Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson's Faces, An Example of the Creation of a Pirandellian Super-Mask.

We can talk a lot and give many imagined examples, but it is better to recognize the importance of Antonio González Caballero's Acting Method with examples taken from real life, from the stage and, of course, from our own bodies and mind. We confirm his observations, transformed into "Apoyos" (base of his method), through real documents, observing others and compiling them to better understand what we are doing during our acting with his acting method.

We know there is one important part (out of four) in his acting method called "Super-realism" (Superrealismo, in Spanish) based on Luigi Pirandello's acting propositions and, as a main part of it, the creation of a "super-mask" of the character or personage.

The "Pirandellian super-mask" (Máscara pirandelliana, in Spanish), as González Caballero called it, is the physical transformation of our intimate and unconscious desires, our super-ego, a transformation we want, and we pursue it through whatever means, possible and impossible, during our lives. Our "super-mask" is the ultimate physical result in our bodies and faces of a conscious transformation based on our fantasies, desires and impulses. You are what you desire to be, you are what you have let be.

In that sense many characters became their own ideals in their physical being or, what is more interesting, many characters became what they thought were their ideals and what they could do for their own transformation. Many are lost in their fantasies, many can't manage their time, their environment, their own way of life, and then the dramatic result follows, "the Pirandellian tragedy".

This "super-mask", in González Caballero's words, "becomes the living body of our ideals, good or badly managed", and it has three different degrees of expression to be identified and to be reproduced in our creation on stage: simple, refined and in bruto. The degree depends on the transformation.

Today the death of Michael Jackson at 50 was announced; a famous singer and American pop icon, his life does not matter to me with the exception of a TV internet program that someone decided to prepare about his different faces throughout his life. Of course, the program will talk about his personality and scandals, but what they did was a preparatory video with a short edition of Michael Jackson's faces during his whole life, so we can witness Jackson's transformation in 30 seconds. That's what is important to me and why I'm writing this post!

The transformation of Jackson's face, as you will see in this video presented below, is so far the best visually documented example I've found of the creation of the "Pirandellian super-mask" in a living being: a transformation that goes from Jackson as a child (from a normal or natural child) until he had created his own "in bruto" Pirandellian character.

This is not the transformation that we see as a "normal" one (if there are any) that runs from childhood to maturity, no, what we see is the transformation that goes from reality to fantasy, a mental ideal turning physical. Michael Jackson used whatever means possible to achieve this transformation, and we can see that process. A jewel for any actor!

Transformed by the end of his life into a fantasy character, Mr. Jackson was still a living human being... and he was living his own tragedy, being famous, being weird, being seen as a monster and having intimacy and a family life. The person who uploaded the video in Youtube wrote "is it a human?", and I can answer yes, it is, and that human-personage died today.

Video: Michael Jackson and his facial transformation throughout life.

the same video in ipernity:

You can see following this link an interesting line of events about Jackson's face transformation:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Teatro La Fenice in Beijing: "Madama Butterfly"

When it was announced that Teatro La Fenice was going to perform "Madama Butterfly" in Beijing, I did not hesitate for a moment to go and watch it. The National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) was a beautiful framework for this new operatic production, a big theatre with a very good acoustic designed precisely for operatic performances .

I am just an Opera fan, I would say quite a rudimentary one, and this piece by Puccini is a "not to be missed" for any fan. Being a theater person as I am, a lover of the avant-garde and exploration, I have always been opposed to the limited “Theatrical” progress or evolution in this Performing Art, and many times I have been uncomfortable with some of the ways Opera creators use to modernize the genre. I admire those moments in the history of the Opera when novelty and change arrived: Haendel, Wagner “La Opera Realista”, the postmodernist, Stanislavski’s search for a real Opera actor, but I also love to keep many Operas as they were created and for what they were created. In the end, Opera is like Ballet, a codified genre that served the needs of one determined artistic time in history; opera allows us to see with its own codification an Ariosto represented almost as it was in past centuries, or repeating a Verdi Opera in a Venice premiere.

