Date of Publishing:
August 3, 2015

2015 © Anderwald + Grond
photo © Anderwald + Grond

Dizzy on Stage. Trance in Anthropology and Practice

Robert Prosser

It's one thing to write a text, but another to read it out loud and in front of an audience, where one becomes vulnerable. On the other hand, through this act of reaching out, potentially, it touches people more directly than through the written word. Voice is limited to a place, at a specific time. It's intimate: one speaks, the other listens.

1. Source

Travelling in Ghana in the summer of 2012, I had the opportunity to visit a demon-expulsion. The ceremony showed me an interesting form of dizziness, that of dizziness as ecstatic trance. At the beginning, it was a fairly normal Anglican church ceremony; starting Sunday morning, it continued until the evening. The ceremony took place outside a village on the Kwahu Tafu-Plateau, it was on Ghana’s eastern boarder to Togo, a country rich in animistic heritage. In Ghana, this tradition is less obvious, however it can quickly emerge and break through the Christian surface, seemingly depending on the pastor or the preacher’s reputation and how charismatic he is. The preacher at Kwahu Tafu was well known. People travelled from the surrounding villages, as well as from further away. This pastor, a man in his thirties, wore white apparel, with a red sash around his shoulders and waist, he was accompanied by a young assistant who was responsible for the drums. First, there was plenty of clapping, singing and praying but quickly it escalated. The rhythms of rattles and drums became faster and we danced by the pastor who in turn placed his hand on every forehead. If a demon was inside you, you fell to the ground, shivering like in epileptic shock. The first ones began to fall on the floor, shivering and then were grabbed by their legs and arms and taken away to the back of the room. The pastor sang “Jesus”, he cried. Since the experience I think often about the pastor. He was the middle of the happening, its centre. In his movements and voice, he was part of the chaos and also its reason. He was, so my conclusion found, the best performer I have ever seen. The drums kicked in, the rattles, the singing, the cries for Jesus, the trance possessing more and more people. People were brought to the pastor and he’d spit on them with holy palm oil. An old woman told him about a witch who’d persuaded her to hate the younger members of her family. I guess in Western terms she was envious to an unhealthy extent. The treatment consisted of her being turned around by the pastor, to be spat on with holy palm oil and to have holy sand thrown at her. The woman turned on her feet, arms in the air and continued to do this for over an hour, standing at the fringes of the ceremony. All the time the ecstasies of others kept coming and going like waves on a storm-ridden sea. Her witch-expulsion was a ritual, atoning for her bad feelings towards her family. Always the drums and the rattles sounded, and the old woman turned and turned. That was until the preacher came to her and she whispered something in his ear. “Jesus”, he screamed and she fell, facedown on the ground, shivering, shiny with spit and palm oil and covered in sand. Beforehand someone had told me that this kind of trance doesn’t work on foreigners. The demons and witches are for the locals, who are used to the ritual since childhood. During that Sunday, between cornfields and woods, a dark strange feeling started to grow in my chest. Nowadays I regret that I left after a few hours, but back then I was happy to get away. The whole atmosphere was too strong for me, maybe I was on the verge of falling in a kind of trance myself. Still, it was memorable; the pastor’s leading toward the trance, the rhythms, the ecstasy.

2. Questions

Actually, ceremonies like a witch-expulsion in Ghana are not that alien. The Austrian journalist and photographer Gerd Chesi wrote in his foreword for the photography book on Voodoo, that those interested in magical culture don’t need to travel to West Africa for the experience. It’s enough to go to a valley in Tyrol, Zillertal. There you can find a traditional healer, who will help with injuries, pains or with quitting smoking. They aren’t involved with the Catholic church, but rather work with its symbols. At a special time during the day, based on the patient’s birthdates, a special prayer is performed, with or without the patient, depending on the healer (some offer their services via phone, the results are reportedly positive). Apart from the speciality of healers, one can find another Tyrolean tradition, with a strong focus on dizziness; the Devil-Runs, which occur in the first days of December. Masked groups go from village to village, separated into different kind of devils. One drumming, the others running, they are accompanied by a witch who will perform a fire dance. During these days, these individuals slip into another role, hold a position outside of society. No sleep, a lot of alcohol, drumming, adrenaline. On reflection of the Ghanaian and the Tyrolean customs, I was thinking about two questions: How can I transform these experiences and observations into literature and bring them on stage? How can I fall into the mystic, but not the religious?

