Exaltation, a very special movie, shows the whole world dancing
From Tanzania to Queens, New York, is a curious journey in itself, although the borough of Queens may be one of the most ethnically diverse and polyglot places on Earth. But these are just two of the locations that filmmaker Matthew Diamond went to in order to chronicle how devout people of different faiths express their ecstasy through dance.
Exaltation is a fascinating movie, traversing 17 countries and multiple faiths, alighting on all six meaningfully populated continents (ain’t much dancing in Antarctica — well, I say that, but what do I know? Everyone there may be sweating to the oldies as I type). This is, literally, an ecstatic movie but also a wondrous travelogue, and an unexpected lens through which to see so many, so different cultures.
At the Navratri Festival in India, where the Goddess Shakti is venerated, 50,000 people dance (in more or less unison). 70,000 dance through Puno’s streets in Peru, in devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
In Israel, we see “Hasidic exuberance,” as Diamond calls it. And in Nepal we are taken to the Cham festival, a combination of meditation and an offering to the gods, which goes on for two or three days. At a cham dance, a musician, usually a percussionist, keeps time while the celebrants perform a unique and ancient dance, with roots in Tibet, Bhutan and India.
“We landed in Kathmandu, which was strikingly different from anywhere I’d been,” recalls Matthew of being in Nepal. “One morning I happened upon the UNESCO site of a Buddhist Temple. It was a holiday and the people were dressed in traditional garb.
“When I got to Pokhara to shoot the Cham Dance, Mount Everest cast its shadow on the ancient Buddhist Temple and monastery we were visiting. We were invited inside while the priests played the music of Tibetan horns that introduced the Cham Dance. It was bone chilling.”
The second particularly unique site he went to was Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
“We were invited to film the ritual of the blood moon in that religious edifice. It was a mile or so walk into the temple and then a process of climbing three steep levels to their most treasured, sacred courtyard, open to the moon, where the ritual was danced. Almost no one, other than the monks and young priestesses doing the dance, are normally allowed into that sanctum.”
The most obscure religion he observed for the film, he says, was on their trip to the Australian outback.
“The aboriginal clan we visited is keeping their beliefs and faith alive, resurrecting their ancient dances, many banned by the Christian Church that oversaw their lives, and have once again made these dances a living, breathing part of their culture.”
Matthew was himself a dancer and choreographer, and has directed several dance movies, including the Oscar nominated Dancemaker.
“As a choreographer I feel blessed to have a unique way of seeing. Patterns are constantly visible, interactions between those who are dancing are significant signposts, and repeated motifs of steps are wholly in evidence to me. I marvel at the recurring importance of the circle in so many dances. It expresses community as well as the never ending chain of culture and belief. The foot stomping that people do is eye-catching. In some ways that foot stomping is an homage to our Mother Earth.”
All of which inspired Exaltation. “I began pondering which dance subject had never been explored. I asked myself, ‘What about the people who dance to pray?’”
The film took about five years to make, “mainly because we could only shoot many of the dance rituals on the holidays when they happen.” He says it’s impossible to pick a favorite place of all he visited.
At 90 minutes long, Exaltation is enchanting and, perhaps not surprisingly, you lose track of time watching it. And that’s appropriate since these religions and devotional traditions essentially span all of recorded time. It premiered at the end of November, 2022, at UNESCO’s incredibly long-titled Seventeenth Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, in Rabat, Morocco. It was, apparently, the first film ever screened at an UNESCO event. Bet it won’t be the last.
It will ultimately be available through a variety of streaming options, but in the meantime it’s definitely available to rent (and buy) at https://exaltationthemovie.com