Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Three Shadow Puppet Theatre plays in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The day after my visit to the Shadow Puppets Shop close to Angkor I went to La Noria Restaurant to watch a Shadow Puppet Theatre performance (1). It was the only performance announced those days in Siem Reap so I couldn’t miss the opportunity.

As usual I was very excited, looking forward to experience another kind of Asian Performing Art, in a region where “another revolution” (like in China) had destroyed or almost erased any form of culture. It is true that many efforts are being made in the Capital, Phnom Penn, but as it was impossible for me to visit I thought some group in this province would be, if not fantastic, at least interesting to see how they tried to keep the traditional way to perform. And it was interesting, there is a group trying to keep the art, but they are now at a very beginning level, they are only children.

A French organization has taken care of many Cambodian children, and one way to help them is teaching them some of the Cambodian traditional arts. They are doing well, working hard and performing at least once per week, but it their skills are still immature, I think.

Despite those special conditions, the experience was really interesting: the musicians who play in the show are very good and make the evening more enjoyable, and some traditional chants are very nice too.

Three plays where performed that night: “Two monkeys fighting”, “Buffalo fighting”, and “The kidnapping of Sita”. I took a video of every one (around 10 minutes long each) and I transcribed the anecdote the restaurant provided.

Two Monkeys Fighting (video)

“This is the story of a black and white monkey. The story takes place in a small village where a black monkey is known to steal and eat all of the harvest that the villagers spend so much time cultivating. The white monkey starts to feel annoyed by the attitude and behavior of the black monkey and decides to talk with him, explaining to him the reasons why he should not to do this. The black monkey doesn’t care and doesn’t want to listen. From thus day forth, the two monkeys start to fight. One day, an old women passes by the two monkeys and sees them fighting. She decides to bring them to the monks who are the only ones who can speak the secret monkey language. After a long and wise discussion, the black monkey agrees to behave and apologizes to the white monkey. They return to the village and the black monkey never steals again and even helps the villagers with their daily duties.”

Buffalo Fighting and The Forbidden Bets (video)

“A man –depicted in this story by a long-beaked bird- comes back from a hard day of work in the fields with his buffalo and meets a young woman who also has a buffalo, traveling in the opposite direction. Upon seeing the man’s buffalo, the young woman suggests they bet for a buffalo fight: the loser must give money to the winner. While fighting, one of the buffalo dies and the other one escapes. The man is very unhappy that his buffalo died and asks the woman to give him another one. The woman refuses as she has also lost her buffalo. At this point, the young lady and the man start to argue and to fight. A policeman arrives and asks them what has happened. They start to explain but, as bets are illegal in Cambodia, the policeman decides to arrest them both. It looks like they both lost!”

The Kidnapping of Sita (extract from the Ramayana) (video)

“King Rama is walking in the forest with his wife Sita and his brother. They decide to stop and take a rest. They soon fall asleep after their long journey. Ravana, King of the giants, is very much in love with Sita and would do anything to kidnap her. Cleverly disguised as a deer, then as an old man, he ends up successfully kidnapping his love, Sita.”

(1) La Noria restaurant, Siem Reap, Cambodia. June 6th, 2007. 19:30 p.m.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Vesak celebration in Singapore. Asian dances and some surprises.

The death of Buddha is the moment of his enlightenment. Actually, Buddha didn’t die, but left the mortal world (at least as I understand from what many say about it)

Singapore is a mixture of three cultures: Malays, Indians and Chinese. At the same time the island is a meeting point of three religions: Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists (as well as some Taoists). All three cultures are so strong that together and individually they create the national identity of Singapore, so religious celebrations are also national celebrations: the anniversary of the enlightenment of Buddha is a national day.

Singapore, as a financial and commercial Asian center, is also a gathering center for populations coming from many different Asian Buddhist areas, which is why this national-religious celebration is a continental festivity that several regions of Buddhist Asia attending.

Independently of the religious events taking place in every temple of the city, there was a parade all around the center of the popular Chinatown. This year, the Singaporeans also added another reason to celebrate: the opening of the Temple of the Buddha Tooth Relic; it is a temple, it is a museum, it is a depository for sacred manuscripts inside a 250kg gold “stupa”. This Buddhist Chinese style building has 5 floors, it occupies a surface as big as a big block.

On May 30th 2007, at 8:30 pm, the prime minister arrived and with him the parade began. We arrived two hours before the beginning because we wanted to find a good place (actually it was not as good as we wished) and see how the different groups prepared their performance. Those preparations were a real delight to watch because of the number of cultural groups, regions and customs from all over Asia; I was about to take a whole lesson, practical, visual and aural, on Asian culture.

