The mirror of sacrifice


This presentation, given in Brighton in 2011, is an account of my experience as a dancer and some of the ways in which this has crossed into and deepened my practice of magic and witchcraft. Both necessitate the pursuit of an individual method or language, both arise from the living body. Physical praxis combined with interdisciplinary and cross-tradition research have led me to reorient the body as the archaic source of knowing and, at the same time, as primal presence; its doctrine unwritten, but rather inscribed in our genetic potential and able to arise out of, and materialise in, a tactile and kinaesthetic environment. Here I begin to map this occulted, felt, body, examining some techniques to intensify and extend its reach; and the poietic, surrealist, and imagistic use of language to articulate and stimulate bodily experience.

The body as mirror, as sacrifice

My fascination with dance, and particularly Butoh, came from a desire to rid myself of all artifice, to strip myself of all I had hitherto relied on, artistically and personally. In my paintings I had pared my palette back to ochre, black, white, to the pigments of the earth; I had sought to bring from them something primeval, an expression that went beyond the personal towards the universal. Yet forms would be destroyed over time, and a work become a durational piece, changing over months, in some cases years, until it would no longer admit me and my physical presence into its two dimensions. These factors, time and the physical act of painting or movement, would draw me towards dance. The body became my aim and my vehicle, the subject of my explorations. I resonated with the words of Hijikata Tatsumi, whose dance of darkness, which he named ankoku butoh, ruptured the world of Japanese modern dance: I’ve nothing to show you but my own body.

I have come to see this work as a manifestation of witchcraft, as a sabbatic dance, as it is in essence ecstatic and transformative. This is in part a response to the need to locate my dance within the context of my heritage, to fill it with my blood and history. I use the word ‘sabbatic’ with a nod to Jules Michelet, whose Sorceress and Satanism and Witchcraft are wonderfully evocative pieces of writing. This sabbatic dance partakes of the mænadic; as performance it falls under the guardianship of Dionysos. It must also be considered a dance of revolt and insurrection: dance cannot be commodified to the extent that the production of physical objects is. It is transient, fleeting; as such, it is political, as were the sabbats celebrated by peasants outside of the diurnal watch of their feudal lords. Dance is the wanton celebration of sexual energy, a libidinal outpouring with no clear productive target; its aim rather is social, healing and affective.

I dance solo, in distinction to the diabolic communions described by Michelet, or indeed the witch dances of rural Europe, such as those described by Pierre de Lancre. What is common between them, however, is that both are participatory: the conventional audience/performer boundary dissolves. I will return to this later, along with the role played by mirror neurons in this communal experience.

Dance goes still further, descending into the dark recesses of shamanic wombs – for it is an archaeology of the body we are engaged in, a re-membering of ourselves. We do not forget that we are born of the earth, that we are sustained and ultimately devoured by the earth. One example of a training exercise: feel yourself hanging … stand as though suspended by a thread, like a pendulum; then, stand as though hanging by the feet from a thread that comes from the centre of the earth. This chthonic orientation, as well as the paradoxical reversal, are typical of butoh – which seeks to expose a multitude of hidden or illogical perspectives. Techniques, such as that just described, are employed not to train the body for a set of defined and codified movements, so much as to undermine any submission to an externally imposed code, except the law of gravity. As an aside, it is interesting to note that one of the etymologies of the word guru connects it with the Indo-European root for 'weighty,' heavy. As a dancer, my ultimate teacher, my guru, is gravity, as it acts upon and with my body.

Throwing off the weight of social expectations, whether the strictures of tradition or the free-for-all failure of modernity, is a process of corporeal archaeology. In embarking on this process the dancer surrenders their ego in the desire to discover their true face, their true body and authentic movement. Yet this process of anamnesis is complex, one does not arrive at this original state without intense application and work. Though psychoactives – and I have found of these ayahuasca, psilocybin, mdma and hashish personally useful – are an effective means to attain deeply altered and transformative states which can be used in body work, (and particularly in recognising and uprooting psychophysical trauma etc.), in my experience it takes years of further work to cascade such changes through all aspects of one’s life. Patterns of habitual behaviour, trauma, remnants of disease, injury and suffering, are very tenacious and cling to life just as hard as any other thing in existence.

