Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year 2010

My best wishes for all of you, followers of this Blog, in this coming year 2010.

Gustavo Thomas

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Photographs of Wei Family Shadows Opera Theatre Troupe Performance in 2007

Two years ago I published a post on a performance I saw at South Gate Space in Dashanzi 798, in Beijing, a performance by Wei Family Shadows Opera Theatre Troupe (1). It was a very interesting example of traditional Chinese Shadows Puppet Theatre; today, after the problem I had with Youtube, re-uploading all my videos, I took advantage of the situation and extracted some still images from those videos and I got a nice group of photographs of the performance. Hope you enjoy.

Slideshow of Photographs

Monday, December 21, 2009

Wayang Kulit Balinese Shadows Puppet Theater (1): "The Sacrifice of Bima" (preliminaries)

The Balinese Shadow Theater or Wayang Kulit is one of the most fascinating spectacles in Balinese culture. As with Chinese drama (Chinese Opera) that originates in the puppet theater of antiquity, Wayang Kulit is probably the origin of several spectacular Balinese dances such as Legong. (1)

Wayang Kulit means shadows and also means leather (2). This shadow play, performed with puppets made of leather (usually ox), is a religious and artistic tradition, like most things in Bali. Based on the Hindu epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, it has been, for centuries, a way of telling the people about the origin of the universe and used as a fun way to listen to poetry.

Handled by a single master manipulator, Dalang (at one time considered more than a teacher, a priest), who also provides the voices for all the characters, recites poetry and at times improvises with humor; Wayang Kulit is a real direct line that takes us back to the ancient storyteller, one of the three origins of theater, according to Jerzy Grotowski. (3) The Dalang is accompanied by a small group of musicians, the Gamelan (a traditional Balinese orchestra), all of them behind the traditional screen which, even today, is illuminated by an oil lamp. (4)

As in any religious spectacle each element of the stage has a symbolism: the screen or Kelir symbolizes the properties of life on earth, being stretched between two bamboo poles it in turn symbolizes the universe; the trunk of the banana tree, where the puppets are fixed while on scene but not in use, is Pertiwi or Mother Earth; the lamp itself, Damar, is the sun, with three skeins representing the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (5). Positions, entries, and poses of the Dalang himself while handling the puppets, everything has a symbolism and everything must be done with strict control of movement.

Pictures: screen layout and musical instruments

Pictures: Arrangement of the Dalang, musicians and puppets behind the screen.

Bali's artistic life has evolved and changed dramatically with western civilization, but in turn it has been preserved thanks to tourism, which has made its existence a matter of interest to the island. Wayang Kulit has changed the reason for its presentation to an audience: you can have religious performances and business performances, the teachers are the same, the techniques are the same, what changes depending on the type of performance is the length of the representation and the audience; a performance can last all night in a temple and during a festival for mostly Balinese audiences; a one hour long show at any temple or gallery (as in this case), with only tourists and a small group of ever present curious Balinese children.

The performance I attended took place at a gallery-hostel, Okra Kartini, in a stage where there are regular performances of Wayang Kulit before 50 or 60 people. The video bellow shows the preparations for that performance. It shows how the screen was set up and how the music starts, as well as an explanation (in English) that the director of the company gave (in this case not the Dalang, who was behind the screen) about the characters and the story we were going to watch.

There is an additional, very short video that I took at the end of the performance, which shows how the musicians and the Dalang were seated behind the screen.

In the next post I will show the videos of the full performance.

(1) Island of Bali. Author: Miguel Covarrubias. (2) Balinese Dance, Drama and Music. Authors: I Wayan Dibia, Rucina Ballinger. (3) The other two are the man playing ( a game) and the shaman or medicine man. (4) The Chinese, for example, have lost that tradition; in the four years I lived in China I saw no shadow show that was not illuminated with electric lamps. (5) Balinese Dance and Drama ...

Texts, photographs and videos in this Blog are all author's property, except when marked. All rights reserved by Gustavo Thomas. If you have any interest in using any text, photograph or video from this Blog, for commercial use or not, please contact Gustavo Thomas at

Friday, December 18, 2009

A BBC interview with the quickest Masks Changing performer in China

I've talked before about Masks Changing in Chinese Opera in a post on my travel to Pingyao, Shanxi Province (1). Now I just want to share a nice BBC video about it but in Sichuan Opera: an interview and demonstration with today's quickest masks changing performer in China, He Hongqing.

Click in the link bellow.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Le Dernier Caravansérail. Odysées.

I've just got the DVD of the film "Le Dernier Caravansérail. Odyssées.", based on the staging by the Théâtre du Soleil and directed by Ariane Mnouchkine.

My body shudders every time I remember this production I saw in Paris in December 2004, in that wonderful space Mnouchkine and all members of Théâtre du Soleil have created and established for decades.