3. Experiments

Trance, in my opinion, is an amorphous energy. To deal with it you need a kind of context. Maybe, I thought, it works with invocation. For my last novel I did my research in Armenia. I met soldiers who fought on the Armenian or the Karabachi side against the Azerbaijan army during the 1989 to 1994 war. These Soldiers, the Fedayeen, had their own drinking ritual. They drank vodka in three rounds, accompanied by speeches. The speeches were elaborate and everyone wanted to be acknowledged as the drinker who spoke most poetically. The third round was dedicated to friends, the penultimate to wives and girlfriends. The first was reserved for the dead, the missing, the shot and the lost. I tried to translate this folk poetry into German. I combined it – together with author and musician Fabian Faltin – into a mixture of drums, rap and singing, a calling of the dead. It’s a kind of dizziness, which allows me to create a strong and mystic atmosphere onstage. But is it trance, like I mentioned before? No. What is trance therefore scientifically? Concerning brainwaves, it’s a mental state that on imaging technology is seen as being at an even deeper level than in subjects who are meditating. Paradoxically, the blood pressure sinks and the heartbeat rises. Feelings of pain vanish and the sense of time is lost. These experiences can’t be told in chronological order as they are mixed up. Interesting trance-related theories and discoveries can be found in the writings of Felicitas D. Goodman. Born in Hungary, she emigrated with her husband after the Second World War to the United States. After her two children were grown, she began to study anthropology. First she researched Glossolaly in New Mexico, at so called charmismatic or free churches, whose participants were talking in tongues, possessed by the Holy Ghost (like with the pastors in West Africa, it’s a melting pot for charlatans as well, a fact, not that important in the boundaries of this essay, but it needs to be mentioned). Again, religion offers a room for loosening mental borders. Through tongue talking one is able to enter a free state of mind. Similar to West Africa it takes some time to get going. But once the first person tilts into a trance, others follow quickly, and, like dominoes they fall. The experiences, Goodman wrote, varied a lot. Some were tired, others enraged, some were lost and others had visions. Why, she wondered, did the experiences of tongue-speakers vary so much? Then she became more familiar with the biomedical underpinnings related to body position and its impact on the mental experience. In every position; heartbeat, breathing and the location of the intestines are different. Minimal changes in your position can have a big effect on consciousness. Goodman started to look at different kind of positions, such as statuettes and cave-paintings. Indeed, she discovered shamanistic techniques of hunter-tribes from Siberia to South America, these were mainly set in the stone ages (with the rise of agriculture, shamanistic knowledge disappeared). In her book Riding with the Spirits Goodman recounts a tale from the Popol’vuh, the holy book of the Mayas. This tale tells of a hunter, defeated by an evil magician, who creates people different from the free and skilful hunters. Formed by maize-pulp these stupid humans are unable to see, which means their ability to enter a trance is lost due to the expulsion of hunting-tribes and their knowledge through agricultural societies.

Felicitas D. Goodman, Where the Spirits Ride the Wind. Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences.

Goodman’s research into statuettes and cave paintings identified faces that typically appeared to show signs of ecstasy – eyes closed, they wear a slight smile. Goodman concluded that the artists, who painted and made these sculptures knew about trance, indeed it was part of their daily life. In Lascaux for example, there’s a cave drawing of a man lying at an angle of 37 degrees. His arms are in a particular position, one thumb is down and next to him is a straight spear. It is believed to depict a hunting accident. However, suggests Goodman, what if in truth it shows a trance ritual?

4. Positions

Goodman, with her team and supporters, documented around 30 different positions. She found that trance develops a special kind of mental rhythm, which is channelled through the physical position. Most positions can be found across the world, in differing cultures that never came into contact with each other. These shamans it seems discovered the same positions and came to similar experiences. It’s not that difficult to learn, one must concentrate on the breath and focus the mind, with a drum or a rattle playing at a fast rhythm.

These trances help with prophecies, they call the (animal) spirits and can be used to heal or to support the dead on their way to the after-life. The shaman is important as psychopomp, their arms crossed on their upper body, head down, left arm up with the right one underneath. The shaman attends the travelling soul. These ecstatic conditions are connected with stories about the spirits and their behaviour. Different cultures have different stories, which follow the same fixed points. For example, the psychopomp-position; first you experience a voyage on foot through dark plains or a desert, at the end there’s a black hole or an entry to a cave, wherein specks of light or fire flicker. All this can vary, but in every shamanistic culture it deals with the same fragments: movement, darkness, a hole. The most important thing is not to enter this hole or cave. You need the shaman to guide you, or be able to get through that betwixt state by yourself. This is similar to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which tells of a no man’s land between life and death, and offers help on how to travel on to the next level or bardo. The shaman is a navigator through the no man’s land and helps to avoid the dangerous black hole. The flames inside are souls, trapped in the in-between.

