Perth Festival Review: "White Spirit" is an "utterly immersive" experience
Noureddine Khourchid, leader of the six-man Islamic-hymn choir central to White Spirit, chooses his words carefully when asked in the post show Q&A the nature of the extraordinary 90 minute performance that has just taken place. A swift stream of Arabic aptly translated into words the predominantly English-speaking audience can comprehend ensues: “What you just saw," he intones, “to us was not a performance. This is what we practice; we are engaging spiritually with God.” White Spirit is remarkable for this very reason: It is utterly immersive. The spiritual connection the performers—choir, dervish dancers and calligraphy artist, Shoof— forge, whether it be with their Sufi God, the trance-inducing music or even one another is dynamic and almost tangible to the audience, whether one considers themselves spiritual or not. The group brings a fusion of art forms from Syria, a country that is sadly now known for its current war and terror ravaged state rather than its rich, exotic culture and legacy as the home one of the World’s oldest civilisations. White Spirit delivers a rare glance of this forgotten world.
The music in this performance is really the foundation for all else. Led by Khourchid, the Sufi choir (with members Abdulrahman Modawar, Hassan Arbach, Adel Halima, Mhd Hamdi Malas and Mohamad Kadmani) creates a texture rich with history and religious intimacy, with haunting vocal solos and ensemble parts supported with the Riq (a kind of tambourine), Duff (a type of drum) and Ud. The resulting blanket of sound is woven with fibres of traditional soul and grit, laying the groundwork for the spectacle of the whirling dervish dancers.
In the post-show Q&A, another question that popped up was in relation to the weight of the Mawlawi order dervish dancers’ (Ahmad Altair, Hatem Aljamal and Mahmoud Altaier) extraordinary billowing skirts, forming glorious disks as the dancers rotate on the spot for often ten to fifteen minute periods. We were told that whilst the skirts were indeed quite heavy materialistically, the dancers do not tire or feel the burden, as the weight has been ‘taken by God’. Indeed, as one watches the miraculous endurance of the rotating dancers, one can discern a higher state of being among them, their faces appearing as though in a trance. The third component of the performance was the artwork, a mesmerising show in its own right. Artist Shoof (Hosni Hertelli) transformed the top of the rounded stage into an intricate mural of Arabic calligraphy in striking white paint, which would later be projected across the entire stage. He, too, seemed to be in a trance-like state, and as he later explained, the act of his painting was clearly a manifestation of his own (albeit non-religious) spirituality. He seemed to move with the music in a fluid manner, and it was difficult as an observer not to be completely hypnotised by the visual magic.
For this culturally curious reviewer, watching White Spirit was like eating a bite-sized portion of the Middle East, as I was filled for ninety minutes with the exuberant flavour of this beautiful region so sadly overlooked in the present. This show presents a resounding reminder that one can only hope and pray that art forms such as traditional song and dance may still be passed on to future generations of Syrians, and not lost within the tragedy of war. After all—art may just be the one force that has the power to unite humanity as a whole.