Thursday, February 25, 2010

Gabor Dance Performance at Ubud Royal Palace, Bali.

Gabor Dance Performance

A presentation dance, a welcoming dance, an offering dance... All of this can be a Balinese Gabor Dance.

Covarrubias didn't mention it in his book Island of Bali, and it seems that the dance was added to commercial performances, festivities and rituals after Covarrubias' presence in the island. Today it is usually performed by 6 young women at the beginning of any spectacle of Balinese dances for tourists (as it was my case the 20th of July 2009 at Ubud Royal Palace Stage), and it is continually used as a offering ritual dance in temples festivities.

The performance at Ubud Royal Palace Stage, presented by Sadha Budaya Troupe, had 9 different dances, with Legong as main dance (that night the production was named "Legong Dance"), and the Gabor dance was the first performed.

You should be aware that Balinese Dance's hands and eyes movement and postures you will see in the next photographs and videos don't "speak a language", as a Balinese writer says:

"Balinese hand gestures movements are not storytelling movements as in East Indian dance; rather they embellish the expression of the body." (1)

Hand gestures also can emphasize emotions, and postures of the body come from basic aesthetic principles of body movement and work for increasing its image projection on the stage. In this sense, Balinese dance is similar to our Ballet, with the exception that Balinese Performing Arts are almost always linked to religious ceremonies.

What is important is the special quality of the performer which can transport the audience to a different sphere, the Balinese term known as taksu or spiritual charisma. We'll keep talking about these topics and more, especially with our post of Legong Dance and the postures Covarrubias drew about its choreographies. (2)

Slideshow of Gabor Dance Performance at Ubud Royal Palace (2009)

This is what the program said about our first dance:

"Gabor / Welcome Dance

Panyembrahma is the presentation of an offering in the form of a ritual dance. The dance symbolizes the joyful reception of the Gods who attend a temple festival. Recently, Panyembrahma has been used to open the Legong Dance. It is performed by a group of young girls making identical movements. Toward the end of the dance the dancers make praying gestures and throw flowers to the audience as a welcome and a blessing."

It is a 10-minute choreography, so you can enjoy the video in one sitting in front of the screen.

Gabor dance performance at Ubud Royal Place (2009)

(1) Wayang Dibia and Rucina Ballinger. Balinese Dance, Drama and Music. Periplus Editions. Singapore, 2004.

(2) Miguel Covarrubias. Island of Bali. Periplus Classics. Periplus Editions. Singapore, 2007.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Approaching to the Origin of Chinese Puppets and Chinese Actor Technique: Chinese Funerary Figures.

It is said (people who knows about it) that in the origin of the acting technique in Chinese Opera it was the way puppets were manipulated to become alive. Following strict patterns from ancient rituals to convert a dead matter in a live body, in the same way the actor’s body becomes alive in a new one, through training, in a theatrical body. That’s a fascinating subject but today I want to go further back in history. It is also said (the same savants) that the origin of the Puppet Theatre technique of movement it was inside of the ancient tombs of China, in the technique mortuary figures were made for. Human-like figures, made of wood, paper, bronze or clay, which must have had movement to recall and to reinforce life to the dead once installed in the other world; and the techniques to provoke movement in those mortuary figures were used later to create a Puppet performance outside the tomb (and at the end the actor’s performance as well).

I knew a little bit about this ideas before arriving to China but it was there, in 2005, when reading Jo Riley's book Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance (1) that I answered many of my questions about Beijing Opera Actor’s movement technique and I could compare them with what I was seeing in every performance I attended in China. Of course, and I must say it, this doesn’t mean that a common modern Chinese Opera actor is aware of this origin, or any other, in his training, he learns from a tradition, most of it imitation, and in that kind of education many questions are not answered and origins usually are covered with mystic and fantasy. That’s then part of a researcher’s field or maybe of a curious observer.

