Friday, August 29, 2008

"El Gran Teatro del Mundo" in Beijing (First part). Forty years ago...

(Translation from Spanish by Tadeo Berjón)

Mao and the Cultural Revolution in China

Forty years ago, when China was suffering the obscurity of its Cultural Revolution and none of us knew anything about it except myths and, amongst those, the biggest of all, the myth of Mao Zedong...

Around 1968 there were four events in my life which marked by my early infancy: the death of Federico, my elder brother; my tonsilectomy with a short but traumatizing hospital stay; the World Cup of 1970; and the Mexico Olympic Games of 1968.

Being part of a family intimately linked to sports (1) the myth of great sports events fed my imagination for many years.

I was born during the preparations for those games, but I was not aware of them nor of the Olympics until years later, thanks to the continuous retellings of the event by both the media and my family: about the opening and closing ceremonies, the competitions where Mexico won medals, the story of Vera Cavlavska and her love for Mexico, the sad and unpleasant story of sergeant Pedraza and his huge effort to achieve an impossible gold medal.

But something that left a mark in my personal memories was the stories about the atmosphere; if there was something that became a myth in my mind, it was the way in which people expected and lived the Olympics. I spent years trying to relive all that, editing it in my mind and replaying it in my games; being a stage person as I’ve always been, I spent whole days staging a city preparing for the Olympics, I relived the ceremonies, I relived the roar of the crowds.

With the passing of the years, my child-like olympic dream and me, creator of the dream, organized more olympic games, thinking of the joy and the encounters, the shows and glories of winning and of hosting them. Munich passed unnoticed, regardless of Mark Spitz and that despicable terrorist attack that scandalised the world; but not Montreal and Nadia Comaneci (and no attention paid to the absence of African countries in protest to the inclusion of Southafrica); Moscow didn’t go unnoticed for me, either, nor the boycott, which offended me so that I followed closely the news on newspapers and media, collecting and recording hundreds of news pieces so that the world in the future could have a clear recollection of facts that made it understand that the boycott was due to something separate from sport, that political interests were attacking the spirit of the games. I was not a child anymore (almost), adolescence was beginning to wreak havoc in me, I’d follow the games in a more mature way, there would be no more stage recreations of my idea of the games.

Then, there would be years of sportive obscurity, as art and theatre made an overwhelming appearance in my life.

A case I remember with certain curiosity, amongst my “clairvoyant” games of creation and recreation of future olympic games, was the organising of one of them in Beijing, which I wrongly calculated would take place in 2010. Without an inkling of Chinese culture I designed the opening and closing ceremonies with the inclusion of just one Chinese song I found at home and dozens of other musical pieces from all over the world; robots and space ships took part in the ceremonies, and China lead the medal tally above the US, the USRR and Mexico (among the leading countries); yes, China was a sports power with a great number of medals, and Mexico a new sport power emerged. Now I laugh at the strange fact, and I remain pensive on what I see now

Many years had to pass by, many, beyond the age of myths, to find an imaginative link between those glorious olympics organised in Mexico, my family’s recollections, and the student movement of 1968 (2); even harder was to link the massacre of Tlaltelolco with the games themselves. I was not closed to the idea, it was just that the propaganda that had penetrated into my family managed to keep those things separate. Nobody was denying the existence of a massacre just ten days before the games, but nobody linked it to the happiness and glory of what was about to happen.

When I was an adolescent I asked my mother about the subject, and she would answer that the government didn’t want any problems and had the students killed, and therefore there were no problems. On her face I could read fear, the fear all ordinary people in Mexico had when talking about those turbulent years.

Mexico had shown the world a country with economic growth, friendly, well organised, and words and more words that praised something that, with time, the world would forget. Mexico was an iron dictatorship that was organised in such a way that made the country work; the games were militarised and people could not protest, the impressive budget was a scandal when you took into account the millions of impoverished mexicans, the government would expropriate whole areas of the city (that was common policy for any kind of public works) for the building of roads and olympic venues; what mattered was to show a harmonious, beautiful, proud country. Today, 40 years later, I’ve lived similar sentences in olympic Beijing.

