giving a voice to mourning

Giving a Voice to Mourning
 “Au deuil intériorisé, il n’y a guère de signes. C’est l’accomplissement
de l’intériorité absolue. Toutes les sociétés sages, cependant, ont prescrit et
codifié l’extériorisation du deuil. Malaise de la notre en ce qu’elle nie le deuil.”1
We study the past in order to get a better grasp of the present, but sometimes
the present offers unforeseen insights into the nature of past practices and
events. The oral tradition of the Greek miroloyia (lamentations), that is still
very much alive, offers insights both into the origins of Greek tragedy and into
contemporary art practices of offering emotional, somatic and energetic release
for the body in state of mourning.
Introductory notes on rethinking tragedy
In her collection of contemporary essays Rethinking Tragedy,2 Rita Felski
distinguishes three very different ‘clusters of meaning’ attached to tragedy/the
tragic. The first, ancient Greek cluster is mainly a literary genre defined by
formal and thematic criteria still used by contemporary thinkers such as
George Steiner, which actually drew him to his conclusion of ‘the death of
tragedy’ in our time. The second one is a philosophical view on the essential
tragic nature of human existence, ‘forged in the crucible of German
romanticism’. The third cluster is defined by Felski as ‘vernacular’ and refers to
the everyday use of the word ‘tragic’ as a synonym for ‘very sad’, often related
to unexpected sudden events (such as car accidents, the death of a child, 9/11,
Felski also distinguishes two main ‘strands’ of how contemporary
scholars deal with those historical, semantic interpretations. A first strand -of
which again George Steiner is the most representative scholar- tries to restore
the original, ancient meaning as an ‘art form’ which was only fully realized at
very specific moments in history: i. e. in ancient Athens and in
sixteen/seventeenth-century Western Europe. Steiner’s defence of ‘absolute
tragedy’ in his contribution to Rethinking Tragedy concludes with him defending
his vision formulated almost half a century earlier. “As is, I see no persuasive
grounds on which to retract the case put in The Death of Tragedy, 1961.”3
1  R. BARTHES, Journal de deuil , Paris, 2009, p. 167.
2  R. FELSKI (ed.), Rethinking Tragedy , Baltimore, 2008.
3  G. STEINER, ‘Tragedy’, reconsidered  in R. FELSKI (ed.), Rethinking Tragedy , p. 44.
A second strand, of which Nietzsche was the forerunner, tries to
rethink the original, limited historical definition of tragic art and questions its
relevance for other literary genres such as the novel or other art forms such as
opera or more recently film. Following the democratisation process of
modernity and drawing on the insights of psychology, it also expands the
notion of the tragic outside the exclusive domain of the ‘sacred’ or ‘tragic hero’
into the everyday life of ‘Everyman’.
In this seemingly unlimited expansion process, thus Felski, we must
absolutely distinguish form from content. Hence the tragic is no longer seen as
a ‘genre’ but as a ‘mode’ giving expression to the ‘shape of suffering’, rather
than expressing the actual suffering itself.
In her contribution to Rethinking Tragedy, the feminist theologian
Kathleen M. Sands explicitly links ‘the tragic’ with ‘the traumatic’ experienced
in loss. Whereas traumas are ‘black holes’ which ‘manifest themselves as gaps
or silence’, tragedy, as an aesthetic form, creates “a ritual space where the
trauma, rather than being silently re-enacted, is solemnly voiced and
lamented”.4 Through this voicing, which is mainly a process of re-embodiment,
the seeming fatality of the experience of loss (as experienced after the death of
a loved one) is transformed, i.e. it acquires a ‘form’ which can be acted upon.
Similarly, the authors of Loss, edited by David L. Eng and David Kazanjian,
explicitly plead for a ‘politics of mourning’ in which the melancholic attachment to
the things or persons lost is replaced by an active process of mourning, of coming
to terms with the loss in order to let it go and actively engage with ‘what remains’.
The practice of miroloyia6
In 2000, I was invited to participate in the first Summer Academy of
Theatre, organized by the National Theatre of Greece which took place in
Monodendri, one of the Zagori villages, north of Ionninna in Epirus, close to
the Albanian border. The overall theme of this first edition was Ancient chorus
and polyphonic expression: contemporary theatre work and folk traditions. I was
given the means to gather a team of four people: apart from myself, there were the
Italian, Belgium based choreographer Paola Bartoletti and the Dutch-Belgian
composer Dick Van Der Harst, who both –individually and together- looked into
exploring a contemporary dance/music universe based on more traditional forms,
as well as British theatre director David Gothard, who became well acquainted with
the Albanian part of the region doing a Shakespeare play, integrating local customs into it.
4  K. M. SANDS, Tragedy, theology, and feminism in the time after time  in R. FELSKI (ed.),
Rethinking Tragedy , p. 83.
5  D. L. ENG/D. KAZANJIAN (eds.), Loss,  Berkeley, 2003.
6  Part of the following is a reworking of a text that appeared in the catalogue of the Time
Festival, 2003: Miroloyia, Zingend wenen, wenend zingen .