The first scene where, in an absolutely cynical game of theatricality, recreates the crossing of a raging river at a border by Afghan illegal immigrants, a crossing that will lead to the uncertain freedom they seek in the West, and it shattered any block I might have had as a theatrical spectator. Magnificent, powerful, loaded with enough real artifice to assume it as real. The actors were in realism (who cares!); their colleagues helped them move, within view of the public, those enormous fabrics and create the raging waves of the river; the sound, loud, clear enough to be recognized as strong winds, as the noise of the running water, and as the force of a great theatre performance that was beginning.

Afterwads, scene after scene and the tragedy of emigration, of cultures in collision, of the humanity of the lost traveler. Humanity, grandeur, cruelty, evil, love, helplessness, sounds of a helicopter, of a train, yelling, crying, letters and nostalgia. I remember so much ...

That Saturday, at the Cartoucherie in the outskirts of Paris, I spent 6 hours with them, with the space itself, with its actors, with their books, with their food, reading from their walls and absorbing their performing art. I had just quit my project for my own theater company a year before, and I had done it for travelling and for the experience of devoting my life to see the world of the stage that I have had the opportunity to find, to see its greatest masters, and I was really thankful for my stay there.

This extraordinary performance lasted nearly 6 hours (including breaks for lunch and dinner), and the final response was not only the heart-felt applause, but the emotion, the crying, the offering of our hearts broken by and open to what they had delivered to us.

That night I rediscovered the loving exchanges of theater, and also the tremendous force of Artaud's words echoed in the presence of the actor in that scene, the blood and dismemberment, but Artaud whimself would have been absolutely amazed at how Le Dernier Caravansérail exposed that through the work, devotion, sincerity and honesty of the effort of all of that (already legendary in my memory) company.

Mnouchkine has remained engraved in my memory as a great director and as an ordinary person: in her theater, before the beginning of her work, she talked to the audience as if to children, hers and of others; she showed us where to sit, how to behave, what to cover with (it was 3 degrees centigrade, with no heating) and at times she scolded us... I saw her gray hair, her face with her big nose and her wrinkles, her hands, her torso thick as a grandmother's, and I was thinking, this is the woman who moved this whole world.

To my mind came the teachers of the independent theater in my country and the world I had known, those messiah (some of them) and parents (most of the others), and recognized her as part of that tradition of the theater company of the world, of travel, of many men, women and cultures and, of course, I loved her with my memories and her present, I loved her as the theatre person I am and as the orphan with no more father-master I was at that time. (1)

The DVD "Le Dernier Caravsérail. Odyssées" is a filmed version, within the theatre scene but released as a film image, which Mnouchkine usually does with each of her productions, perhaps not with the same force that is achieved in real life but as a product that becomes a beautiful example of what one experienced there. I can use my critical sense when watching it (and I'm sure I will), but I prefer to enjoy it first as if someone had edited the memories of one of the most exciting and beautiful moments of my life.

(1) Antonio González Caballero, my teacher and spiritual father, died in May 2003.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Youtube canceled my account. For some time it will be impossible to see videos published before this date.

I had problems with Youtube because I published some videos which copyright was restricted or because I edited some background music that had rights, I did everything possible to avoid them by changing them, etc, but Youtube did not give me option and canceled my account. I had almost 500 videos, and only 5 had a problem with the video and about 10 with the background music.
It is a pity because all videos (nearly 500) that I posted on blogs (and youtube) are impossible to recover from there (Youtube) they simple erased all, of course most of them are mine recorded during my travels and my visits to the theaters or during my taijiquan lessons in China; so, I have to go to my personal archives and publish them again but it will be a very slow and annoying work.

I'll try to show them as soon as possible.

Sorry for this unfortunate incident.

Gustavo Thomas

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Beijing Opera: Interview with Mei Baojiu, Mei Lanfang's son.

I've just found that China Daily published an interview with Mei Baojiu, the son of Mei Lanfang, the greatest artist in Chinese Opera (including Beijing Opera, of course). Mei Baojiu is also an important Chinese Opera actor but he has lived with his strong father's image all his life, and it seems he has assumed it very well.

I thought this interview would be of interest for many who follow this Blog; it is not a deep approach to Mei Lanfang's work but it works as an introduction to his life and work from the perspective of an important Mei's family member.

You will notice at the end of the video that appears a photograph of a Time magazine's cover with Mei Lanfang on it, supposedly from September 1934 (or maybe 1931 it is not clare) ; I must say that I made a research inside Time's archives looking for covers from 1920 to 1940 and I did not find any cover with Mei Lanfang on it (only articles and critics). What can I say? Chinese usually do that (transforming history) but I hope (really I do) that this is a simple misunderstanding and he did appear in a special number I missed... (*)

I can not embed the video to see it in this page but here is the link to the China Daily page it was published. Enjoy it!

