The Bible has provided choreographers with themes and topics for their dances, and not always in a religious context: biblical characters—heroes and heroines, kings and sinners—and stories, often those with a compelling moral, provide excellent material for stage dance. They do not require copious explanatory program notes, and carry with them overtones and associations from childhood, as material learned at home or in religious education. The terse style of storytelling found in the Bible, often abounding in physical action and illuminating philosophical or moral issues, is well suited to the artistic ways and means available to the choreographer, who must deal with human movement to express aesthetic‐kinetic ideas.
Salome, the daughter of Herodias who danced before Herod Antipas, is perhaps the biblical character most often encountered in the annals of choreography. She has danced onstage from medieval passion plays right to the advent of modern dance at the beginning of the twentieth century, and she has continued to dance ever since.
In 1462, René, the king of Provence, organized a choreographic religious procession called “Lou Gue” in which there was a “minuet of the Queen of Sheba,” along with other biblical dances. In 1475, the Jews of the Italian town of Pesaro used the Queen of Sheba as part of their choreographic presentation at the wedding feast of the ruler of the region.
There are only a few examples of biblical subject matter to be found in the early French court ballets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One is Les balet [sic] de la Tour de Babel, chosen perhaps because God does not appear in the story at all, and the various languages are easily represented by folk dances from diverse countries.
Audiences as well as creators of classical ballet regarded their art as profane, if not altogether sinful and sacrilegious, and biblical subjects are rarely found in it. The revolutionaries of modern dance—Isadora Duncan, Maud Allen, and Loie Fuller, to name a few—who brought modern dance from their native America to Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century, had no such qualms, and soon a whole flurry of Salomes occupied the dance stage.
Many other biblical figures also attracted modern choreographers. Loie Fuller used the diaphanous veils and lighting effects she invented to depict the waters in Miriam's Dance and The Deluge. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn choreographed a “Salome” dance, Jephthah's Daughter, and their ballet Dancer at the Court of Ahasuerus (the story of Queen Esther) in the 1920s.
Classical ballet choreographers of the early twentieth century also turned to biblical subjects. Michel Fokine created his Legend of Joseph in 1914 for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, and George Balanchine composed The Prodigal Son for the same company in 1929. Kassian Goleizovsky choreographed his innovative Joseph the Beautiful for the Experimental Stage of the Bolshoi Ballet in 1925. Even such philosophical writings as the book of Job served choreographers, as in Ted Shawn's Job, a Masque for Dancing in 1931 in the United States, and Job (1931) by Ninette de Valois, the founder of the British Royal Ballet.
For many leaders of American modern dance, such as Lester Horton, José Limón, and Martha Graham, the Bible was a chief source of inspiration. In particular, Graham's Embattled Garden and Limon's There Is a Time are the most perfectly wrought biblical choreographies of our time.
Not surprisingly, Israeli choreographers make frequent use of biblical themes and characters. Since the beginning of Jewish immigration to Palestine in the early part of the twentieth century, choreographers have often turned to the Bible for subjects. In the 1930s, the Russian‐born ballerina Rina Nikova founded her Biblical Ballet company in Jerusalem. Several of her students were girls who had immigrated from Yemen. She soon discovered the special dance rhythms of Yemenite Jews. The teacher thus became her pupils' student, because she realized that their movement vocabulary suited the biblical stories she endeavored to depict in her works much better than did the European danse d'école.
Jewish‐Yemenite dance traditions were also to play a decisive role in the work of the most important Israeli choreographer of her generation, Sara Levi‐Tanai. She founded the Inbal Dance Theatre in 1949, and created many works based on biblical subjects, using traditional Yemenite tunes and steps to forge a personal, modern movement style that served her biblical ballets well.
The connection between ancient Yemenite artistic tradition and biblical choreography has created a commonly held fallacy, that Yemenite dance is somehow representative of dance in biblical times, of which we know little despite the many instances of dancing in the Bible. There are no less than eleven biblical Hebrew terms for dance, but hardly any further evidence that modern choreographers could use when dealing with biblical subjects.
Biblical themes also served as a source of inspiration for Israeli choreographers who since the 1940s had staged pageants, often at the very sites of the biblical events they dealt with. They combined biblical texts, music, and mass movement, in the manner and stage techniques devised by Rudolf von Laban and influenced by the “Theater of the Masses” in Soviet Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, for the kibbutzim (collective settlements). These were biblical multimedia events, staged before the term had been coined.
There is scarcely a modern choreographer of note who has not dealt with biblical materials. In recent times these include John Neumeier, Jiri Kylian, Anna Sokolow, and Laura Dean, in addition to those already mentioned. Perhaps one of the reasons modern dance artists have turned to biblical subjects is that there are so many female dramatis personae in the Bible, providing the choreographers with roles for the women in their companies.
While the Bible provides a wide cultural common denominator for all of western culture, for Israel it is in a special sense a national heritage; hence the wealth of Israeli choreographic works based on it. The Bible is indeed an excellent libretto for choreography, providing the artist with moving metaphors, in both religious and nonreligious contexts.