Alkistis Dimech is a choreographer, dancer, and writer. Extensively trained in the ankoku buto of Hijikata Tatsumi, she is a solo performer whose work centers around ritual and the body, as well as engagement with the land and spirits of place. She has developed a corpus of work, Sabbatic Dance, which draws inspiration from the medieval witches’ dance and, in her words, “aims to manifest the sacred, the moment of communion, by means of the dancing body – carnal, in flux, becoming, present.” I have been a long-time admirer of her work, both as a dancer/choreographer, and as the head of occult publishing house Scarlet Imprint, which she runs with Peter Grey. For the purpose of this interview I chose to speak to Alkistis specifically about dance, as it factors greatly into my own practice, and I was honored to have this opportunity to do so.
What is Sabbatic Dance?
It’s the dance of darkness, ankoku buto, as I practice it. With butoh one always strives towards a highly individual dance. I’m not concerned with belonging to butoh as a style or genre, but in rooting the philosophy and developing the methodologies of the art in a specific terrain. That terrain for me is connected to the witches’ sabbatic dance, which I understand as taking place in a physical landscape, that is at the same time imaginal, affective and mythic. Essentially, it a place of encounter, and of strangeness.
But importantly, the sabbat points to a submerged history and territory – ‘a dark continent’ – of repression and exploitation, that had begun to be explored by artists and poets as well as feminist and marxist intellectuals, confronting the accounts of demonologists, the historical records of witchcraft trials, and the graphically evocative iconography of the witch. All those elements were coalesced in time to form a ‘coherent’ other, an enemy. The formation of a witchcraft in the imaginative realm prefigures its baptism in flesh and action, and it is inevitably taken up by those marked as heretic (such as Jack Parsons and Marjorie Cameron). The mask is worn precisely because it affords – by virtue of its imaginative genesis and its very nature – freedom, license, and an ontological fluidity. This is why I’m not interested in debating what is or is not witchcraft and who is or is not a witch. That is a matter for an individual to decide for themselves.
I am especially struck by Catherine Clément’s description of the sabbat as the ‘reverse spectacle, the celebration, in which everyone participates, in which no one is voyeur’ in The Newly Born Woman, and by her analysis of the sorceress and the hysteric. I feel it’s imperative to interrogate such figures, at least for me as a woman who’s found herself outside or in confrontation with ‘orthodoxy,’ pretty much from the moment I first expressed myself. But also, as a performer, I’m not so much interested in the ‘show’ or spectacle as in ‘becoming’ and in communication as a deeply felt, revelatory, participatory, even conspiratorial, act.
In the sabbatic dance I relate the closed, interior and abject worlds that Hijikata Tatsumi evoked through his butoh to motifs traditionally associated with witchcraft and the sabbat – night, flight, metamorphosis, the erotic, the carnal, death, the grotesque or carnivalesque, the chthonic – and in the testimonies preserved in the historical record – of poverty, of rebellion, of weakness, of tortures inflicted, of silenced voices, of moral and existential censure.
Butoh, understood as the praxis of a philosophy always coming into being, is the basis of a phenomenological enquiry into the intersecting realms of the sabbat and the body that flies there. Butoh opens a way to apprehend and partake of, in the most visceral sense, the plenum of incarnate, animate life.
How did you get involved with butoh and how has it shaped your work?
Initially I came across translations of the writings of Hijikata Tatsumi in The Drama Review, in my final year at university. I studied the history of art and music of Asia and Africa; my interest was particularly in dance, theatre and ritual, and in having access to the library of SOAS, an absolute treasure house for me. Not long after, I saw my first butoh performance (Sankai Juku at Sadler’s Wells). With the writings of Hijikata, photographs of performances from those early days of butoh, and then experiencing the living art (albeit by a highly aestheticised troupe in a conventional theatrical space), I had my epiphany. What I imagined when I read Artaud’s The Theatre and its Double had been realised in Japan. I had to pursue this, though I had no idea how. I didn’t begin dancing in earnest until a few years later, precipitated by a crisis. A friend, or a devil, presented me with an opportunity to perform at an experimental music, film and performance festival he was putting on. I quite recklessly and jubilantly gave up my job, and any semblance of trying to maintain the compromised life I was living, and from that moment considered myself a butoh dancer. I started training shortly after that first performance, and for seven years lived an itinerant life, between my parents’ house, friends’ floors and squats. I lived by instinct, and the kindness of friends, and by throwing dice. During this time I carried on performing, dancing with experimental and underground musicians – and helping to pay for my dance training by working as an assistant to a dominatrix, an arrangement began after a chance encounter at one of my improvisations.
When I started Scarlet Imprint with Peter I stopped performing. The nature of my work shifted quite dramatically. It was an intense time – emotionally and magically – and I was very much thrown onto the occult battlefield, learning by doing, much as I did with dance. Without butoh and the various physical disciplines I’ve practised I would have been lost. So the body was present for me from the beginning of my engagement with the occult, and informed every aspect of that engagement: my work with Babalon, with spirits, my understanding of ritual, even typography and the construction of the book as talisman. It was at this time too that we began working outside together, attuning and orienting our magical practise to the land and the elements. This was when I began thinking about butoh, and dance more generally, in relation to the Western magical traditions.