(*) I wrote my doubts as a comment in the page of this China daily's article and they replied to me (also as a comment) saying that I was right, it was a mistake publishing that cover without have confirmed the source of it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Afshin Gaffarian exiled in Paris, a new life for a young Iranian actor and dancer.

I wrote some months ago about Afshin and his Blog, The holy actor, a rare but interesting case of a Grotowskian actor in Iran, and today I've just seen a note by AFP that he is now exiled in Paris a cause of some political problems during the aftermaths of the Iranian election and taking advantage of a tour his company was having in Germany.

My idea was to write again about him and his work after some reasonable time to see how he was developing his career but this news changed everything. Here the full note (he published in his Blog):

PARIS, Nov 27, 2009 (AFP)
- "Freedom for Iran!" With these defiant wordsIranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian ended a public performance and began a newlife as an exiled dissident in Europe.
The 23-year-old was arrested in Tehran after taking part in nationwideprotests triggered by the June re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which critics say was due to a rigged vote.
But to his amazement he and his modern dance company were allowed to travel to a theatre festival in mid-October in the German town of Muelheim afterpaying a security bond of around 10,000 euros (15,000 dollars).
Until the moment he got to the airport, Ghaffarian feared he would be stopped. But he and the rest of the company -- two actors, a musician and alighting technician -- were allowed fly out of Iran.
Iranian authorities, however, sent two official minders along with them to make sure they stayed in line.
The company gave two performances at the festival. It was at the end of the second that the dark-haired dancer decided to make his move.
"Freedom for Iran! Solidarity with the Iranian people! Where is my vote?" he shouted on stage, making the V for victory sign with one hand and with the other covering his mouth to denounce the gagging of Iran's opposition.
On the hand he raised into the air, he wore a green ribbon, a sign of support for the defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.
The declaration got an enthusiastic reception from the audience, whichincluded several local journalists, and in the ensuing confusion Ghaffarianmanaged to sneak away from his official escort.
About a week later he made his way to Paris with the help of a French friend of Iranian origin who works at the Comedie Francaise, France's national theatre, and who introduced him to the city's artistic community.
Ghaffarian said he has now has applied for political asylum in France and plans on continuing his career here.
"The 'Centre International de la Danse' is interested in him," said Xavier Samson, a public relations executive who has taken up Ghaffarian's cause,referring to a major state-funded dance institute.
Ghaffarian's current bright prospects are in stark contrast to the situation he faced just a few months ago in his native country.
He said he was arrested in Tehran when he, like tens of thousands of Iranians, took to the streets to protest against Ahmadinejad's victory. The protests led to a sometimes brutal crackdown. Ghaffarian said he wasdetained and beaten by the Basij volunteer Islamist militia. "They tied me up, they threw me in a vehicle, they blindfolded me," hesaid. "We were about 40 packed in this vehicle. It was so hot with the windows closed, we could hardly breathe."
"When they saw on my ID card that I was an actor in theatre, they laughed at me, they beat me more on my head, on my back," he said.
The Basiji stole his money and confiscated a small video camera with which he had filmed scenes of protestors being attacked by security forces, he said.
Then, after 10 hours, he and his fellow detainees were dumped on the side of a road dozens of kilometres away from the capital.
Ghaffarian said he is enjoying the freedom of life in Paris.
"I am going to give my first free performance on December 13," he said with a smile, adding that it will take place in the suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. But he hasn't forgotten his friends and fellow protestors back home. Nor the other members of his dance company, who all went home after the German trip.
He keeps in touch with his Iranian friends via the social networking site Facebook and insists that the opposition movement is far from beaten.
"The green movement is still going on," he said.

Paris (AFP) / © 2009 AFP

Being and actor and dancer outside of Iran will bring him a World of opportunities for sure, but it will also change how we perceive his work now as an exiled artist. We'lll be attentive seeing what happens with him and what he can do in freedom and out of his culture, studying and working in France and developing other techniques and forming part of other schools; there will be no more surprise and contradiction about his technique and ideas in the experimental Paris and also he will have to face a big competition in any field chosen...

A new life for a young Iranian actor and dancer, no doubt about that.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Miguel Covarrubias, Bali and the introduction to an exciting series of articles to come.

I would like to write once more about Mexican painter and anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias, whom I rediscovered in 2007 while travelling in Singapore, where I found a book about his life and work in Bali, Indonesia, a book that opened to me the doors to his interest for Balinese performing arts and re-awoke my desire to witness them in person.

After that book and my post “Covarrubias in Bali”, I have had more encounters with his work which, fortunately, took place in Bali itself. My aim was not to follow his steps, but I did it without noticing and I entered with him into a real cultural and performing dream, an unforgettable trip.

