TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 42-63
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At Play in the Cosmos
The Theatre and Ritual of Nicolás Núñez
Deborah K. Middleton
In 1975, Nicolás Núñez founded the Taller de Investigación Teatral--Theatre Research Workshop (TRW)--under the auspices of the National University in Mexico City (UNAM). Throughout its history, the TRW has functioned as a center for research in the fields of both theatre and ritual. Working closely with Helena Guardia, and other members of the group, Núñez has explored the connections between theatre and ritual by researching within a number of traditional and contemporary performance conventions. In particular, the group has worked extensively with indigenous Mexican traditions, but this heritage has been considered through a prism of performance forms from other cultures. For example, in 1986, members of the group traveled to India to study for one year at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts to examine the theatre and rites of a culture they considered spiritually close to their own. Their research has also taken them to the heart of Western theatre--drawing from Stanislavsky, studying with Strasberg, working for a year with Grotowski as "co-responsibles" during his Theatre of Sources period. From each of these ventures, Núñez has sought guidance for the creation of a ritual theatre--a theatre that is inspired by sacred practices but transplants those practices into a secular theatrical context. Guided especially by the indigenous performance traditions and philosophies of the Náhuatl Indians of Mexico, Núñez seeks a theatre that may serve as a vehicle through which participants can experience the ancient tradition of offering their hearts to the sun--literally making one's own sun, the heart's sun, rise.
Núñez published Teatro Antropocósmico in 1987. This record of the TRW's many adventures outlined the theatrical phenomena to which their research had brought them: "anthropocosmic theatre"--a theatre of the human in the cosmos. Now available in an English translation, Núñez's book describes the TRW's work as "devices of 'participatory theatre' which give back to our organism its capacity to be the echo box of the cosmos" (1996a:xvii). The centrality of the cosmos within Núñez's theatre is a direct result of the group's research into their pre-Hispanic cultural roots. The heritage they uncovered from the ancient peoples who built pyramids, designed calendars, and studied the universe was a religio-philosophical tradition that aligned the hearts of men and women with the life of the stars. Accordingly, the theatre that [End Page 42] Núñez and his group have evolved is designed to put participants in touch with a sense of their cosmological context. This is approached through recourse to ritual practices believed capable of altering consciousness and perception, and through mythological imagery that evokes concepts of nature and the forces of nature. If this seems like an ambitious objective, then it is one that Núñez, seeking a performative tradition for contemporary Mexicans, found irresistible.
Participation is central to the work of the TRW, and is seen as the key to investing theatrical structures with the potentials of ritual. Accordingly, the work consists largely of interactive "dynamics," structured sequences of psychophysical actions in which participants play an active part and through which they may access altered states of experience. While a particular dynamic may form the basis for a large public event, such as Citlalmina (1988), the dynamics are more generally available to participants through the weekly open sessions of the TRW at UNAM's theatre space, Casa del Lago, in Chapultepec, Mexico City, and through pedagogical workshops given at home and abroad. Since 1993, Núñez has carried out seven workshops in Britain; my attendance at these workshops, along with my involvement in Núñez's work in Mexico during three research trips to the country, form the basis of this analysis.
In addition to the workshops and dynamic-based public events, the TRW also produces theatrical performances...