Even though the celebration was planned as a parade through 4 avenues around the center of Chinatown, the presence of the prime minister and other special guests turned the parade into an open air theatre: each group had to start their performance in front of the special spectators, spending there between 2 and 5 minutes and then continuing the route. That allowed me to videotape each group’s whole performance without missing anything, even though my position was a little bit far from them. A group would consist of a big float several teenagers (around 20) spectacularly dressed and some musicians.

Every video shows a little of every performance I considered interesting for the purpose of this Blog, but I edited several parts to make it more enjoyable.

China and Tibet (video)

After two years living in China I can’t enjoy its traditional dances anymore: too much fantasy and nice movements. But it is important to show them, of course. As for Tibet, you will see the omnipresence of Buddhist monks and one rare youthful dance.

India (video)

Among several dances, a special one, whose name I have no way of knowing, called my attention. It was impressive because of its energy and theatricality: spectacular dance, static ritual, theatrical choreography, narrative, live music, comedy (some wore masks and had a farcical character, though the video can’t show this detail because of my position) and acrobatics (as spectacular as Chinese Opera acrobatics). It was the first time I saw a real different Indian dance and not that beautiful, but performed a bit too often, “goddess dance”, yet nothing as elaborate as Katakali theatre could be; it was an intermediate performative act, chaotic, deep, I can only think of a Dionysian dance.

Indochina: Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand (video)

Thailand and Cambodia are sister cultures (sometimes enemies, sometimes friends), they share the same artistic style, their dances only vary in details but the structure is the same (stories, movements, customs, and performance). One can easily get confused trying to discover which dance is from which of both these both regions.

The surprise for me came with one “elephant” dance from Myanmar; using the same style Chinese perform their dragon dance, Myanmar people did it with an elephant costume; a very enjoyable moment, even funny.

The Dragon dance and the temple opening. (Video)

The temperature was too high and with too many people in the crowd trying to get a peek at the event I got overwhelmed and squeezed out to take some fresh air; walking along the parade route I got closer to the temple and, all of a sudden, the opening ceremony started: fireworks, and dozens of colorful Chinese dragons dancing all along street long (between 10 and 20 young men handling each dragon in this “fortune” dance).

This festival-ceremony, this parade in Singapore, with all its exoticism and good organization, was a first class performance for my Latin-American theatrical experience.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Nothing about theatre but much about me...

This post is nothing about theatre or performing arts, but it is much about the experience in Cambodia I want to share: a simple video I took of a group of teenagers buddhist monks going to swim in a waterfalls, in Phnom Kulen (Kulen mountain) close to Angkor.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Angkor: Street musicians, poetry and video.

During several of my travels I’ve found some groups of street musicians, I’ve listened to their music, sometimes videotaped a bit of it, and many times I thought about their job and their reasons to do it.

For a long time street performances have been part of my interest in performing art, but I’ve had little opportunity to do something concrete with it. However the experience in my travels of meeting this kind of groups has left an impression in my mind and I’m sure it will impact my future “observations” through the world. I can see music, dance, theatre, theatres, all profoundly linked. Asia is an enourmous group of performative mixture sometimes unthinkable in the Western world and accidentally present in that “middle” world where I come from, Mexico.

These musicians and their street performances open my imagination and my sensitivity, they take me deeper in the reasons for expression, over the impulses which drive us to expose ourselves to anybody. Sometimes I feel pain, my heart breaks, and then I realize I’ve cried, and after some minutes I start writing (not for stage; it’s one of those moments I’m sure I’m a poet too).

A few videos of these meetings will help to illustrate what I’m now writing, and one text written in an instant of explosive emotivity (Just Angkor could produce it), will be the pick of my idea of “sharing the experience”.

The crippled musicians of Ta Phrom

I thought it’d be decades before I’d long for the words that speak about that within me wich is imposible to descypher; what a fool, as the wait was only of two ridiculous years;
the immense beauty of time that passed broke my sinless silence.


An apparition of crippled musicians, with tired eyes and smiles, their hands and instruments, their prosthesis lying on the side, resting and fed up.

No feet, no legs, no foot, no fingers, no hand, no arm, no sight, no eye, yes a bit of music, and a smile that will play for a dollar.

I sweat as I walked, I wanted to record them with the memory I carry in my pocket, that machine that keeps that which I see and then shows it to the world, a machine that lets me rest from what I was and am in passing.