When I arrived to Bali in 2009 I thought I was going to meet a world disfigured by the civilization of tourism that, among concrete, pollution and technology erase every vestige of beauty and living cultural force of peoples, but it wasn't so. If you know how to unveil the curtains that hide the huge cultural life, you will be able to live what Covarrubias told us in words and pictures. So I lived my own dream with the passion for adventure of a tourist visiting the land for the first time, of a researcher, and of a child who enjoys the theater of different peoples as if it were a new toy.

I did not travel there, like I said, for an encounter with the Mexican master, but it was inevitable that, even with all the surrounding noise from the overwhelming tourism on the island, I would still find clearings of the great life that Bali, the Balinese and their wonderful theatre still enjoy. I explored some of the steps that one Mexican adventurer, working for the New York frivolous elite of the 30s of the twentieth century, expressed in drawings and filmed images, recording in the memory of the West everything that moved and was beautiful in his eyes, material which remains as one of the most interesting documents from the meeting of different cultures in the history of mankind.

I found his book on Bali, Island of Bali, in a common library; I saw the projection, at a café-theatre, of the documentary scenes on Balinese life and art that he filmed with the most advanced technology of that time, a handheld 8 millimeter camera. In a museum visit I found what is, apparently, the only picture by him on the island. Above all, I was a spectator and observer of Balinese theater, art and religion. I dreamt his dream, and lived it, which is why I now write to you.

And so I start a long and intense series of posts on this visit to Bali. In them I'll show (in video and photos) a wide spectrum of performances and ceremonies which I witnessed, and I'll try to compare them by showing those that Covarrubias saw and documented (of which I managed to obtain a copy); I will also try to expose my point of view as a creator and researcher, as well as my pleasure for what I watched.

It's a plan that excites me a lot and I hope it will also arouse the interest of my cyber-readers, especially in Mexico and Spanish speaking countries where there is so little information and so few accounts on this kind of performing art.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Illuminite and Circus Orange Performance at Dundas Square, Toronto.

Illuminite is part of some Toronto commercial organization events performed during the Winter months and the main objective of this event is precisely the traditional lighting of the big Christmas Tree at Dundas Square, the main commercial area in the city. It seems that for some years they have hired Circus Orange, a company that produces spectacles using fire and acrobatics.

I expected too much (I know that's a mistake) from what I had seen on Internet (videos, photographs and some reviews) about Circus Orange's past productions and performances; when I was watching those videos I recalled the work of Tascabile di Bergamo (Italy), La Fura dels Baus (Spain), Noridan (Korea) and of course, Cirque du Soleil (Quebec) among others, sharing from my point of view many similar characteristics with them: the street, acrobatics, music, dance, theatrical subjects, etc. and I expected something like that and I was not wrong, The work of Circus Orange is very similar,... but at another level of quality.

This was the published order of acts to see that evening:

Sara Westbrook Sara Westbrook, Motivational Singer/Songwriter/Speaker, will have you clapping along while singing her upbeat tunes, including some holiday classics. Time 6:00pm

Free Laser Etching – Enjoy getting free laser etching Time 6:00 – 8:00pm

Flame Throwers

Circus Orange will bring in thrilling flame throwers who will do fire sets with various props.

Pyro Oil Drummers

Industrial oil drummers perched high above the Square will create an entrancing beat while illuminating pyrotechnics create dramatic silhouettes around them.

Flame Thrower Trampoline

A dramatic act where flame throwers are fired directly under an acrobatic trampolinist.

Tree Lighting Finale

Watch Circus Orange performers weave you through a path of fire and pyrotechnics until the 45 foot sculptural light tree goes off with a bang.

Now what I saw:

Once we arrived to Dundas Square, we felt a total disorganization, this was not Circus Orange's problem, of course, but it didn't help later to keep our attention as spectators. They started with some acrobatics using a trampoline, just as an introduction; simple and non spectacular jumps.

Then the singer, not from Circus Orange, but within the event. Absolutely out of place, boring as a result. Very difficult job for the girl.

The Circus Orange's spectacle re-started and continued with the same kind of acrobatic acts on the trampoline, this time with fire around and those barrel-drums music improvisations.

With a very low quality of jumps it was like seeing a gymnastic training, very little theatricality and very low technical difficulty. The musical improvisation was interesting but not spectacular, and the musicians, even while sitting on a very well illuminated roof, seemed to disappear in the immensity of the square, with not presence at all.

On the stage we saw two or three juggler acts, all with fire, and some pyrotechnics, dancers (also with torches) and as a final act a procession towards the Christmas tree. That procession was the most vivid moment, at least getting people to move to open way for the players.

The lighting was spectacular (as usual) but with a horrible choreography.

When the spectacle re-started after the singer's performance, many people were tired and wanted to leave, but they were there to see fire, acrobatics and the new Christmas tree illuminated, so they waited, and what did they see? Fire, acrobatics and the new Christmas Tree illuminated, that's was all. Circus Orange didn't surprise anyone. They work with fire, but they don't have bodies well prepared for a spectacular performance with fire (at least not till this past evening), there is almost no acting nor dancing training, and the staging is closer to a television show than a Street theatre spectacle. Fire and acrobatics worked perfectly, but that is not all what we spectators of a big and great city as Toronto is today deserve.

