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.

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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.

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