You’ll see them, recorded, but words stay best with a pulse of soft crying, of that stinging pain in the chest, that smile that you see and that won’t imitate their pain.

Music was their dance, and their singing was their walking and their speech. Music wasn’t hate, not vengeance, it was another machine that only plays at the sound of a coin falling.

When I saw the tree that tears the temple apart, and its roots absorbing time, I saw my dead father, teacher and friends, I heard those musicians again with missing body parts. I went back to my obsession of wanting to register everything with my hand memory, but a pain in my chest and in my head stopped me.
I was left alone within the horde of tourists and herders, of warrior and priests carvings; for an instant I was a cripple, my almost useless hand also writing for a dollar no one would give me,
I was like a machine,
And my feet were only contraptions that lay on the side, dirty, waiting.

I was in the midst of a tree covering my beliefs, and those faces, and carvings, and wanting to silence dozens of women yelling. I turned my mind (already burning white) towards those towers that the day before showed me tens of proud faces.

I looked at the roots at my feet, I touched the fallen stone to my side, then I put a stop to the madness and my own scream, and kept from falling from insolation and tiredness.

There, the men without hands or feet kept playing.

There, the old temple, expired and useless, remained hidden by the roots of a tree thousands of years old.
There, in my hand, was the camera, recording everything, taking so little of what I’d seen…

A few months before I had seen some other musicians on the street, blind, playing and trying not to be recorded.
Years ago I saw some others at a Roman temple, offering tea with also playing, without feeling.
Yesterday night was my first encounter with the cripples… is there another word?
Today, I couldn't stand the vision of that new encounter,…

and in that temple-non-temple
I saw not a ruin, not some musicians, I cried poetry, dance, singing.

Gustavo Thomas
June, 2007
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Video of crippled musicians in Ta Phrom, Angkor, Cambodia:

Video of blind musicians in Shanghai, China:

Video of street musicians in Baalbek, Lebanon:

(1) Translated by Tadeo Berjon from the original in Spanish. Berjon thinks is important to say that he is not a professional translator of poetry and may not reflect properly the original poem in Spanish. I publish the original in Spanish here:

Los músicos lisiados de Ta Phrom.

Pensé que habrían de pasar decenas de años antes de volver a suspirar por las palabras que hablaran de aquello imposible de descifrar dentro de mí; como un iluso el lapso fue de tan pocos dos ridículos años;
la inmensa belleza de un paso por el tiempo rompió mi inmaculado silencio.


Una aparición de músicos lisiados, con sus sonrisas y su ojos cansados, con sus manos y sus instrumentos, con sus aparatos a un lado descansando del hartazgo.
No pies, no piernas, no pie, no dedos, no una mano, no un brazo, no la vista, no un ojo, sí un poco de música, y una sonrisa que se toca por un dólar.

Sudaba y caminaba, quería grabarlos en la memoria que cargo en el bolsillo, esa máquina que guarda aquello que veo y que lo muestra después al mundo, máquina que me deja descansar de lo que fue y fui en el paso.

Tú los verás, guardados, pero las palabras quedan mejor con un impulso de suave llanto, de ese tintilante dolor de pecho, con esa sonrisa que no ves imitando su dolor.

La música era su danza y su canto, era su caminar y su discurso.
La música no era odio, ni venganza, era otra máquina que solo toca con el caer de la moneda.

Cuando vi el árbol que destroza el templo, y sus raíces absorbiendo el tiempo, vi a mi padre, a mi maestro y mis amigos muertos, volví a escuchar a esos músicos sin una parte de su cuerpo. Volví a mi obsesión de querer plasmarlo en la memoria de mano, pero un dolor en mi pecho y en mi cabeza lo evitaron.
Quedé solo en medio de la horda de turistas y pastores, de las formas de guerreros y sacerdotes; fui por un instante un lisiado, mi mano casi inservible escribía también por un dólar que nadie me daba,
era como una máquina,
y mis pies sólo aparatos que a un lado se quedaban, sucios, esperando.

Estaba en medio de un árbol tapando mis creencias, y esas caras, y tallados, y queriendo callar también a decenas de mujeres gritando. Volví mi mente (ya en brasas) hacia esas torres que un día antes me mostraban decenas de orgullosas caras.

Miré las raíces a mis pies, toqué la piedra caída a mi lado, entonces detuve la locura y el grito propio, evité también caer de insolación y cansancio.