I know, any artistic company has its own process, and for a circus company with very high goals, it must be a very long one. I'm sure we have to wait and follow Circus Orange's process to see it as we see any other great company in the World. (1)

When you see the documents (videos and photographs) I published here try to clean your eyes, forget for a moment fire and costumes, and see those actors' bodies, their movements and make your own opinion of it. You can also search on internet videos of the companies I mentioned before and compare. This could be a very good exercise on observation and taste.

(1) The most recognized groups started with almost no training and only their artistic impulse.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 4: Cham Dance-Drama at Rongwu Monastery. Part 4 Final of the dance.

Note: See the introduction to this series about the Monlam Festival in Tongren, China on the March 20th, 2009 post: "4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 1: Procession of the Buddha Maitreya at Niantog Monastery".

Day 4Cham Dance-Drama at Rongwu Monstery.

Narration of the fourth part: The end of the Dance.

Read the introduction to this 4th day, see a video and read the preliminary story of the Cham dance at my July 3rd 2009 post.

Time passed but I was not tired, just having to stand upright holding my handheld camera made me feel the weight of fatigue, my eyes were still open and my mind was fully alert, sometimes lost on an object or a movement; my body, however, was in a fight to stay in place amid a crowd that pressed around, moving continuously.

There was clearly a dramatic evolution of the dance, now we were at a key point: a monk whose mouth was covered with black gauze stood on the centre platform (that with the painting depicting a man cut open by a knife) and, in front of him, different objects in a rectangular box; around, all the demons dancing in a large circle, and one, the chief demon, heading directly to him. The steps to reach the monk on the platform had been taken and now the devil was facing him.

Several encounters took place between them (maybe 5 or 6) and each time the monk and the demon exchanged objects; the approach to the platform was drawn out, with swords as if cutting something in the air, always rhythmically dancing, jumping, spinning, moving their garments in a fascinating way, and once there in front of the monk the devil knelt, the music entered in a kind of preparation to a climax, with some suspense and tension, certainly a high point (several high points because there would be several exchanges). Once the devil received the object from the monk, everything exploded in a great climax: there was a special sound of horns and cymbals that continues to resound in my memory for its strength and its effect on the scene. At that climax the devil would turn taking a big leap in one of the best moves that I could technically distinguish, and with full power would join the dancing part of the general choreography around the temple; every time this repeated itself it caused a kind of euphoria in the dance because "something" had been achieved.

In the last of the meetings between the monk and the leading demon (of course we didn't know it was the last), while the demon was standing on the platform we saw some changes: the group of demons started dancing around and a sort of flying blue-beaked bird character (one who had previously fought in different parts of the dance) appeared flying through all over the performance space, after a few turns around the platform, took the place of the monk, who had already taken a few steps back. The demon showed the bird-character the objects and the bird raised its head and pointed strongly to the side, as in disdain or as if seeking to expand what the demon leader had shown him. Then he took flight and, accompanied by the speed of the sound of the cymbals, flew all around as if to embrace all at one, then began to fly around the demon that had been wrapped in gauze while the other characters watched still. It seemed like a liberating flight, a flight carrying news to the others and charging with "it" the one who had been bound up in gauze. The blue-beaked bird flew back into place and returned to the dancing rotation with the chief demon jumping from the platform. All the characters began to perform their choreography to exit.

I had a very special moment near the end of the presentation. People, in their desire to be sitting with friends and family, pushed with greater force until at some point I could not stand anymore in my place, so I left and looked for another angle to watch from, virtually at the entrance of the temple, where the characters came and went. The images I saw there were more than fascinating (it is the most repeated word of this blog, I know): not only could I see the exit of the demons but I was beside the other spectators, children and young monks, who watched the representation with more than curiosity. The photos I took recreate the good experience from the point where I was (you must click on the photo to see it clearly).

The finale

The characters with skull masks (those comic harlequin-type) came back and repeated several choreographic steps, with the same short rods they had used at the beginning of the dance, but when arrived to the platform this time they picked up the small triangle that was on it, all the while doing jumps and games that did not were really comic but could be called "light"; then came a few scenes in which the performance change style, it was somewhat different from what I had seen in it, scenes that seemed curious to my eyes, I would even dare say there were two small 'realistic scenes' only interrupted by a another choreographic performance around the platform: in the first one, one of the skeleton-characters showed a somewhat female attitude, childish perhaps, he suffered and wept, while the other tried to comfort him to the point of angering the sufferer, but eventually was convincing him to return to perform the dance on the platform; in the second scene, they took the rods to one of the corners of the space and placed there, one of them sat while the other began "to act", arguing, repeating the gestures of that famous Tibetan ritual where a monk hits his palm while repeating phrases to discuss with a seating group of monks; this realistic scene continued with that seated character denying with his hands the other's arguments and becoming stubborn when facing by his partner's exasperation (1).

