Brazilian Lace in Ann Hamilton’s “habitus” Exhibition (translation)

Lace making is a very old art that was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. Portugal is still known for its lace. In this tradition it is made with needles and with bobbins. Particularly in the Northeast of Brazil and in Santa Catarina, in the south, the lace-making tradition has been maintained.An example of bobbin lace making by Rosilândia Melo from Ilha Grande:

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You can imagine my surprise when I saw lace samples from Brazil in Ann Hamilton’s habitus, a current exhibition in Philadelphia. The lace samples were located on the 8th floor of the Fabric Workshop and Museum with some other common objects made of texiles, like dolls, blankets and samplers.

Also in the exhibition are “commonplace books,” photos of textiles, and other cloth objects.  These books also originated in Europe. People would collect sentences from books they had read, recipes, newspapers and magazine articles and put them in the commonplace books. Quite unique to the habitus exhibition, was the public participation. The public was invited to contribute their “common sentences” by internet. Anybody could submit a text about clothing or textiles (figurative or literal) . They selected some of the submissions and these were reprinted and made available on sheets of paper on the 2nd and 8th floors. The public is able to read them in the museum and take them home.

The exhibition links text and textile in the Fabric Workshop and Museum, but there is another part of it on the Delaware waterfront at Municipal Pier 9. There is a huge installation that is so creative and fun. Ann hung several large cloths in the warehouse. The public can make the cloths move by pulling on ropes. The ropes go through pulleys which are also connected to some apararatus that produce sound. In addition, there is other performance art in the space that includes spinning thread and unraveling a sweater. Lastly, the text is again joined with cloth by way of a large poem that is projected in the space. The poem is also exhibited in the Fabric Workshop and Museum in another format.

The artist, Ann Hamilton, always has been interested in spinning, weaving and textiles. With enthusiasm she speaks about these arts, that some have referred to as “crafts” throughout her career. Nevertheless, the artist has exhibited many important works: she represented the United States in the São Paulo Bienal in 1991 and in Venice in 1999. She has won various national art prizes and she teaches art at Ohio State University.

The exhibit, habitus, is a the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia from September 17, 2016 to January 8, 2017. The Municipal Pier 9 installation is from September 6, 2016 to October 10, 2016. For more information, www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org

 

The Duende Cycle’s BODAS DE SANGRE: ¡Un orgullo hispano!

The Duende Cycle’s BODAS DE SANGRE: ¡Un orgullo hispano!

With great admiration I write about the  Duende Cycle’s performance of Bodas de sangre in the 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. I attended on Sunday, September 18, 2016. This scrappy company  recreated and updated Federico García Lorca’s masterpiece and it worked! The concept was created by Eliana Fabiyi and Tanaquil Márquez. Tanaquil Márquez also directed. The nimble cast really brought the play to life and they received a standing ovation at the end.   Lorca’s language is not as poetic and strictly in verse as that of Calderón de la Barca, from the Golden Age, but its structure and Spanish language are still much more formal than what most Spanish speakers in the United States normally speak.  Lorca called it “Poema trágico en tres actos y siete cuadros.” To juggle two languages (English and Spanish) in one production, is another feat. The cast, director and acting coach, Eliana Tabiyi, (also the sound designer) should be commended for the successful rendering of this very important and challenging script.

When I arrived at the Asian Arts Initiative, we were directed to stand and wait for the elevator. It took some time to get up to the third floor because the elevator only held 6 people. At the ticket table they ran out of programs, and we were informed the subtitles were broken. Since I am a fluent Spanish speaker I was not concerned about the subtitles. Before the show started they did manage to give out more programs. The program is quite special–it is made like a wedding invitation, which is very appropriate for Blood Wedding.  This was one of many details that added authenticity and at the same time uniqueness to this production.

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The original play is set in Spain, in a region with vineyards. This current production takes place in Miami. Although we tend to think of California as our wine country, there are quite a few vineyards in Florida. The set included a table and chairs with dominoes, which is very Cuban and Cuban-American. There were group dances–in the beginning to latin music–including hits by Gente de Zona, “La gozadera” (an extremely popular Cuban group)  and Marc Anthony’s “Vivir mi vida.” During the wedding, there is another dance to “Despierte la novia”, which is sung acapella except for bongo drums. It was tinged with a flamenco rhythm. Lorca is so associated with the gypsy culture, that this scene seemed like an homage, a showing of deep respect for the original play and its author.

