Most folks' exposure to the art and ritual of body suspension is limited to the 1970 film A Man Called Horse, in which the late Richard Harris endured the Sioux ceremony of o-kee-pa, being lifted off the ground through hooks lodged in the upper-chest pectoral muscles. The film elicits "Ow! That's gotta hurt!" gasps and groans. Experiencing this practice live, however, is something else entirely. On film, it's easy to tell yourself that the actor didn't actually go through with the stunt (in fact, Harris did). But when you see the hooks go in a live person, and flesh stretches against body weight as a human is hoisted into the air, swinging from metal rigging, with swirling lights and rhythmic music pounding, the visceral experience is simply profound.
Constructs of Ritual Evolution, or CoRE, has been giving Houstonians and international audiences a firsthand vision of body suspension for a decade now. The group's shows incorporate ritual, theater, music, costumes and technology to tell a (usually) representational narrative and basically knock the audience's socks off with outrageous imagery and incredible stunts. CoRE's new production is called "REVoLVE," and it's based on a Japanese fable called "The Stone Cutter." According to assistant director Ed Chavarria, "REVoLVE" will involve three body suspensions, and the show follows a plot with a narrator and main character driving the action toward an end-of-story moral. Co-assistant director Spike Longeoria has composed original music that links noise with a Japanese theme.
For newcomers, a rundown of the process: CoRE arrives in the performance space usually around midday to set up the rigging that will be used for suspension. The piercing hooks, which have been meticulously prepped and sterilized for the utmost safety of the performers, can be inserted in the body for hours before showtime. It's a clinical and sober process applied with the calm and seriousness of a medical operation. Chavarria, also a performer, says he's sat around with hooks in him for up to five hours before a show. (Obviously, he's not much of a bleeder.) The upper-back flesh, between the shoulder blades, tends to sustain the most weight, while the knees can be risky and have a tendency to tear. The chest muscles, while relatively strong for suspensions, can cause the most intense pain, as well as emotional stress, because of their proximity to the heart. If you haven't guessed it yet, CoRE shows are for the strong of mind and stomach.
While Chavarria is well aware of the intensity generated from CoRE's shows -- an audience member or two faints at almost every performance -- he backs off when asked to pinpoint exactly where the appeal of body suspension lies. "That is a very personal question," he says. According to Chavarria, hanging above the ground by hooks in your flesh is completely different in a private, ritual setting compared to a performance space. "We're talking apples and zucchini. What you get out of either one is completely different," he says. "Ritualistically, I don't talk about it. It's private. I'm very blessed in the things I've experienced. But as far as performance goes, there's pain, but there's a very large endorphin and adrenaline rush. I try to put on a show and go nuts and make peoples' jaws drop."