Beneath the social and ideological conditioning, the neuroses, habits, addictions and so on, there is a body that has been silenced too long. My aim is to awaken her, and give voice to her suppressed imaginary with an affective and sensual language of gesture, sound, colour and touch. I invoke this bird-woman-beast to abandon her cage and to fly.

In the context of my magical praxis with Babalon and the goetic spirits, this appetite for carnal and corporeal knowledge is work done under the seal of Astaroth, the pentagram. The body, this world of flesh, sinew, fascia, bone, blood, of senses and neurons, of bacteria, of skin and scent, sweat and spittle, a shifting realm of hungers and desires, pleasures and pains, is the foundation of all further work, the source of power, self-knowledge and self-control.

The body is not a means but an end, not to be used to transmit ideas, but on the contrary, to question, to reorientate, and to recreate.

This body into which we are fallen is the vehicle by which we return, as Astaroth will tell you disclosing the mystery of Eve, Eden and the Fall (those of you familiar with the Lemegeton will recall that: (s)he will declare willingly how the spirits fell, if desired, and the reason of her own fall…). This fall and its source, in the green language, is the concealed (that is, sexual) transmission of knowledge through woman. For while much of what I do and say and write pertains to any sex and any sexuality, it is the mysteries of woman and of her body that have been conspicuously neglected. In my work I intend to address this lacuna.

Sacrifice: the source of the work

Dance is sacrifice. The sacrifice and ordeal of dance as an offering, as the act by which we participate in the cycles of creation, preservation and destruction, is reminiscent of the role of Šiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance. The body of the sacrificer or dancer is one of His eight forms and through it we partake of the entire realm of Nature which is His: water, fire, akaša (the æthyr or quintessence), earth, air, the Sun and the Moon. The sacrificer is the sacrifice, just as the artist is one with creation.

The sacrifice of the body is one of the central themes in the development of butoh, and can be seen as an attempt to reinstate an essentially shamanic identification of human being with Nature. Object and subject merge, as their energies pulse from one to the other. The shaman, witch or dancer becomes one with the sacrifice, and this act is drenched in eroticism and blood.

Distinct parallels exist between butoh training and shamanic initiation. Both begin with a calling, a sense of inevitability or recognition. There follows a period of seclusion, of separation and crisis or crises – during which one begins the process of casting off the sick, constrictive social skins (becoming outcast), there is a breakdown or dismantling of the self/ego, there are losses and trials. Ancestor spirits play an important role in the initiation of a shaman, a relationship is born that will persist through life and no doubt beyond death. Similarly, the butoh dancer seeks communion with their ancestral spirits, following a practice established by Hijikata. Many of his writings speak of this:

I have a sister living inside my body. When I am… creating a butoh work, she plucks the darkness from my body and eats more than is needed… She’s my teacher.

Curiously, Hijikata would adopt the dress and speech of a woman and grow his hair long, giving physical form and life to his lost sister, and subverting Japan’s strict social codes. He recognised, and made visible, both the dead and those dead to society: women, homosexuals, criminals and outcasts.

I have found, as a performer and in ritual, that there is an intrinsic antagonism between passivity, that state of complete surrender which is proper to possession, and the active ability to direct consciousness whilst in trance, which is the territory of the shaman, the hunter. This antagonism is played out in butoh, and some other performing arts, most likely because of the unusual status of the performer, who maintains awareness throughout the duration of a performance. Let me illustrate this with some examples; with certain exercises, such as the noh walk, one literally leads oneself into a trance state. Certainly, other factors are involved which heighten and colour the trance, not least the use of the mask – a device as archaic as the roots of mankind’s spiritual and artistic awakening. I have had results by practicing the walking alone, without mask or music; the critical elements are the extreme concentration required, the absolute slowness to the edge of stillness which belies an intense inner heat and dynamism, and importantly, the correct posture – which comes from the proper placement of the pelvis and the stomach, with buttock muscles held inward, slightly bending the knees, and directing the whole pelvis forward and down while holding the spinal line of the torso straight, a counterbalancing between the front of the pelvis which is pulled down, and the back with is pulled up. The head and neck are held straight as a natural extension of the torso, the spine rooted in the sacrum which is the fulcrum of the body. This is, with some variations, the archetypical posture in many Asian dance forms, including such ancient dances as the nômai – a precursor to Noh with clear shamanic origins. I am describing the first orientation, the dancer poised between the earth and the sky, the axis mundi and a divine conduit.

