I have always wanted to visit Mexico. I grew up reading Carlos Castaneda’s books about shamanism and then continued to devour any Mexican writer I could find who was writing in the form of magical realism. My chance finally came in the form of an ex student who I had taught visual arts to but who is also a dancer and a choreographer, moving to Mexico several years ago.
This November due to the state this country was in and a desire to have a clearer perspective on my personal life I decided to propose to Rebecca (my ex student) that I came for a month and created a site specific performance with her.
She agreed immediately so I booked my flights and buses and coaches and taxis and Air B&B and prepared for the 6 day trip there and back.
Rebecca lives in San Cristobal de Las Casas in the province of Chiapas, the poorest and most political provinces, surrounded by jungle and indigenous tribes. It is most well known for the Zapatista army of national liberation that in 1994 began an ongoing revolution in Mexico and it started in St Cristobal.
What I did not know was it was also the highest city in the region at 7,200 feet which meant my whole physicality while I was there had to change to accommodate that intensity.
As soon as I stepped off the plane on Mexican soil my adventure began and from then until I returned my life was turned upside down in a really good and very stimulating way.
Rebecca had organised a flat for me and had found a site for our performance.
I asked to have a slow start to get acclimatised as I felt sensually overwhelmed by the incredible colour, heat, sound, culture shock of being in a place that was so different from what I was used to.
Once I had got over my jet lag we visited the site which was a privately run public garden, once owned by 2 famous American anthropologists who collected, over 30 years, a huge range of indigenous plants, and then planted them in their garden. Located in the centre of the city it was a semi paradise full of ancient cactus tree’s, herbs and hummingbirds and parrots. Rebecca had a boyfriend who was an artist with a studio in the garden, which gave us a base.
We spent my first week in a studio getting to know each other again and building up a shared working language as we were going to both perform and create the event in collaboration.
From the 2nd week we visited the garden everyday and began the process of researching it’s history and also developing a physical performance language between us. I always try when I make these performances to listen to the place as much as possible and in that sense it was our third collaborator. I try not to have any preconceived agenda, I just allow the place to seep in and tell me what it needs.
We realised about the 3rd week that we wanted the audience to literally travel with us through the garden, this was tricky to structure as we would not know how this would work or how they would react until the actual performances but having done it many times before I knew it could work as a strategy. In the 4th week we had created a 20 min scenario and had set most of the actions and events in place, but I did add and change 2 sections between the 2 performances.
In terms of the content of the piece it became clear to both of us that we wanted the audience to have an immersive journey through the whole garden, to experience it anew, as if in a movie where anything could happen, where they would hear and see stories and participate in dancing and drinking tea ( from herbs in the garden . We decided we wanted to teach them a made up language which crossed over from spoken to physical and back again, that we could all share.
We did 2 performances on 2 different days at 4.30 in the afternoon when the light was just beginning to change. We limited the audience numbers to 14 each night so everyone could see and hear everything as we moved through the garden.
A week before the first performance we received the news that the owners of the garden had made the decision to close it to the public giving no reason why, so we suddenly were creating a goodbye piece of work as well as a celebration of a place. We decided we had to tell the audience about this but only at the end. After the first performance people were in tears not just because of the shock of finding out the garden was going to be forever closed to them but also realising what they were losing. In both performances we were astonished at the audience’s willingness to participate and particularly because no one who came had experienced this type of work before. There are many memories etched in my imagination from this experience, but here are a few…
Making bird noises and the birds singing back in response
Hearing the story of the American couples son age 5 drowning in the garden
Watching the audience faces as we tell them the garden will close
Having a party at night in the garden to say goodbye to the artists studio
lying in the sun in a lunch break and falling asleep and waking up with a new idea.
Marimba band next door rehearsing every afternoon
Watching hummingbirds collect pollen all around me.