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63 Chapter 2 Primitivist Accumulation and Teatro sintético When the several dozen members of the American Industrial Mission settled into their seats at the Teatro Olimpia on the evening of September 17, 1924, were they anticipating a reprieve from the wheeling and dealing, or did they still have dollar signs in sight? During the previous few days they had hit all the architectural highlights of Mexico City, talked tariffs and investment opportunities with politicos, and sipped libations on the balcony of the Pala‑ cio Municipal as multitudes gathered below to commemorate independence and hear the president reenact the grito, or cry of rebellion against Spain. On the itinerary for September 18 was a tour of several factories, where they would admire the facilities and then dine on a light lunch of lobster cocktail and squab as workers performed gymnastics and military drills to the accompaniment of a brass band. At the moment, however, these esteemed representatives of U.S. banking and manufacturing interests were relaxing after an all-​ day excursion to the ancient Indian pyramids of Teotihuacán while waiting for the curtain to rise on what had been billed as a spectacle in which native customs and rituals would commingle with picturesque scenes of urban life, creating a “synthesis” of the primitive and the modern along with an amalgamation of music, song, dance, painting, and mime. Musicians and dancers from the Tarascan tribe had traveled from their remote village in the state of Michoacán to take part in the debut of the Teatro del Murciélago (which meant “Theater of the Bat,” as a short preamble delivered in English helpfully explained); with the aid of several young artists and actors they would distill the country’s color and character into a series of brief, nearly wordless tableaux that would fill viewers with an “exquisite emotion,” offer‑ ing them a tienda de juguetes para el alma—­ a toy store for the soul.1 Whether or not the industrialists felt the flutter of emotion (exquisite or otherwise) is difficult to say, but the reviews that appeared over the following few days were almost all gushing in their praise of a performance said to have elicited a sense of the“dramatic, the frivolous, the tender, the melancholic, the reminiscence of childhood, everything a man can experience in his passage through life in these times when everything is synthesis.”2 The word “syn‑ thesis,” so ubiquitous in Mexico (as in Europe) during the 1920s and 1930s, 64 Chapter 2 characterizes the Teatro del Murciélago in more ways than one. The project arose out of a collaboration involving artist-​ ethnographers working in indig‑ enous communities and an international cast of characters affiliated with the avant-​ garde movement known as estridentismo. Its premiere performance, sponsored by the Mexico City Council and Chamber of Commerce, was part of an effort to (re)establish economic ties following the decade-​ long revolu‑ tion and reintegrate the country into circuits of commodity exchange. In fact, for many of the U.S. “missionaries” who saw the show it must have had a familiar air: as the artists openly acknowledged, their project was inspired by (and named after) the Théâtre de la Chauve-​ Souris, a touring revue of Russian émigrés known for its stylized depictions of Slavic folk customs and tableaux in which humans acted like mechanical dolls. The Chauve-​ Souris had taken Paris, London, New York, and other cosmopolitan cities by storm. Undaunted, its Mexican double promised to prove that the land south of the Rio Grande boasted even more “color” than Old Mother Russia. Why, then, did the Murciélago vanish almost immediately after its debut, leaving in its wake an elusive ideal summed up by the term teatro sintético? Avant-​ garde artists engaging with indigenous culture is not unusual in itself, especially in Mexico, where muralists adorned the walls of government buildings with dancing peasants and Aztec warriors, and where intrepid for‑ eigners such as Sergei Eisenstein and Antonin Artaud came to smoke peyote and search for signs of the future in the primitive past. Estridentismo, how‑ ever, is often seen as an exception: the first movement in Mexico to call itself la vanguardia, it is remembered for its “strident” manifestos as well as for its members’ early embrace of mass culture and their subsequent attempt to transform the provincial city of Xalapa into a socialist utopia. Art historians have recently muddied the waters by drawing attention to the involvement of estridentistas...


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