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Physical Theatre: Ritual is Key Ingredient in Performance-Making

Ritual War Dance in New Zealand Sport - paddynapper
Life’s rhythms revolve round rituals: daily tasks, birthdays, weddings and funerals. In creating meaning on stage, performers harness the power of rites.

Almost everything people do regularly has a ritualistic feel. Getting dressed every morning, preparing/sharing food, anniversaries, courtships, conducting business and great occasions of state – are rituals, patterns of regular human behaviour. Often, social convention rites/rituals dictate further ritual: for example, shaking hands on greeting, waving goodbye. Devisers of performance must reflect that in their creating. Then they have to experiment with it.

In psychiatry an action performed obsessively can be interpreted as evidence of compulsive disorder. It is often revealed in manic dance. A ritualistic dance or going through the regular motions of a life with all its tasks, may be called a rite. However, physical theatre practitioners use dance as but one element in the creative and experimenting process.

There is religious ritual as well as secular, a set of ceremonial actions like public worship, hallowed by time. Public performance and spectacle from the ancient Greeks to Medieval Mystery plays have drawn on religious imagery and symbolism to tell stories with messages. Performance is the enactment or creation of a version of myth, belief or historical event. It may be political, personal, social but it reflects human life through dance, drama, music or a mix of all three, performing arts.

Ritual in Performance Arenas

In ancient times, the sacrifices and appeasement of various deities informed crowd behaviour which became rites which became absorbed into theatrical convention. The films Apocalypto (2006) and Wicker Man (1973;2006) show ancient, atonement-sacrifice ritual at its horrific best. Nowadays, sporting events like boxing, wrestling, football, cricket, rugby, baseball are played out in often circular spaces, a large audience around, perhaps increased by television viewers, and although it’s sport, it’s also entertaining spectacle that stirs strong emotions. The same applies to bull-fighting, the Edinburgh military Tattoo, Son et Lumiere events, some street theatre activities and circus, whether people like the genre or not. When the floodlights go on, the event is heightened into pure theatre.

The New Zealand national rugby union team ritualistically precede games with the ka mata haka, a traditional Maori dance. This combines ancient warrior practice with psychological advantage for the participants by demoralising opponents through a dance performance. In Japanese Noh theatre, slow, deliberate, ritualistic, symbolic movement characterises theatrical tale-telling, unchanged for centuries.

The theory that theatre originated in ritual was accepted by such practitioners as Jerzy Grotowsky (Polish), Peter Brook (English, but mainly resident in France), Arian Mnouchkine (French), Eugenio Barba (Italian) and Richard Schechner (American), all of whom have contributed ritual elements into theatre performance to restore its lifeblood at different times. Schechner has said that while performance is an inclusive term, theatre is one node on a continuum that reaches from the ritualisations of animals through life’s everyday rites to performances of great magnitude.

Artaud and Theatre of Cruelty

Attending traditional theatre has rituals of its own: tickets, ordering drinks, programmes, lights down, usually polite attention to the performance. Listening to a concert is similar, plus the convention of no-clapping between movements. Bertold Brecht broke traditions with his making strange (verfremsdungseffeckt), forcing audiences to know they’re watching performance by actors demonstrating a viewpoint.

Physical theatre tends to break old traditions. Antonin Artaud, (1896-1948) led with theories about assaulting the senses of the audience. His Theatre of Cruelty, total theatre ideas were heavily influenced by surrealism, oriental theatre, Balinese theatre, masks, magic and myth, colour, rhythm, sound, ritual, ceremony, spectacle, psychoanalysis, the drugs he took and the mental illnesses he suffered from.

He explored the cruelty of existence rather than mere bloodshed or torture, the works he devised attacked spectators’ subconscious to release deep-rooted fears that they normal suppress and made them face their inner reality. The technique is both derided and imitated today. Anything in-yer-face, from the dark psychosis is broadly Artaud, and useful in physical theatre creation. To be ‘Artaudian’ means to risk everything in an experimental performance, acknowledging ritual or not. His name now signifies the theatre of scream, despair and inner torment.

One group who are exponents of physical theatre, risking through experimentation, challenging the traditional stage/performer/audience settings, are London-based Complicite. Founded in 1983, this is a constantly evolving ensemble of performers and creators. Artistic Director, Simon McBurney, says that there is no Complicite method, but collaboration is essential. They constantly incorporate new stimuli, new integrations of music, text, image, visual art and action to create what he calls disruptive theatre.

Experiments arising from ritual produce fruit in the devising process. Most people are unaware they‘re partaking in minor daily rituals, but are deeply conscious of the great rites of life. Physical theatre, draws on that great force to create and experiment and so adds to the richness of that life they are celebrating, examining, exploring and fulfilling.

First published on Suite 101, 22 April 2010.

Photo: Ritual War Dance in New Zealand Sport – paddynapper

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