What it’s fantastic in all this story is the origin of all of it, apparently very simple human-like figures buried in a tomb, functioning as puppets for the dead, as a company for the other world, recreating life and movement in a subterranean stage-world. It wasn’t till the last century that Chinese discovered the figures and researchers could elaborate a reasonable discourse about their function in funerary rituals, keeping the idea of being alive through reaching the movement inside the tomb. So, many of these figures were made with moveable arms and jaw, painted with vivid colors for the eyes and signs referring to muscular gestures, and in some tombs hanging in a position that could keep them in movement thanks to the air (as a common puppet); all of these figures imbued of substances linked to the fluids of life (related to the Chinese terms of Qi and Shen), blood of course and several mineral powders.

Riley makes for us a fantastic parallelism of the ways those figures were made with the objective of becoming alive and how Chinese Opera training technique is structured to create the actor’s new body for the stage. In the beginning puppets were a medium for exorcism in the underworld while actors were exorcists in this our "real" world; both should follow the same patterns, being related to the same materials, and of course the same technique to become alive.

I didn’t find any of these figures inside China, only because I didn’t have the opportunity to travel where they were in exhibition, but surprisingly I found two of them during my visit to San Francisco in February 2009, inside the very well known Asian Art Museum; these figures are made of clay and their arms, once moveable parts, are missing. The Museum information said they were more than 2000 years old.

Video: Mortuary Figures in China (SF Asian Museum)

The next photographs of mortuary figures come from Jo Riley’s book, from a Principal's tomb in Mawangdui, just 40 kilometers from Changsha, in Hunan Province. The Tomb dates to approximately 168 B.C.

Finally here you see two photographs with more mortuary figures taken from an Internet site: one of them, from the Mawangdui tombs, shows a group of musicians with their instruments (it is not dated), and the other presents an almost recognizable modern puppet (but still a funerary figure), dating from Liao Dynasty (Between 907 and 1225 A.D.).

As usual, I’m happy to expose information and documents, then, the rest, if up to you. See you next time.

(1) Jo Riley "Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance" Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1997.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Legong Dance Lessons at ARMA in UBUD, and some thoughts about Theatre Schools in China and Bali.

When I was a child, there was a lot of possibilities for fun in the field of art, but only two were taken as seriously as the beginning of a career in piano or ballet. Those were not entertaining games where doodling or playing with dough became art, there you were going to study something with discipline, you would use a technique, a particular technique, to advance, a technique which, if you didn't follow within certain parameters, you could be rejected . So, not wanting to be a pianist or a dancer I amused myself by painting and wanting to be an actor, pretending to direct orchestras, writing melodramatic dialogues and organising theatre plays among my friends say, at a very high level of improvisation and fun.

It was not until my teens that, when beginning professional acting studies, I discovered I could have started my acting career in my childhood, with the same seriousness as that in ballet or music, but not in my country but in the Far East. The stories of the wonderful Chinese and Japanese players came to my ears: great actors who began their studies at 6 or 7 years old and spent 10 or 15 years working with their masters to attain their first important role in a production; actors who learned a physical and vocal technique not through exercises as such, but through the "imitation" of their master (1). And so I also discovered how this educational process in the performing arts was a common situation in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and, of course, Bali, the theatre island or, rather, the island of the performing arts.

China showed me the first live examples of these "serious" schools for children where there is no way to achieve perfection but through discipline and following for years a rigorous technique of imitation and repetition from the beginning. I could observe and see not only how these children were being educated, but also their results on stage after 8 to 10 years of study (before they began their professional life), and then I could understand why the technical grandeur of these actors in their youth (in their twenties and thirties). In the same way and through the direct testimony of young artists who had just entered the professional world I could hear their questioning of such a rigorous and cruel education which, in today's China, would give them a profession would that barely cover for their minimum financial needs when, in the past, it would have given them wealth and fame (2).