What is the “occulted body”?
Firstly, and most simply, it is the body – nothing more and nothing less – but a body that has been obscured, overwritten, silenced. Going deeper, the occulted body corresponds to the hidden body, our insides. I equate this interior realm with the psyche, or subconscious. It is a world which we cannot see, but which we feel. I am especially interested in fascia, the connective tissues, which is our largest organ – and utterly remarkable, literally so. The fascia is the ground of consciousness, as the repository of memory, ancestral and personal, and as the source of the electro-magnetic, or subtle body.
The dimension of the occulted body is both anterior and interior, and opens to us most vividly when we close our eyes. But it is always present, having to do with the dark senses, particularly the haptic and kinesthetic senses – and unbounded, because darkness dissolves distance and distinction. Movement is absolutely fundamental to what we are, what a body is, to our self perception. Its seminal role in self consciousness and subjectivity is elegantly put by Maxine Sheets-Johnstone when she writes: ‘In effect, movement forms the I that moves before the I that moves forms movement. Spontaneous movement is the constitutive source of agency, of subjecthood, of selfhood, the dynamic core of our sense of ourselves as agents, subjects, selves.’ Through dance, or any kind of serious play, we can tap into the deeper strata of our selves. In the same way we can fashion possibilities from our physical material, or allow other selves to appear.
Why do you feel that it’s important for witchcraft become a more embodied practice and in what ways is this related to your work with the goddess Babalon?
Babalon is a goddess of incarnation and transformation. I see her waxing presence amongst contemporary heretics as foreboding her swelling force in the world. Her incursion into our world manifests in myriad ways: it volatilises and excites the sensible world to carnal dreaming frenzy; and this irruption of vision, of revelation, cannot be governed. I draw strength from this power of imagination entering our flesh: the possibilities, the joy and pain of sensation and experience that comes with it. This is why she is for me the goddess of witchcraft in our life-time.
As to the question of the body in witchcraft, if we understand witchcraft as a body of practices that have been, and are, anathemised by political, religious and social orthodoxies, it is the body which marks us as ‘other.’ If we understand witchcraft as a body of practices that give rise to heterotopic space, it is always around the body that this space comes into being for it exists through the practices of bodies, in essence, through movement. This is the dynamic at the core of my understanding and experience of the sabbat: the witches’ dance and the flight to the sabbat are analogous, and manifest the terrain of witchcraft. But for me, witchcraft is also an art of touch, and of the tangible; whereby the phantasmic, remote and subtle is drawn into the sensible and immediate, and seen; and the body is sensitive to and conversant with the elements, because it is of the elements and in the elements.
ln my magical work I’m engaged with the elemental and sublunary world – a world submerged in matter – I do not consider it lesser or evil, it is what has birthed us: arche and telos. I nature and time my work within the lunar cycles, by the fluctuating periodicity of my menstrual rhythm, to the wax and wane of the moon, to her stations, and the stellar influences.
How is dancing a magical act?
For me, it is to do with crisis and transformation. I hurl myself into the unknown, I encounter the other in my body. It is never the same, and there is always risk: the dance is both seduction and auto-da-fé. Dancing creates a space for the encounter and the transformation to take place. And there is a kinetic intensity to this space, which is related to the quality of movement, to the play of tension through the body, to the splitting and multiplying of self, to the sacrifice of self to the generation of selves. In this way I remember and invoke the witches, demoniacs, ecstatics, hysterics, whores, the mothers who came before me.
What are some ways that people can incorporate more movement into their magical practice?
I suggest we begin with the understanding that movement is our prelinguistic mother tongue, and the body as the basis of all language: spoken and written, as well as gestural.
Notice how the body speaks, all the time, so that in every act we appreciate how much is communicated and accomplished by the way we move. Think of calligraphy or drawing, how the line is the visible trace of movement, how it brings to light an inner or hidden dimension, an image buried deep in the psyche, an emotion. All movement communicates, opens a passage between what is hidden, inner or occult and what is in the open. And everything we do is movement. With this understanding we can deepen every element of our practice – from simple actions like dressing a candle to more complex processes like creating a circle. I know that the thought of incorporating ‘dance’ into magical practice is daunting for many, but recognising that when we lay a spell or awaken an effigy, for instance, the animating quality of movement in these acts plays a critical role in the outcome. Dance is precisely this animating and affective force that drives the cycles of creation and destruction.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like people to know about?
I’m currently working on The Brazen Vessel, a collection of my essays, with those of Peter Grey. That should be published this Summer. Also this Summer, I’m looking forward to dancing in Benevento. My mother is from Naples, the closest city – it is a place where I have blood in the ground, and a region with a great deal of witchcraft history, traditions and lore. It will be an improvisation as part of a butoh festival, and I’m interested to discover what comes through.
In process is the creation of a new dance cycle, an apokalypteria, which has to do with revelation, with what is coming. I am interested in this idea of ‘the end of prophesy’ as a sealing of vision and revelation, and the fatalism that goes with censoring the oracular or visionary. Through the dance I want to create a space for the oracular and visionary to emerge from the body with all its transformative potency.