The 1968 myth, like many other myths, vanished from my life when I met “the teachers” that opened my eyes to other realities, the myths died when I looked for individuality and for free thought and when I began the race against time to educate myself and to understand events and the secrets behind them.

(1) My father loved football and found his way into coaching juvenile teams; three of my brothers played football with the goal of become professional players, and one of my sisters would later become a high-level gymnast.
(2) In a similar way, the 1970 World Cup and the events of those years lead to a less famous, but no less despicable, massacre in 1971.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Coca Cola Spectacle at The Place (Beijing Olympics 2008)

There is too much to say about Beijing Olympics and I have had to wait till tonight that everything is finished (I have just seen the Closing Ceremony at The National Stadium) to start thinking about it. But now I must work on it, thinking about what I have seen during three years of Chinese preparatives and, of course, these last two weeks of competitions, and then make some conclusions. It will take some time.

In a while it doesn't harm anyone to see a little bit how Coca Cola spent its money giving its own Olympic spectacle to Beijingers.

So, this is a video showing extracts from the Coca Cola Multimedia Spectacle at The Place (Shimao Tianjie in Chinese pinyin), that famous shopping mall with the largest sky screen in the World.

No criticism (Coca Cola has been criticized for so many years), no more comments, just these two videos:

Chinese boys having fun at Coca Cola fair (Beijing 2008)

More posts are coming with the same kind of content: simple things in video showing the ambiance, the venues, and how I have lived this important event (Beijing Olympics Games) I consider "the biggest theatrical production in history".

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ana Elisa Fernández's performance: "El Círculo que Gira"

Last month I receive an unexpected e-mail from an old colleague and friend with whom I shared one of my most explosive creative seasons in my life, my years in Escenología, between 1992 and 1994 (1).

Even those years didn't finish with any spectacle they inevitably gave us a strong mark in our future theatrical work: a deep knowledge about physical actions and physical training for the stage.

This Blog was the way Ana Elisa found me again, and after some words trying to give each other an update on our life we started to gave an update on our current plans and work. She sent to me some photographs of her spectacle and wrote to me some interesting thoughts.

Here some words from her:

"In remember that time at Escenología in a distant manner, almost as if I had lived it in a different lifetime, but I realise that on my training, on stage, it served as platform for growing and for developing a self conscience. Of course, I see it in a totally subjective way, after all, that's what theatre is about; to aknowledge your history and to celebrate it on stage."

("Yo percibo de forma lejana aquel tiempo en Escenología, casi, casi como si hubiera sido en otra vida, pero en mis entrenamientos, en escena, me doy cuenta que me sirvió de plataforma para desarrollar un crecimiento y una conciencia de mí misma. Claro que también lo veo de forma absolutamente subjetiva, finalmente eso es el teatro: asumir tu historia y celebrarla en escena.")

So, here a few photographs from her last spectacle "El Círculo que Gira" based on "The Dolls House":

Ana Elisa Fernández performing in "El Círculo que Gira"

Ana Elisa Fernández performing in "El Círculo que Gira"

Ana Elisa Fernández performing in "El Círculo que Gira"

Ana Elisa Fernández performing in "El Círculo que Gira"

Ana Elisa Fernández performing in "El Círculo que Gira"

(1) Escenología is a Researching Instutute on Performing Arts directed by Edgar Ceballos in Mexico City. From 1992 to 1994 we participated in a Ceballo's project, "La Compañía de Escenología".

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Víctor Hugo Rascón Banda died last Wednesday July the 30th.

Not long ago I decided to write an entry about Emilio Carballido, and today my heart feels the duty of writing about Víctor Hugo Rascón Banda.

Once more, memories pile up in my mind.

When “el grupo de los doce” (the Group of Twelve) (1) was formed in the mid-eighties, with Mexican playwrights who were part of the old and new Mexican dramaturgy (from the sixties as well as from the seventies), González Caballero would tell me how pleasant one of the new playwrights was, that he supposedly was a “banker” (in fact, he really was one, Rascón Banda was an important employee at a banking enterprise), that he seemed sincere and that he had some interesting dramaturgical work (2).

