- Dancing the New World: Aztecs, Spaniards, and the Choreography of Conquest by Paul A. Scolieri
Dance, Aztec Culture, Representation, Aztec, Bartolome de las Casas, Zahagún, Performance, Arieto, Choreography, Historiography, New Spain, Colonialism, Patricia ybarra, Paul A. Scolieri
Paul A. Scolieri’s Dancing the New World: Aztecs, Spaniards and the Choreography of Conquest is a richly nuanced and well-researched study of indigenous dance [End Page 113] that investigates the importance of “writing dance” as part of the “transformation of the Aztec empire into a Spanish colony” (back cover). Primarily historiographical, this work is a crucial addition to a growing field of research on indigenous performance. Scolieri’s focus on dance stands apart from scholarship on other forms of conquest performance, which tend to ignore or under-theorize the kinesthetic and choreographic aspects of indigenous performance in favor of theorizing the choreography of colonial governmentality. His analysis powerfully argues not only that dance became a key site in which the “European self “ and the “Indian other” were discursively produced, but that the chroniclers “choreographed history in the sense that they memorialized, justified, lamented, and/or denied their role in the discovery, conquest and colonization of the New World through the Aztec dancing body” (2).
Scolieri’s study is comprised of a series of five chapters spanning from the discovery period through the late sixteenth century. Each chapter considers a selection of texts that demonstrate an epistemological paradigm in relation to their understanding of Aztec dance. Well aware of the limitations of terms such as “dance” and “choreography” to describe the embodied practices of indigenous people, Scolieri carefully historicizes his terms and offers the complex relationships between danza, baile, arieto, mitote, and others as they functioned epistemologically, without overplaying the alterity of indigenous practice as unknowable.
His first chapter, “On the Arieto,” traces the emergence of writing on dance from the discovery period in texts from Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Peter Martyr d’Anghera, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdés, and Bartolomé de Las Casas. It is here that Scolieri confronts these chroniclers’ desires to think of the arieto as a site of collective memory and history, despite the authors’ lack of information about the cultural meaning of said performances. Scolieri performs his analysis of the emergence of dance understood as a form of knowledge through a careful genealogical analysis of how the Taino term arieto was applied to culturally distinct practices by Oviedo, who used it to distinguish embodied acts that commemorate history from those that “connote a ‘mysterious’ form of idolatry” (38). As Scolieri argues, this distinction, although at times inconsistent and misinformed in relation to indigenous ritual practices, nonetheless suggests that Oviedo “was on the verge of articulating an early modern notion of performance” (39). Las Casas’s subsequent desire for the arieto to be a form dedicated to indicting Spanish atrocity is an extension of Oviedo’s project. Las Casas’s “vagueness” about the formal practices of the dances themselves is a legacy that is imparted throughout colonial sources. Scolieri’s greatest contribution here is subtly imparted: that the chroniclers’ desire to think of dance performances as being “in the place of books” might reflect upon contemporary scholars’ desire for indigenous performance to stand in as a form of historiography. We are, after all, just as hampered as [End Page 114] many of the missionaries were by the lack of information about the meaning of these practices within indigenous cultures.
Chapter two, “Motolinía and the Counterfeit Histories of Dance,” traces the legacy of the texts on dance in the Memoriales by Fray Toribio de Benevente “Motolinía” through subsequent histories that excerpted and modified them. In this short chapter, Scolieri first analyzes Motolinía’s desire to convert indigenous performance into Christian practice by underscoring the indigenous people’s ability to imitate and therefore adopt said practices through performance. Subsequently, Scolieri traces the movements of Motolinía’s text, revealing that Francisco de Gómara’s La conquista de México and his Historia de las Indias, Francisco...