To what extent can dance/performance/ theatre be considered a form of ritual today?

Issue #07: Rituals of Now

In what ways embodied practices could be said to perform or evoke notions of ritual? To what extent can dance, performance and theatre be considered a form of ritual today, and if so, what elements of this practice constitute ritual?

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Hellen Sky - Spheres of IN-fluence, Cite des Arts rituals, Paris 2014
Hellen Sky – Spheres of IN-fluence, Cite des Arts rituals, Paris 2014

Yumi Umimare

What is ritual? Some have said, modern Japanese people are born into a Shinto ritual, get married at a Christian church then die in a Buddhist ceremony. I’ve grown up with all sorts of mixed-traditional rituals, social disciplines and modern rituals combined with superstitions. Like, when we hear an ambulance passing, we hide our thumb. If you put on your right shoe first, you will have good luck for the day. If you feel nervous, you should write the character of a ‘person’ on your palm then swallow them three times. After the cremation of a body, bones are passed with chopsticks in a silent ritual. But we never ever pass food between two people using chopsticks. It’s taboo. Some rituals have strong meanings and long histories behind them. But some have no meaning and are even absurd. It can be quite religious or personal, but regardless, I find that in these moments of participating in rituals, there is somehow a sincere state, in which we ‘believe’ something may transform. I love rituals – as I love transformation.

For me, dance/theatre performance is a ritual in itself. It creates a gateway for performer and audience, to move from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary. Conducting rituals together, we sometimes successfully transform or even provoke an altered state of consciousness. I am fascinated in exploring this ‘crack’ – this moment of transformation, where both spirit and body are propelled into another world or existence. In our show ZeroZero*, I am brushing my teeth as a part of my movement. And through the repetition of this mundane action, the ‘crack’ opens and takes us into a shamanistic world, in which I find myself channeling the memory of a blind shaman in Osore-zan, the northern part of Japan.

So, daily routine becomes the tool for the unusual transformation of our mundane realities. I love to keep feeding our ‘gullible curiosity’ through these magical and unknown rituals of theatre and dance.

*ZeroZero by Tony Yap, Yumi Umiumare and Mattew Gingold, is a dance work exploring the liminal spaces between the visible and invisible. Through the performance, we explore the concept of a ‘zero state’ or a ‘null state’ – a double negative of nothingness – in order to make visible the invisible.

Born in Hyogo, Japan, Yumi Umiumare is trained in classical ballet and modern dance and has a degree in Physical Education from Kobe University (1988). Yumi is the only Japanese Butoh Dancer in Australia and the creator of original Butoh Cabaret works. Originally a member of the seminal Butoh Company DaiRakudakan in Tokyo, she came to Australia to perform at the Melbourne International Festival in 1991. Yumi has appeared in numerous dance, theatre and film productions in Australia, Japan, Europe, and south-east Asia.

Linda Luke

When I think about Rituals of Now, I think about Immediacy – Presence – Now-ness. That ephemeral ‘now’ that always dies and re-makes itself, in every instant. How can we create a ritual to remind us of where we are – now? ‘Now’ being two-fold; in terms of our awareness of being right here, right now; but also of being conscious of what is relevant to our contemporary times.

In researching my solo piece Still Point Turning, I thought that ‘turbulence’ and ‘fragmented’ were the most apt words to describe my experience of our contemporary times, reflecting on the bit mapped, sped up digital world we live in. I was also interested in how to make us present to the ‘now’ by playing with notions of stillness and silence. How could I mark out time and space to elucidate differing temporal realities? As I write in response to this article’s question, I wonder if Still Point Turning is a ritual. Is all performance a ritual of sorts?

How can we create a ritual to remind us of where we are – now?

Between the poles of silence, we could say that the hushed moments mark the bookends of a ritual. The hushed moments before the performance begins and the moment at the end, before the applause create these moments of silence. If we were to consider performance as ritual, then what is it that makes it so? Perhaps it’s the shared collective experience where we come together for a specific duration of time. As a collective, we give a turbo-charged sphere of attention to the person or persons performing a series of movements in a space that is ‘formalised’ or framed in a particular way. All this is to signify that we are to prepare ourselves – audience and performer – to be transported out of the everyday time-frame and into a place of distillation. Perhaps with an intention to discover something new about the way we experience the world or a hope to become lost in an instant – a timeless moment. Whether we are transported or not, is not the point – but perhaps it is the hope ‘to be transported’ that underlies what ritual is really about.

Linda Luke’s dance and choreographic practice aims to reveal hidden nuances of poetry, to deepen sensitivity and excavate the subtle undercurrents we experience in relation to self, each other, and our external environment. Linda is presenting her latest work, Still Point Turning at Dancehouse as part of DANCE TERRITORIES Rituals of Now season.