(click to go to the video)

(click on the link above to go to the main page of Reuters)

Unlike their Japanese and Chinese counterparts, Balinese artistic education is much more relaxed; the same principles of imitation, repetition and practice are followed, as well as the beginning of education from early childhood, but not so the tremendous discipline demands (like boarding-schools, between 10 and 12 hours of practical study, etc.) nor the violence by which several great masters of the north are known. In Bali itself children are still taught to dance and act for the Balinese, for their religious festivals and temples, for their entertainment and for the tourists who support the economy of the island, all in the same way as Miguel Covarrubias observed and filmed in the 30s of the last century.

Learning in the Balinese performing arts is a learning based on physical contact. Most of the dancers-actors begin their learning between 6 and 7 years old. At first, the student stands behind the teacher and imitates his movements. The teacher sings the melody of the dance, or uses a boom box, and follows the beat of the gongs marking a pace and giving directions based on that rhythm. Once the choreography is learned in its basic, the teacher changes and moves on par with the student, behind him, and manages the student body like a puppet. This allows the student to feel exactly the inclinations and movements of the wrists and elbows, plus the position of the back and hip. No mirrors are used, so the student follows by imitating the teacher or the teacher moves the student's body to show through physical contact the total energy and rhythm to be danced. With his voice, if that's the case, the student imitates the singing or recitation of the teacher.

In 1930 Covarrubias filmed a couple of girls learning and dancing together with their teachers. In the tiny scene (20 seconds) we can see direct imitation where the teacher handles the trainee like a puppet, and repetition is a component of teaching (the narrator's voice was added in 2004 and is not part of the original).

In the following two pictures we see I Ketut Mario, one of the greatest Balinese dancers and choreographers from the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, and I Nyoman Kakul, in 1974, teaching their respective students. It is very clear how physical contact between teacher and pupil happens.

In my last visit to Bali in July 2009 I photographed and video-recorded a class at the ARMA Museum in Ubud, where the teacher, Nyoman Suastini, was working on a Legong Kratong piece with a group of girls; once again we note here the continuous practice, repetition and imitation of the movements of the teacher.

I do not pretend to explain the education in oriental performing arts, but to stress, by exposing them in a document, some of their essential characteristics and thus bring the reader of this blog closer to them. The differences with my personal educational experience in the field of acting are extreme, and I'm sure they are so when it comes to the educational experience of actors in most of the Western world, hence the importance of their presenting as a document. Once exposed we can pose questions, with knowledge, to our educational systems for theater, and propose possible changes to them, new avenues of exploration, or simply an enjoyment of what seems part of the weird and unknown.

Following with my experience in Bali, I can now turn to the surprising dances that I witnessed at the Royal Palace of Ubud.

(1) The film "Farewell My Concubine" has a very long and accurate sequence on the demanding education in Peking Opera in the late nineteenth century. In the following link you can see some images of drawings that show a school of Peking opera in the early twentieth century:

(2) This is one of the greatest cultural challenges in today's China, the glorification of western entertainment culture at the expense of their traditional culture. (Until the late forties of the twentieth century Peking opera was as commercial as any other current entertainment, but at present it is only a theatrical vestige of the past).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Two street experiences with Tap dance and one quotation from a great Tap dancer, Savion Glover.

Tap dancer at Powel Station, San Francisco. 2009.

I’ve seen people dancing Tap in many occasions in my life, most of them in films, some, live, as spectator and as part of musicals I was working in, never dancing myself though, but enjoying watching it and in some occasions, very especial occasions (I’ll talk about them later), feeling the freedom coming from the dancer with that remarkable sound and that trembling in the floor those foot movements provoke when are very well performed, and on the street.

With the time and studying about acting techniques, and different ways of body speaking on stage, when Tap appeared again in my life I had to stop a little bit more than enjoying it, and thinking more about that strange feeling it has always given to me when is performed amazingly, a Jazz-like feeling of freedom and beauty.

You can speak, have a dialogue or singing in a group only by dancing Tap, and that is absolutely amazing.

