Last Saturday we had the first performance of our Dancing the World into Being outside in a landscape overlooking both the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons. You can see some more pics here. The response of audience was warm; in some cases people seemed deeply affected by the dance and its music (a capella choir,squeeze-box, gongs and percussion). One old friend said to me that she felt the dance spoke to her body and I was pleased about that, because that’s what we intended.
Every since I started teaching beginners’ T’ai Chi, I have been aware of how tense most people are, how armoured our bodies are, and how long it can take for people to relax, breathe and move without strain. It may be that our compulsive digital activities are closing down our physical and sensory awareness – after all, so far there’s no smell, touch or taste on the internet. We can get trapped in a world made of words and images, imprisoned by a circle of angry flaming, conflicting interpretations of reality, competing views of what reality is. I can’t be the only one who can finish an internet session feeling tense and stirred up – not in a good way.
Thank God for music, poetry, gardening, films and novels which know how to lead us out of this trap. And dance, I believe, both doing it and watching it, is the means par excellence of bypassing the sinister sentinels of the linear-verbal world and offering us a way to vivid, sensory and emotional experience,
Dance has a strong connection with mathematics – many folk dances weave complex knots and patterns, play with twos, threes, sixes, sevens, eights, here’s a diagram from our choreographer, Gillian’s notes.
These can all be related to sacred geometry, which is one of the ways I discovered years ago to lift my mind up a level into a liberating (though sometimes scary) and more abstract realm.
This realm is a simpler place than our crabby catastrophising world, and it points the way to understanding how something can come from nothing (some scientists and mathematicians can take us there too, as long as their agenda is not too narrow). If you are interested in this kind of thing, have a look at these sites – Sareoso and Singinghead.
But for me, the biggest virtues of mounting a dance performance like ours is that it hints at a real mystery – how something comes from nothing – via a creation myth buried in an ancient Welsh tale, the story ‘Math son of Mathonwy’ from the Mabinogion. Our dance is intended to take you back into a mode of being and perceiving which our ancestors knew. Certainly they could not afford to be cut off from their bodies and their senses.
These ancient tales are a gift from them to us, but the rub is that the stories from the Mabinogion can’t be appreciated properly and understood by the linear-logical mind. They need to be acted out, danced, played with, listened to in English and in Welsh. And then, just maybe we can hear our ancestors whispering to us, dancing with us. And I think we need to listen, we need to join in.
There’s another chance to see our dance at the Globe in Hay on Saturday October 21. details here.
Yesterday Wayland and I did our Mabinogion workshop again, at a rural primary school near Hay in Wales. We tell the children we have been sent by the Children of Don from our hiding place in the hollow hills to show them what real magic is. It’s not a lie: Wayland and I share an obsession with a particular story from this collection of old British tales, written down in Welsh in the middle ages. We do the workshop in English with some Welsh thrown in, especially for spells and charms. The children get to curse and bless, find out about the four magical ‘Hallows’ which the Plant Don brought to Britain and then use them. They get to participate in an act of magical creation: making a woman of flowers from nothing, to make music, dance, become ‘servants of the invisible’. They charm the boy-turned-eagle down the tree and turn him back into a human,
Every time we do the workshops, the children (9,10 years old) tell us how much they loved it, and we are always impressed by their understanding of what magic really is, an understanding which disappears in ninety percent of adults. I always come away feeling inspired and enthused by the kids and their terrific boldness and brio – and puzzled and sorry that most of us lose these qualities as we grow up.
About 25 years ago I was at a party in London, a party I didn’t really want to be at, and I wandered out into the garden with my glass, to waste some time before I could politely leave. At the bottom of the garden was a fountain and a boy of about ten, idly kicking a deflated football at it. United in boredom, we started to chat and the boy poured out his heart to me: his mum and dad were separated and he had just been living for a while with his dad in Germany. Did he mind? Not too much, but there was one thing upsetting him: his dad was a scientist while this lad was a lover of magic, magic in all its forms, from stage magic to stories and ‘the real thing’. His dad had told him he was now of an age when he had to choose: science or magic, he couldn’t have both. He didn’t know which to choose.
