Betrayal danced out

The following dance, choreographed by Travis Wall, premiered August 4, 2010, on So You Think You Can Dance. It is performed by season 7 runner-up Kent Boyd and season 3’s Neil Haskell to DeVotchKa’s “How It Ends.”

I’ve never personally experienced a betrayal of this magnitude, so when I watch the dance, I think of that supremely infamous act of disloyalty recorded in scripture: Judas’s handing over his friend Jesus to the religious authorities in exchange for thirty pieces of silver.

The two men in Wall’s piece start out as buddies—they provide support for each other, and catch the other when he’s on his way down. But then one of them stabs the other in the back. Confusion, hurt, and anger ensue; pleas for restoration are made, and the two briefly rehearse their nostalgia for what used to be. But the betrayer will not relent: he proceeds to crush his former friend underfoot. In one last effort to repair the broken friendship, the betrayed one chases down and clutches his friend but ultimately realizes he has to release him, for he has chosen his path. The end of the dance shows the betrayer remorseful in the shadows as his victim moves on toward his own separate destiny.  

This interaction looks quite a bit different—more emotionally intense—than that shared by Jesus and Judas in the biblical accounts. At the Last Supper, for example, we see a Jesus who is completely in control of his emotions, who is fully knowing, fully accepting, of what’s coming. “What you are going to do, do quickly,” he tells Judas at the table (John 13:27). Then when the angry band of priests and soldiers come to arrest him, he gracefully receives Judas’s kiss of death, submitting without a fight. There seems to have been no effort on Jesus’s part to persuade Judas out of his intended course of action.

I wonder, though, about all that was left unwritten about this relationship that surely must have been fraught. Who knows what other private conversations Jesus might have had with Judas? Might he have sought to win Judas back to his side? We are given a telling glimpse of Jesus’s emotional struggles in the Gospel accounts of his final night in Gethsemane, but isn’t it possible—likely, even—that he experienced similar moments of distress prior to that, which could have been related at one time or another to Judas’s growing distance?

Regardless of Jesus’s level of reactivity, the dance powerfully captures the feeling of betrayal. It feels, as the idiom goes, like a stabbing. Or a crushing. This is what, internally, Judas’s kiss must have felt like to Jesus. How he must have longed to be restored to his friend! The friend with whom he had so often traveled, worshipped, broken bread, performed wonders. All that he had invested in Judas, all the memories they shared—surely these must have run through Jesus’s head the night of his arrest. If Jesus’s pleading with Judas was never verbally expressed, it must have at least existed as an inward heart-cry, this hurt.

But we know from what the Gospels tell us that the betrayal hurt Judas too. When he told the chief priests he had made a mistake and betrayed an innocent man, they would not take back the bribe money, and they would not let Jesus go. Overwhelmed by grief over what he had done, Judas hanged himself.

The lyrics that form the backdrop of the dance evoke a sort of double-woe, for both Jesus and Judas: “And in your heart, you know it to be true. / You know what you gotta do. / They all depend on you. / And you already know / how this will end.” The prophecies had been uttered. The vessel of destruction appointed. It’s time to face the music.

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