I was telling a friend, who likes to listen to Opera but not going to see it performed, that in fact my only love for Opera was listening to it "live" as a spectator, that is, listening to it live and not being afraid to bear loads of absurd situations and actions, terrible drama-scripts and interminable tedium only for the fact that music is there and I can listen to those voices in front of me. But deep in me I always keep the hope of seeing a show that makes me feel like I am really in front of a high quality stage event and makes me keep it forever in my memory. Hope is hope. Well, it was not the case with this production of La Fenice.

Putting aside the always high-quality voice and music in a company like this (1), which I enjoyed immensely, the production in general had, from my point of view, many problems: I felt that a too modern minimalist Scandinavian-Japanese style scenography (with use of perspective) just helped to throw away the "realistic" game one of the most classic operas by Puccini has (no bridge, no hill, no sun, no vegetation, but a very modern Japanese style room...); it helped also to miss a large part of the “melodrama” that gives to the history its grandeur, an absurd history itself, with an orgy of misconnected bizarre names and many very ignorant concepts about Oriental culture, but within a melodramatic codification that wakes the spectator’s passions up and makes him love and suffer with the main characters.

I have myself already adapted to the excesses of the costumes and makeup of Japanese male characters that appear in this Opera, it seems a non written rule in all productions. The current version was no exception, with ridiculous costumes with fantastic motifs taken from Kabuki or even Chinese Opera’s fantastic characters. I can’t imagine how Chinese spectators felt when they saw this kind of costumes, maybe they simply did not notice, maybe it was just another crazy-Western-thing.

This time, Butterfly, her body, was suffering from weakness, with what seemed Japanese coldness, her movements were kind of robotic (some of my old acting teachers would say “cutting off air”), and with only one scene, in my point of view, to remember: Butterfly decides to wait with her child for the arrival of Pinkerton, who was known to have returned to Japan: beautiful and soft music played, filled with a sense of loneliness and powerlessness, and the director made us feel an Oriental style suffering, with the characters seated on their knees behind a translucent blue screen, without any action, just waiting.

The end of the Opera had a curious change, which is important to mention: Who does not remember that Butterfly dies because she commits "harakiri" in an act of desperation, totally lost without a husband and giving her child over to him? Well, this time, the director Daniele Abbado, in an apparent breakdown of genius (or mulishness?) makes Butterfly die in what would be a heart attack... Yes. Come on! she dies because of the impression: The woman was going to stab herself with the knife when suddenly her child comes, she forgets the knife, sings her last aria, the child leaves the room, and she dies of despair in the middle of the scene of some sort of attack, then her body lies on the floor in a simile of a butterfly that has been nailed by a pin.

Why not let her die as she "should die"? Everyone loves the harakiri, who will remember an ending like this?... I mean, who will remember it well?

Anyway ... Here are two videos showing those two endings: the first one is the death of Butterfly by heart attack in the performance I saw but recorded in Italy a month ago; and the second one is a filmed version of the classic Opera with the usual death by harakiri.

I was lucky and found someone on Youtube who uploaded an almost complete performance, shown on a television broadcast, the same performance I had seen, but in Italy (the only changes are the singers). This is called a playlist, so we have here something like 13 videos that can be seen in the same window, one after another.

Playlist of videos of "Madama Butterfly" performance at Teatro La Fenice (2009)

(1) It was announced a Chinese great singer in one of the three performances, but in that I went to see played a singer from La Fenice's Company.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Dialogue" ( 对话 ) A dialogued choreography between an Irish and a Chinese.

Fearghus Ó Conchuir (the surname is that known Irish "O'Connor" but in different pronunciation) is an Irish (of course) dancer and choreographer who comes regularly to China to participate in dance exchanges with Chinese artists. Fearghus participated in a performance festival in Dashanzi 798 in 2007, and you can see part of their participation in a video of my post (on this Blog) on May 16th, 2008

Fearghus told me he had spent over two years doing an artistic dialogue, dancing, with Xiao Ke, his chinese partner in this choreography. This dialogue had its first public show in Dublin in July 2008, but the process of intercommunication between them did not end there. A month ago the Irish choreographer met again with her Chinese counterpart for a further work in this very personal dialogue and show it once again to the public. Fearghus Ó Conchúir (you can pronounce also write "O'Conchuir") got an interesting Blog, if you want to take a look... :

"Dialogue" or "对话" (duìhuá) was performed on June 1st, 2009 at Penghao Theatre in Beijing.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Grotowskian" Theatre in Iran. Tantalos and Afshin Ghaffarian's Blog.

