Escapism, spectacles and migration – the collective experience of Fuerza Bruta: Wayra (NYC)

I had never experienced anything quite like Fuerza Bruta: Wayra. Dragged by a friend of mine so I could start being optimistic about living in New York, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. So walking into a bar was interesting. Then descending downstairs into what felt like a basement was also interesting. Then being in a dark room lit only by what I can remember to be magenta shining lights and the text “Fuerza Bruta Wayra” being projected onto a wall – I was already excited.

Needless to say, I loved it. I loved it so much that I wrote an essay on it for my Performance and New York class (nerd moment, I know). Diqui James would hate me for trying to intellectualize the show. But I really can’t help it – it was one of the most incredible experiences EVER. While I think it funny that most articles about the show are written by older white men who found the show boring because they see it simply as a party, I urge you not to buy into their critique. Firstly, who doesn’t love a good party? And secondly, FB is more than just that. As I left the theatre, I could not help but think about how the performance revolved on the theme of escapism.

And so yes, I wrote an essay because I couldn’t get the show out of my mind. To be honest, I make vast generalizations in my essay because a) I had zero motivation to turn in this assignment and b) I was making obscure links in my head with things I had read for class. So maybe some things are farfetched but in my mind, it’s all connected in some way. SO, to begin:

 

Fuerza Bruta: Wayra  is the third showcase of the off-Broadway show Fuerza Bruta (FB), running at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Union Square, New York City since 2007. Conceived by Argentinian director Diqui James, FB premiered in 2003 in Buenos Aires.

Think immersive theatre, music, lights, projection mapping and party.

The performance has travelled the world and received mixed reactions from the audience. In countries in Asia, such as China, where physical contact is not a part of the culture, there were certain cues added to the performance to encourage people to move and dance. By contrast in South America, a culture that demands physical contact, the audience would be open to moving wildly in the space. Likewise in New York, the audience has been open to being involved in the performance. FB has a special place in NY, and is more than just another spectacular show. It becomes a significant theatre piece to run when placing it around the social and historical context of New York being a place of migration. FB turns the act of spectatorship into a performance in order to create a sense of community.

(Warning you now – SPOILER ALERT from here on.)

A group of performers play drums with a tribal upbeat quality to them, the energy instantly affecting the audience (to this day, I cannot get this beat out of my mind it’s so good). Performers emerge swinging from the ceiling, seemingly desperate to touch the hands of the audience members, the desperation shifting onto the audience members who eagerly try to touch the hands of the performers. Soon, the audience is introduced to a mysterious man on a treadmill, who becomes the protagonist of the show. He walks on the wrong side of a makeshift treadmill in the center of the room. He starts walking, dressed in all white. As he picks up the pace, a shot is fired. He reacts, seemingly hurt, and eventually he falls over– but not before stagehands can get a soft landing under him. He later continues walking against the direction of the treadmill, passing people and props. He appears to be resisting mundane work, conforming to a group of people, and violence in general. Perhaps the single most important thing to note, is how stagehands are made a part of the whole performance. There are individuals dressed in black who guide the audience within the space, and work swiftly in placing and removing props and equipment needed for particular scenes, like chairs and tables, or a wind machine. It is remarkable how FB is able to make an audience believe in a world where escapism is possible, while still bearing witness to the obvious theatrical elements of theatre.

Richard Schechner discusses how ‘performance studies’ as a discipline is difficult to explain because it resists or rejects definition. The field itself “cannot be mapped effectively because it transgresses boundaries, it goes where it is not expected to be” (Schechner 360). It becomes interesting to examine the discipline as a way of mapping one’s own world. Andrew Schneider’s recent “YOUARENOWHERE” performance art piece is essentially a depiction of the creator’s own world and the existential crises he faces, the creator being Schneider. FB on the other hand tries to encompass a much larger world. Whereas Schneider uses his personal experiences and thoughts to relate to the audience, FB resists specificity. By trying to create an experience that is raw and dependent on the movement of one’s body and the feelings one experiences during the course of the performance, FB maps a world unlike any other. It is able to depict problems of the real world, such as violence or stress, whilst creating the sense of the possibility to escape to a fantastical world filled with movement and music, and where one is not tied to any labels, social or otherwise. Schechner continues to discuss how performance studies “is inherently ‘in between’ and therefore cannot be pinned down or located exactly” (Schechner 360). This falls into a discussion on the power of theatre, and how theatre creates a suspension of disbelief; that in a particular time and space, what is seen as pretend is made to be real. This is further heightened in FB because of audience involvement being integral to the performance, thereby turning the audience into a ‘spect actor’.

