Impression of Unlearning Rituals

The impressive Bernard Haitink concert hall at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam was the scene for the fourth Unlearning Saturday, led by Artist in Residence Samir Calixto. Being a choreographer, it didn’t come as a surprise that movement would be a great part of the day. For that reason, the Haitink hall was transformed into a dance space, for which the International Theatre Amsterdam kindly lend us a dance floor.

After an explanation by some of the students of the insights and outcomes of the previous Unlearning Saturday – Unlearning Language -, Samir conducted an opening ritual and then explained his view on the theme of the day, Unlearning Rituals. As he described it on the website, the day was meant to turn the phenomenon of the ritual “inside out, upside down” and to have it “debated and questioned”. And that was what happened, leading less to unlearning the idea of a ritual altogether, but to deepen it, to allow for a much more thorough understanding of rituals, and their potential meaning and effect on both individuals and collectives.

The programme
An hour-long intense movement exercise on the basis of vibrations – the sound design for which was made by two Conservatorium students, Arieh Chrem and Finn Cooney – filled the morning session. After lunch the floor was given to Henk Hoekstra, professor of observational cosmology at the University of Leiden, who has worked with the National Dance Theatre, and who took us on a trip through the history of our (imaginations of the) relation to earth, the stars, the galaxy and the ever-expanding universe, of which, Henk concluded, there may actually be many! For the next and last session, Samir had invited Kossi Sebastien, a dancer/choreographer from Togo, working in Germany, and two of his collaborating musicians. After a ritual acknowledging our relation to the four elements, Kossi taught the Unlearning participants some very complicated but exciting dance moves.  

What is there to (un) (re) learn? - by Samir Calixto
How to unlearn something that we haven’t ultimately learned – at least consciously? ‘If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times’, said once Joseph Campbell. One could argue instead that our daily life comprises many small rituals, those which we perform in the automatism of our every day errands. But the rituals he refers to are those that connect us to something innate, something archetypal, something often hidden and seldom accessed in the core of our essence. Our ‘Unlearning Rituals’ was a form of rescue, of re-enactment of a conscious – and collective exercise that aimed to dissolve the individualities which compose any large group. There was even the intention to subvert the very idea of unlearning, as our very concept of learning is often mistaken by accumulation of information. 

Collective vibration
According to ancient schools of thought, learning – and by consequence true knowledge - requires experience. Considering that, a proposition of re-learning/ experiencing the collective power when united in one single vibration made more sense as a practice when speaking of rituals.
This collective vibration was experienced intensely right at the start of the day, as an attempt to prepare all participants to face – and eventually embrace – themselves and the unknown. How far each one was able to go? That answer belongs to each person’s sphere. However, it was undeniable that something quite powerful was created among that group of approximately forty individuals. What was designed as an open space, in which everyone was welcome to come and go as they pleased, became a place for sharing experiences where people decided to stay, and to share the challenging experiences proposed throughout the day.

"When a candle is lit, smoke is blown, or words are written, something might change. It might be all a matter of intention, and awareness. But regardless any result the echoes of experience are what still matters, and this special day seemed to have provided us that"

Through the body, the vessel of all wisdom
After a no less ritualistic lunch, our minds tried to grasp some thoughts on the universe, our place within it… and assess our (in)significance. Once more, the idea of the unknown was present, and with eyes closed once more we delved into absorbing that knowledge in the form that Nietzsche believed as being the only true one – through the body, the vessel of all wisdom according to the philosopher. The acrobatics of the mind while dealing with the puzzling dimensions and dynamics of our universe can maybe only be processed when the mind itself is abandoned. Once more the group embraced the proposition, and performed another ritual, one of more internal dimensions.

Joy and silence
From the inner to the outer, the day evolved into rituals of a different order: the grounded-ness of the rhythms from Togo, ritualistic dances that might have seemed as dance steps at first, but which are in fact catalysts and carriers of archetypal forces in that culture. The group braved through these ceremonial steps, and another aspect of the ritualistic was accessed: joy. The joy which is often excluded in the setting of the repetitive rituals of dogmatic religious systems, the fire that is as an essential spiritual force as is the silence. The silence. That is the way we finished our day, performing again the same ritual we performed to open our practice. But there was hope that perceptions were changed, and the ways of looking at small actions have suffered a change. Hopefully the group, now again as individuals on their way home, have shared an experience which had and will still have some value to the ways they consider the impact of their actions. 

Other impressions of School of Unlearning