And while the discussion continued between the skeleton characters, from the temple a "deer" entered; an actor-monk dressed in the skin of this animal which symbolizes liberation, peace and harmony for Tibetans; he ran towards and near the spectators, not exactly in a dance but with a specific choreographed movement, jumping, pacing to and fro, accompanied only by the sound of cymbals. After a while of ignoring the deer, the two skeleton-characters joined him and began to collect, in simple plastic bags, fruits and money from the spectators. It was a curious contact where the townspeople offered their gifts but never crossed the circle marking the scene. It was clear this was the end point of the performance.

The characters' final scene repeated the already familiar exit from the temple but, once all the characters reached the circular space, including the deer and the skeletons, they danced together for a few moments and then started walk out the main door of the square. The crowd had already split in two lines, marking a way out to let each character walk through it and get out from the temple. Everyone wanted to see them exit, admiring their figures, costumes and masks, and the younger ones trying to touch them or even play with them.

As in all previous events in this new year celebration, participants disappeared by going to the back of the temple; once turning around no one followed them, the magic was gone once outside the sacred space.

Video: Fourth part of Cham dance performance at Rongwu Monastery. February 9, 2009.

(1) It is clear that use of the word "realistic" is from my perspective and I never say that they consciously worked towards that. The funny thing here is the need to lighten symbolisms and present a scene so close to reality to be understood in its entirety in the middle of an entirely symbolic-religious piece.

Texts, photographs and videos in this Blog are all author's property, except when marked. All rights reserved by Gustavo Thomas. If you have any interest in using any text, photograph or video from this Blog, for commercial use or not, please contact Gustavo Thomas at

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Halloween Party in North America could be a "Carnaval"...

Just a quick post about the last night Halloween Party at Church Street in Toronto. Thousands gathered there to party among amazing costumes, music and lots of fun, and that only remembers me to any carnival in other part of the World.

Love these paratheatrical events where people is conscious about being seen wearing costumes, changing of personality and enjoying the moment.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Tribe Party" in Toronto. No more 'underground art' in my mind.

Last night I attended "Tribe", one of the biggest festivals in the world devoted to "fetish" ( "Fetish Party" is its name in English) where the world of alternative options for sexuality becomes a sideboard for theatrical costumes and attitudes on a seemingly perfectly normal night. Around 4000 people rush, the days before the event, to the two or three specialised fetish and leather shops to acquire their "costumes" for that night and look perfect, in all their finery of sexual fantasy, to others, at a place where people with these rarely seen inclinations concentrate.

Ultimately, this party was nothing extraordinary, nothing that had not been seen before (1), but it was something that changed my way of documenting certain mental attitudes as someone born into a society of an underdeveloped country. Living now in one of the most developed societies in the world and having assisted to an event of this nature made me restructure my way of documenting art and its expressions, sexual choices and their different manifestations.

In this world of tolerance and civility everything has achieved its own place and these expressions of sexual life have found too, their part in the social game.

Toronto is a city famous for its gay life and its legal accomplishments for the community, but in reality it is much more than that, it is a city that has had to adapt to massive immigration and an impressive multiculturalism beyond their old closed traditions, expanding the scope of its civility, lawfulness and virtually everything finds a place within a law even if not for the most sensible of reasons, then with a great good will to harmonize all aspects of life in society.

I hadn't had such freedom of life since my visits to other cities recognized for their "alternativeness" (San Francisco and Amsterdam, for example). Amsterdam and San Francisco have the other largest fetish holidays; the most famous, perhaps in the world, is the Folsom Street Fair, where an entire city street offers itself for display in broad daylight and hundreds of thousands of visitors from almost all possible sexual positions attend.

Earlier this year (and still I owe you a blog entry about this event) I visited, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the exhibition of American photographer Catherine Opie, with a retrospective of his career, and hundreds of photographs considered years ago as "underground" but now exposed at one of the most visited museums in the world and, as the main part of the exhibition, at the gallery on the top floor of the museum were several mural-size photographs with characters and bodies transformed by tattoos and piercings in moments of pleasure-pain, some of them including AIDS patients and others in positions possibly shocking for many; this exhibition was accompanied by music in earphones that provided guidance and switched on during the visit, lending your visit a a genuine atmosphere of religiosity, acquiring a fully theatrical environment, a performance by itself. This event was not the worship of some intellectuals to an alternative art, it was the assessing of the lifetime of an artist dedicated to a different way of expression and was exhibited in a fully open way at one of the temples of modern art. Catherine Opie is heir to Mapplethorpe, who never received recognition of such magnitude during his lifetime.