Ahí los hombres sin manos ni pies seguían tocando.
Ahí el templo viejo, caduco e inservible, seguía oculto por las raíces de un milenario árbol.
Ahí en mi mano estaba la cámara, todo grabando, tomando tan poco tan poco de lo observado…

Pocos meses atrás vi a otros músicos en la calle, ciegos tocando y evitando ser grabados.
Años atrás vi a otros en un templo romano, ofreciendo té y sin emoción también tocando.
Ayer por la noche fue el primer encuentro con los lisiados… ¿hay otra palabra?
Hoy no soporte la visión de ese nuevo encuentro,…
y en ese templo-no-templo.
Vi, no una ruina, no unos músicos, lloré poesía, danza, canto.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A small Shadow Puppets Shop near Angkor in Cambodia

I took the opportunity to visit the ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia (May, 2007), place of dreams and poetry. Almost 5 days were enough to see most of this huge wonder of the world. Well I’m a man into performing arts, and I was looking for any of them, and I found some, yes.

I knew that Cambodia had retaken its fantastic tradition of Puppetry and Dancing, but Angkor (or Siem Reap the city nearby where all the tourists stay at) was not the place to look for, as everything is happening in Phnom Pen. Reading about cultural activities near Angkor I found there was a restaurant with a Shadow Puppet show and, in another part of town, a Puppet workshop headed by the German organization House of Peace, with a small shop inside a temple’s grounds.

Finding our way to the shop was not easy, even the guide didn’t know about it, but with a little bit of perseverance, asking here and there, we reached it: in fact it was located in the grounds of a temple outside Siem Reap. The first thing I saw was a small blue-sky coloured sign with the name of the organization above the entrance of a small humble house, and two lion figures at both sides of the door; then the body of a woman sleeping on the floor, a cat close to her (sleeping as well) and dozens of leather puppets inside.

Just as we arrived the woman woke up (not the cat; it stayed asleep during the whole visit), and with a friendly demeanor invited us in to see what she sold there. While she showed each of the puppets the guide translated, then we asked about the prices (between 10 to 80 dollars, depending on the work put in and size), the name of each figure, the characters they represented (mostly from Hindu mythology) and confirmed that they, the workshop, had made the puppets for La Noria Shadow puppet show.

I think the photos and video are very clear showing what happened and how it looked like exactly.

Every figure was made of leather (mainly cow hide), with almost no colour, only black outlining the shape of each character; and with three long sticks to handle and move it, one for the body and two for moveable arms. They were really beautiful and delicate; the moment the lady showed us how the puppets looked from behind a screen she had, as in a show, was a kind of magic instant.

I was so impressed with this shop that I expected too much of the show next day. Well, magic depends on some facts…

Monday, June 11, 2007

Singapore Arts Festival 2007

I've been twice to Singapore; in this second visit last May (2007) I had the chance to meet one of the best musicians of the city-state, Mark Chan. Mark had the premiere of his new spectacle, Dreaming of Kuanyin Meeting Madonna, at the 2007 Singapore Arts Festival, which is a huge effort to support performing arts, from Singapore and the world. It was a very good reason to see several high quality dance, theatre and music groups and companies, to know about them and enjoy this amazing city.

Singapore is an expensive country, so I had to be very selective choosing the spectacles I wanted to see: first of all, Mark Chan's spectacle, of course; another concert-spectacle by the famous Singaporean string quartet T’ang; The Map and Paper Concerto, a surely amazing performance by Tan Dun, the orchestra director and postmodern Chinese composer; and one energetic group of street precussionists from South Korea, Noridan. I could even come across other street spectacles on my way to different places, like when going shopping, for example.

Without being part of the festival, but as part of the season’s festivities, Singapore commemorated the anniversary of Buddha's illumination (and death, of course), celebrating with a big parade-show of cultural manifestations from several Buddhist groups from all over Asia who live in the island: Malay, Indian and Chinese mainly. This year Singaporeans also celebrated the inauguration of a new Buddhist temple dedicated to a strange relic: a tooth from Buddha.

There were performances all over the city, inside amazing ultramodern cultural venues, always on time, and with many restrictions for us, uneducated spectators from the undeveloped world, restrictions such as “photography is not allowed inside the theatre”(even if the performance had not started yet, or was already over), or being forbidden to take photographs of the artists giving autographs, for example.

I'm writing a detailed post of every show, of course.

Well, Singapore with an average temperature of 35 degrees Celsius and a humidity of more than 70%, was full of warmth and life during those days, a lot of life I'd say.

This is a video with some nice moments of the festival:

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