All photos and videos in this post are published as a reference and are taken from Afshin Ghaffarian’s Blog and his Youtube channel at

"Medea", performed in Iran’s desert. Tantalos Group, 2008.

A few months ago I discovered the blog of Iranian actor Afshin Ghaffarian,, who published some posts showing videos and photographs of a performance called “Medea” by the group "Tantalos". This performance had taken place in the desert of Iran, and it was considered part of a “Grotowskian” theatrical tradition; the videos and photographs documenting it made me find recognizable images more of the style of some followers of the Polish teacher in his vision of the 60s and 70s, I believe, than the style that was developed in the last years of Grotowski’s life. Apparently "Tantalos" also had an exchange with a Mexican director, Raul Valles, who went to Iran with his group and ran a joint show, "Lemnos", with the same style (some videos in the
Blog document the fact).

I visited Iran in 2005 and traveled throughout the country for over two weeks but I could not find any expression of experimental or avant-garde theater; before arriving it was almost impossible to obtain any information about it, even through Internet. So, when I found Ghaffarian’s Blog and discovered a follower of Jerzy Grotowski in the land of the ayatollahs, it was a very strange surprise and it seemed reason enough (at least for me) to speak of it and, of course, to share it with all of you. I sent him an e-mail looking to establish contact and contemplated even the idea of returning to Iran and learning more about this unique (because of the context in which it is done) creative exploration. I hadn’t published any posts on the topic because I never had a reply to my e-mail and Afshin’s Blog had had no entries since October 2008. I decided to wait until he gave signs of life.

During that wait I spent some time reviewing his work, his photos, videos and texts ... I saw in him the dream of any artist discovering a new area of creativity, the singular excitement that the exploratory work of Jerzy Grotowski gives to every young player who enters it and identifies with him. I saw myself with that same excitement when I was discovering and working with the ‘Grotowskian training” in the early 90's in Escenología. I remember Jaime Soriano, my teacher, who had been Grotowski’s asistant in the early 80s, and how he transmitted to us the entire training explored by Grotowski and his actors, the way to create stories through a chain of physical actions; I also remembered the fascinating courses with the Potlach and with the Odin Teatret. I was living again the wonder of being inside a research association as Escenología was (and still is), and working for and with researcher Edgar Ceballos, who had direct and personal contact with Pino di Buduo, Eugenio Barba and of course Jerzy Grotowski. Jaime Soriano was a fervent believer in an actor’s technical work, he introduced us to this whole new wonderful mechanic of creative work, sharing secrets, experiences and his contacts with fellow performers and students who had been with him in Poland, in the United States or India. The discipline, creativeness and desire for knowledge I saw in this young Iranian actor simply became enviable.

Today I’m writing this post because I received a Youtube notification that Ghaffarian had a new video: Tantalos’s last production, "Strange but true", denominated as "Physical Dance Theater".

I have no idea why I didn’t received any reply to my previous e-mail but now he has given signs of creative life and now I have a pretext to share what I have read, seen and experienced with his blog, and of course to send a new e-mail to him.

It is clear from his comments and his training videos that Afshin Ghaffarian is an actor fully convinced of its technical work and his personal searching inside theater, a theater that offers him a philosophy of life, an evolutionary philosophy, and it forms its own creative universe, beyond the vision of theater as a commercial product or a product in the sense of artistic ability to achieve effects.

Although his 2008-Blog documents and information were an interesting reading and showed his first technical training, it was difficult to guess with so short videos and just some photographs the idea of the complete performance of “Medea”, and it is now with "Strange but true" that 9 minutes of continuous video give a clearer view of a Grotowskian style production in the Iran of 2009. An interesting vocal and body technical skill is confirmed by the two actors (Ghaffarian and Yaser Khaseb); you can notice a very intricate partnership on stage, with the use of rhythm and a complete physical intercommunication; there is of course a training behind it, and a strong reason for being on stage, creating. The music is very interesting and it seems it worked as conductor for the show. I do not seek either for a story or to understand the meaning, nor explanations or clarifications, it would be absurd.

