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24 July 2007

Get your dance back

Mg_1144 There are extraordinary people among us.

My class last week was a magical combination of extraordinary ones, including a woman who got her PhD when she was 82. She's now 86. Every time she opened her mouth, a story emerged that enraptured and informed us, those around her. Alice, we all want to be you, vital and learning and teaching and playing at 86. We have much to learn from the Alices of the world.

And tonight I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by another extraordinary human, renowned photographer Miguel Gandert who also teaches at this Institute, my home for the past three weeks.

Miguel studies ritual, ritualized form: "Ritual performance is something people do not because they have to, but because they need to," he explained to us.

"I need to photograph to understand the world," he said, as he shared images with us. I was struck by not only their beauty, but by his relationship to them. If photograph is context, we were all imbued with meaning at the end.

His talk, "Images of Ritual: Reading History and Intercultural Relationships in Photography," took us into worlds we do not often see, worlds of process and dance and performance, worlds in some way paralleled by the previous evening's presentation on Hip-Hop as an intercultural form. "I've been doing this dance my whole life," one dancer had said when asked. They owned a form and beat and rhythm that I fear we do not.

The photo of the young woman above is from a series that Miguel did to capture the spirit of Comanche culture, a culture he honored as Nuevomexicano villagers reenact the terms of their own survival and cultural origins. Indo-Hispano music, dance, and celebrations have been handed down for generations in northern New Mexico.

Despite this lengthy heritage, there is slight mention of these traditions in the historical and anthropological record. In the Anglo-American imagination, miscegenation is equated with contamination. When Edward S. Curtis, passed through New Mexico staging his portraits of the American Indian, he bypassed these mestizo communities. So Miguel Gandert stepped in, creating portraits like this one that are made in the tradition of Curtis, staging photographs that Curtis might have made of them.

From there to Bolivia's Feast Days. In many cases, Miguel was the only observer, or one of a few. Did the dance stop because there were no witnesses? No, the dance wasn't dependent on an audience; it had to be performed, not because of acclaim, but because of need.

Danz2_2I was deeply humbled by not only the beauty of his images, but also by the depth of his passion and insight, and by his own humbleness in the face of such forces. One of the feast day performances in Brazil draws only 3,000 watchers, but has over 18,000 performers. In the U.S., I fear that a stringent cost-benefit analysis would close that show soon after opening.

We lose ourselves and our mythology in the urge toward efficiency and neatness. Where these dances acknowledge the dark side of their history, our dark histories are "spun" into soundbites. Where these dances must be danced, we look at return on investment before opening a show. We have lost our mythologies, our rituals, our needs. They have been replaced with ROI, Paris Hilton, and media spin.

We are so unconnected to our rituals, to sacred spaces, to the dances that give us shared meaning. These arts serve a vital identity function. We need to get our dance back in order to get our selves back.

Thanks, Miguel.


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"We lose ourselves and our mythology in the urge toward efficiency and neatness. "

until recently this was not at all true about New Orleans.

New Orleans inspired me to video document the diaspora to Candomble in Brazil, Gnawa in Morocco, etc.

Immersion in cultures that performed rituals like the second lines in New Orleans fed me for years. I appreciate and relate to this mans
work and experience.
Glad to know he is sharing his talent and skills in such a way.

If you're interested, I'll see about sharing a film clip of Maya Deren's work. Let me know.

I love these Miguel Gandert portraits in the ES Curtis tradition. Portraits in themselves evoke a different era. Looking into someones eyes speaks to time, and those who came before... the progression of humanity. It's a style that works.

Here is a footnote I have on the Curtis legacy which you might find to strike a chord.

Edward S. Curtis, Legendary Photographer, What no Photoshop?

Curtis didn't use a Canon or Nikon SLR, but made his images with a 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 Premo reversible back camera. It had a 22" bellows, and a ground glass back. It took at least 15 minutes to set up a picture, and his fastest shutter speed was 1/100th of a second. He didn't have a "healing" or "cloning" tool, sharpening, curves, or levels... neither Photoshop nor the computer, or the CCD had been invented yet. My God! How did he do it?

For as much criticism as this man has received in the last century, it leads one to think that perhaps he did create a little magic. Perhaps he was on to something in the photographic world.

The beginnings of the modern west certainly resonate in the works of Edward S. Curtis. His photos were made at a time when Indians already driven from their lands were being shorn from their cultures.

This history is very apparent in a new film on Curtis's works, THE INDIAN PICTURE OPERA, (Amazon, DVD). In it, his images are explained in his own words. It's a re-creation of a 1911 E.S. Curtis lecture and slide show.

This film goes way beyond the images in showing how the west was transformed. It was a last grasp at recapturing was he called the "vanishing race". Ironic that Curtis's works were underwritten by J.P. Morgan, who helped bankroll expansion of railroads into America's west.

A journey into the past is always enlightening. Even though photography has been reinvented by digital, it's golden age was a century ago.

Wow! That photo of the woman is absolutely amazing!

I've long felt that we've lost ritual and rites of passage in our society, those things that keep us connected to the earth and our souls as well as each other. These photos are wonderful. Thank you for sharing them.

Thanks for sharing the links to Miguels site...beautiful photographs! Our loss of rituals that connect us to the earth, to our spiritual life and to each other has left our culture bereft of the nourishment it so desparately needs to flourish.

This institute that you're at and the courses offered there sound so intriguing!

i am working in chicago this week (i live in atlanta) and i think the rituals and sacred places you speak of are something that the chicagoans have alot of. i had been trying to put my finger on why this huge city feels so calm and homelike to me. i think it is partly because there are so many people here who have so much invested in the places and traditions that are chicago. and so many families have been here for generations. we in atlanta have less connection to that i think, because so many of us are transplants (we've grown by over 1 million in the 11 years i've been there). so how do we recreate these things when we've moved and lost them. how do we recreate these fabrics of our culture?

What gorgeous images! And you just described my get my PhD someday, no matter HOW old I am. Alice is my hero!

Beautiful images.

Just a cautionary note that not all rituals are 'good'. They can repress and marginalize those without power. They can shore up the status quo at the expense of the 'others' in a community.

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