Edinburgh International Festival: Whirling Dervishes of Turkey

Istanbul Music and Sema Group

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, 4 September 20084 stars

SemaOn TV, when I got home, Seth Lakeman was blazing through his set at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Blazing, high octane intensity; that's what I had expected from the Whirling Dervishes. Instead, imagine the choir of the Sistine Chapel appearing on a theatre stage and not just singing liturgy but presenting the whole missal, smells and bells included. It is difficult to convey the sense of incongruity between the expressly spiritual content of tonight's performance and the expressly secular setting in which it took place. The chair applause - the normal racket of seats snapping up as people rise to leave - seemed unnecessarily urgent, but in Edinburgh there is always the next show to go to.

This year's festival theme has been 'artists without borders', inviting audiences to 'create their own pathway' through the fare. A number of Mediterranean cultures have featured in the mix, and it is noticeable how fluid the musical currents are, even when fixed to ideas and identities in word and song. The Sema performance was scheduled, with evidently intelligent design, to complement and interrogate the Steve Reich Evening earlier in the Festival, making a connection of a different kind altogether.  On the one hand there is the oral diffusion of contact and separation, on the other a modern appropriation and reinterpretation. These two dimensions encapsulate the dilemma of the tradition-bearer: some audiences are easier to find than others, but the easily-found audience can be the least demanding (in the sense of being indifferent or insensitive) or alternatively the most demanding (in the sense of sampling only those fragments that have momentary appeal and forward value).

The Dervishes exemplify this dilemma. What was once a movement of political force and consequence (hence the garbled sense of expectation) is these days - in Turkey, at least - a cultural form, treated somewhat as a living museum. Dervishes are followers of the Sufi way. With characteristic paradox, this is a lonely path that cannot be taken alone. It is a critical mutuality that lends itself to the emergence of prestige forms of cultural expression; loaning a little of that prestige to the Festival was a transaction worth entering into, but quite a complicated one to unravel.

The first half of the performance was given by a group of musicians and vocalists (all male), with readings of Sufi texts given in English by Zeynep Ozlem Bas and Osman Kent. The music is improvised according to elaborate rules, an underlying technique that links traditions from the Byzantine world across central Asia and northern India. The key instrument seems to be the ney (played by Ugur Onuk), a top-blown flute sounding somewhere between a recorder and a shakuhachi, rich in tonal and timbral flexibility. 'This flute is played with fire, not with wind', says Rumi in 'Song of the Reed'. This, though, is the fire of the Fire Sermon and of Heraclitus, ardent and severe, but not destructive. It was joined by a tanbur ( Refik Hakan Talu), a long-necked lute; a kanun (Serkan Mesud Halili), a type of zither; and a bendir (Eren Ergen), a frame drum similar to a bodhrán, though played with the fingers. Indeed, it was the delicacy of Ergen's bendir play that established the evening's meditative groove.
The second half was the Sema, the whirling ceremony. One of the vocalists (Aytac Ergen) added kudum, a pair of kettle drums (actual, kettle-sized kettle drums, not timpani), otherwise the instrumentation was the same. The group entered solemnly, in file, now with seven whirling dervishes and a master of ceremonies. They wear a tall, brimless hat that symbolizes the ego's tombstone, a black robe that symbolizes its grave, and a white gown, generously flared from waist to ankle, which represents the ego's shroud. The robe is not shed immediately, but after ritual expressions of humility and devotion. Then the first of four whirlings. The master of ceremonies and the head of the whirling dervishes watch as the remaining six enact their circles, until the final circuit when all are in motion, though the master's movements are slower.

The turns are fast enough to extend the flared gown to its characteristic disc, but not exorbitantly fast like - for instance - a Cossack. This is where the connection, and contrast, with the Steve Reich Evening is most apparent. Music and movement exchange places, in a sense: where Reich's music is precise in its rigour, the Sema is flexible; where De Keersmaeker's choreography is rich in gesture and variety, even while borrowing the whirling motif, the Sema is simple and minimal. There really is very little to say except that they whirl. Then, after a concluding ritual obeisance, another echo of the Steve Reich Evening as the participants file from the stage as solemnly as they entered. This time, though, with admirable discipline, it is only after the last man leaves the stage that the applause begins.

The safety curtain descended; no one re-appeared to take a bow.

By Peter Cudmore

Preview of the 2008 Edinburgh International Festival:

Click here

Previous reviews of the Edinburgh International Festival:

Dresden Staatskapelle and Helene Grimaud (2008)
Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray (2008)
Ruhe (2008)
Mischa Maisky (2008)
Steve Reich Evening (2008)
Scottish Opera performs Smetana's The Two Widows (2008)
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (2008)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Ades (2007)
San Francisco Symphony/Tilson Thomas (2007)
Optical Identity (T'ang Quartet) (2007)
A Celebration of Poulenc (2007)