The set is simple, but extremely effective. The mound of dirt heightened the earthiness, the very visceral feeling of Lorca’s tragedies. It was also a way to create space in a very small area and bring nature indoors. It made sense when La madre comes down from the dirt hill after visiting the graves of her husband and son. It made the swamp believable in the third act as well. Lighting and costumes by Angela Coleman and David Reece Hutchison, were also appropriate and helped flesh out the different locations and characters.

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Every actor in the ensemble was strong. Some of the actors convincingly interpreted more than one character.  I especially liked the contrast between La Madre, Yajaira Paredes and La Novia, Aneesa Neibauer. Ms. Parades is obviously a veteran actor, and she has an electric stage presence. She played the mother as a sturdy matriarch. A suffering widow, yet one who maintains her dignity and commands respect. At the other extreme, La Novia, was a fragile young woman. Ms. Neibauer’s portrayal was very natural. This simple and naive bride made you feel sorry for her and believe it wasn’t her fault–when it fact she decided to leave her husband and run away with Leonardo. She could have not married him or she could have resisted Leonardo. I also must mention the fight between Leonardo, (Sidney Gantt) and El novio (Josh Tewell). It was SO realistic. I was expecting that one would really be stabbed and blood would spill. (Of course I breathed a sigh of relief when both actors stood up and took their bows at the end!)

Duende in Spanish has several meanings, but one of them is to have a superior talent, to represent the authentic soul of art.   Duende Cycle showed that in Bodas de sangre. I look forward to their next offering!

Check out their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TheDuendeCycle/

 

 

Rendas do Brasil na exibição de Ann Hamilton, “habitus”

Rendas do Brasil na exibição de Ann Hamilton, “habitus”

Fabricar rendas é uma arte muito velha que foi levada ao Brasil pelos portugueses. Ainda hoje em Portugal fazem rendas e são muito cobiçadas. Fazem com agulhas e bilros. No nordeste do Brasil e em Santa Catarina mantêm essa tradição de fabricar rendas. Um exemplo de umas rendas de bilros de Rosilândia Melo de Ilha Grande: (wikipedia commons)

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Imagine a minha surpresa quando vi rendas do Brasil na exibição “habitus” de Ann Hamilton. As rendas estavam colocadas no oitavo andar do Fabric Workshop and Museum com outros objetos comuns e de tela, como bonecas, cobertores, e mostras de tela.

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(Photo by Celeste Dolores)

Também nesta exibição acham-se “commonplace books” , fotos de telas e outros objetos de tela. Estes livros têm origem também na Europa. As pessoas colecionavam sentenças de livros que leram, receitas, artigos do jornal e das revistas nestes livros. O que fizeram de especial para esta mostra, foi convidar o público para entregar suas sentenças comuns por internet para contribuir. Quer dizer, qualquer pessoa podia mandar algum texto sobre uma tela por internet. Eles selecionavam alguns e esses textos foram impressos e disponibilizados na segundo e oitavo andares para o publico ler e levar para casa.

A exibição junta texto e tela no Fabric Workshop Museum, mas tem outra parte na beira do Rio Delaware. No Municipel Pier 9 há uma instalação grande que é muito criativa e divertida. Ann pendurou varias telas enormes num armazém. O público pode fazer que as telas movam e emitem sons. Além disso, tem “performance art” de fiar e de desfazer um agasalho. Finalmente junta o texto com a tela com um grande poema projetado—este poema também aparece no Fabric Workshop and Museum.

