Monday, November 29, 2010

dance reflections - madrid / cadiz, spain

"Beauty is as close to terror
as we can well endure...
Pour your emptiness
into the breeze -
the birds may soar
more swiftly for it."

Rainer Maria Rilke

Prior to arriving to Spain, I didn't have any preconceptions as to how our adventure would unfold. All that was planned was that we would spend two nights in Madrid on arrival and then spend the remaining time renting a friend's apartment in Cadiz on the southern coast. So many friends who had been to Madrid said "You must go to the Prado Museum!"

Not knowing anything about the specifics of the artwork contained within the immense museum, I was excited by the possibility of viewing paintings that I had studied from text books in art history classes in college. I was not prepared, however, for the intensity of the subject matter in the majority of the paintings nor how the viewing of them would affect my soul.

The Prado Museum's collection of Spanish art - including work by Velázquez, Carbonero, Zurbarán and Pérez and Goya, along with other Spanish and Flemish masters, such as El Greco, Murillo, Zurbarán, van der Weyden, Rubens, Brueghel,van Dyck, and Bosch - mostly portray a world of inhumanity and death.

Recently I read: "The Prado Museum - The Spanish Art of Horror" and that much of "Spanish art is the stuff of horror - as inhabitants of the land of the Reconquista, Inquisition, Invasion and Civil War, the Spanish have had a lot to paint about."
'Saturn Devouring his Son." Goya, 1819 - 1823

There are also painting after painting of the crucifixion and descent from the cross which are powerful depictions of the suffering of a bloodied Christ. Some paintings show the immense grief of the spectators, as well.

The most impactful images for me, however, were those of Goya's "The 3rd of May 1808" and Antonio Gisbert Pérez's painting of "The Execution by Firing Squad of Torrijos and his Colleages on the Beach at Málaga." Both paintings I had studied in college, and both are very up close human depictions of the atrocities of war, where the artists caught the victims just at the moment prior to death by firingsquad. The description with Goya's painting speaks of how one faces their own death - with courage and hands upheld, or crippled with fear, unable to stand? During the years of the war, it is said Goya vented his horror and outrage of the inhumanities committed by soldiers and patriots with his extraordinary paintings.

Although I have had the training to 'critique' the paintings in an analytical way from my college days, I was so astonished how paint on canvas could affect my soul's depths so profoundly.
"The Execution by Firing Squad of Torrijos and his Colleages on the Beach at Málaga." Antonio Gisbert Pérez, 1888

And so our Spanish vacation, from the start, was tainted by these deeply moving images of the depictions of human suffering.
Goya's "The 3rd of May 1808," 1814

Cadiz is a spectacular city on the end of a spit of land where Spain narrows close toward Morocco. It is said to be the oldest city in Europe and was founded, according to legend, by Hercules himself some 3000 years ago. The Phoenicians settled there around 1100 BC and in 501 BC the conquering Carthaginians landed. They were followed by the Romans in 206 BC. They were followed by other conquerors, the Visigoths and the Muslims. The rule of the Moors came to an end when Spain ruled in 1262. In 1596 Anglo and Dutch ships arrived and burned the city to the ground. In the 1700's Cadiz bounced back and reached the zenith of its power and prestige when Napolean and his French troops invaded and Cadiz became the capital of occupied Spain. It once was the dominant city for trade between Spain and the new world. In the 1930's during the Spanish Civil War, its towns people fought and lost against Franco's Fascists... History books speak of these events as 'conquers' de-humanizing the pain and suffering of all involved in the battles - including the repercussions on the women, children and seniors...

