by Allie Silver
I vaguely remember being a young teenager, standing in a pitch-black room watching the ceilings open up like a floodgate to let out water and confetti that welcomed a large cast of personalities that flew around the room while banging on drums. Nearly ten years later, that production of De La Guarda that enchanted me as a child in New York City sticks in my memory like a faded dream. I even have the program guarded away in my childhood bedroom.
During college I came to Buenos Aires to study, and almost immediately I felt a connection to this city. Its people, its idiosyncrasies, it opened up a part of me that was waiting to be unlocked. Studying radio and film, I became deeply entrenched in the music scene, and was most intrigued by the younger generation's modern approach to traditional South American music. I was most intrigued by an artist named King Coya, who weaves organic northern folk rhythms with electronic technologies. I was completely seduced by this fresh combination of the old and the new, and I returned to my radio program in Chicago with an enormous stack of new music that I studied religiously.
When Fuerza Bruta arrived to the United States it was recommended to me as an Argentine production. The previews I saw made me flashback to that childhood memory of De La Guarda and I slowly began to learn why. I discovered that De La Guarda was the predecessor to Fuerza Bruta, that its creator Diqui James was a longtime friend and collaborator of Gaby Kerpel, aka King Coya, who composed the music for both productions. That that initial enchantment with De La Guarda was the beginning, although unbeknownst to me, of my love affair with Argentina.
During its run in Chicago I immediately sought out a contact for the director Diqui James, and was fortunate enough to speak with him about the show that breaks all the rules of theater, bringing out everyone's inner child.
Allie Silver: Tell me about your background growing up in Argentina, your involvement with De La Guarda and La Organización Negra, how did your work in alternative sensory theater come to be?
Diqui James: Well I was very lucky to make it out of high school. It was exactly the moment when the dictatorship ended in Argentina. It was a very bad time in Argentina. Everything was forbidden. So when I was about 19 there was a big cultural explosion, especially in Buenos Aires. I started learning acting and became involved with a group called La Organización Negra, which was named after all of the black lists. The late 80s was a very good moment culturally because we were working with artists from different backgrounds. The organization we created was really dark and violent, and we began doing things in order to interact with the audience. We were writing on the walls, playing with fire. We wanted to do something new. But the organization was a little too young, a little to anarchist, we wanted to sell tickets and some members of the group didn´t like the idea of selling art, so in 1993 La Organización Negra split and with a few of those people De La Guarda was formed.
That is the great thing about Fuerza Bruta. It´s has been a long time coming. We have a team of people that have worked together since we were very young. For more than 20 years and so we understand one another. We have a lot of fun together. When I was a kid to think that I´d be in New York or Chicago, coming from Buenos Aires, it was something I never expected. And now being able to do new shows, it´s really a lot of fun.
I saw De La Guarda before when I was much younger, and want to know what is the difference between De La Guarda and Fuerza Bruta? How is Fuerza an evolution upon what you were working on with De La Guarda?
With De La Guarda we said, let´s throw our bodies in the air. Let´s write on the walls. Let´s fly over the audience. It was that same spirit of celebration and craziness. Then I started to work thinking about the sets. The set pieces and the machinery. The interaction between the performers, that intimacy between the performers and the audience, that was going to create the theatric reality. With De La Guarda we create shows in different periods, lots of pieces put together over time. This is one piece. That´s the main difference.
What speaks to me is these beautiful visuals, and the actors interacting with the machinery compared to the music by Gaby Kerpel. What is that process like working with Gaby because when I listen to the music I can´t help but think of the images, and when I look at the images I can´t help but think of the music, everything has been so well blended together. So what comes first, the music or the images, or is it all done together?
One very important thing is that Gaby and I have been working together since 1985, 25 years, so we learned to do all of this together. That is very important. And another thing is that my job is doing the action and the images, and I don´t feel it is finished until the music is done and Gaby feels the same way. He can´t imagine the music without the visuals. When we start working, I say think of a running man. He has to run really hard, then stall and run again and we talk about the feeling of it, and maybe a little detail like lets work with another dancer, a noise, and while I start to work on the technical aspect he works on the music and then we come back together.