Writing of in-between, the trance-positions shown in Greek stone figures, appear to lead male and female trance travellers to different experiences. Women are transformed into beings, living in the sea. Under the water they are a mixture of upper body human and lower body fish. Men live on the land, a mixture of human and horse. One can find these shamanistic visions or spirit-beings preserved in Greek mythology, as sirens or mermaids, and centaurs. Trance, it seems obvious to say, deals a lot with stories. Sometimes it reminds of Michael Endes “Die unendliche Geschichte” (The Never Ending Story) where the land of Fantasia is attacked and destroyed by darkness, consuming it bit by bit. Through trance, one can access special events and experiences, special stories in the realms of spirit and demons. Our world is expanding and eliminating the one that’s accessible through trance. The entrance (en-trance) is getting narrower and narrower and will be lost completely. Well known examples are the Siberian tribes of Nansen or Chanten, whose traditions and lifestyle are being destroyed and their people assimilated by the oil industry. The knowledge is lost, the shamans gone. In seeing a painting or a statue, we can grasp the tip of the trance-related story, but we are not able to experience and therefore understand it any more. It’s a masochistic game with infinity. The techniques are tens of thousands of years old, developed by vanished tribes, but still the techniques work. But if the body position and the story behind them are lost, the timelessness is locked away from the human experience, and therefore ceases to exist.

5. Aesthetics

Theatre-anthropology has some overlap with these ancient cultures: a concentration on the movement, the position of the body and the craving for disinhibition. Jerzy Grotowski, Polish visionary of the stage, wrote the Manifesto of the poor Theatre. In it he demanded no stage setting, no masquerade, no make-up what so ever to free the actors and actresses from the superficial needs of conventional theatre. Even in this context, a kind of religious behaviour emerged as to get the actors naked – literally and also metaphorically – he organised his group of followers under sect-like conditions, such as doing collective work, having no material possessions and with him as leader. Eugenio Barba, one of Grotowski’s pupils, and founder of the Danish Odin Teatret, lived in India and researched Kathakali, a traditional dance-theatre. With its colourful costumes, strict structural laws, and stipulations of how the piece’s order progressed, Kathakali was the opposite of Grotowski’s approach. Barba’s main interest was to investigate the techniques this art of dance uses to develop presence. The artist becomes the centre, not only of the audience’s attention, but also at a deeper level, the artist is the source of the whole experience. Described simplistically, presence is achieved through minimal body movements, like the raising of an eyebrow, or through techniques such as to start a movement with its opposite (for example, if you want to look to the left, first you look to the right.).

In my opinion, in order to create a trance-like dizziness, the first step as an artist, is to be able to create this presence. The aesthetics of the performative, a theory on art-induced ecstasis or aura, builds upon thinkers and anthropologists like Grotowski and Barba. Their main question is: What happens during a performance? Merleau-Ponty describes the semiotic body, the socially conditioned self, as part of a network and society, the role everyone is playing for others. Then there’s the phenomenal body, the strange thing that existed before the social role-play came into action. It is still accessible. It shows itself in rather mysterious ways, when you are confronted with artistically developed presence. To create a special event, for me the goal of a performance or a reading is to connect my phenomenal body with those of the audience. The audience, therefore, is a co-actor. Following the aesthetics of the performative, dizziness means presence. Aesthetic theorists such as Dieter Mersch and Erika Fischer-Lichte concentrated on the voice and the act of speaking. It’s one thing to write a text, but another to read it out loud and in front of an audience, where one becomes vulnerable. On the other hand, through this act of reaching out, potentially, it touches people more directly than through the written word. Voice is limited to a place, at a specific time. It’s intimate: one speaks, the other listens. Through performance, the voice, the presence, the dizziness destroys the semiotic body. Derrida writes about the iterability, how everything’s placed within a network, one thing leads to another, it’s a system of references with no centre at all. The act of speaking, the voice in its materiality breaks that concept apart, because it’s presence in itself. It’s there, it’s heard and maybe understood, and then it’s gone.

This appearing of influential phenomenon leads me to anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey. To disturb the authority and the ruling system, he developed the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones (T.A.Z.). Through the use of T.A.Z., artistic interventions and happenings interrupt lazy and conformist views of life with its daily routines and thinking. The zones are temporary, like the voice, so therefore there’s no danger of the government or any other mighty system influencing, absorbing or destroying it. It pops up as an alternative, like an open door to other possibilities. It’s about creating dizziness in a spontaneous way. How to create that on stage, I wondered? To create presence, to create a T.A.Z.. The Russian theorist Levin called poetry the strange speech. Maybe that’s what it’s about, poetry, or literature is in itself, a T.A.Z., a way to disturb perception. If it’s spoken, in my own way, in my rhythm, then it’s an invitation to follow me in my own personal dizziness. Or maybe it’s the opposite, that indeed performance is a way to unbalance the audience? To irritate the audience, to smuggle in poetry, to offer different ways of perceiving and speaking, all these possibilities, which can be an individual way of expression for the artist, are dizziness-triggers in the audience, in society. Not that the artist should enter a state of dizziness, rather he should prepare his presence as a possibility for others, to enable them to fall into dizziness.

