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 ...

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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.

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