Article/Review

On the outside, looking in

5 March 2018

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Perth Festival review: Ensemble Al Nabolsy & the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus White Spirit ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 3 March ·
Review by Louisa Wales ·

It’s not every day that a well-heeled audience at Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre gets itself into a clapping, rhythmic frenzy jamming with a bunch of Sufi musicians and whirling dervish dancers.

But when Perth Festival’s sold-out two night exclusive event White Spirit came to town last Friday and Saturday evenings, the rapture was catching.

The six musicians, three dancers (from Konya, Turkey) and Tunisian street artist Shoof created in their 80 minute set an utterly transporting and highly poetic portal into the mysterious and yearning world of the Sufi faith.  Combining songs of praise, Sufi poems and devotional invocations with the calligraphic live painting of Shoof and the vertigo-defying incessant spinning of the Whirling Dervishes, White Spirit was an exquisitely beautiful window onto a world both ancient and contemporary.

Hailing from Damascus in war-ravaged Syria, Ensemble Al Nabolsy – led by Noureddine Khourchid, the son of a Syrian Sufi sheik – evoked both a time and place, and a spiritual state, so far from that of the audience that at times it felt as though we were taking part in something quite voyeuristic.

The act of presenting Middle Eastern mysticism and spirituality as art and performance to viewers from the West led to some uncomfortable tensions in the experience.  Was the audience just “othering” the heck out of these people, exoticising their authentic religious beliefs and practices?  And why were the Sufi singers, dancers and artist presenting their practices and religious beliefs as a travelling show anyway?

Beneath the captivating, thrilling spectacle, it was all – in short – rather loaded.  And yet, by the end, White Spirit’s nominal exoticism and our consuming voyeurism were – albeit briefly – broken down as the audience summoned the artists back for a spontaneous encore, and then clapped themselves into an escalating frenzy of abandonment.

Then the lights went on and some in the audience looked a bit sheepish.  The realisation hit home that however sensually engaging this spectacle had just been – the mystical music, the trance-like dancing, the indecipherable exquisite white calligraphy painted by Shoof – we were still on the outside of the faith and mystical experience they were all evoking.

While acknowledging the indisputable beauty of both White Spirit’s components and its totality, the problematic nature of commodifying a spirituality and its devotion left this reviewer wondering if next year festival goers will be packing His Maj to the brim to hear Hillsong Church – and if we do, will we clap ourselves into a devotional frenzy then too?

Photo: Cyril Zannettacci

 

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