The next is the video I edited for my post dedicated to this special part of the exhibition of Opie:

Where is then the presence of the art of alternative options? Where is the art in a world that was born and developed within him because of its inability to be disclosed or accepted by society?

Today anyone in Toronto can go every Wednesday or Friday between 8 and 10 pm to a workshop - exhibition of different ways to use sex toys or sexual practices using fire, electricity, metal, slaps, etc ... A lot of it is as a way to avoid the danger of these practices when done without knowledge of their effects, showing only and without any extra comment the technically correct way to do it. Is it clear what I discuss here? They are education and prevention workshops! Those are also "performances": they are doing what they usually do and what they know on a stage, in front of a group of people as spectators.

What has become of the attraction of Foucault to the occult and the attractiveness of the danger of all these practices that ultimately led him to die for them? "What could be more beautiful than to die for the love of boys" said he, referring to his incurable illness during a moment of sarcastic lucidity. He was afraid that, in the search for sexual rights, they'd lose their value as a hidden movement and source of ideas and art ... You lose something, yes, undeniably, but what is gained?

Yesterday's event, and that's what I'm writing this post in this blog, was a theatrical event, there was a "show" performing an initiation "within the tribe (the feast was called Tribe) of the fetish contemporary world, a "performance" that offered, among the clichés of this world (vampires, native Africans, Balinese and Papuans) the exhibition of many tattooed bodies, naked characters, all of them full of piercings, with painted genitals, bound, real bodies processed through many bizarre surgeries, etc ... all within an atmosphere of cordiality, festivity, and freedom.

I remembered so many theatrical and artistic events in which I had participated, where I had also been a spectator, and which I had considered scandalous because they showed a little of what in my society was not accepted or was seen as evil and monstrous, I remembered everything that I was now watching in the open, as a big open party. I also recalled some of the myths of literature, theatre, art in general, the myths of the "underground" and how I idolized them at the time, and I remark that I am still living in the back of my memory. Those bodies, those spectacles, those exhibition, those artists, that life, now are all part of our daily lives and have a place in the world, in various parts of our world. It had always been so, yes, but no in this way, not with this openness, civility, not as a part of everyday life.

An alternative sexual event like this, even with its great showmanship and frivolity, is in conflict with several ideas and moral structures that still exist strongly in the world, but their existence, their viability in our society, their commercial and social force are clear and conclusive. There can no more be a matter of scandal today, with what I saw all we have left is to see them as motive for contemplation, for analysis of their expression, as a aesthetic exposure and, ultimately, as a source of pleasure and play (can we talk about lost art then?)

Remember? God was declared dead over a hundred years ago and this does not mean that there are no more societies in which humans kill to maintain their idea of god, but the evolution of human thought that led to the mental corroboration of his non-existence is absolutely unavoidable, it happened and has had tangible consequences in the way we see the world and live ...

The destruction of the barriers of the unseen and the underground is already an active part in the open societies of our planet, is being regulated, and is finally becoming normal. "Normal" is not a word I dislike, on the contrary, it is a word and an idea that gives me peace because it avoids unnecessary disturbances.

There will be new "undergrounds," but it was time to overcome them (at least in my head). We will create new forms of concealment, because that's part of our never linear and always random human evolution.

Video Playlist (10 videos) of the party, "Tribe". Toronto, 2009.
(Videos were taken with a cell phone, therefore their short length and their low quality)

(1) Actually the theatrical event in the party was painfully bad.

(All this post have been written in Spanish and English by the author, and revised and corrected by Tadeo Berjon.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 4: Cham Dance-Drama at Rongwu Monastery. Part 3 Middle of the dance.

Note: See the introduction to this series about the Monlam Festival in Tongren, China on the March 20th, 2009 post: "4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 1: Procession of the Buddha Maitreya at Niantog Monastery".

Day 4Cham Dance-Drama at Rongwu Monstery.

Narration of the third part: The middle of the Dance.

Read the introduction to this 4th day, see a video and read the preliminary story of the Cham dance at my July 3rd 2009 post.

This dance was not more a Buddhist ritual, something I never remarked at all in previous events in Amdo, now (after two or more hours since the beginning of the dance) I was witnessing a theatrical performance that happened to have Buddhist monks and Buddhist symbols as a characters and subject. I was being a spectator of something more primitive than the structured rituals of the religion of the lamas, but also a much more elaborate theatrical structure.

