CONTEXTUAL RESEARCH IMAGES
For my MFA thesis, I chose to research and develop a Scenographic design of a traditional Mayan play. I was looking for a play that fulfills my program's criteria and allows me to explore the art and design of a Latin American Indigenous culture. On a personal level, I choose to study this dance-drama because, as a member of the Latin American community, I have felt a disconnection with indigenous voices and traditions that are fundamental to our culture and our present. I am part of a mestizo or mixed-race population. While our mixed ethnicity is recognized almost everywhere in the Latin American nations, we are systematically and silently educated to embrace a Westernized lifestyle and to assume an identity that values our European characteristics over the indigenous or/and the Black component of our culture. This alienation has promoted tacit self-hatred and racism in Latin America. Studying and celebrating the indigenous cultures of the Americas helps to bridge this gap and allows us, mestizos, to be more aware of the oppression the indigenous communities face, appreciate our heritage, and take pride in our indigenous ancestry. To me, the Rabinal Achí bears testimony to the greatness of the ancient Mayan civilization and the resistance and power of the Mayan people through the last 500 years.
The Mayan dance-play or baile Rabinal Achí (Man of Rabinal) is one of the most important remaining pre-Columbian artistic expressions today. In 2005, it was declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Along with the Popol Vuh and the Título de Totonicapán, the Rabinal Achí's importance stems from the fact that it is one of the few surviving pre-colonial period K'iche' (one of the main Mayan languages in Guatemala) documents. Considered by Georges Raynaud "The only piece of the ancient Amerindian theater that has come to us "that in form or content can't be detected "the least trace of a word, an idea, a fact, a European origin" (Raynaud, George, 1995. P 99-114).
The Rabinal Achí is a dance-drama of war and sacrifice. It tells the story of the conflict between the Kiché and the Rabinaleb for territory and power. The story begins with the capture and interrogation of Kiché Achí (Warrior of Kiché) by Rabinal Achí (Warrior of Rabinal). Kiché Achí and his army invaded and destroyed four Rabinaleb populations and forced its inhabitants to pay taxes. After battling for days, Kiché Achí is captured and taken to the palace of Job Toj, the King of Rabinal, to be judged.
The interrogation and judgment happen during the second act, in which Job Toj offers a solution to Kiché Achí. In exchange for forgiveness, Kiché Achí must renounce loyalty to his king and pay respect to the King of Rabinal. If he accepts, Job Toj promises to welcome him among his own, to give him arms, clothing, and ornaments. Job Toj also promises to provide him with food, and drinks and to offer him a woman to take for a wife. Rabinal Achí at first regards this solution as a personal offense but ends by accepting it at the insistence of his king.
Rabinal Achí communicates Job Toj’s agreement to Kiché Achí. The latter rejects any commitment from the outset and continues to behave menacingly. In the fourth act, standing in front of Job Toj, Kiché Achí obstinately refuses the offerings made to him, claiming his loyalty to his king and finally obtaining the death penalty. The captive is allowed to go to say goodbye to his people. Before his execution, he is granted to dance to the rhythm of the Tun with the princess of Rabinal and to enjoy royal drinks. After the dance and the drink, the execution takes place. The rhythm of the Tun intensifies as the Jaguar warriors and eagle warriors dance around the captive and finally is executed.
My design concept is deeply rooted in my experience while visiting Guatemala. I wanted to create a world of color and vibrancy, in which the sacred lives among the material, and there is no line between the audience and the performance. The religious context and the processional character of the performance are two factors of vital importance for my design.
Given the ancient nature of the script and the significance for the community, I established my design parameters to create a design that is comprehensible, respectful of the tradition and culture, and captures the essence of the original play.
Through observation and conversations with members of the family that inherited the script family and members of the community, I was able to determine the most important elements of the contemporary Mayan aesthetic. My main goal was to avoid stereotypes and cultural appropriation by refraining from the use of references to the pre-Columbian Mayan empire and focusing on the artistic manifestations of the contemporary Mayan world.
I strived to create an intimate space that can produce a relatable experience for the audience and that will nurture their interest not only for Mayan art but also for all kinds of Native artistic practices and issues. Finally, I wanted to be true to my artistic vision in terms of staging and design.
One of the pillars of my design is the processional setting. I think that it is extremely important to create an experience that challenges the western idea of the audience as a passive receptor and instead creates a whole experience of constant movement and dynamism. In a processional setting, the audience interacts with the performers, the musicians, and the dancers and they belong to the same world.
The other pillar is the use of color. This is obvious just by taking a glance at Guatemala. When it comes to color, there is no shyness. The sense of design through color and patterns is so integrated into the community that is something that comes naturally to them. The decorations of the altars, the arrangement of the ceremonial space, and the costumes all obey a deep sense of tradition and devotion. In general, I found a rich and vibrant color palette composed mainly of saturated primary and secondary colors.
According to my research and design concept, creating a processional space while maintaining certain comfort levels was one of my main priorities and challenges. In the performance in Rabinal, it is impossible to construct a linear reality or get a full picture of the scene, neither is it listening to the whole text. Each person has a different perspective depending on their reference point and that perspective will be as unique as everybody else’s. This fragmented reality is something that I wanted to keep as a constant, not only for the set but also for the lighting.
To have this constant movement, I created a structure that positions the audience in the middle of two acting spaces and creates a dialog between the text and the dance/ music. This configuration allows me to create an integrated space for the dance drama.
In terms of scenic and performance elements, I can say that there is a lot of dynamism. In the dance-drama, the music, actions, and dance are merged, and the set encompasses everything from an integral perspective.
The processional nature of the Rabinal Achí places a lot of importance on the costumes. Being a play performed outdoors makes the costumes and masks the strongest design element of the play. The community identifies the characters by their costumes. The people in the community know since they are young how each character is supposed to look and what elements should be present to complete the costume. The designs don’t change from year to year, and if some changes and replacements occur due to repairs or sizing issues.
The use of masks is extremely important for the costumes. Instead of makeup, the performers wear wood masks that represent their characters. The performer stops being a subject and embraces the character completely. The mask takes over the performer’s identity and recreates an ancient character. They also change the anatomy of the performer, which to me is really special because it differentiates them from the rest of the community. The resource of the mask is widely spread among the traditional dances in Guatemala. This aesthetic uses the idea of archetypes to convey a specific meaning and to create characters that are timeless and above humanity.