Taller de Histriones, the actors workshop, was a theatercompany of mimes founded in 1970 by Gilda Navarra. Mime is the language through which a character’s internal struggle is transmitted to spectators using only the body, posture, bearing, and carriage, without sound or perceptible movement. Mime is the art of silence.
The initial purpose of the workshop was to form a company of high professional quality. It was a homogeneous group, and together the actors formed a unit. In a process that took 14 years, the workshop achieved a style of its own and a consistent aesthetic in its productions. That style took form in the way the artists came together, in their ability to project and interpret a new art with its particular training. A complex art form was created and molded collectively as a medium of expression for the actor-mimes, who found in the theater of movement a theater of elevated aspiration. Though words were eliminated, literature was not; on the contrary, it was translated into the language of movement. The intention was that the art form be effective socially, that it speak to the community about individual existence and to the individual about life in community.
The first production was of Los tres cornudos (1971) done under the auspices of the Teatro del Sesenta. It was right out of the Commedia del Arte, and that popular theater tradition – with its themes of daily life, racy topics, and comic language and style – was a triumph. In La olla (1973), the theater of Plautus was recreated using two casts: one, the cast of narrators who recited the comedy, and the other, the mimes who traced it in space. They brought together the arts of pantomime, dance, and theater. A work of intrigue and character, it was similar to Greek comedy. The intrigue was double: the loves of Licónides and Fedra, and the fate of the pot that contained the treasure that old miser Euclión had found.
Ocho mujeres was produced in 1974 under the auspices of Producciones Cisne. The anguish and the conflicts of a group of women plagued by oppression were given dramatic form. Ocho mujeres was modeled on, and also modified, the well-known tragedy by Lorca, La casa de Bernarda Alba. The conflict and the characters created by Lorca were the starting point, though as a mimodrama, it had its own rules to follow -accenting, underlining, and transforming important aspects of Lorca’s tragedy. Ocho mujeres stressed the suffocating situation of women who are victims of a whole range of institutions and bonds that deny them their humanity. The emphasis was on pain, hatred, and lust; and there, death won out over life.
In 1975, Eleuterio boricua was staged, also under the auspices of Producciones Cisne. This was the story of a Puerto Rican coquí, based on the story by Tomás Blanco, a coquí which resisted assimilation. The entire narration from the original text was used, and it was illustrated by the characters in the fable.
With this production, after four years of theater work, the Taller de Histriones established the two approaches that defined it: works that reaffirmed Puerto Rico’s cultural traditions, based on Puerto Rican literature and history, and foreign works whose themes reflected the circumstances of Puerto Rico metaphorically. On the occasion of the fourth anniversary, the graphic artist Antonio Martorell designed a portfolio of drypoint etchings done in metal.
Asíntota, a text on the theme of infinity, was commissioned by the Office of Cultural Activities of the University of Puerto Rico in 1976. It was a new presentation of old myths that tell of the origin of human beings and their history. The work employed the metaphor of a straight line, infinitely long, but one which drew constantly closer to a curved line without ever finding it. That was the meaning communicated by the image of the tense, moving bodies. The paradox was represented through the oppression and meaninglessness into which human beings plunge, as in mimodramas, always trying to invent themselves and to make sense to themselves.
Abelardo y Eloísa, the story of two lovers based on the Historia Calamitatum, was staged in 1978. The relationship between Abelard, the French philosopher and scholastic theologian, and his disciple Eloise is an exemplary and tragic story of intellectual passion. It is also a story of a human being and the consequences of his acts, of the audacity of living and existing, and of the fall and punishment. Abelardo y Eloísa takes us into the most remote and most crucial regions of what is human, of omnipotence, of the reality of love and the conflict-filled search for moral and religious values. Only death was able to calm the fierce will of these characters, who, though defeated by flesh and the body, were not swallowed up by time. The Taller de Histriones rescued them, gave them new life, making the public tremble with the unsatisfied extremes of hope and desperation, of liberty and tyranny, that shape the humanity of this couple. Also in 1978, Un Guiñol was produced; it treated domination and dependence and described human beings as puppets, unable to take part in the collective struggle. The purpose of this mimodrama was not to present a circus, but a conflict between an exploitative producer and his actors. One of the mimes imitated the oppressor, not with the cape of a warlock but with that of a wizard, -a conjurer who learns the trickster’s trade.
