“Witches” by Ursina Tossi played at Ballhaus Ost on 21 and 22 February 2020. The work sets out to interrogate the historical figure of the witch, doing so in surprising and often uncomfortable ways.
The day before I watched “Witches”, I met with the choreographer and director of the piece Ursina Tossi, and one of her producers, Jessica Buchholz, in a cafe. Our conversations drifted through the various topics relating to her work, as we discussed embodied histories, political activism, feminism, climate change, the return of fascism, and the witch as an icon for resistance. I learned that Tossi’s inspiration to make “Witches” came from the book Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici, which she was reading during the creation of her previous piece “Blue Moon” (2018), a work about werewolves. “Witches” seemed the next logical step in order to deepen and expand on her research into resisting, mythical figures. When I asked her what she meant on her website when she wrote that witches ‘don’t exist’, she spoke about how the concept of the ‘witch’ was constructed as a way to persecute sexually autonomous and financially independent women in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Before being labelled as ‘witches’, they were simply women who practiced pagan religions, and resisted the rise of Christianity and capitalism. They were then duly demonised for their actions and brutally punished for practicing ‘witchcraft’.
As we discussed the term ‘body history’ — a phrase that also crops up on her website — Tossi reflected: “I think the body is something that passes on history in a very specific way: in gestures, in language, in thoughts, in movements, in temperatures and in flows, or maybe blockages when we talk about trauma. The ‘body history’ of witches is very important.” She adds later that all women and everyone who identifies as femme encounters the figure of the witch at some point in their lives. Relatable content, I thought to myself, as I seem to be encountering witchy things wherever I go these days.
The following night, I arrive at Ballhaus Ost, curious and excited. We are taken by the hand by a performer and ushered, one at a time, into the large hall of Ballhaus Ost and shown where to sit. There are five performers: Amanda Romero, Camilla Brogaard, Julia B. Laperrière, Rachell Bo Clark, and Ursina Tossi herself. Most of the audience are seated on the floor, but there are a few chairs available at the back. After everyone has entered, the five dancers move to the back of the stage, and face each other in a circle as Tossi reads out a text in a hypnotic voice, inviting us to step into the future. I struggle to follow the instructions in Tossi’s words — to close my eyes, let my body sink into the ground, and feel the rise in temperature — as my eyes keep opening to take in the large, dark room and the performers, who now stand so far away from us. I can’t help but feel that any intimacy that may have been established in our one-to-one entry is slowly dissipating.
After the opening text, the performers make their way back towards us in a kind of loose group formation. They begin to sob and weep, clinging to each other and collapsing on the floor as their moaning and wailing becomes increasingly intense. In the centre of the stage is a large circle of ash, six metres in diameter, evoking not only the historical burning of witches, but also the monumental fires and natural catastrophes that have been taking place around the globe. This mournful procession feels like an apt way to begin such a work, yet I’m also confronted with a growing discomfort in witnessing this group of women crying so loudly and performatively. I sit cautiously with my unease, considering my internalised patriarchy, and how easy it is to look critically upon a femme-presenting body being loud and demonstrative. It won’t be the last time I feel discomfort in the work. It is a very generative sort of discomfort, one that forces me to confront my prejudices and pre-programmed mistrust of the figure of the witch.
The weeping individuals gradually gather into a single mass, a kind of monstrous collection of limbs and heads that crawls over the circle of ash. As they do so, their voices transform from groans of grief into a choral scream of rage. The motif of individual bodies merging to form a single, heaving creature reoccurs throughout the piece. It feels like a call to awaken the collective body, and makes me think of the caution Tossi had expressed the day before around certain esoteric, individual self-healing practices that can quickly become de-politicised and removed from broader, communal issues. As important as it is to tend to the self in our chaotic world, she observes, it is equally necessary to tend to the collective through action and participation.
The performance is gaining momentum, and slowly I find a way into the work. Every time the performers drop to the floor, however, they are hidden behind the eight or nine rows of people seated in front of me. I move surreptitiously closer to the wall so I can discretely stand. I want to see the whole stage clearly (since I’m writing about this work), but perhaps this move is a mistake. Somehow, my new position removes me from the audience-huddle and the collective feel that I’ve just been reflecting on. Or maybe it’s the rectangular shape of the room itself that makes the work so difficult to access. This long hall seems like a tricky space to work in, and the performance itself seems curiously frontal — a surprising choice, given that circles form such a prominent feature in witchy-folklore.
Meanwhile, the dancers are moving fluidly from scene to scene. They crawl among the audience, whispering secrets in certain ears. They form a two-headed, four-armed, many-voiced oracle, gliding across the space on a moving plinth, predicting futures and announcing insights. Their bodies vibrate and shake as they perform various hand gestures, some of which I recognise from my friends who practice Wicca. I wonder briefly how they would feel seeing some of their spiritual practices being performed in such a convulsing, electric manner on stage. The performers confront the audience from a distance, calling out and asking selected individuals for their names, their ages, and whether they’ve ever slept with the devil. Their tongues fall out of their mouths, and their eyes roll back in their sockets as they grab each other in crude and sexual ways. They perform a repeated, and very beautiful sequence of running and rolling around the stage, all the while laughing and shrieking hysterically, as they gradually remove all of their clothes. There is a very messy, wild, almost ugly quality to the movement of the group, and it disconcerts me in an interesting way.
I realise that the witch has been evoked in a way that, for me, was entirely unexpected. In my recent encounters with ‘the witch’, I have met with an archetype of someone who is understatedly wise, incredibly practical, and able to understand and work masterfully with energy. While this person is often femme-identifying, something about my understanding of witches, especially in the fully-realised, hyper-capable crone archetype, allows a totally non-binary approach. It is this comprehension of the witch that — at least to me — offers hope and resistance. In fact, I had totally forgotten about the idea of witches as sexually deviant, wild, devil-worshipping women. But of course, that is a reading of the witch that was historically very real, and which endures in the collective conscious to this day. I can’t figure out if my difficulties with the work stem from the fact that I simply configure the witch very differently to what I’m seeing on stage, or maybe — just maybe — my internalised patriarchy has trained me to distrust and despise this particular portrayal of the witch.
I recall Tossi’s response to my question about the intersections between performance, magic, ritual, and transformation. Referring to the performance itself, she stated: “It is, of course, a contemporary ritual, because we’re repeating it and we also create some real transformation on stage. My way of working is really going through that transformation. Transformation is a choreographic tool, almost.” Magic, on the other hand, she describes as that beautiful thing that happens, yet which cannot be planned or expected.
Walking away from the performance, with my discomfort still provoking questions, I feel both intrigued and disturbed. I wonder to myself if I really caught the transformation that the performers went through. After scanning my memories of the piece, I realise that I did indeed catch a glimpse, hidden in the stillness that the performers finally arrive at. After about fifty minutes of almost constant noise and motion, the five dancers stand naked and quiet in a circle, facing each other. As they unceremoniously place five electric fans in a circle, a small sensation of transformation is transmitted, somehow present within this ordinary gesture. And when the fans are switched on, and the ashes spread across the stage, rising to the ceiling, something occurs that resembles magic.
“Witches” by Ursina Tossi >>> Trailer