I can tell him anything. If the music is shit I´ll tell him. I mean what he does is always great but it might not always be right for the show. And he doesn´t get mad. He understands me and that is a great thing. And when I ask him to do something he will tell me if it´s cheesy or stupid, and usually he´s right. He understands what I mean, even if I´m not a musician, he understands how I think.
And I like that feeling that the visual without the music can be anything, and the music without the visual is really good. He leaves a space for the music, and I leave a space for the show.
One of my favorite scenes was the Murga dance scene. What struck me personally what that the first time I saw it (in Chicago) it made me think immediately about Argentina. It´s a very Argentine experience. But I took some American friends and they loved it. How does the show work around the world? What part of it is an Argentine experience and what part of it is one human celebrating with another?
The murga is a part of our culture. It was born in Buenos Aires. I took that movement and we broke it down. When they do the Murga they are walking in the streets for two hours, and you can´t do that dancing. The movements, the spirit, it is all still there.
I didn´t really realize that it was an Argentine show when we were working on it. We thought we were unique. You don´t see shows like this in Buenos Aires. But when you go to Chicago or to Asia, you realize that it is extremely Argentine. Maybe a French guy or someone from New York City wouldn´t ever be able to create something like this. It´s the approach. Like in Argentina you can break things when you are happy. That doesn´t happen everywhere. Somewhere else you´d break things out of anger. I´m so happy that I want to break everything. That’s the show, a big celebration.
I read an interview from Mexico, and the interviewer asked how the people would relate to the show. To me if feels really Latin American. Like you are at a fútbol game or something, that moment of scoring a goal. You think that a Latin American audience will relate to that kind of emotion. But in the US and in Taiwan the show broke records for how many people went to see it. How do people react?
The further away the culture, the bigger the reaction. How do you explain to the Taiwanese what the hell is Fuerza Bruta. That is the big moment. When people get there and they feel a great connection. It makes me very emotional, I wouldn´t even be able to say hello to them on the street, there are so many differences between you outside of the show. But once you are in the show it´s like you´ve known the audience forever. I´m really grateful for that.
When I started theater I wanted to do something that anybody could understand. I hate that stigma that theater it is only for people that read Shakespeare, people that already know everything. I want the people that are cleaning the theater to enjoy it. There are a lot of people in Argentina that don´t have access to the theater, there is a lot of theater in Buenos Aires, but only for a very small social class. I wanted to do something that everyone could understand. We started with that concept. And in the end we ended up with something that anyone from any culture could understand because we were trying to break those boundaries. And in a way we found out that you could go to Japan and they would understand what you were saying. I´d say that what we do is very primitive. It is theater before literature. Before story took over. It is a very primitive approach, but also very modern.
I think it´s really interesting visually to experience this very childlike show that is also really high tech, and adding the music which has this tribal element that gets your heart pumping mixed with the electronic music. How do you bring all of those ideas together?
We wanted to be simple with the language and the way that the show talks. Try to be as simple as possible. You can come from anywhere, from any religion, culture, be a kid or a grown-up, you could study theater all your life. When we went to London, this lady that was a director of Shakespeare theater in London for 20 years talked about it very emotionally. And then the guys that clean the theater in Buenos Aires, we told them to come with their families. The first time in their life that they´ve gone to the theater and they love it. That´s a lot. When you reach those two extremes. That´s what I want to do.
There is an audience that tries to make a narrative story. They want to figure it out. You always say there isn´t a story. It´s an experience. What would you say to that audience that wants to see the show, what do you want people to get out of it ?
There is a story. The thing there isn´t one story. I don´t want to tell my story because it´s not the only one. It´s like a painting. I don´t want to know what Van Gogh was thinking when he painted. If I knew it will break my heart because it will contradict the story I´ve imagined. If you tell people what the story is, you close doors. Everyone has to have their own story. There are people that need that story, and that´s ok but I don´t have one for them.
For the moment I think we are halfway to something big. This language that we use. It´s very powerful. Every time I feel like we get closer and closer to something, I don´t know what but we are getting closer.