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Bridging the spiritual and political divide in I Hunger for You

In 2017, when choreographer and former Merce Cunningham dancer Kimberly Bartosik began working on I Hunger for You, her evening-length work on faith inspired by early personal experiences with charismatic spirituality, the country’s deep division following the most recent presidential election was a fresh wound in her mind. “I was, like many people in this country, in a state of distress about how we had gotten to a place where we couldn’t speak to somebody who did not share our values—our life values, not just our religious values. I come from North Carolina, and I come from a family [where] half of us voted one way, half the other way. I needed to question why I was making work at all. Why was I in the studio making dances when I felt the world was in a place of real distress?”

Bartosik brought these questions directly into her artistic practice. “One thing I started thinking about was the conflation between religious practice and political belief systems. It was right in front of me with my family. I was thinking about one’s moral compass and religious practice and the values of compassion and giving and life in the Christian faith and how there was so much I was seeing that wasn’t that. [I Hunger for You] was never about charismatic spirituality—but I grew up in a charismatic household, and I used to go to evangelical services and, even as a young girl, I couldn’t figure out how people could believe in something so strongly that their body actually changed. Their body went into a different state. As a physical practitioner and an artist using my body I started from that place: How can you believe in something so deeply that your body goes into a radical state of being?”

Bartosik adds, “I knew that at the services I went to growing up people were not taking drugs or altering their bodies through any substance but their pure belief. And it’s something that I am in awe of. I used that as a humbling starting point to get beyond my own criticism, which was political and social and full of rage, and started looking at the body in different states. How can we think about the body being an ideology beneath its belief system, a body in terms of its own existence and its blood and its flesh and its breath and its sweat and the things that just make us human and our desire to believe and our desire to have faith?” Beginning with these intensely personal questions on national conflict, the two-year process fixated on one essential question: “Where in the body is the desire to believe in something outside oneself, be it a god or a life?”

Although her experiences in the church are now distant, Bartosik retains vivid memories of bodies phenomenally altered by faith. “You don’t ever forget watching a body be just a regular body and then go through stages of change, speaking in tongues, and finally [falling] to the ground, what a charismatic producer would call ‘being slain in the spirit.’ They go through that experience and emerge back into their regular state, and they feel a certain freedom from the weight of whatever darkness or guilt they have been carrying. I think it’s so beyond performance. I’ve not experienced it in my own body. I’ve only witnessed it.”

The memory resulted in the development of a major motif in the work, created with her company, Kimberly Bartosik/daela. “We were on a residency. It was night. I said, ‘Go outside in the night and put on your headphones and listen to a song that you can get lost in.’ We all went in different directions into the forest.” When the dancers returned, Bartosik prompted them to recreate the experience as a consuming pulse, “a deep thing in their body that moved them.” They built dance using the pulse as an energetic counterpoint to extreme virtuosity. “I think there’s something deep about watching these extraordinary performers navigate places of ultra control and ultra abandon.”

Yet faith for Bartosik is something far more ordinary. “Dancing is a pure act of faith. You get up in the morning and have faith that your body is going to do what you ask it to do. You have faith that somebody is going to connect to your work. You have faith that you’ll learn from it and have a chance to make something after. To me, every step is an act of faith in concrete and energetic powers that are beyond me.”  v

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