What follows during the course of the performance is a descent into a world of fantasy. Performers suspend above everyone or swim on a transparent ceiling that drops down low enough for the audience to make contact with it, and a series of performers who release confetti and keep the audience moving. If one goes on a Friday night, there is even an after party that follows. Throughout the night, FB plays with desire and temptation. It is fascinating to witness the reactions of other audience members, as some will extend their arms towards the suspended performers. The question arises as to whether people are reaching out to be a part of the world or for the chance at human contact.  Growing up, Diqui James had an immense love for carnivals because of the energy in the streets and the feeling that everyone was together (James2). James calls the performance “a celebration”, creating a space where one is granted permission to let go; to drink to the heart’s content, and dance like one has never danced before.  This is interesting to consider when juxtaposed to the concept of amusement and spaces of entertainment. It is easy to understand why New York becomes a hub for experimental arts and theatre because of its historic ties with entertainment and the establishment of amusement parks such as Coney Island. Historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace wrote of how “Coney’s rides and beaches [was where] diverse peoples swam, ate, played, and rode together” (Burrows and Wallace1).  Such places offered a sense of contained freedom, as rides like “the roller coaster momentarily relieved riders of their inhibitions, providing welcome opportunities for romance” (Burrows and Wallace1).  James talks about how the show’s “main thing is that it’s a collective experience. You are interacting with people, sharing that space” (Watson).

Creating an experience that is collective and shared addresses notions of the power of theatre and its ability to bridge social and cultural barriers. In 2001, Nancy Foner noted that “in the past four decades, a massive wave of immigration has been transforming the United States, the vast majority of the new arrivals coming from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean” (Foner 27).  She continues to discuss how there is “a popular fear is that [immigrants] will have trouble, indeed often resists, fitting in; that their origins in non-Western cultures are poor preparation for American life” (Foner 27). However, what truly defines the ‘American life’? With migration being rooted in the history of the United States, there has for decades been a need for new citizens to adjust and adapt. This allows for the constant reshaping of the culture of the city, especially with regards to the arts.  Looking specifically at variety shows, such a genre had only emerged as a distinct part of the entertainment industry in the 1870s and 1880s (Burrows and Wallace1). This coincides with the period when New York City saw some of its highest numbers of migration, with “between 1865 and 1873  “over two hundred thousand immigrants [arriving] in New York City each year” from 1865 to 1873 (Burrows and Wallace2). FB can be seen as falling under the genre of Latin American theatre because it was produced by an Argentinian theatre company. However it resists being defined as exclusively Argentinian or Latin American. Though physical contact and celebration are fundamental aspects of Latin American culture, to confine FB to a genre that is regionally and culturally specific is to limit the audience.

In FB, everyone in the space is equal. Here is a space where one can let go, and be separated from any labels attached to the self.  The performance is able to unite people of differing economic and cultural classes. Diqui James talks about the disparity between the rich and the poor in Argentina, as in several parts of the world and how he wanted “”to do the type of theater that anyone can understand, not just the type that those reading Shakespeare would like” (James1). To James, the show was not about creating something that was exclusively Argentinian, but about instilling a feeling and emotion. The rawness of the show allows for the possibility for human connection to be instilled in the audience.

FB is an immersive theater piece that goes beyond the audience becoming spect-actors. More than an interaction between the audience and the performers, it is an immersive piece rooted in the desire for human connection. In creating a space with a heightened sense of desire and fantasy, where escape from the real world seems possible, FB brings together audience members into a collective emotional and physical experience. With the show running every night for almost ten years in New York City, it resists being merely a spectacle and it becomes part of the social construct of the city. It becomes part of the city’s history and adds to the narrative of the city being a place of attraction. New York’s history from as far back as the 19th century to the present, revolves around narratives of movement, migration and community. It is a culturally diverse city, but one which also feels divisive. Yet for a short period of time anyone at FB, audience members can forget about the world beyond the theatre’s walls and live in a moment of raw energy and communal celebration.

 

I would see FB again in a heartbeat. So the next time someone calls it a party, interject and say well, it’s an experience. An experience where everyone is equal, and where you can escape the outside world in a chance to lose yourself in a moment of fantasy. And indeed the act of escape and the search of an ‘other’ world is, I feel, part of the narrative.

(PS. Go on a Friday night – there’s an after-party when the show’s over.)

 

 

Works Cited

Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. “The New Immigrants.” Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 1111-131. Print.

Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. “That’s Entertainment!” Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 1132-154. Print.

Foner, Nancy. “Immigrant Commitment to America, Then and Now: Myths and Realities.” Citizenship Studies 5.1 (2001): 27-40. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13621020020025178>.

James, Diqui. “10 Years on a Natural Buzz: An Interview with FUERZA BRUTA’s Diqui James.” Interview by Ryan Leeds. Manhattan Digest. ManhattanDigest, LLC, 31 July 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

James, Diqui. “Diqui James Creates Something for Everyone.” Interview by Yue Xu and CCTV News. Youtube. N.p., 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

Schechner, Richard. “What Is Performance Studies Anyway?” The Ends of Performance. By Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane. New York: New York UP, 1998. 357-63. Print.

Watson, Keith. “Diqui James: Fuerzabruta Is Wilder Now, It’s Raw.” Metro: News… but Not as You Know It. Metro.co.uk, 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

 

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