I sensed the beginning of a fruitful friendship between them both, a friendship that Rascón Banda knew how to handle diplomatically during the times González Caballero was minimised by other Mexican playwrights. Víctor Hugo Rascón Banda maintained his friendship with González Caballero until Gonzalez’s death and even beyond; he was one of the few playwrights present at the last homage made to González Caballero at the Mexico City’s Teatro Hidalgo.

Rascón Banda was looking to quit banking at some point and dedicate himself fully to writing, and when the opportunity came, he became a full time writer. Using his administrative skills he landed a job where he could be of most use to his fellow playwrights, the SOGEM.

The first time I saw Rascón Banda was at a lunch he invited González Caballero to, at a French restaurant within the former Lion’s Desert Convent; as González Caballero used to do, he invited me to go with him and, of course, I accepted. It was the eighties, I was an adolescent in search of his way, meeting the people who managed the stage business in Mexico was always a tempting opportunity. Rascón Banda picked us up at some place in the city centre, in what I considered was a big and luxurious car (González Caballero agreed with me). Rascón Banda was tall, handsome, well-dressed and didn’t look much like the Mexican playwright stereotype; I still remember his deep, clear and confident voice.

González Caballero was impressed by Rascón Banda’s ability to be a “banker”, to have style and to dedicate himself to dramaturgy. Rascón Banda admired my teacher, he was honest and very responsible. Even though he talked about theatre with clarity and knowledge (he was a well travelled man), he had a pleasant conversation, he didn’t try to argue and looked for a sincere exchange.

Victor Hugo Rascón Banda’s plays are among Mexican theatre’s many successes (particularly during the nineties), and great Mexican actors took part in them. Even though he’s known by other plays, the one I treasure the most is the one that got me close to him, Tina Modotti, because it was one of the first plays I read that came from the hands of a Mexican playwright, with a supple dramatical structure (3). He got involved with cinema, theattre, and everything with a dialogue, a story, characters and a performing space.

Víctor Hugo Rascón knew well how to move the influences on his theatre and to adpat them to his personal style. I remember how Chekhov and his Cherry Garden ran subtly in the background of Playa Azul (Blue Beach), with characters from the PRI era that were losing power and territory (literally), losing their old way of life. He became a master of the realist-naturalist atmosphere, his plays echoed the times and got fused in a clear and direct character study.

I remember him as someone always close to independent groups, close to power too, and close to those who looked for a push to continue in the theatrical world; always approachable, at times, at very few times, when unable to offer all the aid that was required, the sorrow of impotence showed on his face, and yet a solution would arrive.

I didn’t know he was afflicted with cancer until I left Mexico. My colleagues would tell me how he would keep working, even when weak because of his illness. To talk about him always involved talking about a man who was admirable for his human side. Now, at the news of his passing away, I feel somewhat perplexed, and I see time pass by, how I prefer to remember González Caballero when he had dreams and plans, when at the source of his creativity he dedicated himself fully to theatre, I want to keep seeing him during his moments of success.

The losses will continue, there is no way of stopping them, we will have to find a way to preserve Rascón Banda’s work in the theatrical memory of Mexico.

(1) In my hands I hold an ediition of “Doce a las Doce, Teatro Breve” (Twelve at Twelve, Short Plays), the book that gathered those twelve playwrights in a beautiful anthological way where each published a short play that referred to (or took as starting point) one of the 12 hours of a day. The group’s members were: Alejandro Licona, Willebaldo López, Pilar Campesino, Tomás Urtusástegui, Miguel Angel Tenorio, Antonio González Caballero, Tomás Espinosa, Dante del Castillo, Pablo Salinas, Norma Román Calvo, Marcela del Río y Vìctor Hugo Rascón Banda.
At the time, 1989, Rascón Banda was already known by some scandalous premieres. His polemic, relevant and well written plays offered him a place not only in theatre but, some time later, in cinema and television.
The play was part of a theatre volume by Rascón Banda, part of the mythical collection of books edited and republished by the Public Education Ministry in the eighties, called “Lecturas Mexicanas” (Mexican Readings).