A artista, Ann Hamilton, sempre estava interessada no fiar e na tela. Com entusiasmo ela fala sobre estas artes, que alguns têm considerado “artesanato” durante sua carreira. Mesmo assim a artista mostrou muitas obras importantes, e até representou os Estados Unidos no Bienal de São Paulo de 1991, e o de Venezia em 1999. Ganhou vários prêmios de arte nacionais e ensina arte na Universidade de Ohio. A mostra, habitus, fica no Fabric Workhop and Museum na Filadélfia desde o 17 de setembro de 2016 ate o 8 de janeiro de 2017. A instalação no Municipal Pier 9 fica entre o 6 de setembro de 2016 ate o 10 de outubro. Para mais informação: http://fabricworkshopandmuseum.org/

 

“Where is home?”  Children of the Cuban Revolution in the play, “ONE DAY OLD”

“Where is home?” Children of the Cuban Revolution in the play, “ONE DAY OLD”

Imagine you are a child or a teenager put on an airplane to another country. Your parents and relatives are not going with you. You do not know the language of the country you are going to. Probably you’ve never even been out of your country, perhaps not even to the other side of the island. Most likely you’ve never been on an airplane before either. You don’t really understand what’s going on in your country (neither do your parents–just that they don’t think the current leadership is going to do what they thought) and expect it to be over soon and you will be back home. But it isn’t. In fact, it still isn’t over for many, as the Cuban Revolution lives on and Fidel Castro, the original “revolutionary leader” ceded power to his brother Raúl.  But you are only 8 or 9, or 12 or 15, at the time when you leave the island. You just want to know: When am I going  home? Where is Mom? Dad? Where are my other brothers and sisters?  Why can’t I stay here anymore? Where is here? Where is home?

Now that the  United States’ policy towards Cuba is opening up, the play “One Day Old” by Iraisa Ann Reilly, comes at an opportune time. This play is part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2016, and was directed by José M. Avilés. The political aspect floats in the background as we watch Wendy, Pedro, Gancho, Tío Juan and others try to make sense of the time shortly after 1959, the “triunfo de la revolución” ( the triumph of the revolution as it is called in Cuba). I attended the preview on September 8, 2016 and was very impressed with the play and the acting.

First off, the play is about the Operación Pedro Pan, which helped over 14,000 children leave Cuba on commercial flights from Cuba to the U.S.A.  from  1960-62, and then later through third countries, such as Spain and Mexico. According to the Operación Pedro Pan website,  many of these children were from middle class and poor families. The children of the wealthy were able to leave with their families and were already installed in the United States. Father Bryan Walsh, a Catholic priest from Miami and Catholic Charities, arranged visas for the children and put them up in camps, orphanages, with relatives or in other private homes.

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One Day Old is not explicitly about the Cuban Revolution though, nor is it about the parents and why they did what they did. It is about the children who came to the United States, and what they went through. One Day Old is a very interesting and creative way of depicting the feelings and the experiences of these young people, as well as descendents of these children, when they look back on what they have been told by their parents and grandparents. Ms. Reilly has written a script that is at times humorous, and at other times, sad. We feel for these children and we want to know will they find what they are looking for, what is missing in their lives. Most importantly, will they ever get home?

You might have noticed that the title of the organization that lifted the children out of Cuba has been named “Operation Peter Pan.” One Day Old exploits this name and draws on the fantasy Peter Pan story. The main characters in One Day Old are Wendy, Pedro (Peter) and Gancho (Hook.). There are references and parallels to the Peter Pan fantasy throughout the play. Also, Ms. Reilly weaves reality with fantasy, showing the audience the dream world of Wendy, and explaining aspects of the realities of the Peter Pan children who left Cuba. This fits in the tradition of Latin American  realismo mágico (magic realism).  The play also employs the Cuban musical tradition. There are two lullabies that feature prominently in the play, “Afro-Cuban Lullaby”, which opens the play, and has been arranged and played by famous guitarists, such as Christopher Parkening:

Most of the audience will be familiar with the piece, even if they don’t know the name of it, or where it comes from. There is a version of another lullaby, “Duérmete niño”, which is also sung a capella by various characters and becomes a leitmotif:

The set, props and costumes are basic and abstract, but they are effective. The drama in this piece is so strong and well done that a realistic set is not necessary. One does not miss it at all. The ensemble cast is excellent. I particularly adored the characterizations of “Sara” played by Diana M. Rodriguez and “Hermano/Tío Juan” played by veteran actor/singer Victor Rodriguez. Playing a child AND an adult in the same play and making them both believable is a challenge for any actor, and Victor does it with aplomb. As Sara, Diana contrasted with the children in the orphanage/camp scene by her stance and authoritarian, yet caring speech–even though all the actors were adults. Lastly, the bilingual script is so well crafted with respect to the two languages, that I think even those who do not speak Spanish, would be able to follow the plot and the interactions.

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What also distinguishes Ms. Reilly’s One Day Old, is the fundraising. Not only did Ms. Reilly need to fundraise to have the set built, but she is also donating part of the contributions she receives towards the play, to charity. She has set up the “Indiegogo 1960 Campaign” which paid for the set, but which also benefits St. Francis and St. Vincent’s Orphanage. In addition, 10% of every ticket sold to the play during the Fringe Festival is donated to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This is very commendable. The cast of One Day Old gives the gift of their talent in realizing this play on stage, and funds received/tickets sold also help two charities for children.

One Day Old officially opens tonight, September 9, 2016 at 7:00 pm at the Hamilton Family Arts Center in Philadelphia (Arch and 2nd St.). The play continues at 7:00 pm on September 10, 15, and 17, with matinees at 4:00 pm on September 11 and 18th. If you aren’t in Philadelphia during those days, consider donating to the Indiegogo campaign. For more information about the play and to contribute (click “Support the Play”) , please visit onedayoldtheplay.com

For tickets to One Day Old during the Fringe Festival, please visit http://fringearts.com/event/one-day-old-7/

 

 

 

New Latino Art at PAFA!

At first glance this looks like a friendly happy painting. It is large and depicts a picnic in the park. A family sits at a table conversing, waiting for the food to be ready. Closer to the viewer, in the bottom right corner, we see workers cutting up produce. Behind them three men slaughter an animal. The title of the painting is “Slaughter.”

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The violence in Mexico is a topic that comes up regularly in discussions with Mexican nationals. This is a concern for those who live in the U.S.A. with family in Mexico as well as those actually living in Mexico, and visitors to Mexico. I spoke to the artist who created “Slaughter”, Juan Pablo Ruiz, at PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) on May 13, 2016. He said that violence was a major theme in his artwork. This painting combines three locales that are important to Ruiz, Mexico, Chicago and Philadelphia. We can see the Chicago skyline in the distance, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and the Mexican landscape on the right of the painting. Ruiz was born in Mexico, grew up in Chicago and attended PAFA in Philadelphia. “Slaughter” won a Fellowship Juried Prize.

On the 2nd floor of the exhibition, Mr. Ruiz has three paintings that he said were meant to be shown together. They are called “ Prometeo, Falla and First Eighth.” The theme of violence is present again, he said. It begins in the Classical age and is traced to present day Guadalajara. Mr. Ruiz’ painting technique is astounding, in my opinion. Some of the work in the exhibition is more contemporary and abstract, but Ruiz excels in and owns his realism. His paintings are thought provoking as well as aesthetically beautiful. For more information about him and his artwork, please see his website: http://www.jpabloruiz.com/

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The 115th Annual Student Exhibition is currently open at PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) in Philadelphia. PAFA was founded in 1805 by artist/scientist Charles Wilson Peale, who painted portraits of the founding fathers. The 115th Student exhibition is from May 13-June 5, 2016. The entire modern museum building (Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building) is full of student artwork, including prize winners from the concluding academic year, and graduating undergraduates and masters students.

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Another young artist who I spoke to on Friday evening, was Diego Rodriguez Carrion. He is still in school at PAFA, but had won prizes for three artworks in the exhibition. I was attracted to his woodcuts/wood engravings, because this is a rare art form practiced in the United States. Woodcuts have a long tradition in Latin America, especially in Brazil, but also Spanish speaking cultures. Mr. Rodriguez-Carrion is from Puerto Rico and his woodcuts depict scenes, people and places that he recalls from his upbringing and native island.  He also draws and paints. Check out his website to see: http://www.diegohiromi.com/

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Overall, there is something for everyone at PAFA’s Student exhibition, and many of the works are for sale! It is particularly encouraging and exciting to see the pieces by emerging artists Diego Rodriguez Carrion and Juan Pablo Ruiz. “Slaughter” follows in the footsteps of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros, depicting Mexican realities. Meanwhile, Rodriguez Carrion’s woodcuts remind us of a beloved medium that is familiar and popular, grounded in folk art and culture, but at the same time worthy of fine art distinction.

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VISIT PAFA’s website: www.pafa.org

Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba

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La Habana Vieja, by gildemax, wikipedia commons

The African American Museum in Philadelphia hosted the exhibition “Drapetomania” in February and March of 2016, on two floors, in its Galleries No. 3 and 4. The museum’s vertical space and multiple floors, lends itself to smaller and less traditional exhibitions.

Grupo Antillano’s mission was to highlight Afro-Cuban influences in the participating artists’ work. There are works by more or less twenty Cuban artists featured in the exhibition, although not all of them were active members of Grupo Antillano. However, their works are in the spirit of the group since they focus on Afro-Cuban culture and images. The most well known artist included is Manuel Mendive, whose work is internationally famous.

There are different types of media represented, such as sculpture, video, oil/acrylic on canvas, and mixed media. The most striking piece, in my opinion, is Resurrección , by Rafael Quenedit Morales, the founder of Grupo Antillano. It is a sculpture, and one of the first pieces one sees on entering Gallery 3. At first it appears to be a very typical  sculpture of the Latin American colonial period: an angel in front of a wood cross. However, on further examination one notices that this angel has a bi-colored face–white and red, and that its wings are red, white and blue. In addition, it carries a scepter that appears to be topped with a symbol from an Afro-Cuban religion.

Adelaida Herrera Valdés uses old shutters in her piece, Vecinos. Discolored receipts and letters are stuck in the slats.  http://www.queloides-exhibit.com/grupo-antillano/grupo-antillano_artistas_adelaida.html There is a connection with the neighbor, but at the same time these worn down shutters may remind the viewer of the weariness and difficulty of life in Cuba.

Some of the artists, such as Leandro Soto and Juan Roberto Diago, reference Afro-Cuban religion in their titles: Los juguetes de Elegguá and Yo soy monte. In Los juguetes de Elegguá (2012), Leandro Soto (b. 1956 Cienfuegos), uses 2 large canvasses in red and black. There are many items recognizable in this compendium of toys for Elegguá, one of the orishas, or divinities in regla de ocha, an Afro-Cuban religion. These toys in the painting include: elephants, bells, clovers, keys, cups, boats, machetes, candles, cars, hearts, chalice, shells, spades, buildings, clubs, paths and roads. Elegguá is considered a messenger and has many roads. One reason he is important is because he connects the other orishas with humans.

http://www.leandrosoto.com/leandro-soto-artist-bio.html

In Yo soy monte, Juan Roberto Diago evokes the idea of el monte.  Although the English translation in the museum is “I am mountain”, el monte in Afro-Cuban culture has referred to wilderness or the clearing in the forest, specifically the place where religious rites can occur, or historically, a refuge. For more about Mr. Diago, visit http://havana-cultura.com/en/visual-arts/juan-roberto-diago

Perhaps the most politically charged piece in the exhibition is La suerte del mayoral (The Overseer’s Luck) by Santiago Rodriguez Olazabal (2012). This painting has only three colors, white, black and red. A man is tied to a tree, rendered in black charcoal, and red paint splurts from his chest. View the painting on this site:  http://www.afrocubaweb.com/grupo-antillano/pages/N.%20Olazabal-%20La%20suerte%20del%20mayoral.html

The African American Museum in Philadelphia is to be commended for bringing this exhibition to Philadelphia. There are very few opportunities to see so much Cuban art at once in the United States. In light of the recent attempts to reestablish trade and travel with Cuba, hopefully this will not be the last exhibition of Cuban art in the area, and is a sign of more interaction between the U.S. and Cuban artistic communities.

The African Museum in Philadelphia is located in Old City, and open from Thursday through Sunday. http://www.aampmuseum.org/

 

 

 

 

 

Concert for piano, guitar and voice for Musica de Camara of NYC (Anna Tonna)

What follows is a blog post that appeared on Spanish Song Slinger by Anna Tonna:

The tireless Eva de la O, soprano, producer, arts promoter and artistic director of Musica de Camara of NYC has been a supporter of my activities for many years now.  She first programmed me in a s…

Source: Concert for piano, guitar and voice for Musica de Camara of NYC

Ballet Hispanico At the Annenberg in Philadelphia

Ballet Hispanico, a professional dance company from New York City, presented three pieces in their dance concert at the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on February 5, 2016. Very different in theme, each dance contained hispanic inspired music (Bury Me Standing uses traditional gypsy melodies, which are recognizable today by many in Spanish flamenco)  and also showcased the versatility, artistry and innovation of the company: Sombrerísimo, (choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in 2013), Bury Me Standing (1998 by Ramón Oller) and Flabbergast (2001 by Gustavo Ramírez Sansano).

The first dance, Sombrerísimo, featured male dancers with hats, hence the name, which translated from Spanish, would be something like “extremely hats.” According to the program it was based on the artistic works by Belgian René Magritte, which were of men wearing bowler hats. The style was mostly “modern” with a little bit of latin (as opposed to classical ballet), in which the feet and the rest of the body are able to take on movements outside the ballet vocabulary. The hats were tossed around and became characters as well.

The longest and most serious piece of the evening was Bury Me Standing.  I love the title. It comes from a Romani proverb, referenced in the book by Isabel Fonseca: “Bury me standing, I’ve been on my knees all my life.” This refers to the oppression that the Roma (aka the gypsies or gitanos) have experienced for centuries. Ms. Fonseca’s book, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, was published in 1995, based on her own observations drawn from four years of living with the Roma. The choreographer is from Spain, and Spain has a huge Roma, or gitano population in Andalusia. Having spent part of last summer in Granada, I visited Sacromonte (the Roma part of town) and flamenco was all over Granada so  their culture was still fresh in my mind.

Bury Me Standing is a tribute to the Romani, but never replicates the footwork or the intricate handiwork of the flamenco, although there are glimpses of it. The choreographer goes beyond what we usually see as gitano or flamenco dance to invoke a mood and tell the story. Only the men do the hand movements at one point. Everyone is barefoot in the dance so even in a lined up formation, no noise could be made or heard from the stylized footwork that recalls zapateo. The style is contemporary or modern dance, with some flamenco/gypsy inspired movements. The choreographer makes excellent use of the stage–there is no part of it that is not used at some point in the piece. Levels are also varied, with some steps taking place with the dances on the floor, on their knees, or jumping. There is a table too, and two women relate on the table. All of this results in a very multidimensional and multilayered performance.

Through the intense choreography and imaginative staging, they communicated the somewhat foreign context of the Roma. The emphasis on the collective, the group consciousness and unity was evident, as well as a charismatic male leader, who had a few solos. We see some of the conflict that occurs in this group, as the women walk on their knees, gossip and cross themselves repeatedly. Some men also walk on their knees, but the group of women doing it is singled out and very striking. The Roma are more traditional and patriarchal than mainstream Spanish culture today, and this was well depicted through the dance. At the same time, the crawling and walking on the knees, refers back to the Roma proverb, and is a reference to the oppression that the Roma have experienced for so long, no matter what country they live in. The dance ends with all of them running in place, which could have various interpretations–perhaps a more positive one is that they are standing up and empowered. Bury Me Standing is a  moving tribute to the Roma, these “nomadic” people who have spread throughout Europe and even to the United States.

The last dance, Flabbergast, was light and funny, and a good ending to the evening. They broke the fourth wall, sung while they danced: “voy a bailar, ” and talked to each other. In this dance, which the program says ” exposes with humor our stereotypes and preconceived ideas about new and foreign places… telling the story of a newcomer coming to a place for the first time”. somebody is always doing their own thing on stage! Ballet Hispanico ended the concert with a pose and a smile–after a varied and polished program that entertained and encouraged the audience to think, laugh and feel.