I only talk about technical aspects. How would the appreciation of this performance be like inside a theatre? Well, there is no much to say about it, as a video viewer it is virtually impossible to compare my experience with seeing a live performance. I liked some images, I can differentiate some abilities and skills but not more.

But it does confirm my first observation, months ago looking at their documents, that the group would be more related to the exploration of the "theater laboratory" from the 60s and its productions of "El Principe Constante" and "Apocalypsis cum figuris" in searching for "the Holy Actor" and later for "the Theater of the Sources", than the “Objective Drama” or the “Art as Vehicle” explored during Grotowski’s last years in Pontedera, Italy.

For now, I enjoy encountering the work of Tantalos and Afshin Ghaffarian, and being moved by the images and sounds of this performance; we will have time to talk and comment about it later.

I promise more posts about Ghaffarian and Tantalos; I’m more than anxious to keep myself working on it, but I also want to complete the fascinating image of the opposition between a world enveloped in politics and religion as Iran is and a world of a group of young artists looking for a free and metaphysical theater.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Leni Riefenstahl, dancer, and her "Tanz an das Meer" (Dance to the Sea)

All photographs and videos appearing in this post were obtained from the Internet, their use is informative and referential.

"The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a film was Riefenstahl’s dance on the sea in The Holy Mountain"
Adolf Hitler (1)

Video: "Tanz an das Meer" (Dance to the sea). Leni Riefenstahl in "The Holy Mountain" (1926)

As a child I learned that the scenes of the Nazi era I watched had been created by one woman,, Leni Riefenstahl. I used my memory to store all information about Germany because there was a “mythical” origin of my father’s family: in the early 20th Century my great-grandfather had been part of a wave of German immigrants who had arrived to Mexico looking for fortune and lands (and they got them). Not much more came with the myth about the original land of my ancestors so, 70 years later, any images or tales close to the German idea were essential to recognize my past, and scenes from a mythical Germany, Nazi or not, came with the shots of Leni Riefenstahl. With time I learned of the German defeat in World War II, and I also learned that the artist, the woman who created those images stored in my memory, was banned from the art world due to her contact with Hitler. I could not watch any of her movies because they were banned, a few notes about her appeared in books, always demonizing her for her Nazi past but giving her some importance for the history of world cinema (2). Time and the determination of this wonderful creator blurred those vetoes and bans, and although it was after her death (in 2003, she was 101 years old), Leni and I finally were able to meet (3).

In the 90’s Leni Riefenstahl’s memoirs were translated into Spanish (Lumen published the first edition in 1991); when I went to get the book I found that it had been withdrawn from all bookstores within less than a month. I wrote “withdrawn” because I could not imagine that in Mexico a book of memoirs by a filmmaker "unknown" to most Mexicans, except those inside the film industry, could be sold out before a month. The book had been withdrawn because it had not sold, as simple as that.

It was in 2006 in Beijing that I found, at the legendary pirate DVD shop in the area of Sanlitun, a version of the Japanese edition of her complete works plus some documentaries about her life and latest works; aside from some problems due to the copy quality, the collection was an amazing source about her film production and a part of her life.

I would get to know the other part of that attractive life in my last visit to New York in January 2009, where I discovered her memoirs at the so called "world's largest bookstore", the Strand Book Store, a warehouse full of second hand books, a delight for any enthusiast of reading! This book was the first American edition, published in 1993: "Leni Riefenstahl. A Memoir. "

Those memoirs are a real testament that try to clarify any misunderstanding, legends and lies that have covered the life of this creative filmmaker since her first contact with the most powerful man in the world for 15 years before WW2. Without mentioning my morbid impulse for knowing Riefenstahl’s version of the story, reading this book was a fascinating encounter with the Cinema (edition secrets, lighting and directing), and also an encounter with the history, of the twentieth century; not always do we have at hand those rarely recognizable details from the viewpoint of the "losers" of the great war. It would have been a different story for Leni Riefenstahl’s life and fame had Germany won.

Yes, I discovered Riefenstahl, the film director, but also the photographer, the traveler and, what made me write this post, the dancer.

