Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mexican Dance

Last night a friend and I went to a performance of the 'Ballet Folklorico de Mexico' here on campus.  I have no idea what kind of artistic merit the show had, or what effect it might have had on the feelings of an average person.  I spent most of the time watching and analyzing the way that they moved and produced the show.

The dancers were obviously professionals.  They were very good at what they were doing.  It is actually quite rare nowadays to see an act that has been polished to such perfection.  Most of the things we see live on stage are rehearsed for several weeks and then played for a few days, before the performers finish the act and start working on something else.  But the group was dedicated to this one performance.  It is all they do, and they had been doing it for decades.  I spoke to a woman after the show who said that she had seen this in the 1950's in New York, and she remembered several most of the dances.  The show had seen only minor changes in five decades.  The dancers change, rotating in and out, but the show keeps going, perpetuating itself in roughly the same form.

During the show, I remained aware of the people behind the masks and costumes, and the way that the production flowed.  I tried to keep track of individual performers, to time their disappearances and costume changes.  I thought about the work that was going on backstage, and how everything must be coordinated.  This lack of immersion was not their fault; it is incredibly difficult to make me 'spellbound' and only look at what is presented.  I am the kind of person who always thinks about what is beneath the surface.  It also helped that we had a front upper box seat, so we could see in to the wings of the stage where people were getting things ready. 

We also had a better view of the dancers in the back, and the floor of the stage.  Sitting 'front and center' might be the best place to see a play, but you really want to be sitting in an upper level when watching a dance performance.  That way you have a good view of the whole stage, not just the dancers in the front.

I think that a lot of people forget that performers are human beings.  What they do is so far removed from the life of an average person that it is easy to mentally classify them as 'other' and see them as a kind of entertainment robot.  The best way to escape from that, and really appreciate their skill, is to imagine yourself up there and think of what would happen if you tried to do what they are doing.

It is very rare that I see people do something, outside of a high-level sports contest, that I would simply not be able to do.  There are a lot of things people do that I cannot currently do, but that I would be able to do if I put enough time and effort into practicing and training for it.  This dance did not quite hit the level of 'I would not be able to do this at all', but it came close.

All of the dancers had amazing stamina and dexterity.  Aside from martial arts demonstrations, I had never seen anything like it in real life.  But the things they did were not so alien to me that I could not really appreciate it.  I recognized most of their movements and footwork; there are only a limited number of ways to make the human body go from Point A to Point B while maintaining poise, and a good martial artist is familiar with all of them.

The dancers really know how to move.  Their speed and acceleration was amazing.  It was sometimes hard to realize this, until I forced myself to think of how large the stage was.  They would routinely float from one end of the stage to the other in seconds, then turn and be running in a completely different direction in the blink of an eye.  The fact that I am capable of doing similar things made it more impressive, not less.

I would not want to get put in a boxing ring with any one of those people, even if he or she had no clue how to throw a punch.  I would have serious trouble landing a hit on them.  They could probably spend the whole match just running away from me, and by the end of it I would be too exhausted to do anything.

Some of the dances were done barefoot.  I liked those the best, partly because they made less noise and partly because it was easier to analyze their steps and movement.  But most of the dancing was done in shoes.  They all slammed the stage with these shoes, making a lot of noise and making my feet wince in sympathetic pain.  The stress on their feet and legs must be intense.  At the end of the show, when people were clapping uproariously and the performers kept coming back for more and more bows, my thoughts were "Stop that clapping already so they can all get away from the hot stage lights, take off those costumes, and soak their feet in something soothing."

Most of the dances apparently had to be performed while smiling.  Some of the people were good at this, others less so.  A few of the women had forced and unnerving rictus grins the while time.  I don't blame them for this; it is incredibly difficult to force yourself to keep smiling while doing an intense physical workout and they should not have been asked to try.  The frightfulness of their faces was not helped by the stage makeup.  I know that all stage makeup has to be thick and bold to counteract the effect of stage lighting, but these women still looked way too painted up.

Also, you would think that they could get costumes that did not have pieces falling off every so often.  By the end of the show, the stage floor was festooned with feathers, bits of fabric, and even some rhinestones.  Maintaining the costumes probably takes a lot of work.  Perhaps this wearing out is unavoidable, given the way they were moving.  I can't help thinking that if the dancing made the costumes were fall apart like that, it must be doing something similar to the bodies of the dancers.  I really hope for their sakes that they only do this once a week at most.

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