Thursday, June 26, 2008

sacrifice

This is an article I wrote a few years ago for Transmissions. As I currently find myself in a drought of any interesting thought I am cannibalising my past for the hunger of the present.


Two naked people face each other under harsh bright light in a chalk circle. They are surrounded by a number of people dressed in various degrees of formality. They in turn are surrounded by spectators (clothed, of course) on 4 sides. There is a little ritualistic dance of gesture and sound from the "referee" who then yells "Fight!". After a moment of heavy silence and stillness, there is a strike. One of the naked people falls to the ground and collapses on his or her knees, face to the floor, bum in the air. They are exposed, vulnerable, almost ridiculous, in a posture of death that is devoid of any heroism or romanticism, more animal than human.

A king is surrounded and watched by his people as he goes through a rite of passage that requires that he has sexual intercourse with a horse. He fucks the horse, he cuts it up, places the meat AND himself in a simmering cauldron and has to eat this soup while sitting in it, presumably before he himself gets cooked.

The first scene comes from our work Spektator which explores, amongst other things, the play of power between people in the context of bloodsport; while the second scene comes from our work Cyclops which explores man and his relationship to the ocean. The horse-fucking ritual comes from an ancient celtic ritual, references of which can be found in The White Goddess and The Mabinogi (contrary to what some people might think, we don't think up these things ourselves).

In Spektator, there is a notion that, underneath our veneer of civilisation, there runs a primal need to "rut and cull" - to fuck and kill. The text appeals to the need for bloodsport as a vehicle to express our primal need. If not, the text argues, we will inevitably express that need in true plunder and destruction. Better to have this theatre, better to sacrifice this one life to appease our thirst for blood than to lose many more human lives in the real thing. In Spektator, this ritual of violence forms the framework for an exploration of the relationship between individual and the mob, our animal self and our human self, the power shifts between audience and performer, choreographer and dancer, between the slave and master.

In Cyclops, the story of the horse-fucking king is one of the many stories in a work that explores man's savage history with the ocean, where cannibalism, metaphorical and otherwise, is a theme that repeats itself. This scene of the king fucking a horse alludes to the horse as an image related to the sea, to cannibalistic rituals, to the offering of the individual up to the masses. When I hear this story I am struck by the loneliness of the king amidst his people. The sacrifice of his humanity in order for his people to have a king. While researching material for Cyclops, we were most moved by instances of cannibalism when it was carried out methodically: when sailors had to draw lots and the victim often submitted to death calmly. It seemed that to offer yourself up as food to your fellow men was preferable to dying alone in the vastness of the ocean. We are interested in cannibalism as an offering rather than as an act of savage hunger.

When I think of sacrifice, I always think of ritual. When I think of ritual I think of transformation. This is also what I think of when I consider art and performance. I like to think that every work I make is an attempt at creating a ritual in which the space, time and the mind, body and spirit of the audience is transformed from one state to another with the performers presiding as priests/shamans/mediums.

Maybe because, growing up in Malaysia, I saw my share of mediums in trances, experienced rituals from the many cultures and religions co-existing side by side. Maybe because I was moved and surrounded by South-east Asian dance and theatre when I came of age as an artist. Or, maybe because I am an ex-Catholic.

I love ritual. I loved, when I was Catholic, taking part in the esoteric moves and gestures of Mass: the kneeling here, the standing there, the taking of the host (eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ - that's pretty cannibalistic) the singing of songs. I love the salutation - the "sembah" that a South East Asian dancer makes to the powers that be or the audience just before the dance or at the beginning of a dance. I love the the skate and the anthem before the hockey game. I love warming up and putting on make-up before I perform.

But what about sacrifice? Does the performer have to offer something up as a sacrifice in order to fulfil her task as high priestess of this ceremony that is theatre? Does the artist have to make some kind of a sacrifice in order to be an artist in society? As a performer, I can admit to and even insist that it is crucial in the warmup ritual that we leave our everyday bodies and egos behind to become "empty" in order to serve the work. As an artist, as an individual, it's hard for me to admit that sacrifice has anything to do with my life. Maybe to admit that I have sacrificed something to be where I am, I must admit that I have to sacrifice something to get where I want to be. I want to have my cake and eat it. Yet I recognise that there is a cost to everything. When I became a mother I no longer had room in my life to be a martial arts student. I still practised martial arts but I could no longer be in a relationship with my martial arts teacher: that is, pledge the loyalty, responsibility and commitment that comes with having a teacher. All that emotional commitment went to my son instead. I never saw this as a "sacrifice". I thought of it as the cost having a child. That I chose to give up my martial arts teacher instead of dance-making was just cost-management. After all, my career as an artist was, shall we say, in a dynamic phase and my martial arts teacher's best teaching days were over, due to the onset of Alzheimer's. But last week my teacher died. The last time I saw him was more than a year ago. At his funeral, struggling with complicated emotions, I wondered what I had lost really. And I wonder, as I write now, what the difference is between sacrifice and cost.

Maybe it's just semantics. Cost makes you feel like an able, organised person exercising free will, sacrifice makes you feel like a martyr, a hero. One is about the day to day cost of living, the other is an archetype that comes with a ritual and gives us strength to go through with daily losses.

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