But, how do they do it? I accept it, have no idea. It remains a mystery for me.

An flamenco aficionado performing at Teatro La Zaranda, Jeréz de la Frontera, Spain. 1993.

As Flamenco or Irish traditional dance do Tap dancers move spectators making hearts beat at their foot's rhythm. Strangely, the places I have experienced this feeling were not on a theatrical stage but on the street. That doesn’t mean nothing, only a coincidence; what I’m looking for is how to explain better my experience, how to share it with more than “my feeling” of it.

I remember two moments as spectator of a Tap dance performance on the street:

My first experience was when visiting London in 2007, on the Thames riverside (not far of Shakespeare’s The Globe) I found I guy dancing Tap on the street; he was performing on a simple piece of wood, with a colleague musician accompanying him drumming with a box as his instrument... Not talking about the quality of his technique (I guess he was a good dancer) I can only referrer to its dancing as the same unmistakable feeling of freedom and touch-sensitive experience I talked before; its sound of his steps echoed everywhere, including my body. I was seeing a man in ecstasy, impossible to know if was caused by the dance or because some drugs in him; anyway, his feeling was contagious. You can see him in the video I posted here.

Video of Tap dancer performing on Thames riverside, London. 2007.

My second experience, 2 years later, was in San Francisco. A group of street Tap dancers where performing for tourists at the corner of Market street and Powel Streetcars Station. They were happy performing there, having fun while dancing, and we tourists were happy with them. In this occasion dance dialogue and chorus was what I enjoyed most.

Video of Tap dancers performing at Market street. San Francisco, 2009.

For sure many of you have had many great experiences with different kind of dances (street dances or very high professional), having those impressions I’ve been talking here, but do any of us can talk with knowledge about the reasons, about how they work and how they provoke on us this feeling?

Reading some dance anecdotes compiled by Mindy Aloff (1) I found a passage where Savion Glover talks about Tap, its rules and how they usually perform. It doesn’t explain everything but it is a word coming from whom is considered one of the most important Tap dancers in history and heir of a long American tradition of Tap dancers not exactly educated in a school but on the street :

Honi (Coles) and Buster Brown and Lon Chaney and Jimmy Slyde and Ralph Brown and Chuck Green -they thought me the rules. And you have to know about the rules, because that’s respecting the tradition. Take the hoofer’s line for instance (2). That’s where everybody’s doing a paddle and roll and one dancer at a time takes a solo turn. There are rules, but the rules are unspoken, almost secret. The main thing is, you got to finish the phrase of the man before you, finish it and then add something of your own. And if you don’t, you’ll be cut by the next man, embarrassed, you’ll have your own step flipped back on you. You can spit on someone through the dance. You can murder someone through the dance. Dancers do that all the time. It’s part of our ritual to be competitive. And you know when you’ve been cut. It’s terrible, especially if a lot of people recognize it. If it’s like that, you’ll get everybody going: “Oooooooooo...”

So, as Jazz does, Tap "hoofers" got its own secrets rules, maybe I was not mistaken my perception coming from I was feeling about this kind of freedom while performing tap on the street, they are in a dramatic dialogue, taking risks and having fun. After these words I can watch again those videos I posted, and see one more showing Glover dancing with a fantastic group of dancers at the White House in 1998, and then having new approaches to this amazing art.

Video of Savion Glover at The White House in 1998

(1) Dance Anecdotes. Compiled by Mindy Aloff. Page 77 “The Rules

(2) It is not an academic forum but it is a forum where people interested in Tap think about the meaning of "hoofer":

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"Wisdom of Ages" First Nations Stories performed by Shannon Thunderbird

Last Sunday, February 7th, I saw a performance (for children) of Canadian First Nations stories by Shannon Thunderbird, "Wisdom of Ages". Mrs. Thunderbird is a Coast Tsimshian First Nations singer and storyteller.