Although we took daily walks along the seawall promenade that encircled Cadiz and gazed out at the beauty of the turquoise Mediterranean waters, there was a feeling of being unsettled on the inside. I couldn't help think that the deep feelings were somehow connected to all the pain and suffering of generation after generation on this land. My nights were filled with very little sleep trying to adjust to the time change, and were also filled with vivid and strange dreams for the short times I was able to sleep.
And there was, initially, a feeling of being physically lost in a new environment - not speaking the language, and not knowing our way around the city where it is easy to get lost with so many of the narrow, apartment-lined and small shop-lined streets looking so similar - wandering through them often felt like a maze.
Challenged to dance wherever I find myself, at home or traveling, I felt grateful to be able to dance my soul along the ancient fortress seawall and castle remnants, in the light of sol, the wind, and with the relentless rhythms of the surrounding sea which made me feel a deep rootedness to this place of so much history.

However, I felt less of a connection to the elemental natural world and subsequent feeling of being deeply grounded in the earth (and within myself) which I have danced so regularly with in the past, and more of a connection to the lineage of human beings throughout time.
"Our progenitors densely inhabit our souls... It's as if the spirits of the dead are alive and breathing through us... We are not alone; we share our bodies with many, many others... We've evolved as human beings by the grace of those who
have gone before... You've got to cherish the souls of the dead; without their help we would be bereft of our living force. We coinhabit this world with our ancestors... The realm where I long to dance is one where I merge with the spirits of the dead... Please continue; try to reach out to those with whom you share your body." Kazuo Ohno - my butoh mentor Momo's sensei
Although I have no Spanish lineage that I know of, I had strong feelings of interconnectedness - the universal idea of ancestral relations.
I was thankful to have a dance practice in which I could express my inner longings from the soul. This dance was inspired by my feelings of being inwardly unsettled after viewing the depths of human sufferings depicted in paintings as well as the connection to those that have gone before. It was also a study of imagining facing my own death and darkness with courage, and also the longing to experience the light from the inside, that of human compassion and goodness, even in the realm of suffering and darkness.
I was feeling so grateful during this dance for all the souls who have lived and suffered to enable so many of us in this time period to live with so many freedoms and privileges... a dance study of gratefulness...
While preparing to write this blog I recently came across the below photo - a copy of Goya's etching, "The Disasters of War", inspired as a consequence of the Spanish War of Independence. Between 1810 and 1823, he created several of these etchings which reveal the devastation of war. It is said that Goya's prints had an indelible impact on Ernest Hemingway, who shared the artist's antiwar sentiment and ability to portray human suffering in "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which Brooke was reading while we were there - a timeless classic. It is amazing to me how emotionally powerful colored paint on canvas can be that stir the soul so deeply - images that for me were more powerful than images of war that are depicted in our modern era via the media...

I was struck by the similarity and angles of shadow and light between Goya's etchings and the dance I did at Castillo Santa Catalina in the below film. We were told by a local resident in Madrid that artists go to Cadiz because the light is so spectacular there - feeling so fortunate to have had the opportunity to dance in the light (and shadows) while we were there...
The dance is dedicated to my sensei, Momo, with gratitude, who continues to inspire me with her courage to explore and experience darkness within (and without), expressed outwardly in dance.

Thank you for reading / viewing this lengthy post that holds so much meaning for me. I hope it may inspire you in some way...
Photos by Brooke
Visit Momo's inspiring blog here: Maureen 'Momo' Freehill


  1. So moving and powerful Leela. You are a courageous woman & soul dancer between and among the worlds! Your sensitivity and generosity is an honor to me and all of us who are blessed enough to bear witness to it. Thank you for sharing....looking forward to our continued butoh dance journey and collaborations.

  2. Thank you for the welcome Leela! Happy to 'meet' you here. Love seeing your butoh. Such strength, heart and grace you have! Yes, I am across the water and yet here, in what we can share, we are not so far : )
    Spain has always been dear to me as well. I have taught dance there, worked with horses and lived there, Mostly in Sevilla. I was in Barcelona and Figueres in March/April for taiji workshops this year. Spain is a beautiful place. I also am moved by Goya's paintings...thank you for your insights and taking us with you to España!

  3. dear misty eve,
    it is so lovely to meet you 'here', too!
    thank you for your kind words...
    love to hear more about you and your connection to spain - so beauty-full... to learn things through our dance expression is so wonderful!
    look forward to the continuing journey with you very much...