Our workshop was called Rites of separation (death and exile) and union
(marriage) as a source for a theatre practice. Using fragments of Greek tragedy
(Hippolytus by Euripides in particular) and the choreographic, musical and
theatrical knowledge of the three guest artists, we wanted to research how
elements of the local, popular culture could be actualized into a contemporary
performance practice. For the latter, our international group was joined by
local miroloyia singer, Katerina Zakka.
Before travelling to Greece I had studied the musical, oral tradition of
the miroloyia, improvised ‘songs of fate and mourning’ used to commemorate
the separation from loved ones at funerals, weddings (the bride leaving her
family to go and live with her in-laws also marking a separation) and in exile
(xenitia), starting from Loring M. Danforth’s anthropological study The death
rituals of rural Greece.7 Reality, however, proved much stronger than anything I
had come across in my readings.
One of the ‘techniques’ of the miroloyia singer consists in linking the
actual mourning process with older, personally experienced, similar ones. The
music and texts are highly codified and use a standard, metaphorical language
of, for instance, plants (e. g. a cypress for a deceased male, an orange or lemon
tree for a woman) and birds (e. g. a partridge for a young female, an eagle for a
young male), but simultaneously leave ample room for improvisation.
The miroloyia are by nature theatrical and dramatic in the way the
singer addresses the absent person and temporarily lends him her voice to
answer back: a widow talks to her husband, a mother to her married daughter,
a corpse to its own ‘tired body’… The dialoguing, leading voice is reinforced by
the other women who polyphonically hum/cry along. The individual stories
are interwoven into a collective canon which again leaves room for individual
experience: “These laments constitute a public language, a cultural code, for
the expression of grief. They provide the bereaved with a set of shared symbols
[…] which enables them not only to organize their experience of death in a
culturally meaningful way but also to articulate it in a socially approved
manner. Women singing laments are communicating in a symbolic language
and in the context of a public performance.”8
7  L. M. DANFORTH, The Death Rituals of Rural Greece , Princeton, 1982.
In her study, Danforth describes how in a small, rural village in
Northern-Greece in the Seventies, all the women with a deceased in the family
would visit their graves, the first five years after the funeral, every day for an
hour, to musically interact with them, using the miroloyia form. The individual,
personalized dialogues are interwoven into a chorus of mourning voices that
not only commemorate the dead but also support and exchange with each
other and comment on the daily events; the creating of “a particular social
context that allows the bereaved to sustain a social relationship with the
deceased”9 being the main objective of those musical dialogues with the dead.
In her more literary study, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition, Margaret
Alexiou in her turn offers ample proof of ancient tragedy and present-day
miroloya being part of a single tradition by studying elements such as themes,
metrical patterns, the antiphonal structure of the dialogues between living and
dead. She states: “These themes and conventions are both ancient and
traditional. That their survival in the Greek folk laments of today marks
essentially the development of a single tradition is indicated not only by the
nature of the ideas […] but by the similarity of the formulae through which
they are expressed.”10
Lamenting in contemporary art practices
It is my personal conviction that a large part of –past and presentartistic
creation can be analyzed as the artist ‘dialoguing with the ghosts of the
dead’, in the luminal state of an as yet unresolved mourning process which can
be both individual or collective and which is often better expressed in a formal,
‘musical’ language than in a psychological one.
In the Nineties a number of remarkable theatre performances in
Holland and Flanders consciously revived the musical tradition of the
mourning songs: Gerardjan Rijnders staging Jeremiah’s Klaagliederen
(Lamentations) with Toneelgroep Amsterdam; Johan Simons and Paul Koek
bringing to life the powerful lamentations of Aeschylos’ Persians, the individual
lamentations of the Queen and King being supported by a mixed chorus of
professional opera singers and old farmers; Erik Devolder and Dick Van Der
Harst expressing the collective Belgian trauma of the Dutroux child-abuse
murders through a lamenting chorus of seven women in Diep in het bos (Deep in
the forest).
8  L. M. DANFORTH, The Death Rituals of Rural Greece , p. 73-74.
9  L. M. DANFORTH, The Death Rituals of Rural Greece , p. 117.
10  M. ALEXIOU, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition , Lanham, 2002 (2°), p. 18.
But the lamentation form is not only restricted to music (a huge chunk
of contemporary pop music also being contemporary laments) and theatre. In
literature and the visual arts too, mourning has become a central theme. I was
staying in Toronto, with Jane Martin -a famous painter in the area- while
(re)articulating those thoughts. Nine years ago, her husband was diagnosed
with a fatal brain tumour. All through his agony, Jane took Polaroids of him
and jotted down his often strange but poetic utterances. A few years later, she
started to paint miniature portraits based on the Polaroids and gave them her
husband’s quotes as titles. Today, several years on, most of the portraits are
hanging in a small private room where she retreats, ‘to meditate in an ongoing
dialogue with him’. Some of the portraits are part of a group exhibition in the
Art Gallery of Ontario, under the title The matter of Loss.