I was aware that such tibetan dance-rituals had much of the animistic religions professed in all the so-called "Tibetan plateau" before the arrival of Buddhism, religions where witches and shamans fixed the world and the universe in spectacular and powerful performances; Buddhists as in any other world religion had nothing but absorb and adapt those events at their convenience. However, the development of a theatrical structure as such was giving over time and what I saw that afternoon as Cham dance was much more than a witch looking for the balance of the world: they were telling a story, with characters and personalities differentiated by masks and costumes externally but attitudes and attributes internally; there were an elaborated play of symbols, scenes and dramatic development; there was drama and codified movements. Beyond compare it with classical Greek drama (which we can not have live experience), I prefer to link this to the theater of religious origin in India or to the Balinese dance-drama. The codified technique exists inside Cham dance-theater, but we don’t have here yet the evolution and separation from the temple to be an independent art, as its Indian and Balinese counterparts already got, it would also wait for the arrival of an artistic figure (like Mei Lanfang in Beijing Opera or Zeami Motoshiro in Noh) detailing to perfection those codes.

After more than an hour or so from the start, the performance was taking shape, now we were seeing in the middle of the temple’s square between 17 and 18 character-demons dancing in circles and making a small shift from one side to another, rotating while jumping in the air and falling down to almost be squatting and to continue moving in a endless repetitive motion. Everything was still fascinating to my eyes: their masks, their headdresses, hair or those faces of animals and fantastic creatures, their costumes and objects in their hands. One of this demons, with a black mask and several skulls as headdress, began to be wrapped in scarps or gauzes by many leading members of the community. We had seen how this group of ethnic Tibetan had been directed to the first circle drawn on the square (the one where the other group of monks who had participated in the previous scene had already been installed) and they were seated to observe; now they were participating with the help of some other monks wrapping the black mask demon with gauzes, they did it surrounding him like blocking something coming from his body. Meanwhile, the other demons were dancing in the same way I described before.

Two demons separated from the dancing group, one with a white mask, between wolf and horse (I can not define it clearly), and the other, a beaked black blue Bird (a raven?), a character which would have a decisive participation in the future story they were performing. In front of the stairs they began to fight among themselves. The fight kept the same rhythm and tempo as the dance was went on around him, but their choreography was a continuous crossing expressing a ferocious battle, as if their weapons collided in the air when they cross, then arrive to the extreme side and returned to the attack to crash again, the same movement dozens of times. There was clearly a physical encoding to show a battle as in many other theaters and traditions. I was corroborating the use of a martial arts play in creating this theatrical convention and the need of a codification for the fiction of a battle, a war or a simple fight between two characters.

There was no winner in this battle (at least it seemed like that), the characters (the raven black and the white horse) continued fighting and began to climb the stairs in their repetitive movements and went out to the door of the temple and entered to it disappearing from the scene. That door of the temple had become those legendary doors which represented the in and out of religious theatres, where the stage was the courtyard at the entrance to the temple and the temple entrance itself was the point of entry and exit of characters (which were originally priests).

Once the two demons left fighting the scene, the others followed them keeping his choreography, now in continuous movement toward the exit.

A new scene began with a second entrance of demons, led by one whom fought and won the monks; a better dancer than the others, he was leading the way to the square, stronger, energetic, with an undeniable presence. The choreography settled again the whole group at the square in the circle already known. During this process, two monks entered: their mouth covered with black masks, one carrying a bottle (perhaps alcohol) and the other a kind of scepter. The dance and the music stopped for a moment, the mouth-covered monks came to the chief demon and filled his cup with the contents of the bottle, then the dance and music was revived but with a slower pace, primarily using the drums, and the movements were to the center in a kind of attraction to the pyramid with the skull. This lasted about an hour, and was repeated between 5 and 7 times ( I got lost in one moment), and once again the group went towards the temple.

In the next and final scene of this middle part of the dance, 4 demons with similar characteristics (black masks -only one with a red mask- almost human, with a headdress of skulls and several weapons in his hands -mostly swords-), were accompanied by those two characters from the introduction, the cheerful skeletons. The choreography of this part seemed to be the same we already know, moving in turns and jumps and keeping their character’s attitudes ( energetic the devils, and soft and light the skeletons), this time heading towards the main square, surrounded it and eventually came under the stairs, opposite to the main entrance of the temple. At various times, one of the demons stepped forward toward the center and in front of the others and with his sword realized a sort of cuts in the air,; Thanks to that action all the other characters seemed free to move forward to the pyramid situated on the other side of the square but for some reason they never touched the wooden shrine, even though he came very close to it. This unsuccessful attempt was to have some sort of reward though at the scene to come, but for now they went to the temple without touching the pyramid and appeared defeated once more.

It was a constant battle to get to the place where death was lit, to the place where objects before stored in a temple were at open air, at the eyes of anyone who was capable to reach them, on a small stage drawn with the image of a man cut with a knife ... It looked like a struggle to come to take possession or control of the powers of death itself, a struggle between the demons and monks ... Or at least, preparing to get those demons pure or prepared to cope or what would give them death. I do not know anything for sure, all are guesses of my mind, but I like playing with it, at the end I was a simple spectator of a religious drama in a foreign culture.

Video: Cham Dance Performance (The Middle of the Dance)

(All this post have been written in Spanish and English by the author, and revised and corrected by Tadeo Berjon.)

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