Monday, August 11, 2008

“Salesman in Beijing”, a book by Arthur Miller, 24 years later.

I hadn’t got to even the first half of “Salesman in Beijing”, the book Arthur Miller wrote after his second visit to China in 1984, when he was invited to stage his own “Death of a Salesman”, when my hands were already reaching for the keyboard to type about every sentence I had been reading.

Miller’s text is a whole document on an era of Beijing and on theatre in general, but at the same time it revealed the experiences I’ve had in Beijing after 3 years of living here. I didn’t come to do theatre, I came to China to live it, to explore it, and to write about it and its performing arts, to get to know it; I came to learn Taijiquan and to find myself in the strange idleness of the start of my maturity; I haven’t written nor done any theatre since I’ve been here, so I’ve become another spectator of Asian performing arts and, in this case, another reader of Miller’s book.

The first impression the text gave me was one of surprising freedom with which people back then would talk about the Cultural Revolution, which nowadays is a completely taboo subject in China; actors, writers, ordinary people shared their opinions on what had happened, who they’d lived through it, and what damage it had caused while, today, in 2008, starting a conversation on the subject would only provoke complete silence, and maybe deeply intellectual sentences that would try to steer the subject away.

Even though the subject is fascinating, especially during the time it was written, reading about it sounds somewhat outdated and only seems to be of value to those interested in the China that existed during the 80’s. That China doesn’t exist anymore, and is now living the results of its change; now it’s rich and powerful, tells the world what to do, economically invades Africa and Latin-america in search for resources for its expansion. There aren’t many studies that review this transition stage, and maybe that’s reveals the importance of the kind of comments from the heirs to the revolution, comments that Miller brings to us, a revolution that extinguished Chinese cultural life for a decade.

The description of a world outside the theatre and a world within the theatre of that China from the spring of 1984 is at times delicious, an enjoyable read and full of pleasant moments and simple but deep disquisitions. What he describes about life outside the theatre is so interesting (and unique) that I remembered the documentary Antonioni made during the cultural revolution: “Chun Kuo Cina”. Chinese style service, hygiene, the ordinary Chinese spectator, the twists of language, intellectuals and food. Miller is a professional narrator of ordinary life and a spokesperson for the bewilderment of Westerners confronted by Chinese customs.

As for what he describes about life within the theatre, it’s fascinating for someone who’s done theatre or who’s lived it. I consider it a theatrical document because in this text I see direct information on how a sincere representative of the empire of realism (1), in an honest and sincere way, tries to conquer a world that does not handle realism yet (even 100 years after its birth). It’s a document because of the way is presented, it’s a work diary and travel impressions; it’s a document because of its way of presenting the staging of the play, because of its reflections and its means to reach its goal. It’s not just a document about theatre in China, but about how Americans in the end of 20th Century viewed the requirements for their theatre through one of their most important representatives.

The play, which at the time was already almost 40 years old, was going to have its premiere in the recently opened up China. In the years where theatrical postmodernism teared realistic discourse apart in Western World, Miller was trying to “teach” a new way to Chinese actors. But the realism that was being destroyed, leaving behind new forms, inevitably remained (and remains still) with its imposing commercial presence in those post-modern Western cities.

Miller was at the same time a salesman, American theatrical realism with its own “need” for Stanislavski and the ‘interiorisation’ of the actor was being sold where their was no knowledge about it. And I remembered that tale (or real-life story) where a fridge salesman becomes rich in the North Pole selling fridges as boxes for keeping food. I have witnessed, by reading Arthur Miller’s book, how he sold his “Salesman” with the currency of personality, intellectuality, cultural exchange, and the values of non-fiction. At the end, it would seem he’s victorious, that he makes the sale, but, as it happens with the main character of his play, the former successful salesman, he fails.

