WHAT IS RITUAL THEATRE?
My work in the New Ritual Theatre has its roots in the ritual drama traditions of South India, where there is no separation between art, healing, and spiritual experience. There is no distinction between dance and theatre. What we now call "Multi-disciplinary" was simply the way things always were for thousands of years. Whole communities and families go to the theatre (which is either outside, in or near a sacred grove or temple) to find meaning to their lives, to have communal catharsis, and also to learn to not take life so seriously. In the Indian traditions, as in much of the non-Western world, the experience involves all five sense and beyond- you become one mass of humanity- warmed and held, absorbed in the sounds, sights and smells of the otherworld- both here and now and yet timeless. The liminal threshold, is not a concept -it is simply the realest thing there is, and everyone has 100% trust in its availability and its power. (Very often these performances last the entire night- which is the way many ritual traditions around the world function- the tiredness one experiences in the wee hours serving to thin the veil of separation between one's self and the God-self.) While live performance traditions are rapidly dying in Kerala as elsewhere due to the modernization and commodification of life and culture, I have had the priviledge of performing to full audiences of villages and families (parents, grandparents & children in clusters of 50-150 people) during my Kerala Cycle Yathra (2006) where their attention was completely rapt, in the middle of commons or a family courtyard.
Ultimately the task of the ritual performer is no different than that of a shaman, and often those roles blurr together in many of the world's traditions. This is to assist in the expansion of consciousness and heart for the people they serve. To wind one's way through all the parts of one's self, leaving nothing untouched in order to discover the true and essential nature of the human being. One has to feel and to express the whole range of human emotion and experience from grief and rage to the most sublime transcendence, in order to re-member one's original nature. When the performer goes there truly, the audience can feel it and they too go there. Coming through the journey, they emerge whole. You leave a performance feeling cleansed- as through you'd been scrubbed from the inside out. The performer did this for the benefit of all beings- for everyone present and for everyone in the village. In several traditions, the show/ ritual must be performed even when no human being is present- as a offering and gratitude to the Great Mother Devi, for all the unseen beings present, and so that the lives of everyone in that village would thrive. We could say, that the work of the ritual performer was neccesary in order to co-creatively sustain order and harmony in the cosmos. Toward this ends humanity has created millions of beautiful tools- i.e. songs, stories, instruments, dancing, colors, patterns, and rituals.
I find that my task as a modern ritual performer is to elaborate on what the old role once was. The first difference is that in a modern context, the small self must find its way back to the big Self without a road map. In the old times, there was a well-worn path to get there and back. Now one must find one's own way- alone or together. The gift of not having a map is that are endless possibilities. We can really create without limiations. The second difference is that for the modern ritual performer, the act is as much a process of healing for the personal self as it is for the collective. That is to say, its more itrinsicly selfish than it was in the past. And in this I believe there is no separation. What heals the self, heals the all, when done with that awareness. My own liberation enables the liberation of others. Moving my anger, liberates the grief of all beings. This is a bit like Tonglen practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It is most certainly not an escape from the difficulties of earthly existence, but a way to compassionately bring lightness to it. This requires a depth of vulnerability I believe has been lost sfrom some of the ancient ritual forms until the present time. The incredible tenderness of the self with elements such as the Unknown, Longing, and with others, is found in the revolutionaries who have brought ritual theatre back to present times. These have been, among others Pina Bausch, Marina Abramovic, Anna Halprin, and the originators of Japanese Butoh (Kazuo Ono & Min Tanaka), as well as the many who have developed this to new realms; chief among these for me in my teacher Diego Pinon who created Butoh Ritual Mexicano.
In my work alone and with others, I emphasize the necessity of there being a real, direct and personal need to perform in this way/ to engage in a particular artistic inquiry. Without the need, you cann't enter into a contract to serve, to liberate. One must truly have something to risk, to loose, and therefore to discover. We too often think our grief is our own, but its shared just as our longing to be deeply loved and to love is universal. Our foibles are so very human- and this is what the Clown teaches us as well. And it is precisely this that the New Ritual Theatre attempts to rediscover and make new pathways into, with a vulnerability and honesty which the chaos and disruption of our current time makes possible. I believe there is a hunger for connection & vulnerability in our modern lives- a hunger so proundly buried that we don't even feel it. Yet, its there.
The seed has been cracked open, and now the heart must grow. I have begun to say that we must dance from the "Heart-Root"- the place of our shared wound and our humanity.
May we know and be unafraid in revealing all that we, are for the benefit of all beings.
- ©Pooja Prema 2015