Mythology. We usually think of it as the way long gone people described their brutal, confusing world through stories. Now we live in a century of clones, drones and self-driving automobiles, so it can be hard to see the modern relevance of murky allegories and magical explanations in our everyday lives.
That is, unless you’re John Murphy, a former street performer who just spent three months in Iraq studying the culture of ancient people.
This myth-obsessed choreographer has returned to Seattle with EZID — a dance performance that draws on everything from pre-historic giants to the ravages of ISIS.
“You don’t research, you go and you live,” says Murphy co-founder of local non-profit dance company “Cabiri” describing his recent time in Northern Iraq living in communities of Kurdish and Yazidi people — ethnic groups that have been targeted by ISIS.
Murphy spent December through March of this year living in small villages and refugee camps in the region — also known as “Kurdistan” — engaging in both traditional rituals (a three-day fast for a religious festival) and current events (many Yazidi he met were displaced by the Islamic State). All of these experiences became inspiration infused into EZID.
It wasn’t Murphy’s first time in the region — he traveled there in the early 1990s and was taken in by a Yazidi family when he “needed shelter.” But this was his first time exploring a living culture for one of his performances. In the past Cabiri — which performs myths through dance — has focused on long dead societies such as the Hittites of Ancient Anatolia and the Samarians of the Middle East.
“As a student and researcher of extinct and ancient myth and folklore, finding a living culture that has so many contributing components…in the shadows of the past was very fascinating,” says Murphy while taking a break during EZID’s tech rehearsal this week, “You can see the shadows of extremely ancient traditions, extremely ancient folk lore and imagery.”
And though Murphy had already been studying the mythology of the region for his next piece of choreography (EZID is second in a trilogy) it wasn’t the shadows of the past that called Murphy to Iraq. It was contemporary conflict.
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to get over August,” says Murphy referring to what is known as the “Sinjar Massacre,” when Islamic State militants killed attacked and killed Yazidis in the Nineveh Province of Northern Iraq last summer and drove thousands out of their homes and villages.
Murphy’s voice catches with emotion a few times before he can continue, “I waited until my season was over and two days after my last show I hopped on a plane… and then embedded with a family three kilometers from the front line…”
Yazidi and Kurdish involvement in EZID didn’t end in Iraq. The production has engaged local members of both communities as consultants and musicians — and a special performance for those communities was planned in advance of this week’s opening.
EZID is an epic, acrobatic work where giant handed puppets haunt performers who sweep and spin above the stage suspended by chains and white hoops. The music, a blend of eerie synthetic sounds and pulsing drums, create an atmosphere that moves between hypnotic and urgently frightening.
“This is a dark show,” admits Murphy. But he says Calibri—a name that describes groups thought to perform mythologies in ancient Greece—is “fulfilling an ancient mission” to bring timeless stories to people.
“The name EZID is Kurmanji [an old language of pre-Kurdish people] for God…the unknowable creator” says Murphy “Throughout the show the question you’re going to ask is ‘Why is this happening? Why would a ‘Creatrix’ allow all of this to happen?’”
He pauses looking out over a dark stage where dancers stretch while shrouded in the sweet smelling smoke of dry ice.
“But EZID is very notably absent in this story. They’re the title character not because of its presence in the story but because of its poignant absence.”
How’s that for a mythological idea that resonates in our modern lives?
EZID opens today at the Cornish Playhouse and runs through June 20th. Tickets are available at ezid.brownpapertickets.com