More than 20 years after that text was written and after that experience, we know that the revolution in the acting of modern Chinese actors was not won by Miller’s realism, it was won by cinema and TV, the bastard or next-of-kin product of realism, realist melodrama (much more suitable to Chinese tradition). Theatre in 2008 is, in China, just a handful of stupid musicals, trite comedies with TV stars and remakes of Chinese classics from the 50’s. The ever present Chinese Opera has found its new place as an adaptation through “national pride” and gets its income from touristic interests; big directors make their modern versions of traditional opera, cause scandal in the country, go abroad and are applauded as innovators and modernisers of China’s new and burgeoning market economy. But the theatre Miller came to revolutionise, the theatre of the word, of characters, of real and deep characters, a theatre of ideas (even if he denies it), that theatre remains empty, it was killed by TV and cinema, it was killed by commerce, it was killed by Tian’anmen and Falungong.

In Beijing’s theatres I’ve seen Ibsen’s, Strindberg’s and Laoshe’s (China’s “modern” author par excellence) plays, and I don’t want to see more. Modern authors have not plays to stage or don’t want to write for theatre, the theatrical spaces (those allowed by the government) are few, the public does not exist, the government reviews (censors?) and adapts every text, foreign stars (who inherited the theatre of Miller and his co-revolutionaries) are not invited to come anymore. There’s something in our way of doing theatre that makes the managers of Chinese culture nervous, “something” about words and ideas, about “reality”. How I wish I could see one of Heiner Müller’s plays in Chinese! Müller is no realist, yet none of his plays are staged.

Then, maybe there’s nothing against realism, but against truth in one of its artistic expressions.

I found the book in London, in October 2007, but I didn’t read it until I came back to Beijing, with the required state of mind to enjoy it. I was never an unconditional fan of Miller, and I think I’ve made that clear, but I must accept that the adventure he narrates is marvelous and that his text is a true treasure.

(1) You can call it 'Realism" or 'Naturalism", it doesn't matter here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Xiaweidian Style Puppet Exhibition at Mentougou Museum

Keeping the line of my two last posts about my visit to Mentougou village and its special museum (1) it is the time to share a video and some photographs I recorded of the temporal Shadow Theatre Puppet exhibition I saw there.

I repeat some words about Xiaweidian style elaboration puppets and this special exhibition:

Xiaweidian, a village in Mentougou district, is home to the west school and has a long tradition of carving and playing shadow puppets. -Beijing's "west school" style puppets are coated with water color, not the usual tung oil and offer a slightly different viewing experience-, experts say.

During Summer 2008 Mentogou Museum has an exhibition of 700 hundreds puppets from diferent parts of China, and the highlights of the exhibition are precisely those puppets from Beijing Xipai Xiaweidian School.

Photographs of puppets showed at the exhibtion

(1) - July 23rd, 2008: Mr. Li making Xiaweidian style Shadow Theatre Puppets at Mentougou Museum.
- August 1st, 2008: Chinese opera, Music instruments and Shadow Theatre Puppets at Mentougou Museum

Friday, August 1, 2008

Chinese Opera, Music and Shadow Theatre Puppets at Mentougou Museum

Mentougou Museum, outskirts of Beijing. July 2008.

Mentougou Museum, outskirts of Beijing, is an interesting place to see documents of Chinese Performing Arts history through a small province village's point of view.

A permanent exhibition of Mentougou's Performing Arts shows us Shadow Theatre Puppets (Xiaweidian Beijing West School), Chinese Opera objects (costumes, props, and music instruments); and historical photographs.

Photographs of the permanent exhibition at Mentougou Museum:

Chinese Opera costume. Mentougou Museum.

Chinese Opera props. Mentougou Museum.

Chinese Opera musical instruments. Mentougou Museum.

Chinese Opera Musical Instruments. Mentougou Museum.


The same video in Vimeo:

Chinese Opera, Music and Shadow theatre Puppets Permanent exhibition at Mentougou Museum from Gustavo Thomas on Vimeo.
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