When I arrived at Hart House in the University of Toronto (1) I didn't know about "Wisdom of Ages" performance, it was walking inside the main building, sightseeing, that I found the performance was going to take place at one of those many big rooms Hart House has for studies and workshops, so stopped for a glance and enjoyed it.

The first things that caught my attention was Mrs. Thunderbird costume and drum. Over simple common clothes she was wearing a light brown leather jacket with some aboriginal motives, all colorfoul, brilliant and very singular each of them; while she was walking and telling her stories those motives were walking with her catching our attention all the time. On her side, on the floor, a drum with a colorfoul eagle, just there almost all the time but a very powerful image.

Photographs of Shannon Thunderbird's costume and drum

There were two short educational stories, one from a group of stories called Wolf teachings, The Story of the Fox, and other mythic one describing why First Nations People call to North America "The Turtle Island". Simple and easy stories told in a simple way as any storyteller does, only animated with animal skins, a fox and a turtle. Children were happy and very attentive in general but we, adults, didn't loose any of her words and movements.

Mrs. Thunderbird telling stories

A kind of workshop-one session of songs a music was the final part of the performance, Mrs. Thunderbird showed us how to play with drums and how to sing aboriginal songs (one part in original language and one part in English) and all the small audience sang and play in a very very good mood (you can see it in the video).

Singing and drumming aboriginal music

It was a very nice surprise, I learned like a a child, and for a moment I was one of them, listening to that fantastic old lady and watching fascinated her jacket's motives, her painted and carved instruments, and catching through her words all this different First Nations universe.

(1) Hart House is a student house where sports and culture are learned and practiced. It is a culture centre in downtown Toronto. Its beautiful building was constructed in 1919 and designed by architect Henry Sproatt.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Peter Brook and Robert Wilson. Two masters in rehearsals.

Quickly I'm sharing two notes appeared at the BBC news page.

First, a video, showing 85 years old Peter Brook rehearsing and so making his return to British stage with a performance very much in the style he has worked for years; here's the link:

Second, three AFP photographs (in montage) of images from Robert Wilson last production in Taiwan. The BBC's note says:

"Actors rehearse for the new theatre production of The Grand Voyage in Taiwan. The show, directed and designed by Robert Wilson, creates a synthesis of theatre, percussion, martial arts and meditation. It was inspired by the story of mariner adventurer Admiral Zheng."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Roadkill", a Dance Theatre Performance by Australian Splintergroup at Enwave Theatre in Toronto

Last evening went to see "Roadkill" by Australian Dance Theatre Company Splintergroup at Enwave Theatre, in Toronto. And I'm happy, it was a performance full of suspense, darkness and energy, where fears of the unknown become movement around a car on the road.

Cameras are not allowed inside the theatre, so no photos of the performance itself, but you can see the trailer Splintergroup uploaded in Youtube:

Being on the road, in the middle of nowhere, with a broken car... It seems a perfect extreme situation for a drama, in theatre or in dance, and it was indeed for Roadkill. Splintergroup choreographed (1) simply life and simply bodies going to and coming from the magical universe of fears and unknown realities in Australian outback. I loved those so many ways to narrate with images and sounds; with darkness as a frame. Bodies moved in different realities and everyone of those realities was concrete, touchable for us, spectators. I didn't was scared, I was amazed by entering to them in those worlds of nothing and fading. Two young men (Gavin Weber and Gryson Millwood), one young woman (Gabrielle Nankivell), without names, living interminable terrible moments that maybe never happened.

Of course "Roadkill" is more than a choreography, it is a full representational act of our time.

One thing I love of Australian Performing Arts is that they seem not to have any tradition to follow, as if Australians were born in Performing Arts at the end of 20th century; they don't follow any narrative or style older than those appeared around 70s, when Postmodernism brought a new blow of light to a tired Western theatre.

If you want to listen what they think about their show:

(1) The choreographers are Gavin Webber, Grayson Millwood and Sarah-Jayne Howard.

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