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 & theatre. What we now call "multi-disciplinary" was simply the way things always were for thousands of years. Whole communities and families went to the theatre - which is either outside, in or near a sacred grove or temple - to find meaning to their lives, to reconnect to the sacred, to experience communal catharsis, and also to learn to not take life so seriously. In the Indian traditions, as in much of the pre-colonial 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 & now and yet timeless. The liminal threshold was 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 ritual performance traditions are rapidly fading in Kerala as elsewhere due to the hyper-modernization and commodification of life & culture, I've had the privilege witnessing many of these forms, and also of performing myself to full audiences of villages and families (parents, grandparents & children in clusters of 50-150 people) during my Kerala Cycle Yathra in 2006, where their attention was completely rapt in the middle of commons or a family courtyard.
Ultimately the task of the modern-day ritual performer is no different than that of the "shaman", as often those roles blurred together in many of the world's traditions. Their task is to help facilitate remembrance and the expansion of heart for the people they served; to help wind one's way through all the parts of one's self, leaving nothing untouched in order to discover one's true and essential nature. In order to do so, one has to feel and to express the whole range of human emotion and experience - from grief to rage to the most sublime transcendence. When the performer truly goes there, the audience can feel it, and they too go there. Coming through the journey, they re-emerge whole. So as an audience member you leave a performance feeling cleansed- as through you'd been scrubbed from the inside out. The performer, and the magic, the place, and the people - all combined - did that: for everyone present, and for everyone in the village, and for the spirits of the land. In several traditions the show/ ritual must be performed even when no human being is present- as an offering of gratitude to the Great Mother Devi, and for all the unseen beings present, and so that the lives of everyone in the village would thrive. We could say that the work of the ritual performer was actually necessary in order to co-creatively sustain order & harmony in the cosmos. Toward this ends humanity has created millions of beautiful technologies- i.e. songs, stories, instruments, dancing, colors, patterns, and rituals- to restore our connection to Creation.
The task of the new ritual theatre performer is to elaborate on what the old role once was. In the modern context, the small self must find its way back to the Big Self without much of a road map, or a very worn, torn up one. In the past, there was a well-worn path to get there and back, there were guides. Now one must find one's own way - alone or together; better together. The gift of not having a map is that there are endless possibilities. We can really create without limitations. The danger is that it can be easy to get lost. Moreover, 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, it is perhaps more intrinsically selfish than it was in the past. What heals the self, heals all, when done with that awareness. My own liberation enables the liberation of others. Moving my grief, liberates the grief of all beings. Inhabiting my joy, makes joy possible in all beings - as is taught 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. If we are all walking each other home, sometimes we may as well dance, no?
New ritual theatre also requires a depth of vulnerability I believe has been lost from some of the ancient ritual forms until the present time - once again due to colonization. The incredible tenderness of the self with elements such as the Unknown, Longing, Nature and with other human beings, is found in the revolutionaries who have brought ritual theatre back to present times. These have been, among others - Pina Bausch, Anna Halprin, and the originators of Japanese Butoh (Kazuo Ono & Min Tanaka); among these for me is one of my teachers Diego Piñon who created Body Ritual Movement.
Whether in solo or ensemble work, I emphasize the necessity of there being a real, direct and personal need to perform in this way and to engage in artistic inquiry. Without such a need, you can'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 pain as our own, but it is shared, just as our longing to love & be loved is deeply universal. Our foibles are so very human- which is what the Clown teaches us. That we can in fact laugh at ourselves, and at the whole mess we ourselves have made, because perhaps then, we have a chance at getting out of it.
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 reconnection & authenticity in our modern lives- a hunger so profoundly buried that we don't even feel it. But, it's there...
Hidden underneath our collective amnesia, we long to live again.
The seed has been cracked open, and now must grow. We must create/dance from the "Heart-Root"- the place of our shared wound & humanity.
May we know and be unafraid in revealing all that we are- for the liberation of the Whole.
- ©Pooja Prema 2015