As a small audience filed into an open studio session at South Philly's CHI Movement Arts Center this month, 10 dancers milled around the space, stretching, warming up, rehearsing moves. A few minutes later, at a cue from choreographer Kun-Yang Lin, this diverse group was suddenly moving across the floor en masse, each clutching an invisible ball of energy and then releasing them together as one.
"Some people say that watching us dance is like seeing one organism," Lin said later that afternoon. "We all come into the world as individuals, but when we start to find our own practice, we do it together. We start to associate with something greater than ourselves – that's religion."
Though spiritual is a word that comes up often when people describe Lin's work, he doesn't follow any particular faith, instead insisting that "dance is my religion." Wanting to find the source of that spirituality in his own work, Lin set out to create Faith Project/The Door, which his company, Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, will premiere this weekend at the Prince Theater.
Faith Project was developed through a series of story circles held at Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers' South Philly studio that gathered dance artists together with members of different spiritual communities from across the city. The meetings were overseen by Kimerer LaMothe, a religious scholar, philosopher, and dancer whom Lin invited to be the project's "thought partner."
In her book Why We Dance, LaMothe argues that it's no accident that Lin discovered parallels between dance and religion.
"Dance is the first technology that humans had for bonding together," LaMothe says. "In my book, I talk about dance as navigating what I call the ethical paradox that humans are: We're singular individuals, yet we're irreducibly connected.
"As humans, we always have to navigate that: How do you be both an individual and a community member? Dance has the ability to do that in such an amazing way, because as you're moving together it wakens things inside of yourself that you wouldn't have discovered if you hadn't been moving with the group."
For the story circles, LaMothe formulated three questions and asked participants to come up with a single answer: What do you most love? What do you most fear? What is the source of your greatest strength?
Dancers posited answers like "freedom" and "myself."
"Each dance we create is not really an answer," Lin says. "It's really about the questions; they allow us to have that chance to dream, to fear, and to think. We're not trying to preach. We're trying to have a visceral response, so people can feel."
Growing up in Taiwan, Lin was raised by a Chinese Catholic father and a Taiwanese mother whose beliefs fused Buddhism and Daoism. Not only did his parents come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, they didn't even share a common tongue.
"That's how I discovered movement," Lin says. "My father and mother did not speak the same language, so gesture was very important. I often say to my dancers, 'Think in body and dance in mind.' That way your mind can have the fluidity to listen to the wisdom our bodies can teach us."
In part a celebration of Kun-Yang Lin's 10th anniversary in Philadelphia, Faith Project/The Door continues an exploration of community the choreographer has been conducting in recent work.
His 2015 piece Home/S. 9th St. was a look at the immigrant experience, centered on the changing demographics of the company's Italian Market neighborhood. Last year's Santuario was a deeply personal response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida that touched on LGBTQ issues.
"Every artwork is semiautobiographical," Lin says. "The difference now is we use the community as a filter. We have to step outside of ourselves."