The dancers soar across the church aisles and the altar, embrace as they spin and cover each other in blue and red chalk. They do this after opening video clips of homophobic protests and violence have flashed across the screen. All of this accompanied by a recording of Jeff Buckley’s popular song, Hallelujah. Near the end the two men share a brief kiss. The final image is a large banner they create that reads ‘Choose Love,’ raised high over a backdrop of stained glass.
This dance performance video, entitled Hallelujah, was set and filmed in Quebec’s historic Church of St. Pierre Apôtre. Its a queer love story produced by Matthew Richardson–and the church leaders were happy to host it.
“They welcomed me, my message, and our creation with open arms,” said Richardson,the show’s creator and a former Cirque Du Soleil performer. Hallelujah is one of five dances he will direct as part of his CircusQueer Project. The video is deeply intimate in a deeply Catholic setting. In a review by the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News (SDGLN), dancers Guillaume Paquin and Arthur Morel Van Hyfte are described as “only [the] heart” of the video, while, “the church [is] its body, taking on perhaps the most important role in the video: an example of inclusivity through servanthood.” The entire 5 minutes and 33 seconds performance can be seen at the end of this post.
As described on social media, the CircusQueer project is “a series of performance videos to address social issues and hopefully inspire a kinder world.” Hallelujah is the first of five planned videos, with future performances designed to address “gender identity, trans youth, and the conditioning of gender expectations.” While each may not make explicit the tension that LGBTQ+ people may feel between their gender, sexuality, and religious communities, having Hallelujah as the introduction to the series makes clear to all that this church space is one that deserve to be reclaimed by both the viewers and the dancers.
Richardson describes the soaring church as an “incredible space that does a lot of outreach for the LGBTQ community in Montreal.” A 2017 profile for CBC News notes that the parish has long been involved in LGBT outreach, and it holds one of the world’s only chapels dedicated to the victims of AIDS, the Chapel of Hope, which was inaugurated in 1996. [Editor’s note: The parish is part of New Ways Ministry’s LGBT-Friendly parish list.]
Originally from Savannah, Georgia, Richardson describes his own faith as non-denominational, but does profess a “relationship to a higher power.” He says, “I feel the design in my life, and I see the beauty and balance of the universe, so it is very hard not to believe in something bigger.”
In conversation with SDGLN, Richardson explains that the project grew from an intentional desire to bring together LGBTQ+ narratives with religious spaces.Even though he found support from St. Pierre Apôtre’s in filming, he has been no stranger to religious-based criticism and hateful messaging in his life and work. From hate signs at pride marches to messages sent to him directly after his earlier LGBTQ+ dance films (in particular, The Arrow,which is dedicated to the memory of the 2016 victims of the gay nightclub massacre), Richardson felt a need to counteract those messages with ones of love. He says:
“My video ‘Hallelujah’ is a response to anyone who uses their beliefs as a weapon. It’s meant to be a gentle reminder that no matter what we believe in, we can still choose kindness towards those we don’t understand.”
SDGLN writes that the idea for Hallelujah was “born quickly after a conversation [Richardson] had with his mother about people of faith using scripture and sermons as expressions of hate.” Richardson regularly connects his work as a dancer with values that the church professes but doesn’t always “extend openly to the LGBT community,” namely, “faith, risk-taking, and trust.”
In the web magazine Carnival Cinema, Richardson further explains the message of Hallelujah:
“Religion is a tough subject for many in the LGBTQ community, and this piece is a reflection of the struggle and rejection we often feel. It tells the story of an individual troubled by the hate in the world and his partner who is fighting to lift him up, to remind him he is beautiful exactly how he is. My message is that religion should inspire more kindness and open arms, even towards those you may not understand.”
There is much to praise in this story: Richardson’s work and vision, the stunning grace of the dance in this particular space, the warm welcome of the Catholic community in Montreal, and the attention that it is getting in multiple publications. Further projects like Hallelujah are necessary in continuing to emphasize the beauty found in LGBTQ+ relationships in a long-denied religious setting. These initiatives, and their visibility, are essential to fulfilling the love that Catholicism promises to support and provide.
–Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, June 3, 2019