6. Danger

How double-edged trance-induced ritual-based enterprises are?! I discovered this thanks to a performance developed together with Fabian Faltin. Its title was MALUS – a history of the apple, from Adam and Eve (on an aside nowhere in the original Genesis is an apple mentioned but for the sake of it, it remains, as usual). MALUS took in everything from Louie XIV and his garden in Versailles, with its many brands of apples, where nature itself was bred and formed by human hand, right up to Apple computers and Steve Jobs. It included the latter’s usage of Apple marketing slogans, repeating and singing like a priest, as a reminder, that their marketing is enhanced with esoteric promises. In the middle of the performance, as a start for the following ritual, which involved fire and a lot of smashed apples, we established a space for an artificial riot. The idea was to integrate the audience, to irritate it, to involve it and to set energies free. Projections of an apple garden were shown where politicians popped up, dancing and whirling around. We handed out foul apples and Fabian started with a drumbeat. I shouted chants and slogans and started throwing the apples at the projections. In the best instances the audience followed, apples flew and smashed and so on. It was a way of breaking the borders between audience and performers, and together we created a playful riot. In Graz, at the premiere, it went well, also in Beijing, where we had two shows at a theatre festival. Later we gave two further shows in Haikou on the Chinese island of Hainan, at an open-air street festival. We handed out the apples, but no one threw, instead many in the audience kept the apples for themselves. In Beijing, the audience consisted mainly of students, whilst in Haikou it was street vendors and rickshaw drivers. The latter were interested and curious, but they kept the apples for their lunch. It must have seen a very decadent move by us, to throw and smash fruit in front of people. These were people struggling through daily life and actually, given there social status, really would have had reason for a riot. On reflection, it was actually a stupid move by us in our craving to create a collective dizziness to have done the piece in that way there. Another observation was that even though the apple-riot didn’t work out that well, altogether the experience was thrilling. I recall the heat from this south-eastern Asian island, the narrow street with the audience just an arm’s length away and how at the end there came an awakening. The hour long show had passed in the instant of a finger snap. Afterwards, we watched back over the video recordings and photographs of the show and were astonished by the mixture of exhaustion and excitement on our faces. We were lost in the performance, in a kind of stage-trance. And then it came to me, at its core performance is unwittingly catholic – it’s about catharsis. At the end of our performance, after our marketing-lingo-speak ritual Fabian lies in a pile of apples and ash. I wrap him up in tin foil to symbolise an artificial apple tree of the future, and put him back on his feet. As we watched back over the performances, he had, unintentionally become a cross. It seems, that one needs to be on alert to escape an overdose of religious symbolism when dealing with ecstatic trance.

In June 2014 I spoke at a roundtable about MALUS at Poesiefestival Berlin. As I mentioned the artificial apple-riot, I noticed restlessness in the audience. In the open discussion it was clear that perception was divided. Younger people saw it as it was intended, a play on all the riot-coverage of the likes of Occupy. It was, a fragment of our reality, a common knowledge, a reflection on the presence of demonstrations and uprisings, as well as the capitalist drive of a rioting marketing instrument. The older ones though were offended, believing it to be a dangerous action. They separated themselves from such artistic behaviour because it reminded them of the Nazis. For them, stimulating an audience into collective action, entrapping them by making them throw things at images of politicians was demagogic and doubtful. This conclusion never crossed my mind, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind, another trap to avoid on the way to a trance-inducing performance. The danger of demagogic behaviour is there no doubt, but in my experience it is possible to create another energy with the audience. It is my text, my rhythm, that’s my drum, my rattle. Sometimes I can create a special moment, but it’s a miracle why and when it works (Diego Mune, a guitarist and friend of mine says that at the moment he enters the stage, he is able to feel if someone is in the audience is disturbing his show with his personal energy, whom inadvertently is working against him. He only starts to play, when this person leaves).

There’s no difference between a common public reading or a performance. It should be possible to create an ecstatic experience through voice and poetic speech. On stage, the main instrument is the voice. It’s about training, lung volume, working with musicians, the stronger my voice, the better. Thus evolves a mix of training and improvisation, to keep the vulnerability, in defiance of professionality.