Ritual gestures are interesting as they are ancestrally haunted, and as such, may provide a visceral pathway to rethinking our histories. It’s through ritual that we substantiate and situate ideas within the flesh, and through calling up and repositioning these gestures, we might seek to agitate the closed circuits of the enculturated body.

Soo Yeun You

In the traditional dance practice in my culture, ritual in dance performance is directed towards recognition of the connection between body and nature within space.

The practice of walking and breathing is a key element for producing this sense of connection to nature. Walking and breathing sounds ordinary, but within Korean dance practice, it is a long-term discipline and is performed as a route into the extra-ordinary reality of the dance tradition.

My research investigates ritual practices and the ways they transform our physical, emotional and affective sense of ‘being’. I am interested in collaborations, which focus on the ways ritual functions within Indigenous Australian and Korean traditional dance and how traditional materials can be transformed into contemporary rituals. I’m working on a new creative research project with Torres Strait Island dancer and cultural consultant, Albert David that will further explore the intersections of Korean and Torres Strait Island (TSI) traditional cultural views with Asian philosophies of yin and yang and shamanist practices – especially in regard to life and death. Our process will be grounded in exploring the presence of ritual body based practices in the dance performance.

Some examples of the material for my creative work include Albert’s stories of his Grandmother’s funeral ceremony, which was performed by his family for three years after her death. I have reinterpreted and responded to Albert’s stories through my experience of the Korean traditional shamanistic ritual known as ‘Gu:t’.

The creative motif ‘Gu:t’ is a meeting place of life-death, yin-yang, East-West, and tradition- modernity. It is a concept that will be explored within Australian Indigenous dreaming and Korean Shamanism.

Soo Yeun has been trained in traditional dance from Korea. She has performed at the Lincoln Centre, New York, the American Museum of Natural History and Battery Park. Yeun has also toured her work extensively throughout Canada and Spain. Soo Yeun immigrated to Australia in 2002 where she completed her Postgraduate Diploma in 2004 followed by a Masters of Choreography in 2009. She is currently a PhD candidate in the Victoria College of Art Faculty at Melbourne University.


Sarah-Jane Norman, Corpus Nullis Blood Country, 2011, image Penelope Benton
Sarah-Jane Norman, Corpus Nullis Blood Country, 2011, image Penelope Benton

Sarah Jane Norman

The relationship between (secular, artistic) performance practice and (religious, un-religious, sacreligious) ritual practice is a cyclical question that I, as a maker of live, body-driven work, am obliged to continually answer, re-answer, re-phrase and re-question.

In this sense, I don’t know where to begin addressing this exceptionally broad provocation; from my position, I find it difficult to identify an aspect of performance that could not in some respect be configured as a ritual practice. And in my definition of performance, I mean to include not just my terrain of performance/live art (however one is supposed to define that at this point), but also theatre, dance, music and competitive sport. All of these forms are essentially ritualistic in their origins and character, and an argument could be made for the “sacred” function of each.

Personally, I am not invested in invoking any binary distinction between sacred and profane- such a delineation gestures to myriad moral and social structures I am not interested in reinforcing, either with my compliance or my resistance. Nor am I necessarily interested in staking a pseudo-spiritual intention to my own work, or my reading of anyone else’s. Not because I reject this intention, but because I think there is a critical peril in this kind of naming.

I use a great number of devices, materials and practices in my work that could variously be rendered as ritualistic, in the post-Artaudian sense: blood, piercing, physical risk and endurance, animal products, repetition and gestural incantation. Indeed, a number of my works have been configured as contemporised rituals – words such as “initiation” have been used liberally, especially in relation to my piercing and blood-based works. Again: I don’t negate this reading, nor do I actively affirm it. It’s true that I seek to implicate the flesh explicitly within the performance experience, and that there lies a potential for the numinous reveal itself by route of physical extremes. Does this qualify as “ritualistic”? That depends entirely on the definition of ritual. For something to be of “ritual” character, in the strictest sense, has nothing to do with sacredness. This is to conflate ritual with ceremony: they are not the same thing.

The principal character of ritual is repetition; it is through repetition that meaning is inscribed and, over time, shifts. Ritual gestures are interesting to me insofar as they are ancestrally haunted, and as such, may provide a visceral pathway to rethinking our histories. It’s through ritual that we substantiate and situate ideas within the flesh, and through calling up and repositioning these gestures, we might seek to agitate the closed circuits of the enculturated body.

Sarah-Jane Norman is a cross-disciplinary artist and writer, known for her performance and installation practice but also as a writer of fiction, criticism, essays and poetry. In addition to her work with the Red Room Company on The Poetry Object and The Disappearing, her work has also been published in Meanjin, Overland, Stylus, The Cultural Studies Review, the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) Quarterly, Realtime, the UTS Anthology, as well as placing in a number of awards including the Overland/Judith Wright Prize for poetry and the DJ (Dinny) O’Hearn Award.