Two years and a half after the original workshop, Dick Van Der Harst
and I went back to Ionninna to revisit Katerina and to study her art in more
detail. Being a retired school teacher Katerina had started to write down the
lyrics of her mainly oral tradition and sang them to us, so that Dick could note
down their complicated, freely improvised musical patterns. Out of this
research sprang Dick’s theatrical concert, Dakrismena Poulia (Weeping Birds),
where he integrated the traditional miroloyia of Katerina with some of the
stage songs he wrote for Eric De Volder’s theatre production Zwarte Vogels in
de bomen (Black Birds in the trees), performed by soprano Katelijne Van Laethem.
The production premiered at the 2003 edition of the Time-festival, a city
festival curated by the Colombian theatre director and anthropologist Enrique
Vargas and fully revolving around the Ars Moriendi.
Researching the miroloyia has become an important part of my own
work as a dance dramaturge. At least three productions I have worked on since
explicitly dealt with a form of contemporary lamentation for a dead
body/father: Zero Degrees by Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; Monday
Mourning by the Cypriot choreographer Lia Haraki; and Ashes by Koen
Augustijnen/Les Ballets C de la B.
Zero Degrees, the artistic exchange between Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and
Akram Khan, starts out telling Akram’s autobiographical narrative of the time
when, as a second-generation immigrant, he went to India (Bengal) for the first
time at the age of twenty and the questions the journey raised about his inbetween
identity. When Akram’s narrative ends with the story of how he is confronted with
a dead body for the first time on the train to Calcutta, the last third of the performance
becomes a long, repetitive lamentation for this body in different formal languages: Akram
retelling the story in traditional abhinai (the story telling component of kathak dance);
Larbi acting out the disrespectful attitude of the bystanders towards the dead person
in a tragicomical theatrical interlude with the ‘dummies’ (the life-sized, white
puppets/sculptures by Anthony Gormly, cast directly from the actual bodies of both dancers);
Akram dancing a distorted, contemporary dance solo around his dummy, and Larbi holding
his pieta style, lamenting.
Artistic sensibilities often tune into the unforeseen and unpredictable
realities of the world before they are actually aware of them (Jung’s
synchronicity principle). Zero Degrees was ready to premiere in London on July
12th 2004 when on July 7th, the suicide bomb attacks took place in the
Underground. As a result, both the performers and their first audiences
experienced Zero Degrees as a lament for the victims, ‘dead bodies on trains’.
The emotional charge and release of those first performances remained very
much alive all through the tour, until the very last performance in New York in
the spring of 2008.
Monday Mourning by Lia Haraki, created in Cyprus in 2005, and Ashes by
Koen Augustijnen (Les Ballets C de la B) in 2009, didn’t have such a strong,
immediate connection with the social and political reality, but both used the
choreographer’s personal mourning process of a dead father as a triggering
device to create a collective, emotional experience offering both their
performers and their audiences an articulated and embodied outlet for their
personal memories and histories of loss and mourning, including different
musical traditions of ‘lamentations’ – ranging from traditional Greek miroloyia
over baroque music to 20th- century musicals; and relying on traditional
elements (e. g. the throwing out of the window of the clothes of the deceased
in Korea in Ashes) or inventing new funeral rites (e. g. decorating little dead
trees in Monday Mourning); and creating powerful, physical articulations and
embodiments for the state of loss.
“With crying and singing, a knot (komvos) leaves one’s throat, one is
lightened (elafreni), and one feels cool (dhrosizete). When a woman visits the
graveyard and cries, ponos, anxiety and poison all leave her system. A woman
performs the necessary rites of passage and cares for the graves of the dead ‘in
order to get everything out of her system’ (ya na xespasi). These visits to the
graveyard are one of the few opportunities for the cathartic outburst of emotion
(xespasma) available to a woman in mourning.”11
The physical exteriorisation through crying or lamenting of the
emotional grief of mourning is a necessary part of the rites of separation, both
allowing to stay connected with the deceased for some time and eventually
allowing a reintegration of the mourner into society.
As Roland Barthes’ quote above indicates, our Western society, with
some noteworthy exceptions such as the Greek example, has suppressed those
external rituals and as such interiorised mourning, with the inherent risk of
serious energetic, physical and psychological blockages in the body.
Art as a personal or collective ritual practice has often created a space
to articulate, relive and by doing so eventually exteriorise and exorcise the
resulting negative energy or energy blockages, in order to reopen specific
physical areas such as the throat or the heart. As such I endorse the belief that
art has a fundamental, potential cathartic quality by allowing both its creators
and its audiences through a process of controlled, homeopathic ‘poisoning’ (as
expressed in the ancient Greek word for medicine, thilitiriou). The personal
experiences are framed into a larger collective tradition and, as such, can
become a source of a creative practice.
Guy Cools
11  L. M. DANFORTH, The Death Rituals , p. 144.


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