Performance and Ceremony

Examining ceremonies through an analytic and scholarly lens allows for a breakdown of the elements of a ceremony, but does not allow for the variation of human experience.

Scholarly categories provide us with tools through which experience can be discussed.  Discussing spiritual experience in a reductive way provides a universal vocabulary that is logical and clear rather than an emotional muddle of personally defined terms.  As Turner puts it, categorizing traditions provides a framework through which they can be discussed.  Turner considers ritual to be “not simply ‘instrumental’ but ‘expressive.’  It does not simply do something but say something” (Segal 330).  Regarding ritual through Turner’s point of view allows for interpretation not only of what takes place, but what it represents.

Turner advocates the study of ritual as a dramatic performance.  In his view, “public reflexivity takes the form of a performance” (Turner 465).  Each piece of ceremony is carefully orchestrated so that certain mind states are evoked for the participants.  Each person can have their own reaction as they would to a play, but the overall effect is universal.  The preparation for a ritual is similar to a play.  For example, the Yuwipi is a site specific performance in a rectangular basement room.  It is set up carefully beforehand, the blanket and prayer ties placed specifically and the audience arranged in a circle.  There is a precise structure to the ritual in the order of song, prayer, etc.  This basic organization is easily explained, but the categorizing falls apart when the inexplicable elements are involved.

Academic attempts go as far as to explain what physically happened, but not what was experienced.  Examining ceremony in terms of a play explains until the starting point.  Ideally during a performance, you should be transported to a different world, but it is an external not an internal experience often aided by a set and costumes.  Treating Yuwipi as a performance implies that it was somewhat contrived.  From the outsider’s perspective it is unclear if the sparks and the shaker were human or spirit induced.  If it were a performance, it would clearly be human induced, by the intentionally unseen stage crew, who would time lights and shaking at a specified moments.  However, part of the power of the Yuwipi comes from the aura of mystery that surrounds it and the gap between what happens and what one knows to be true.

Having a full understanding of what occurs can have a negative effect on how the experience is perceived.  Arguing about whether certain aspects were human or spirit caused is frustrating because a conclusion cannot be reached and some of the power comes from not knowing.  If every piece were explained away in a logical fashion, there would be nothing left.  Personal and collective experience is what allows these occurrences to have significance.  Sitting in a dark room hearing chanting would be nothing more than a performance unless the audience feels the connection to the spirits.  The emotions that are evoked and the connections felt are what give the ceremony meaning.  There is a point where the academic study can go no further and personal experience takes over.

A scholarly account provides background information that adds to the experience to some degree, but can also take away from it.  Knowing exactly who was moving the lights during Yuwipi would negatively affect my personal experience with it.  I was drawn to Turner’s argument of ritual as performance because I have a different relationship with performance than many people.  I work for the CC Theatre and Dance Department doing lighting for the performances.  Therefore, I am often the creator of the special effects of the plays.  If you treat my tech role as a scholarly investigation, it does give me more knowledge.  I see how things work and understand details the average person does not.  However, that can sometimes take away from my experience of a play, even one I have not worked on, because I recognize the breakdown of the performance.  When I go to a concert, I immediately look at the lights and can identify the type and what pattern is being used.  This gives me an extra level of knowledge, but it also takes away from my being present and appreciating the aesthetic impact of the lights.  In this way, external knowledge allows performance to make sense academically, but not in the way that it is intended.

In our trip to Pine Ridge, we participated with the thought that we were doing things “for education,” but we could not learn with an outsider’s perspective.  If during Yuwipi, we tried to simply observe, we would not understand the importance.  Taking notes during the pipe ceremonies would not only affect the overall sanctity, but we would also not comprehend the value of these activities.  In my personal experience, I found that I could not simply watch what was going on without losing my connection to the group.  Rather, when I focused on my own meditation and prayer, I was more connected to what was happening.  During the first pipe ceremony, Celinda mentioned the concept of the active observer, someone who is fully engaged and connected to what is happening.  I often struggle to be an active observer and not pass judgment.  The times when I tried to push away my own reactions to stay present actually made me less engaged because then I would judge myself.  Part of what I found to be important about ceremony was the personal feelings that were evoked.  While certain performances may cause emotional reactions, there is no goal to be a “hollow bone” and let emotions pass through you.  Reactions to performance are more enclosed and short term rather than a causation for personal growth, as in ceremony.

Examining ritual in a purely scholarly way makes sense to academics, but not the religious community, because that is not how it is meant to be understood.  Even in our pursuit of education, we had to participate in ceremony as fully as possible to comprehend the effects.  Immersion and personal participation is the only way to understand the importance of the ceremonies.

-Haley Montgomery

HSegal, Robert A. “Victor Turner’s Theory of Ritual.” Zygon 18.3 (1983): 327-35. Print.

Turner, Victor. “Frame, Flow, and Reflection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality.”Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6.4 (1979): 465-97. Print.


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