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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 was either outside, in or near a sacred grove or temple - in order to restore meaning to their lives, to reconnect to the sacred, to experience communal catharsis, and also to learn to not take life so seriously.


In Indian ritual theatre traditions, as in much of the pre-colonial world, the experience involves all five sense and beyond. The audience merges into one mass of humanity- warmed and held, absorbed in the sounds, sights and smells of the otherworld. We are here together, 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 further disintegrate the veil of separation between one's self and the larger Self or Whole.)


While certain live ritual performance traditions are rapidly fading in India 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. While also trained in the Western Theatre, these sense memories have continues to inform my how & why of the personal and collective experiments which began over a decade ago.


Ultimately the task of the modern-day ritual performer is very much that of a shamanic practitioner, just as those roles often blurred together in many of the world's earth-based traditions. The performer's task is to help facilitate remembrance and the expansion for the people they serve; to help wind one's way through all the parts of one's being, 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, we re-emerge whole.


As an audience member you leave a performance feeling cleansed- as through you'd been renewed from the inside out. The performer, and the magic, the place, and the people - all combined - did that: for everyone present, for everyone in the village, and for the spirits of the land and the ancestors. In South India, in certain traditions the performance- ritual must be carried out even when no audience is present- as an offering of gratitude to the Great Mother Devi, for all the unseen beings present, and so that the lives of everyone in the village may 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.  In the past, there was a well-worn path to get there and back, and 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. The danger is that it can be easy to get lost.


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, enables joy in all beings - as the Tibetan Buddhist tradition so beautifully teaches us.  Ritual is most certainly not an escape from the difficulties of earthly existence, but a way to compassionately bring lightness to it.  

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, and Atsushi Takenouchi. 

Whether in solo or ensemble work, I have emphasized the necessity of there being a real, direct and personal need to perform in this way and to engage in artistic/ spiritual 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. At the same time we must re-member, together, that it is not so much about our individual "self"- a contrived figment of modern colonial society, but rather an offering we make to forces, and a Whole much greater than "us" so that - as Martín Prechtel beautiful writes- Life may continue to live, through as, around us, with us and as us.


It is precisely this art of offering that new ritual theatre practitioners attempt to rediscover and make fresh pathways into, with a vulnerability and honesty which the chaos and uncertainty 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. To grieve, and to laugh again; to dance and to sing again, together.

The seed has been cracked open, and now must grow.  


May we know and be unafraid in revealing all that we are-  for the liberation of the Whole.

©Pooja Prema,

Founder & Artistic Director, 2024




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