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Yearning for Transcendence in Whirling Dervishes' Ritual

WEEKEND REVIEWS -- Dance

January 27, 1997|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

In agony over the brutal murder of the man closest to him, a mystic of the 13th century tried to consume his pain--and to seek metaphysical union with his dead companion--in an engulfing impromptu dance that has come down to us as the Sema, the ritual of the Whirling Dervishes.

Over the centuries, the ritual has gained a daunting spiritual complexity, evolving into a symbol of Turkish tradition threatening enough to modern reformers that it was banned by law in 1925.

Revived as a cultural artifact in the 1950s, the ceremony has remained potent through the efforts of some of the same artists who performed it on Friday, in a return engagement by the Mevlevi Ensemble at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater.

As at its performances in 1994, the all-male ensemble never explained the specific origins of the Sema in its spoken introductions or program notes. However, the profound sadness that inspired its creation again suffused an hourlong reenactment, with music composed and conducted by Dogan Ergin.

A historic figure in the preservation of the Sema, the great blind singer Kani Karaca once more brought his soulful artistry to the holy texts, while the small chorus and instrumental ensemble (drums, woodwinds, zither, fiddle and lutes) sustained an insistent rhythmic pulse.

In their long white skirts, long-sleeved jackets and high "tombstone" hats, the eight dancers periodically marched in a line, their hands reaching across their chests to grip their shoulders.

Then, monitored by three black-clad masters, they began to whirl counterclockwise in individual circles around the circumference of a communal one, their arms slowly opening out, the right hands cupped upward (to heaven), the left downward (to earth).

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The sections of the ritual focus on the relationships between body and soul, man and God, lover and beloved, with an ideal of submission to God reiterated throughout.

This theme and the repetition inherent in the music and dancing take the performance completely outside the realm of conventional entertainment. However, its sense of oneness and yearning for transcendence can speak deeply to any contemporary audience willing to give the event the concentration it deserves.

In the first half of the program, the Mevlevi Ensemble performed Turkish hymns, chants and songs to instrumental accompaniment. Sheikh Kabir Helminski also read poems by Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, the sage whose love and pain started it all 700 years ago.

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