers heard me primarily saying things like, "simply cute," and, "on the sheer art-making level, there was plenty to complain about," and, "the event itself was monstrous," (by which, I swear, I only meant "vast," which it totally was). I’ll stand by everything I said, but I for sure want it understood that much of what I said I said for the sake of discussion. I thought (and think) that it would have been interesting in the context of this list to discuss the difficulties and challenges of performing a stadium-sized show with 3,500 kids, and having the audience feel the Spirit of the Lord in spite of those difficulties and challenges. As a list community that comes together to discuss issues of exactly that nature, I thought it would be interesting to discuss that. And I wrote the blog to highlight and emphasize what I thought might be the two poles of that discussion.

    I’m very happy to have played a small role in the Spectacular, and I honor the thousands who played a much greater role than I. And, for the record (and to distinguish my own opinion from the opinion of some of the others who have commented on my post), I agree wholeheartedly with Kathleen’s comment about the value of unity and "stirring hearts" (I would confirm that the hearts of the audience were stirred, as well as the hearts of the participants), and would suggest to Lisa that this production was most emphatically about Christ before it was about anyone else.

    My comments in the post about singing weren’t made because I think the pre-recorded singing unnecessarily diminished the experience for the audience (the audience loved it), but only because I would have loved to hear the kids’ actual singing and narrating voices live (wouldn’t you have? Wouldn’t that have been cool?). But heck, I know what the production was up against: an arena-sized space to fill, a cast of thousands, and a show requiring precise timing. I know it had to be pre-recorded. In that context, nothing else would have worked. I mean, it’s kind of a shame that nothing else would have worked, but nothing else would have worked. I’d have done it the same way, for sure.

    Regarding my experience at the reception, I must be clear that I love the people who attended it (many of my friends were there, as well as church leaders for whom I have great affection and respect). But I kind of don’t operate well at stuff like that, and was sort of put off by the notion of a VIP component to the experience in the first place. If there was any aspect of the experience that didn’t seem to me to be about the kids or about the Savior, it was that reception. Or maybe it just seemed nonsensical to me that I (who had written one song and showed up to a couple of firesides and rehearsals) was invited to that reception, while the people who I knew had really done all the heavy lifting were (while I was eating shrimp and chocolate-covered strawberries) sweating in the gymnasium below the stadium. Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder about that.

    I’m happy that I can send this comment directly to Sister Hess, who left her email address, and I’m sad that I can’t send it to Anonymous (at noneofyourbusiness.com), because I’d like to tell Anonymous how remarkable I thought the evening was and how powerful a collective testimony I feel was borne. Also, it’s painful for me to imagine him or her imagining me as more cranky than I am. also, I kind of feel like I’m on her side.

    I’ll try to be more careful in the future.

  15. anonymous says:

    I’m sorry for my rude comment. I realize now that you were just trying to discuss the performance. (And honestly, I thought the same on some of it.) And I just didn’t put my email because I didn’t want to get a bunch of stuff on it about ‘new comment’ or ‘new post’.

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