In contrast to the restrained intensity of the Noh walk, I have found interesting effects are generated by durational, repetitive exercises. In one exercise where one runs on the same spot for an extended period of time, the combination of physical exhaustion, repetitive movement and the restricted field of vision leads to striking visual effects and an opening up and deepening of perception. There is also a strong meditative quality, the induction of a state of trance, and a profound sense of connection to the earth. Beyond the mutinous struggle with mental fatigue, the exercise can continue only by the runner giving up all on the descent in order to receive from the earth/ground strength enough to rise again. As you can see, these exercises work on many levels. The body functions as a sort of aperture, which with shifting depths of trance, can be opened to receive spirit communication, and can also be focused to project one’s spirit into the world with intent: the flight of the shaman or the witch. Both abilities are intimately related to the physiology, to the endocrine system, the occult anatomy that includes the chakra system and kundalini.

Mirror and mimesis

Mirrors are not used in butoh training, rather the body/mind becomes as a mirror. This is quite different to classical ballet or modern dance where one is surrounded by one’s image reflected from every angle. The first condition for the butoh dancer is a state of total receptivity, becoming a mirror that holds all. A state which corresponds closely with the first hal of the Sufi on the spiritual path or tariqa. There is a suggestive sentence from one of the Labyrinths of Borges, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius:

Copulation and mirrors are abominable […] For one of those gnostics, the visible universe was an illusion or (more precisely) a sophism. Mirrors and fatherhood are abominable because they multiply and disseminate that universe.

The heresy of the mirror is that in containing all, it replicates all. In the rite of performance, the mirror is the body. Religious prohibitions on dancing and the creation of idols attest to the power of this direct engagement with divine forces. What we might dismiss as simple mimicry is a magically potent technique for the performer, the method by which one imitates or mimics what is outside, the Other, becoming other. Walter Benjamin in On the Mimetic Faculty writes:

Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.

This mimetic faculty underlies the techniques of magical mimesis, sympathetic magic and the doctrine of sympathies. It also explains both empathy and rapport, and by extension the breaking down of boundaries, as we find in its most ecstatic form in the witches’ sabbat. Let me give you an historical example, from Pyrenean Festivals by Violet Alford (1950):

The aged man, averring that he had seen les sorciers dancing in a copse, proceeded to teach her three witch dances … the third Era Pelha ded Gat, the Cat’s Skin. This is for as many as will, in English country dance language, but the posture is far from what they usually will. All squat as though about to break into the Cossack step, the girls tucking their wide skirts between their legs. … [Bigorre] is the only place where I have met dances acknowledged as witch dances. The Cat’s Skin certainly provides material for mediation. The dancers obviously try to assume cat characteristics. They cast off humanity as far as possible, hop instead of dance, squat to become small. The figure in which the girls hop off to the corners is really suggestive of small animals and is exceedingly curious. Witches and cats have always been connected. Are these witches and warlocks trying, as an actor says, to get into the skin of their role? Is this how they imagined they effected their constantly affirmed transformations?

The dancers’ desire to cast off humanity and assume the powers of the animal by assumption of its form, illustrates the axiom: spirit fills form. There is a neurological explanation for this phenomenon: mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the neurological mechanism underlying our ability to make representations, our memetic organ, described as our sixth sense by Michael Taussig in Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. We imitate from birth – babies possess an ability to imitate in a way that cannot be explained by conditioning or innate responses. This ability has been demonstrated in newborns as young as 47 minutes old.

In butoh, the dancer attempts to mirror and become one with the entire world of nature. There are countless exercises, and variations on them, for example: imagine yourself horned, with antlers, feel the weight, how it alters your whole posture, the focus of your eyes, your breathing changes and your awareness shifts, expands. Begin to move … how do you relate to space, to other bodies in this space? Notice how the hairs on your body are sensitised, your sense of smell keener, your peripheral vision opens.

The natural world is mapped choreographically as the dancer moves between the different spheres of existence. These were mapped by Hijikata Tatsumi and later organised by his student Yukio Waguri. I recommend his cd-rom Butoh Kaden, which transmits Hijikata’s pioneering methodology, to those who are interested to push further into the body’s territory. While the act of mimesis is dependent upon an exterior likeness, in butoh there is also a simultaneous descent into one’s inner world to bring forth forms that have not yet been born or have long since died. The dancer must access this interior realm, which is none other than the fons et origo, the source and origin from which all form manifests. The dancer’s inner resources span the cosmic to the intimate in the memory of the personal body.