In 1979, in search of African roots, Atibón, Ogú, Erzulí appeared and took the form of a tribute to Caribbean mythology. This, too, was commissioned by the Office of Cultural Activities of the University of Puerto Rico, a project that was presented and choreographed by Alma Concepción. The three scenes that made up this choreodrama were independent, without a shared dramatic climax, and they were treated as ceremonies. They were not intended to give new life to original myths but were based on them to represent three forms or possibilities of affirmation. To achieve this artistically, use was made of the sacred in Afro-Caribbean tradition. In the three rituals, there was a common denominator: a threatening situation and a way of winning out over the threat, overcoming it. Atibón guaranteed that traditional values would have continuity. Erzulí overcame incoherent reality and devised original ways to take advantage of it. In Ogú, mankind rose violently against oppressive force. The choreographic and musical language was modern and stylized, inspired by Afro-Antillian rhythms and movements. The nakedness of the wardrobe projected what is essential in humanity. On this occasion, the graphic artistic Antonio Martorell once again designed and produced a portfolio with masks and designs from Afro-Caribbean mythology.
Soleá, staged in 1980, was at once a dialog between jazz and flamenco and a study in movement. The title refers to the basic forms of the cante-jondo of flamenco, a lament, as well as to Afro-American blues. The music of Miles Davis became the texture into which the Spanish tradition and the Black heritage were interwoven. Both rhythms and ideas were expressed, now one, now the other, and on occasions a show was made of their differences. A melancholy and at the same time dramatic sense of flamenco ran through this jazz piece, a struggle between blood and the very spirit of dance.
Metamorfosis, also staged in 1980, was inspired by Kafka’s story. It was concerned with the contrast between the invisible world of human beings transformed and the concrete external world. In the latter world, the character who was transformed into an insect tried without avail to communicate with human beings. A variety of issues were raised in the parable: the human being, society and art, the inadequacies of language for communication between human beings and, finally, of communication of human beings with themselves. In the end, the possibilities of the man-insect, being what he was, were nil. He succumbed to his own nothingness. The musical composition, for guitar, was by the Puerto Rican Ernesto Cordero, and the choreography was done jointly by Alma Concepción and Ramfis González.
In La mujer del abanico, produced in 1981, life was a memory in which lost love went unrecognized, memory tragically became forgetting, and presence became absence, identity and setting having dissolved. La mujer del abanico was based on a Japanese legend, set in Noh theater and redone in modern form by the writer Yukio Mishima. The Taller de Histriones took inspiration from Oriental art and its dramatic sensibility. “I was born to wait,” said the geisha Hanako, the protagonist of the mimodrama. And this affirmation was the theme and focus of La mujer del abanico.
Fragmentos o relatos precolombinos, also produced in 1981, took as its starting point texts such as the Popol Vuh of the Quiché Mayas, Los Coloquios de los Doce of the Aztecs, Nahuatl stories and chronicles from the period of colonization, as well as pre-Colombian art forms, such as sculpture and architectural and ceramic design. The first two fragments related the beginning of the world and the creation of human beings. The third fragment described the figure of the shaman. The ritual was somber. In the fourth fragment, the entire community took part in the indigenous ball game. Fragmentos was a production inspired by tales, through which we searched for our roots in indigenous traditions and our Latin American heritage.
With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Tocata para percusión was staged in 1982, with the music of Carlos Chávez. The Taller de Histriones interpreted the work in three episodes of movement, as a kind of writing in movement parallel to writing in sound. The dimension of bodily movement, combined with light and shadow, was added to the formal musical design and so avoided encroaching on the realm of dance.
In 1984, and under the auspices of the Administration for the Promotion of the Arts and Culture, the Taller de Histriones based its Aura on the novel of the same name by the Mexican Carlos Fuentes. It converted the novel into an exploration of the possibility and the necessity of memory, its power to make time disappear, to perpetuate love, youth, and beauty, to transform the ephemeral into the eternal. Fantasy and the supernatural assumed particular importance. Woman were oracles, witches, the devil, and sphinxes – all at the same time.
In 1984, Adoquines o Acordanzas de San Juan, chronicles of the age, was presented as part of the Art for San Juan Project. José Antonio Daubón, Cayetano Coll y Toste, Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, Eugenio María de Hostos, and Angel Rivero provided material for the piece. Joserramón Meléndez wrote the text in the form of decimas, and the musical group Ysla composed the music. Ricardo Molina designed and produced the wardrobe, makeup, and props. It was the history of the city of San Juan and its squares, from the arrival of the Spanish in 1493 to the US bombardment in 1898. With Adoquines o Acordanzas de San Juan, the Taller de Histriones brought its fruitful labors to a close, after 14 years of exquisite artistic creation.
Author: Gilda Navarra
Published: September 29, 2008.
This post is also available in: Español