Gastón A. Alzate is Associate Professor of Theater and Literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He previously acted as Founding Director of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies (LALACS) at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota (1997-2006). Before coming to the United States, he worked as an art critic for the Sunday magazine of the Colombian daily El Espectador, and for the Revista Arte Internacional of the Bogotá Museum of Modern Art, Colombia. His publications include a study of Colombian poet Álvaro Mutis, which won the National Essay Prize in his native country, and a study of contemporary Mexican cabaret. He is co-editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Theatricalities and Visual Culture KARPA (http://www.calstatela.edu/misc/karpa). Since 2005, he has been a member of the Editorial Board of Latin American Theatre Review. Since 2007, he has been part of the Irvine Hispanic Theater Research Group directed by Juan Villegas (editor of Gestos). He has published in the fields of Latin American theatre, film, popular culture, and literature in Colombia, Mexico, Spain, and the US.
Contemporary Mexican Political Cabaret
Contemporary Mexican political cabaret is re-contextualizing a genre that reached its peak in Mexico City in the 1930s and had practically disappeared by the 1960s. Since the 1980s, Mexican cabaret artists have been interested in creating a contemporary theatrical aesthetic form that is rooted in Mexican tradition and is quite critical of the social construction of bodies and hegemonic models of national, sexual, and cultural identities. Many of these artists deviate from the sexual norm and openly challenge predominant conceptions of gender and sexuality. They are also explicitly working against a widespread phenomenon in Latin America, which is the uncritical internationalization (or homogenization) of theatrical and cultural productions. My aim is to study the theatrical strategies through which these artists have turned cabaret into a distinctive theatrical genre in constant dialogue with Mexican history and based upon a dialectical relationship with the audience. The turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century is crucial in my investigation. The genre of carpa (tent theatre; similar to street theatre), on which contemporary Mexican cabaret is based, was the marginal counterpart of the musical revista of the 1930s. It was the crucible in which many artists who later went on to work in Mexican revue theatre and in Mexican movies of the 1930s perfected their craft. Contemporary cabaret artists have explicitly explored tent theatre, along with American stand-up comedy, post-war German cabaret, clown technique, and contemporary performance art. Mexican cabaret theatre is also used as a political tool in demonstrations and political gatherings. These are some of the processes of interweaving that my research shall explore.
Rationale and Aims of Research
Performance studies have long studied the world; the world is now ‘studying back’. And we are part of this writing-back world. Little attention is paid to Arabic theatre due to the scarcity of scripts and bibliographical information as well as the lack of translations. I hope that the results of this research project will open forums of discussion among scholars of performance studies both in the Arab world and the rest of the globe, as it is committed to the aim of introducing Arabic theatre to other audiences. As for its relevance to Western academia, it can be seen as a first step towards a close account of Arabic performance history from the perspective of a Moroccan scholar and practitioner. I situate my work between performance studies and anthropological studies, and at this point I must admit that I am indebted to the following scholars: Marvin Carlson, Patrice Pavis, Richard Schechner, and Erika Fischer-Lichte for introducing me to the field of Performance Studies and intercultural theatre. My research in the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin will be a good opportunity for exchange and dialogue between East and West. The transposition of traditional performance behaviour to a theatre building spells out a state of indecision. Such indecision is part of the predicament of the Arab postcolonial subject, a subject who found himself construed on the borderlines of different narratives: The Western and the local. Postcolonial theatre has boldly come to terms with the hybrid condition of the Arab subject who cannot exist otherwise due to the traumatic wounds that were inflicted upon him by the colonial enterprise. The transfer of al-halqa to the stage constitutes a positive oscillation between opposites insofar as it bridges the gap of bipolar opposites by marrying them. Saddiki’s theatre exemplifies this marriage between East and West, past and present, traditional and modern. In a related context, Edward Said openly discredited all kinds of essentialism surrounding discourses of national cultures: “Far from being unitary or monolithic or autonomous things, cultures actually assume more foreign elements, alterities, differences, than they consciously exclude.” And since culture is inherently hybrid, adaptive, and changing, performance itself is receptive to foreign elements.
Arab theatre today is construed within a liminal space, on the borderlines between different tropes. It cannot exist otherwise, for it juxtaposes different heterogeneous entities only to emerge as a hybrid stage that is spaced between East and West. It is a fusion of Western theatrical traditions and the local Arabic performance traditions. The hybrid nature of Arabic theatre is manifested in the very transposition of the halqa (as an important paradigm of Moroccan performativity) from jema-elfna to modern theatre buildings like The National Theater Mohammed the Fifth, a theatre similar to Western theatre buildings. Thus, the postcolonial condition of Arabic theatre today is characterized by hybridity as a dominant feature. Hybridity is not simply a fusion of two pure moments but the persistent emergence of liminal third spaces that transform, renew, and recreate different kinds of writing out of previous models. And this constitutes our theatrical difference.
- Alzate, G. A., “Dramaturgy, Citizenship, and Queerness: Contemporary Mexican Political Cabaret,” in Latin American Perspectives, vol. 37, no. 1, 2010, pp. 62-76.
- Alzate, G. A., “Paquita la del Barrio and Translocal Theatricality: Performing Counter(post)modernity,” in J. E. Bixler and L. Seda (eds.) Trans/Acting: Latin American and Latino Performing Arts, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2009, pp. 160-178.
- Alzate, G. A., Teatro de cabaret: Imaginarios disidentes [Cabaret Theater: Dissident Imaginaries], Irvine: Gestos (University of California), 2002.