Matthew Richardson uses the historic Church of St. Pierre Apôtre in Montreal, Quebec as a backdrop to send a message of queer acceptance in his latest directorial dance piece titled “Hallelujah” which is done to the song of the same name performed by Jeff Buckley.
Set amid the frozen statues of Catholic iconography, the pulpit becomes the platform brought to life only by the fluid movements of dancers Guillaume Paquin and Arthur Morel Van Hyfte who play out a queer love story beneath the light of stained glass windows and moody electric lamplight.
This may seem like a controversial venue for such a performance, but Richardson (pictured upper-left), originally from Savannah, Georgia is no stranger to taking risks. In fact, being a Cirque Du Soleil performer, his whole artistic life is a feat in faith, risk-taking, and trust, something the church embodies, but at times, doesn’t extend openly to the LGBT community.
That conflict is actually the inspiration behind “Hallelujah” Richardson says. The idea was born quickly after a conversation he had with his mother about people of faith using scripture and sermons as expressions of hate.
“I started thinking about all the protesters with hate signs that I see at every Pride,” explains Richardson. “I was thinking about all the hate messages I received after my first LGBTQ creation ‘The Arrow‘ (many using their religion as their reasoning) and immediately I thought I wanted to address this. 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.”
“Hallelujah” is the first part of five video creations the openly gay 34-year-old will produce in his The CircusQueer Project.
Although the dancers serve as the primary storytellers, the forboding St. Pierre Apôtre provides the third character in this haunting art project. One might think leaders of the stoic and sanctimonious space would not welcome an intimate performance by two men expressing their love for one another, but the dancers are only its heart, the church its body, taking on perhaps the most important role in the video: An example of inclusivity through servanthood.
“This is an incredible space that does a lot of outreach for the LGBTQ community in Montreal,” says Richardson. “I honestly just went into the church, asked who I could speak to about the idea, and then proposed what I had in mind.”
Rather than scoff at the idea, surprisingly the leader of the church was open to it Richardson says, proving once again not all spiritual places are unaccepting of the very thing they preach about. “They welcomed me, my message, and our creation with open arms,” says Richardson.
Yet, there is still the question of whether or not viewers will be offended by the piece, especially where it takes place. To that, Richardson says the message is clear to anyone with an open mind, others need to do a personal inventory on why they find it disturbing.
He wants them to tap into those feelings. “I’m hoping they will explore and question why they feel that way,” he says, “The community faces so much hate and rejection as queer individuals, so I’m hoping that people will watch and question if they need to consider more kindness and understanding towards those who are different.”
Regarding his own faith, the artist says he has a relationship with a higher power, but that doesn’t mean he’s restricted to just one conclusion.
“I believe in all religions, we are all essentially worshiping the same thing just with different names and in different ways,” he explains. “So I prefer to reflect and give thanks to my ‘creator,’ rather than pretend to know exactly who or what that force actually is.”
“Hallelujah” may just be the embodiment of that force, something that is created in a space which by its very presence is powerfully intimidating. But as much as the church’s original blueprint was drawn to bring people together, the same can be said for Richardson’s duet. Even though the contrast is striking, so too is the essence of his message.
“I feel the design in my life, and I see the beauty and balance of the universe, so it is very hard to not believe in something bigger,” Richardson says. “I can feel there is something more, so I believe very much in what most people call God. I just call it something else.”
Richardson has already planned four more projects for The CircusQueer Project. Each will address an issue that he thinks is important or personally moving such as gender identity, trans youth, and the conditioning of gender expectations.
For now, take a look at “Hallelujah,” the first in the series: