Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Day Three

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Field Trip!

At 8:50 AM, a group 23 strong boarded the hotel coach for a 45 minute excursion to the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey Campus. We knew it was up in the mountains; we knew we’d be meeting visual and performance artist Antonio Martorell; we knew we’d be learning to dance Bamba (a traditional Puerto Rican dance described below). What we did not know was what our living situation would be like, and some were very surprised.

We were in two buildings (one group of ten, the other of twelve) with three bedrooms in each. While the facilities were nice enough, the feel of camping out in the woods was ever present from the moment we stepped into this land of bunkbeds and showers with just a trickle of cold water. I found the places charming and full of character, but others were desperately in search of towels and hot water.

Pio Lopez Martinez Museum

Once settled in, we hiked across campus for the real surprise, an introduction to the life and work of Carribean (though native of Cayey) visual artist Ramón Frade at the Pio Lopez Martinez Museum. Curator (?) Humberto Figueroa gave us a brief history of Frade’s life and explained the exhibition that we were to see which was shockingly relavant to our drama work as it explored Frade’s process, rather than focusing on his finished products.
According to Antonio Martorell, Frade had been an actor in his younger years and he took his experiences and understanding of theatrical form with him when he began developing some of his most treasured works, those which depict everyday Puerto Rican life, not unlike the work that Norman Rockwell did in the United States (though Frade was working earlier). In his process. Frade would stage children and other models in positions that evoked traditional poses, yet they were in a studio with minimal costume just so he could block the person in the space. Thereafter he would trace the photograph, sketch the image with pencil and paper, and then begin work on the final painting. In the final work, more theatrical convention was utilized as Frade would paint the person into a new setting, and at times (as in the work you see here), he would develop a narrative which had not been present in the initial photographs.

This process then refers to this notion of creating a non-verbal narrative, which is neither dependent on language or culture in order to disseminate meaning to an audience (a theme that would come up twice more as our day’s activities progressed).

For those who might still wonder if this connection was truly significant, I offer this comparison. While walking to the museum from the dorms, I happened upon a striking view of the town of Cayay and the mountains beyond, yet when I stopped to take a photograph, I was taken in by the trees that framed the landscape beyond and used them in the foreground of the composition. Imagine my surprise when walking through the museum and I happened upon an almost identical photograph that Frade had taken nearly a century before. On our opening night, Dr. Marquez and Javier Cardona asked us to pay particular attention to the people as their rhythms and mannerisms would strongly influence the composition of their art, but from my own coincidental photographic experience, I understand that the physical place has just as much impact on the work that is created.

Transforming Spaces

Dr. Rosa Luisa Marquez and Antonio Martorell team taught our afternoon workshop that was grounded in a variety of exercises by Augusto Boal (Games for Actors and Non Actors), but they culminated in yet another form of non-verbal storytelling, this time using costume and physical space to create a narrative.

Dr. Marquez first asked us to move in the space, find a partner, and take a little time to get to know them—she wanted us to make a connection with them that was verbal. Thereafter, she indicated that we would make physical connections, leading us in Boal’s “People to People” game, where the joker (facilitator) calls out two body parts and the pairs of participants must make that physical connection (head to elbow, knee to foot, etc.). Three or four connections are called out, tying the pairs into complicated body-knots until it’s clear that they cannot go further, at which point the joker calls out, “People to people!” and the participants scramble to find a new partner and repeat the exercise.

The second activity involved image theatre. The group formed a large circle and one participant went into the middle of the group and created a physical image using only their body. Another participant then joined them in the middle of the circle adding to the image in some abstract way. The first volunteer then exited, leaving the second alone, who was then joined by another volunteer who added to the second image. This continued until the volunteerism waned, at which point Dr. Marquez increased the number to three and eventually four participants involved in the evolving image. In closing, Dr. Marquez rearranged a few of the volunteers so that their physical position was maintained but order was made out of the abstract chaos—moving from that which appeared to evoke feeling or ideas, to that which clearly composed a specific narrative which could be read by the audience with limited interpretation (reminiscent of our earlier understanding of the work that Frade had done).

Antonio Martorell then turned our attention to the multitude of possibilities that paper offered, as he (and as pictured above, Dr. Marquez) transformed himself and one of the participants into characters in just a few minutes using butcher paper, scissors, newspaper advertisements (for color), and masking tape. We were given ten minutes (though I’m certain we took much longer) to organize ourselves into pairs and take on the roles of designer and model, creating a costume from the provided materials.

When our masterpieces were completed, each pair joined with another and were given ten additional minutes (this time we kept closer to the limit) to select a specific space in or out of the museum and create a story that would involve an entrance, some specific action, and an exit while also maintaining traditional story structure (beginning, middle, and end). Our post-performance reflections indicated that most were excited by how quickly we created new and vastly different narratives with only paper and the space as a catalyst. Like the other non-verbal structures we have used to construct narratives (one group used a musical underscore, but all others were silent), I was particularly aware of the potential for cross-cultural and cross-language potential for such and activity.


The Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican folk dance derived from the traditions of both the African immigrants (slaves or otherwise) and the native Taino tradition. The music combines drumming, maraca, rhythmic sticks (beaten on the side of the drum or the floor), and singing. The dance/song features call and response (similar to other African musical traditions), conversation between the dancer and the musicians (the primo - or lead drummer - who follows the dancer and not the other way around - similar to the Flamenco tradition from the south of Spain [also influenced by the African tradition via the Moors]), and themes of resistance (as the original slave dancers used their dance time to plan escapes, etc).

We learned a variety of warm ups and dance steps (which were incredibly different--it's amazing how freeing it is to accept that you are not going to do the dance perfectly [ok, not even close] so just let your body go with it and have a good time) and then were given ten minutes to integrate any variety of them into some form of narrative story. Like our activities earlier in the day, this was to be a non-verbal presentation which could read cross-culturally and cross languages. Each group came up with entirely different ideas and everyone participated fully. As per my guiding questions, it is important to keep in mind that we are all willing participants, which may not always be the case, but this definitely did broaden my understanding of the multiple ways to non-verbally convey a narrative.

Here's a sample of student work:


After our exciting day, it was time to relax at our Cayey Fiesta! Luis Rodriguez joined us for live music and dancing on the terrace of one of the residences. While this allowed us some much needed relaxation time (the Bomba is quite a workout!), it also allowed us an opportunity to process some of the work we've been doing, continue to build our community, and catch on proper protocol for the night before three kings day (leave your shoes out for gifts and grass for the donkeys).


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