Beginning her career as a dancer, Leni was introduced to Cinema through dance itself, and her dance was what attracted Hitler. Even when she began late in the world of dance (her studies began when she was 19), she got a certain degree of fame, giving recitals in several parts of Europe with some success, but she remained "isolated" from events of first order in the time. In the history of European dance there are no words for Riefenstahl the dancer (there are also not many words for the stars of the German Ballet who decided to stay and be sponsored by the German Ministry of Culture). However she had contact with theatre director Max Reinhardt, the owner of what was considered the most important theatre in Germany at the time, the "Deutsche Theater" (4); Reinhardt hired Riefenstahl to work dancing "solos " at his theatre; after her successful season he wanted her for his version of Kleist’s Pentesilea (it never happened). And with this pace, dancing with a very personal charm and attitude, she touched Hitler.

She writes in her memoirs how Wilhelm Brückner, Hitler's secretary, contacted her because the Führer wanted to meet her, and according to Riefenstahl and paraphrasing Brückner, Hitler said:

"The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a film is Riefenstahl’s dance on the sea in The Holy mountain" (see note 1)

"The dance to the sea" is a sequence in the film "The Holy Mountain (Der Heilige Berg) directed by Arnold Fanck (5). In it we see Riefenstahl dancing what we would call a 'modern dance choreography’, a kind of dance closer to the style of Isadora Duncan than the expressionist style that was arising in those years in Germany. An ensemble of modern dance that reinterpreted the so believed Greek Classical Dance, with movements that offered and air of freedom and idealism, all with a background of wonderful and powerful images of German sea landscapes. ¿What else could attract the attention of a political leader who loved the idea of a classical revival, this time in art and German culture?

Leni Riefenstahl writes in her memoirs a depiction of that first meeting with Adolf Hitler:

"We walked on the beach, Brückner and Schaub following a short distance behind. The sea was calm and the air unseasonably warm. Hitler looked out the horizon through his binoculars and told me about the various types of boats he could see, and I had the impression that he was quite knowledgeable about them. Soon, however, he began to speak about my films. He made enthusiastic comments about my “dance on the sea” and told me he had seen all the films I had appeared in.(6)

This is a meeting of giants in human history, and an original story was weaving underneath them: he loved her because of her creative work (perhaps because she was strong and beautiful also) and she was astonished by the personality of that man (she never denied it).

In the same film, The Holy Mountain, there are three other dances, "Tanz an das Meer" this time on stage, "Traumblüte" (Dream blossom), and “Hingebung” (Devotion), these three sequences are very interesting documents on a style of dancing and performing in that Germany of 1920s of last century.

A knee injury forced her to work entirely in acting and directing movies, and dance recitals were forgot forever (7); a fortunate decision, at least for the history of cinema.

What would have happened to Leni Riefenstahl if she had continued dancing? Maybe not much, prone to injuries her career would definitely end in a few years; she had no evolving dancer body, her movements, except for some lucky moments, were generally heavy and without agility. We can attribute these points of view to the film material of the time, but I really think that we have an example of a successful career as a dancer due to a great personality rather to technical ability and creative skills. The filmed scenes of dancing have a big impact on those who observed, but we have to consider that the beauty of this "Dance on the Sea" is a combination of edition skills and camera games with the force, true, emanating from Leni’s dance. It is a mythical dance appearing shortly before some of the most convulsive years of the history of mankind.

The creativity, beauty and character of Leni Riefenstahl, dancing perfectly or not, arrived to hit the history of Art.

(1) Adolf Hitler's remarks. Leni Riefenstahl paraphrasing Wilhelm Brückner, Hitler's assistant. Leni Riefenstahl, A Memoir. St. Martin's Press. New York, USA, 1993.
(2) "Olympia" could be seen in “movie clubs” and some public institutions, but never during my childhood and adolescence. Their shots could be seen separately in news, especially when referring about the Olympics and the Nazi era.
(3) Leni Riefenstahl worked photographing and filming African tribes and, at the end of her life, filming corals in the Caribbean and the Maldives.
(4) Reinhardt, a Jew himself, had to leave Germany during the Nazi persecution.
(5) "Der Heilige Berg" 1926. The sequence is called in German "Tanz an das Meer”.
(6) Leni Riefenstahl, A Memoir. St. Martin's Press. New York, USA, 1993.
(7) Her last scene as a dancer was in her film "Tiefland”, where she dances a flamenco choreography.

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