Review: White Spirit

A display of pure human expression that transcends language barriers by Ensemble Al Nabolsy & the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus.
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Image: Aline Deschamps and Musee du quai Branly. Photo (c) Jacques Chrirac.

In the Sufi belief, the soul is celestial material trapped in the body. It longs to re-join its formless origins and it is this longing that the Sufis express through song and dance. In White Spirit, the Ensemble Al Nabolsy & the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus close the Perth International Arts Festival with sacred ritual: of letting go of material things, of abandoning thought, and losing themselves in pure spiritual expression. They are joined on stage by Shoof, a Tunisian artist who uses the beauty of Arabic calligraphy to create patterns on the walls behind the performers.

White Spirit is not an arts performance, choir leader Noureddine Khourchid pointed out during the opening night, post show Q&A. It is a true performance. When the ensemble sings, and when the Whirling Dervishes dance in accompaniment, they are connecting with God. It is ritual, prayer and meditation all at once. So while the audience may not understand the Arabic in which is is sung, we understand the feeling the ritual stirs in us. That is universal. The pure expression of the human spirit transcends language barriers.

Khourchid is the son of Abu al-Nur, a Syrian sheikh of the Shadhiliyya order of Damascus his ensemble of six munshid hym-singers are from the same order. It dates back to 12th Century Alexandria and is one of the most important in the Arab world. The Whirling Dervishes are of the Mawlawai order, instigated in the 13th Century, and their spinning dance is an expression of hal, a state of mystic religious bliss. 

The performance moves at a hypnotic pace. The seven members of the ensemble take their seats in a wide semicircle and begin, Kourchid breaking the silence with a long single note. The others join him and four, long hymns follow over 80 minutes, with each singer maintaining stunning control over his voice. Instrumental accompaniment is provided by an ud, a stringed instrument with a clear reverberating pitch, and two percussion instruments called a duff and a riqq, each played by one of the singers, which resemble tambourines.

 After a short time, the three Whirling Dervishes, dressed in white, take the stage. At first they turn in slow circles, holding a single high corner of their jackets aloft. When they finally begin spinning – eyes closed, white stocking feet swivelling rhythmically beneath them soft as rabbits – it’s as if they take flight. Their skirts balloon into a pyramid and they spin with perfect symmetry in a mesmerising display of control and devotion.

By the time Shoof (Honsi Hertelli) takes the stage, we are in deep. His is a different, more modern form of meditation and, by his own admission, not a religious one. He uses the music of the ensemble to bring himself into a trance, climbs one of the two staircases flanking the stage, and allows his unconscious to guide his hand. The Arabic script he paints cannot be read – it is the geometry of its pattern that is significant. In this way, the script also becomes a universal language.

Shoof is a somewhat off-kilter match. His modern swagger and indulged self expression contrasts almost harshly with the ancient grace anchoring the ensemble and dancers. The combination could clash, but the purity of self expression driving everyone onstage brings them into alliance. The result is mesmerising, joyful and uplifting – a show that reminds its audience the power of existing in the present and connecting with God, however one might define the concept.

Rating: 4 out of 5
White Spirit

Presented by The Perth International Arts Festival 
Stage Decor & Live Performance: Hosni Hertelli aka Shoof
Music & Dance: Ensemble Noureddine Khourchid & the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus
Conception & Artistic Direction: Jean-Hervé Vidal & Mehdi Ben Cheik
Lighting Design: Christophe Olivier
His Majesty’s Theatre
Fri 2 – Sat 3 Mar
Perth Festival 2018
7 Feb-23 Mar

Zoe Barron
About the Author
Zoe Barron is a writer, editor and student nurse living in Fremantle, WA.