‘Listen, I said, I promise you don’t have to choose! In fact it’s very important that you don’t, that you become one of those people, like me, who goes on believing in magic when they grow up. You can still do science if you want, no problem.’ ‘Really?’ he asked. ‘Yes!’ I said ‘and anyway magic isn’t what your dad thinks it is. You’ll find out that as you grow up, as long as you don’t let go of it’.
When I think of that boy now, as I often do, a man in his thirties, I wonder whether he did stay loyal to magic, or whether he was sucked into the orthodoxies of our scientistic world.
By now you’re asking: what is ‘real’ magic then? This is tricky. In the workshop we say we can’t put it into words because that would destroy it, that we can only show it.
So…I knew a man once who practised the most refined and subtle forms of magic. He understood the building blocks of creation. I think he was ‘enlightened’ if that means anything to you. I spent many hours in his kitchen talking to him and being shown strange models and diagrams. I need to add that this man was utterly unpretentious and had no wish for power or riches. He was a man of wisdom and knowledge – and magic.
Here is one of the things which he knew how to do: he could slip things into your being which you neither grasped nor understood at the time, but later on, maybe much later on, they would bob up to the surface and you would suddenly find a vista of new perceptions opening up. Now that he is some years dead, I find there is a quiet place outside of time where many of the moments he created still live and have their numinous power to shift me onwards and outwards – or inwards.
For me this is the real magic, subtle, infinitely skilful, as precise as any science, based on an understanding that forcefulness is never the way, that creation and expansion happen when this invisible ‘third force’ is seen and allowed to manifest. What is the ‘third force?’ Some would call it consciousness, some the ‘Holy Spirit’, some wouldn’t want to name it.
When the dancers drop their veils and little Blodeuwedd emerges in her flowered wedding dress; when her betrayed partner Lleu, in his feathered cloak, takes the last step down from the oak tree, to be turned by love into a boy again, when, at the end of the session, the ten years olds are clustering round us wanting to talk in Welsh, the old tongue… then we see what magic is and does. And how it brings us home to what we really are.
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Many years ago I read about an ancient shrine to the goddess hidden away in a remote highland glen. It was written about in Twilight of the Celtic Gods :
“This rocky shrine is in all probability connected with the pagan Celtic cult of the Mother Goddess. It may be the only surviving example of its kind in the whole of the British Isles. But this is no lifeless pile of stones, for the shrine is part of a living Celtic tradition which has been continued into recent years by a guardian – a lone shepherd – who has performed a vital ritual at the little shrine, as his father and grandfather had done before him. At the door of the little stone house, from May to October, sit three strange stones, keeping watch over the glen. The tallest, 46 centimetres (18 inches) in height, is known as the Cailleach, Old Woman or Hag…
I’ve enjoyed W B Yeats’ poems since I was a teenager, and recently I’ve been reading more about his magical life and his ambitions to found a mystical order based on the sacred places and spirits of Ireland. So I decided to try and write something about one of his poems, and in the process find out a little bit about how Yeats saw things. The poem is called The Hosting of the Sidhe, and before we go any further, we need to know that ‘Sidhe’, which is an Irish word for faeries or otherworld spirits, is pronounced ‘Shee’. Yeats writes about the Sidhe in his notes on the poem:
“The gods of ancient Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan, or the Tribes of the goddess Danu, or the Sidhe, from Aes Sidhe, or Sluagh Sidhe, the people of the Faery Hills, as these words are usually explained, still ride the country as of old. Sidhe…
We are about to start working on the special dance which is the climax of The Dancing Floor. This dance is crucial to the film – it embodies the mysteries which the rest of the film has been hinting at – and yet it will be performed by ordinary people, dance newbies or amateurs, who will help with devising the details, developing it and rehearsing it –on and on – until it works. Luckily I have found a local choreographer, Gillian Hipp, to partner with on the project.
The dance includes a wild horde of children being the Four Elements, a shamanic animal dance with masks which morphs into a vigorous Morris, then there are the courtly dances of the gods and goddesses as they make the worlds and the poignant dance of the sacred couple, the Owl and the Hawk. The symbolism is from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion (which is a creation myth). Each phase of the dance has a completely different quality and should have a specific effect on the audience so that they go on the journey of creation and re-union with the dancers.
