Guest blog: The Bacchae – finding the wild within us

PENTHEUS. What benefits do these rituals bring to the sacrificers?

DIONYSUS. It is not right for you to hear, but it is worth knowing.

It began with Anya Gleizer (visual artist) and Matthieu Tricaud (theatre director) calling out to the other members of La Malle des Indes, to tell us about this wild and wonderful play, The Bacchae, and about how we must do something with it. So those of us who were captivated by the sound of it, read the play and met in Paris.

In Euripides’ play, Pentheus, king of Thebes, denies the divinity of Dionysus, and the god, in return, makes the women escape to the mountains to perform Dionysian rites and dances. When we all met together in January, the first step was to find a common ground. We were ten people from very different backgrounds. As a writer, I had underlined all of the verses in the play that I found especially inspiring (which meant that about a third of my copy was underlined), the visual artist had sketches for costumes, the choreographer had ideas for dance-solo exercises and the musicians were interested in what were the instruments and rhythms that were used in Dionysian parties. The most important part was to find out what the play meant to each of us.

Dionysus is mostly known as the ancient god of wine, but he is also the god of wilderness and mystic ecstasies. It was a couple of days of conversation before the real work started, but something soon became clear: The Bacchae was about the wild that lives within us, and about the ancient mysticism of partying. We envisioned a party that happens spontaneously, and in which even children and elders can join in the dance. It was going to be a performance in which the audience could participate; it was going to be devised; all of us would perform; and the process would be non-hierarchical.

To ensure cohesion, we practiced what we called ‘the choir’ over and over. The choir starts with a circle of silent performers coming into an acute awareness of each other. We wait until a rhythm forms out of two breathing in sync, or maybe a yawn responding to a scratch. Once we find this, we repeat it, and build on that. Other performers join in with teeth-chattering, knuckle-cracking, clapping, whistling, singing…Over the course of different rehearsals we would iterate the exercise adding dance, or giving the musicians the freedom to eventually pick up their instruments (in my case; poetry-reading).

In our first week, we decided on each performer’s role (choreographer, music composer…) and we had a feeling of where the performance would go. We each went back home (Gleizer and I lived in the UK) and kept on exploring on our own. When we met again we had a lot of resources to use in the choir, and a structure began to develop. We were going to have a very formal ritual that would end in a wild dance, and Tricaud would be a satyr interacting with the audience and inviting them to dance when the moment was right.

For me, the process involved a lot of uncertainty. At times my vision had nothing to do with the choreographer’s or the musicians’. It was crucial to have complete trust in all of the other performers, and in the group as a whole. ‘The choir’ was essential for this. Deep down, I knew we all had a common vision, so when the music was Y and the text was B, I was able to keep working. Each time, the different art-forms would eventually find an understanding. It was liberating to be able to let my work be carried by the music or the dance, and in the midst of those foreign mediums, to find the way to keep on experimenting. If I have any advice to give it is this: Find a common ground, and then have faith in the people you work with.

It worked. We performed as part of Glasgow International in an abandoned church, and the audience flooded in to join the dance around the bonfire. A young child dancing with a performer dressed-up as a wolf or an eighty year old woman dancing with the satyr are the kind of experiences that make any work worth the effort.

Dionysus: Rites to Rave played in Circus Between Worlds on April 8  and 10.

Photo credit: Mark Pinder