Les Noces and the Power of Ritual

I was recently invited to speak on a panel to a group of students at Julliard about the ballet, Les Noces. It was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska to music by Igor Stravinsky and premiered in 1923. I danced the piece with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Boston Ballet. While there is a lot of information on this historic piece and it’s creators, and myriad ways to approach this topic, in my personal ruminations one aspect of the ballet kept coming up: ritual.

Malidoma Some, distinguished African elder and Shaman, points out the difference between ceremony and ritual. In a ceremony, events are “reproducible, predictable, and controllable, while rituals call for spontaneous feeling and trust in the outcome (The Healing Wisdom of Africa, 145).” Rituals call upon the presence and guidance of spirit with deliberateness and intent. They create a safe community setting for a loss of control (Some).

While Les Noces is obviously not an authentic ritual, it is suggestive of one through the high emotion expressed in the music and the way the  choreography shows the community gathering in a show of support for the couple getting married; the responsibility of the success of the marriage is taken on by the whole community. Ritual brings the support of the community to people who are undergoing an important transition in life. Certain things, like marriage, are not meant to be experienced alone.

So, even though the piece is theatrical, I think its ability to evoke ritual is one of the reasons why it has endured until today. In our modern life, we are cut off from that ancient tradition. We are so alienated and hungry for an authentic connection to spirit. In indigenous cultures, art is seen as a gateway to the mysterious spirit world. But in our modern life, we take our art in measured, somewhat predictable doses. We know when the show will end and what we’ll do afterwards. We are distanced from the art we observe. We are taught to judge it critically. To shield ourselves.  A security guard monitors our every move. His presence intimidates, shouts, “Do not touch the art!” Sometimes a great artist manages to crack the shield. I cried once at a Martha Graham performance watching Terese Capucilli.  It made those around me really nervous. Uh oh! Grand display of emotion over here. Can’t have any of that. Security!

But deep down, we remember that the first song, the first dance, the first painting happened in a passionate ritual setting. We are longing for a safe place to cry, to express our grief, our anguish, our ecstasy. We are longing to throw off the memory of someone who ridiculed our expression. Told us we couldn’t sing. Told us we looked stupid when we danced. Made us afraid. Made us defensive and taught us to judge others. Taught us to wear a mask. Taught us to take everything so fucking seriously. We are longing to be heard. To bring forth our genius. To discover and manifest our purpose. For our gifts to be recognized and utilized and appreciated. We are longing to feel like we matter. To feel touched, loved, held, healed. To look deeply into the eyes of the beloved other and to acknowledge the mystery of it all. All of this is made possible through ritual.

I’m not saying I got all this from Les Noces. But Les Noces certainly suggested that dancing wasn’t about me. It was about us. I felt the strength of a group focused with intent. Everyone literally, from the singers in the pit to the dancers onstage, was on the same page. Something bigger than me, than any individual, was moving through us all and it was powerful. It was ancient. And it rose up in me and roared from the belly of the earth.

I cannot promise the Julliard students that they will hear the earth’s roar or the stirrings of an ancient power. But I want to suggest here that I think one of the reasons why I had that experience with Dance Theatre of Harlem had to do with how the ballet was taught to us. It was handed down to us orally by Bronislava Nijinska’s daughter, Irina. In other words, it was given to us with extreme love, care and personal investment. We never saw a video.

I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but as dancers, I think we have to be reminded of the importance of the oral tradition that was used to create and teach dances in the past. Using a video can be extremely harmful to the dancer, first of all, because it encourages one to capture generalities, instead of something specific. Secondly, a video cannot communicate the intent behind movement. And finally, and worst of all, a video robs the dancer of having a first-time experience. The first-time experience is crucial because it allows the dancer to enter into the experience openly, without preconceived notions that would limit that experience.

I haven’t danced in a company in over four years. I hear stories about dancers being left in the studio with a video tape. After they’ve learned the dance more-or-less, a ballet master eventually shows up to coach. It makes me wince, this do-it-yourself attitude. This lack of support. Not everything can be done alone. Not much can be done alone. Even these few words need you to read them in order to be something.

Thank you for reading, by the way. Seriously, I need you. Who knows, maybe I’ll meet you dancing around the sacred fire one of these days. No? When I invite people to sacred gatherings, many shut down. Perhaps the word ‘ritual’ evokes images of gruesome human sacrifice or wild naked orgies. Some are simply afraid of feeling vulnerable. But I think just as nothing great is accomplished alone, nothing transformative is accomplished without making oneself vulnerable.

In ritual, I’ve been deeply moved in the way the group responds with compassion and patience when someone, sometimes myself, stood to speak, voice trembling with fear before the crowd,  or overcome with emotion trying to get the words out. Each time the speaker was  warmly encouraged to continue and depending on the amount of emotion expressed, even physically held by the group. The first time I saw people supporting each other this way, I wept. I am crying now remembering it. I thought of my days dancing professionally and how I wished we had held each other when we came off stage after performing something difficult.

So, yeah, an authentic ritual setting is safe. Trust yourself. You will know if it is authentic. It can be liberating and deeply transformational. Nobody will laugh at you, only with you.

You can come home, now.

Come home.

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