***

Ballet Hispanico was founded in 1970 by Tina Ramírez. The company specializes in Spanish and Latin American inspired dance. In addition to their professional touring company, they also maintain a thriving school to train young and aspiring dancers in Spanish dance, Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance. The current Artistic Director is Eduardo Vilaro.

 

 

ESCUELA: Too much lecturing, not enough drama

At the end of the play, the guerrillas stood in a circle, each one with pistol in hand. It was New Year’s Eve, or at least that was their cover. Real shots rang out from the guns announcing the new year and the end of the lessons, and the performance. Unfortunately, for some in the audience, that was a relief…

ESCUELA, (SCHOOL), a play by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón,  produced by FRINGE ARTS in Philadelphia, offers the audience lessons in how to fight back against an unjust government.  At the same time it is a tribute to Chileans who suffered through the Pinochet dictatorship–those who endured it, those who fought it as well as to those who were tortured and murdered. According to the playbill, it is supposed to take place in 1988 when the dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, put forth a referendum to govern for 8 more years. Some Chileans were excited to vote on it but others saw through this ploy–Pinochet remained as commander in chief of the army until 1998, even though the dictatorship officially ended on March 11, 1990.

The structure of the performance oscillates between different lessons about what one needs to understand about the regime, guerrilla consciousness, and shooting practice. At first this set-up seems promising, but in the end there was no dramatic arc to the play–it was essentially didactic and static, and after an hour, it became somewhat tedious since the audience knew what to expect.

Nevertheless, on Saturday January 30,  the cast and director (Guillermo Calderón) deserve accolades for the seamless and well rehearsed production. The delivery of the lines was exceptional and crisp. There were English subtitles for the non-Spanish speakers and they did have to stop for a few minutes to fix it due to a glitch, but otherwise it worked well. The acting was natural within the context of the dramatic structure, of a training cell.

The set was simple, composed of a table, some chairs and a chalkboard. The subtitles were projected above the chalkboard, and images related to the lessons and the revolutionary cause were projected onto it. The play opened with protest songs. The singing was well done. I didn’t know anything about the play, other than that it was about Chile  and guerrilla tactics, and with mistaken delight I thought that it was going to be a musical when they started singing.

In addition to how to fire a weapon, other topics covered in  ESCUELA, included: “What is Exploitation;” the military, conspiracy, change of the government, psychological warfare and handling bombs. The characters all wore scarves to cover their faces. This makes sense, because it is quite likely that they would do that in real life if they were guerrillas in training. However, this tactic does not help to endear characters to the audience or establish some kind of connection with their struggle. We don’t know anything about these people until near the end, when we find out that one had fought in Libya and another was dressed up in a sequined outfit and heels because she was told the “cover” was a New Year’s Eve party. There is also a photo from 1987 projected onto the screen that references the playwright–and it is explained what those 4 revolutionaries, including Guillermo Calderón, went on to do in their lives later.

Although I understood the device used, of recreating the “school” or lessons that the guerrillas would have been taught in training, and I thought it creative, it did not go far enough to engage the audience. I am not an expert at all in Chile or Chilean politics, but I am a Latin Americanist, familiar with the continent.  I believe that a non-Spanish speaker, who came off the street to see this play, would understand very little (even with the subtitles). There is too much history and backstory. ESCUELA is very specific and requires a good deal of knowledge about Chile to appreciate it.  The history and politics are accentuated, yet it comes off as impersonal.  It uses the “school/la escuela” format, but this does not encourage us to identify with the struggle or support the characters’ motivations.  We do not see their faces, we do not know their individual stories. We do not know what is in their hearts. We can only guess by their clothing and voices who they might be.  This is enough to keep the audience paying attention for about an hour, and then it becomes routine.  Was the playwright attempting to say that all these guerrillas or protestors were essentially the same? That it didn’t matter who they were, that they didn’t matter against the regime?

ESCUELA, superbly performed for what it was, depicts and explains a guerrilla training process. Depending on the audience member’s knowledge, the play may feel like a solemn tribute to Chile or an animated how-to-conspire manual. At any rate, FRINGEARTS in Philadelphia should be commended for featuring and supporting theatre from Latin America–we don’t see enough of it!