In working with the body and exploring movement it is useful to think of inner and outer, of that which is apparent or revealed and that which is concealed or hidden. In Japan the terms omote and ura are used. Omote translates literally as front, whilst ura means back. Outside and inside are also viable translations, as are explicit and implicit. This dynamic opposition is found in Japanese arts, including the martial arts, and it is just as relevant to dance. A similar division is found in Bali, where sekala and niskala describe the seen and the unseen. In the West we are more familiar with the terms exoteric and esoteric, though it seems we often lack the understanding that they are interdependent, and flow endlessly into each other rather than being mutually exclusive.

Movement consists not only in what extends in space, but equally and importantly, in that opposite direction, that the rise is present in the fall, and upsurge in the descent, growth in decay and decay in youth. Life in death and death in life. Rising and falling exercises and movements based on figures of eight are employed to bring awareness of this interplay between omote and ura, the conceal and reveal.

One of the intentions with these movement exercises is to access what is concealed or denied in everyday life, including those parts of the body that are hidden: the soles of the feet, the back, the nape of the neck, the sex. There is an eroticism in the exposure of the concealed parts of the body, and in taboo-breaking behaviour. In the words of Butoh practitioner and psychologist, Kayo Mikami: 

A core intent of Butoh practice is to reintegrate a mind/body functionally divorced by socio-cultural forces and realise a state of total awareness where one’s moment by moment perspective reaches deep within as well as far outside to the reality of the surrounding world as directly experienced.

The languages of the body

Language is essential in recovering the body of wisdom. If spoken language emerged from a primordial language of gesture, such that it is still riven with a corporeal and spatial awareness (one feels up, or down, or shattered for example), then a return to this ur-tongue may be found in reconfiguring spoken and written languages. We find analogous ideas in writers such as Artaud, Cixous, the Surrealists and the Beats, to name a few.

For Hijikata, the body is a metaphor for words and words are a metaphor for the body. Hijikata’s ideas are echoed by cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Contrary to the Cartesian view, the mind is inherently embodied, reason is shaped by the body, and since most thought is unconscious, the mind cannot be known simply by self-reflection.

Hijikata’s use of language is highly poetic, visceral and irrational, it is an energetic force that impels movement. Examples from his choreographic annotations are ma-gusare (rotting space) and nadare-ame (dribbling candy). This use of unconventional, non-standardised vocabulary and grammar breaks with the orthodox rules of language, and infuses it with a dream-like potency and fluidity; it is mirrored by the paradoxical co-existence of the dislocated or disjointed body, and a body free of all restriction. Thus we seek to deepen the imaginative and visionary faculty. This imaginal/imagistic language is the basis of movement (and stillness). It has a number of aims:

1) Rupture from the social world
Startling, arresting and paradoxical images stop rational thought and begin to dismember the rational or socialised body. Kazuo Ohno says: the illogical is liberating… the impossible opens new paths. He guides the student so that he may become like the creator of the world, he who has no identity, he who existed before the appearance of the individual. Then, all is but a game.

2) Being present/seeing with the eyes of a child
Sensitivity to phenomena, bordering on hyper-awareness. As Nureyev said: I am not sensitive, I am a dancer. The butoh dancer learns to inhabit and navigate an ever shifting world of sensation, and the ability to embody contradictory states simultaneously. Much training should take place outdoors, in all conditions, with an openness to the elements.

3) Communion/communication
Evocation by phantasmagorical, dream-like and poetic imagery. This is the realm of the spirits, and the imaginary. In this state the dancer has passed through a transformation and become other.

Hijikata attempted to capture all kinds of emotions, landscapes, ideas, and so on, by using words that were physically real to him. Evocative sounds were the means to convey specific physical states and sensations. Mimetic sound effects, onomatopoeia, that mirror the use of physical mimicry, mimesis. Kurihara writes:

Through words, Hijikata’s method makes dancers conscious of their physiological senses and teaches them to objectify their bodies. Dancers can then ‘reconstruct’ their bodies as material things in the world and even as concepts. By practicing the exercises repeatedly, dancers learn to manipulate their own bodies physiologically and psychologically. As a result, butoh dancers can transform themselves into everything from a wet rug to a sky and can even embody the universe, theoretically speaking.