For three weeks every October, Guanajuato transforms into a jumble of international visitors. Artists from around the world come to share their works of music, theater and dance with tourists enjoying one of the biggest arts festivals in the world and locals patiently waiting for the crowds to clear from their beautiful city.
I fell somewhere in between the local and the tourist, passing the early days of the festival in bubbly anticipation of events, and by the end grouchily elbowing my way through the town center as I silently cursed people to go home already. I went to seven events in total, a pitiful fraction of the possibilities, especially given the low entry fees. I never paid more than $90 pesos (about $5 USD) for a ticket, and I even got in free to an event once thanks to the efforts (or the fault) of my friend – but that’s another story. Now, let’s get on to the reviews.
Carnival of the Animals
This hour-long performance from six Australian acrobats provided tightropes and hula hoops, comical contortions, weird music, and audience interaction. The event was marketed for children and families, which became most apparent to me during the 40-minute delay for the show to start (by Mexican standards, that’s a timeframe barely worth mentioning). I watched two siblings utterly give up and lay down on the floor, one boy sitting on top of his brother. Yes, I thought, that’s pretty much how everybody in this auditorium feels right now. The show was worth the wait, anyways, and served as a powerful “Wow, I really need to do more yoga” reminder.
RATING: *** and a ½
National Dance Company of Spain
I’ve never been into ballet, but this performance, which began with an interpretation of Don Quixote, was at least an impressive display of athleticism. The dancers had all been training since childhood, probably, and the years were present in every limb. The men were as lean and perfect as the David statue and the women all looked like Sarah Jessica Parker went to CrossFit. Ballerinas are supposed to look delicate, with fragile arms stretched out taut and skeletal all the way to their fingertips, but that’s an illusion easily broken by their muscles. Nobody delicate jumps like that.
An intermission followed the ballet, and then a modern piece that combined jazz and mambo and some really erratic looking body-jerking. I thought it was… interesting, but my host mom was a little miffed. She preferred the classic ballet, thank you very much.
Three words: front row seat.
I’d bought what I thought was a basic ticket, but when I showed up the usher directed me to the first row, and I wasn’t going to argue. The concert, from the French band GUSH (I’d never heard of them either), was held at the Alhóndiga, a historic stone building in Guanajuato. During the Cervantes festival, the outdoor steps of the Alhóndiga become seating for a giant amphitheater. (But I was in the front row, which came with the complimentary use of a folding chair.)
There were no people between the band and me, except the occasional photographer sneaking in for a shot. I was so close I could see the red Levi’s tag on the back of keyboardist’s black skinny jeans, the tendons in the guitarist’s wrists flexing as he held down the strings of chords, and the drummer’s hair sticking to his sweaty forehead. And I’m pretty sure the guys in the band made eye contact with me a couple times.
So, was the music any good? Well, it looked like a garage jam session and sounded like techno, hipster disco. The band members all had floppy seventies hair, they sang in four-part harmony (falsetto included), and one guy wore a loose shirt with the buttons undone halfway to his navel. They were the Bee Gees.
So GUSH is not about to start the next musical age. But, did I mention… I was in the front row?
Ópera of Cámara, from Teatro Colon
In the movie Pretty Woman, the main guy (Richard Gere) invites his girlfriend/prostitute (Julia Roberts) to the opera. She’s never been, and Gere says that people have one of two reactions when they go for the first time: they fall in love immediately, or they learn to appreciate it.
Turns out that statement is just one of many false premises raised by the movie. Although my first (and likely only) opera experience wasn’t bad, I didn’t fall in love with the form, and I have no plans to work on my appreciation.
I sat in the gallery, a.k.a., the nosebleed section of the opera. Four (or five? It was hard to tell from the dizzying altitude) floors above the ground level, I felt like I could reach out and touch the chandelier. The opera was performed in Teatro Juárez, so the chandelier is worth mentioning. Built during Porfirio Díaz’s time, the theater’s interior is covered with carved wood and painted with swooping, ostentatious patterns. All the ornamentation works somehow, with the brilliance of the cerulean, coral red and gold paint balanced by the darkness of iron balconies and natural wood furnishings. It was worth going just to see the inside of the theater.
The program included three mini-operas; the first sung in English, the second in Spanish, and the last in German. I barely understood a word of any of them, and when I could make out the lyrics, I had to remind myself that it was a serious performance. Lines ended with emphasis on the funniest words, such as “bigotes.” According to the opera singer, here is how you pronounce that: “¡Beegoooooootaaaaaayyyyyhayhayhayhayhayhaaaaaays!”
Elena Poniatowska Lecture
When I told my history professor that I went to this event, and mentioned that people seemed to adore Poniatowska, he corrected me. They don’t adore her, he said. They idolize her.
In her 70-plus year career, Poniatowska has been a journalist, novelist, essayist and translator. She’s also pretty strong-minded about politics. Even though she began by reading an essay about the book Don Quixote de la Mancha, through a good portion of the chat she spoke with fervor about the importance of education, literature and arts, as well as the problems with Mexico’s government, which according to her is “sucito” – a little dirty.
She took some questions from the audience, the last of which all popular writers receive: “How can you become a famous writer?” Her response was a little cliché, but seemed sincere.
“Maybe we celebrate fame,” she said in Spanish, but added, “All you need is love” referring to the Beatles’ song. “If you have love, forget about fame.”
Cervantes Academic Ensemble: Closing Concert
The concert had already started and we didn’t have tickets, so my Mexican friend said to the usher, “Oh, this is my American friend. She’s from Wisconsin. She really wants to hear the music…”
I had to rework my facial expressions to mask my surprise. First, it hadn’t been my idea to go and I didn’t expect my friend to use me as an entry ticket. Second, how did that actually work?
We got in free, in time to hear – guess what – an opera singer. After her performance, the orchestra played songs from what I would have guessed was the soundtrack of a suspense-thriller. It went on for 45 minutes, and I was tense through the whole thing, suspended in the moment before some creepy mask-wearing assassin jumps out of the bushes of a haunted house. I actually felt relieved when the thing ended.
On the bright side, we didn’t pay to get in… and I was art-ed out.