Ritual is an ageless notion comprising multiple simultaneous parameters: personal, communal; religious, secular; political, spiritual; Western, Indigenous; alive, dead; memory, prophesy—each aspect indivisible from its opposite.
We practise rituals to find release valves, to create alternative experiences of reality, to disrupt our sense of the ‘everyday’, and to generate new social relations. I was recently in Keith Hennessy’s Research Project Unsettling Modernism at Impulstanz Vienna, where we explored a Holotropic breathing ritual, developed by Stanislav Grof, deriving from Gestalt therapy, which produces a sensorial, psychedelic, LDS-esque experience. There are ancient communal breath rituals in every culture, bringing awareness to our primary energetic function. Holotropic Breathwork transforms the passing of time in ways similar to how, when performing, hours can seem like minutes. This practice is very different from drug taking, where there is a sense of involuntary voltage. It is a process from which we may choose to depart at any point. It is an extreme example of the dizzying, trance-like teenage pastime of holding one’s breath until the point of passing out, or when children spin around breathlessly until they fall over.
For me, this was a highly intense experience, where my physical and emotional body transformed, and I temporarily entered a state of amplified distress. This occurrence was far more severe than that of other participants, requiring their attention. The division between people’s experiences is paradoxically necessary to an overall shared experience. Many collective rituals depend on something ‘other’ occurring. The Native American Church practises a legal ritual of peyote consumption, in which vomiting is a natural aspect for some, causing people to attend to one another. Both choreographically and socially, for some to be up, others are down.
Hennessy initiated rituals to do with death, healing and therapy; again, subjects which will always involve speculation, and are the nuclei of rituals in numerous cultures. In order to investigate these ideas, within the larger ritual of Impulstanz, a degree of pretence is required. A contrived reality is a practice in itself, here referred to as Shamanic Potential, devised by Hennessy, Valentina Desideri and Jennifer Lacey, by performing fake healings and fake funerals. We tapped into the science of science, healing and sanctifying the pretend ‘ill’, ‘injured’, ‘wounded’ and ‘dead’ through observation, attention, imagination, and practical application, giving the ‘clients’ our ‘best’ ‘fake’ treatments. Beginning such rituals from a place of ostensible fabrication (a child’s game) allowed us to sabotage our existing knowledge, and to access new experiential information.
Contemporary dance has seen countless adaptations of landmark works in history, such as The Rite of Spring, carrying the past forward into the now. The practices and philosophies of our teachers, our ancestors, which inform our own rituals, are traceable far beyond their lives on earth, and ours. At any given moment, we are the present embodiment of the past, as well as the life of the future. Life and death rituals exist so that we can attempt to access and connect to the world of the dead and inherited, the eternally unknowable, engaging our memory to extend the life of the deceased, to reproduce cycles in time and space. Many embodied practices are preserved and carried on by others, with clear examples in dance history such as Trisha Brown technique and repertory [as I currently perform ‘Drift’ (1974) at festival Le Mouvement – Performing The City, in Biel, Switzerland (August)] and Ohad Naharin’s Gaga Movement Language—as well as after a creator’s death, with Graham and Cunningham techniques, and the pioneering work of Isadora Duncan.
The multifaceted ritual of dance is both a personal practice and one of performative sharing. The practice of any art form is ritual in itself, whether through daily creative processing, continuing a line of history through one’s own work, or simply through the unqualified faith any artist has in his or her own practice. Today, we can witness a sense of transformation of ritual in the performing arts, to do with spectacle and spectatorship, as audiences are granted more imaginative responsibility. Lilian Steiner’s recent performance Meditation acts as an inclusive experience, sharing her personal, improvisational practice – an inner, natural praise – which, in turn, transports each witness to a different landscape of their own meditative condition. The creative authorship of an audience in contemporary art today is paving a way for the invention of new rituals in live performance.
A class, training, warm-up or recurring ritual can be a subjective practice. In June this year, I lived at Ponderosa Movement and Discovery in Stolzenhagen, Germany, working with choreographer Peter Pleyer, who shared his personal warm-up score/ritual, created in collaboration with Esther Gal, which he does in combination with Tai Chi and Qi-Gong forms. This score is composed of 8×3 minute rituals of assorted practices, preparing for versatility and unpredictability in creating and performing: shaking, humming together, jumping while making a sound at the highest point of elevation, laying on one’s back and hissing the exhale of breath, sharing heart energy, laughing, fucking the space and slow motion. Congruently, the Deep Soulful Sweats ritual (Natalie Abbott, Rebecca Jenson, Sarah Aiken and Janine Proost), which took off in Melbourne last year, combining yoga, dance, disco and aerobics, creates an unrestricted space in which to alter one’s condition through a wild, impulsive group practice.
The practice of any art form is ritual in itself. Can we exist, and be present, among that (all) which we are not?
Symmetry and balance are key principles of healing practices and body concepts. We are essentially symmetrical constructs, yet, most certainly asymmetrical in our being. In many cultures, rituals are steeped in symmetry, through gestures of prayer, yoga poses, Buddhist symbols and the architecture of temples and churches. Notions of symmetry and extrapolated cubism were also vital to Western modernism. As Doris Humphrey famously proclaimed, “Symmetry is lifeless”1. In the many symmetrical shapes and forms of modern dance techniques, it is often skeletal and muscular tension that brings us closer to achieving these aspirational identities.
Hennessy introduced me to Maria F. Scaroni and Jess Curtis’ Symmetry Study, a movement score in which the sole instruction is that one’s body parts move symmetrically, again, pretending this impossibility is possible. Dancing ‘symmetrically’ shifts how we see the world, attempting to democratize body parts. As Jonathon Burrows said, “The body cannot escape the political, however vague”2. But can we really lend such equality? In performance, is someone’s anus or armpit categorically as relevant or valuable as a limb, torso or head? In a group of men and women, balance is not created by equal numbers of both sexes. Can we exist, and be present, among that (all) which we are not?
Within a shared ritual, we don’t all have the same experience, yet our experiences are not private. Do we capitalise on homogeny or individuality? My Holotropic breakdown was a crucial part of the group ritual, despite my suffering. Joining a group of ‘humans’ in any given context, involves accepting an inevitable element of difference, exclusion or discrimination within it.
German anarchist Gustav Landauer said, “The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another”3. Perhaps the language by which we think of “us” fuels our ingrained critical thinking practices. Do we need to stop thinking of ourselves as personifications of the word “human”, in order to reject the oppressive power of “humanism”? Instead, are we “objects”, “animals” or “creations”?
Rituals are ways to access new knowledge, like love and art, set heavily in the imaginative and uncertain, and the fresh experiences they create are sometimes unfamiliar and frightening. Let us not forget the past, but at the same time, may we find our individual and shared voice(s) for the ritual(s) of today.