In October and November 2010 I visited Mexico City to undertake research into the work of theatre director Nicolás Núñez and the Taller de Investigación Teatral, constituting an important aspect of my PhD studies into the role of rhythm in actor training. In this field research I explored the ‘Taller’s’ use of traditional forms in actor training and the ways in which they use rhythm within their practice.
The Taller de Investigación Teatral (TIT) has evolved its own unique approach to training actors, within the urban intercultural landscape of Mexico City. Established in 1975 under the auspices of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) they have developed a wide repertoire of training forms and performance practices known as “Anthropocosmic Theatre”. This is a theatre where traditional practices and philosophies sit alongside modern acting pedagogies and scientific theory. Developed through years of active research into indigenous Mexican theatre and ritual, as well as traditional Tibetan Theatre and Buddhist practices, their work is driven by the intention to create a theatre that is both for Mexico and linked to a wider global, and cosmic, “worldview”(Núñez 1996).
I set out to gain a greater understanding of the ways in which rhythm is used in the actor training of the TIT, and to elucidate these mechanisms and their impact on participants. I chose to focus my studies on three specific training exercises: “Contemplative Running”, “Citlalmina” and “Huracan”. These practices each feature defined rhythmic aspects, many of which are directed through the feet and voice, bringing participants into direct contact with the rhythmic nature of their own movements and the way these relate to the wider group rhythm. In addition to my study of these exercises, I was also looking to gain some insight into the cultural context from which this work has developed. A strong influence on this work is the practices of the Mexican tradition known as the Concheros, of which many groups (mesas) are located in Mexico City.
This research was primarily conducted through my own engagement with these practices and through ‘first person accounts’ of these processes, with further research undertaken through interviews and audio-visual documentation. As my intention was to gain insight into the inner mechanisms at play within these practices; to simply observe, film, or notate these practices would offer a limited and in many ways distorted view of what are predominantly invisible and personal processes.
Experiencing these activities from the outside I gain an impression of bodies in unified motion driven by pulsating rhythms, a raw sound of gourd hand rattles (ayakastles) and ankle rattles (ayoyote) and thumping drum beats. Through this comes a series of calls and responses with a logic that often appears random and impenetrable. These forms (paradoxically) seem to be at once simplistic and incomprehensible.
From inside the experience is far more visceral and immediate, dominated by an awareness of my own body in motion, and the physical impulses and gestural signals that connect and entrain my actions with those of the group. The sound of rattles and ayoyotes wash through me, their jangling high frequencies offer an immersive sense of comfort while being arresting in their harsh immediacy. While I cannot distinguish the sound of my own feet hitting the floor from the overall wash of the group, the sound of the rattle in my hand occasionally cuts through alerting me to its presence. As I face the physical and mental challenges inherent in these practices, I go through a complex and ongoing process of constructing and deconstructing my sense of self, the group, and the meanings contained by their, our and my own actions. And throughout all this a simple sense of joy in the act of shared energetic movement and sounding.
The dancing of Citlalmina was the main focus of my studies in Mexico. Citlalmina is a marriage of two sacred warrior dances: the Tibetan Black Hat Dance and the Mexican Conchero Dances, and has been developed by the TIT as form of actor training. While there remain many similarities between the practices of the Concheros and the dances in Citlalmina, there are a number of important distinctions: the Conchero dances often last for a number of hours while Citlalmina is danced for approximately one hour. No specific costume or dress is required for the dancing of Citlalmina where participants often wear casual sports or dance clothes. The dance of the Concheros often takes place within a much larger ritual context: as part of a pilgrimage, following an overnight vigil or a cleansing (limpia) ceremony, or as part of a celebration marking a significant date or location. The dancing of Citlalmina takes place in a far more independent and secular context and although there are clear sacred and ritualized aspects to this work, the primary intention remains one of psycho-physical cultivation rather than religious worship. In developing the application of these dances in an actor training context the Taller have looked to retain what they see as the “essential forms” and “pre-cultural frameworks”, most notably the rhythmic structures, physical choreographies, and basic instrumentation including conch shells (atekokoli) and rattles (Middleton 2001).
The Taller are mindful of the complex intercultural path they walk, and undertake all these practices with a great sense of humility and respect. Their use of these dances takes place with the requested permission of leading members of the Conchero and Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
Both the Mexican and Tibetan dances in Citlalmina are viewed as allegorical journeys made by a warrior to reach a “lost paradise”: Aztlán in the case of the Concheros, and Shambala for the Tibetans. Núñez proposes that this journey takes place through “meditation in motion” which is achieved through: learning the “body alphabet” of both dances and repeating these regularly, focusing attention on breath and maintaining an active inner awareness, and by working with the flow of the “organic rhythms” and “mandalic designs” present within these forms, helping to keep attention on the “here and now”(Núñez 1996, p.102).
These rhythmic forms mark out a structure both in space and time, providing a framework through which the dancer can locate and shape their attention. But within the overtly rhythmic structure of the group-form, there also exists a more subtle undercurrent: swells and dips in volume and rhythmic timing, small personal interchanges between members of the group, exchanges through eye contact and small physical gestures. All of this is almost entirely unconscious, unfixed and contingent to the immediate context of dance. It is the interplay between what is essentially a fixed and formal rhythmic structure, and the dynamic contingent experience of the dance unfolding in each instance, that gives the actor or dancer the opportunity to have such a strong encounter with themselves within this collective form (Rostas 2009).
The opportunity to experience both the actor training of the TIT and the ceremonies of the Concheros, has revealed to me ways in which creativity and tradition can engage in practical dialogues with profound and enriching results. Through this five week visit to Mexico City I have experienced the potential for rhythm to act as a dynamic framework through which individuals can encounter and redefine themselves within a structured group context. For the Concheros and the members of the TIT these traditional rhythms and ritual structures offer a valuable context in which they can explore interpersonal relationships which are both harmonious and dynamic, in which they can experience themselves as being at once unified and distinct within a group. In this sense the rhythms of the dance mark out a territory or perhaps a sanctuary, where individuals can encounter not only themselves but also an alternative way of “being-in-the-world”. This “paradise” as it were, is by no means a fixed location or even a state of mind but rather an ongoing process of rhythmical interaction.
Many thanks to Helena Guardia, Nicolás Núñez and Ana Luisa Solis of the Taller de Investigación Teatral, John Britton , Deborah Middleton, Judith Adams, Simon Warner, Theodor Richardson, and the Society of Latin American Studies, all of whose support has made this field trip possible.
Middleton, D.K. (2001) At Play in the Cosmos: The Theatre and Ritual of Nicolas Nunez. TDR (1988-), 45(4), 42-63.
Núñez, N. (1996) Anthropocosmic Theatre: Rite in the Dynamics of Theatre 1st ed., Routledge.
Rostas, S. (2009) Carrying the word: the Concheros dance in Mexico City, University Press of Colorado.