This has made me think about what sacred dance really is and does and what sacred dancing I have done in my life. I found three main strands: Tai Chi, Gurdjieff’s dances and the whirling dances of the Mevlevi dervishes. In each case, watching each of these in action, I was aware of a powerful and unusual effect on me. With Tai Chi it was a sense of weightless flow and ease which was irresistible, like hearing for the first time a language which seems familiar though you cannot speak it. (A bit like the chattering of the swifts outside today, ‘don’t fly through that door, it is a prison and a fierce orange cat guards it, he will eat you…’) With a certain Gurdjieff dance it was an upswelling of strong emotion, both exquisite and painful, which had been long half-buried, and with the whirling it was, simply, a sense of being in the presence of God. The whirling I saw at the tekke of the Halveti dervishes in Istanbul, when their sheikh was a very holy man, and I will never forget that it was this practice from mystical Islam which literally opened the gates of heaven for me.
I learnt the whirling myself in a church hall in Manchester, taught by my friend Dick who had learnt it from someone who’d learnt it from the Sufis. We approached it with proper respect and once we had got over feeling nauseous, were able to whirl together, floating round each other as we moved, for half an hour at a time. At the end I felt as if I had been drenched in crystal water, and had woken up a different, much enlivened being. I also noticed, as I sipped my orange juice, that I felt very well disposed towards all present, my heart warmed up and open to the world.
The Dancing Floor dance also springs out of a long study of sacred geometry and principle. When I first tried to get my head round this metaphysical stuff about the origin of the worlds, I would either fall asleep or get angry. I just couldn’t get it. It felt like trying to scale a sheer cliff with no handholds. Then I saw that there were other ways of scaling cliffs and my mind started to take some short flights, which eventually made me realise that we can understand a lot more than we think we can – just not with the front brain. The whole being, the whole body needs to get involved.
I realised that movements, gestures and rhythms which map or limn these abstract principles have a kind of subtle power, which tweaks and shifts your normal consciousness, takes you to different places, and this is why sacred dance can have such a strong effect. You can see traces of these patterns in much folk dancing. Maybe that’s why we find (some of it) so compelling?
The ‘dancing floor’ pattern we show in the film is a way of expressing the way something comes out of nothing, which our normal rational minds cannot ‘get’. But deeper down there is something in us all which does get it and which knows the truth – and I believe dance is one of the best ways to activate this part, whether you perform it or simply watch it.
So, if you live in south Wales or borders (I am between Hay and Brecon) and would like to get involved in working on this dance, please get in touch at email@example.com.
This true story comes from an academic friend who specialises in shamanism. During the harshest Soviet years there was a push to exterminate shamanism in Siberia. Shamans were imprisoned or executed. Their ‘bundles’ of head-dress, robe and drums were destroyed, to stop them passing on their power to their descendants. One such descendant was a woman in her fifties who had become a psychiatrist and worked in a hospital. Her father had been wiped out in the bad old days.
One day two men came to her door and passed over to her a bulky package. They told her that her father had made a second ‘bundle’ before he was arrested and asked them to hide it until conditions improved. Then they were to pass it on to her.
She unwrapped the bundle, put on the robes and head-dress, took up the drum – and danced and sang the song of power. Her father’s knowledge flowed into her and she became a shaman too. I have seen a video of her dancing. I know, such things can be faked, but this was moving and convincing to me,
It’s a resonant story about how valuable traditions can be saved and passed on and it is one the main inspirations behind The Dancing Floor film. I wondered if it could happen to a psychiatrist here in the UK, who had been brought up to practise rational science-based psychiatry. How would her father (in this case uncle) pass on his knowledge after his death? Would she fight against the call? I felt this should not be presented as a simplistic science-versus-faith battle – it is something much more interesting about the battle between current orthodoxy and a much, much bigger view of the world and its possibilities, which includes magic, science, mystery, intellect and everything else; which doesn’t need or want to exclude any creative way of viewing reality. The film would ask the question: what is ‘real’ magic?
And that’s a question which Sally Pomme Clayton will be asking when she performs The Magician’s Apprentice at my chapel on May 21. If you think about that question too, come along – contact me to book a place.