Thursday, 8 May 2008

Leaving and the Duende

What is the Duende?

Duende is difficult to define in absolutes. It is not a corporeal thing, so much as an effect. That is not to say that it is superficial – a surface event. Rather, it manifests as a force from within us. Historically, the Duende has been at the core of artistic endeavour throughout Europe down through the ages, but perhaps particularly centred in those peoples who have been dispossessed and displaced. Romany folk have always been uplifted in their arts through the reality of diaspora which has governed their world. Yet, is there a monopoly on human feeling of any description? Surely the seeds of lament reside in us all. Although some academics assert that the Duende is the province of the Spanish only, others refute this and I believe that the Duende is experienced and expressed in humanity everywhere, in a variety of ways. You can feel the Duende present, not only in Rodrigo`s Concierto de Aranjuez but also clearly in the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto in Trioon, in Miles Davis`compilation, Sketches of Spain, Antonio Pinto in the album, Perfect Stranger, José Feliciano in California Dreaming, David Sylvian in Let the Happiness in, from Everything and Nothing - the list is long, multi-lingual and not confined to the western world ... It appears to me that the Duende is lodged in the expression of how we each of us, attend to the enormity of our feelings within the management of our respective worlds and the event knows no cultural boundaries.

Federico Garcia Lorca first propagated the concept of Duende in a lecture he gave in La Habana in 1930.
‘Duende, according to Federico Garcia Lorca, is not inspiration, Duende is a struggle, a dark force, having very little to do with outer beauty, a struggle present in the artist's soul, the struggle of knowing that death is imminent. It is this knowledge of death that awaits and the despair that stems from it that produce Duende, and Duende will then color the artist's work with gut-wrenching authenticity, painful hues and tones that produce strong, vibrant art’.

"All the arts are capable of duende, but where it naturally creates most space, as in music, dance and spoken poetry, the living flesh is needed to interpret them, since they have forms that are born and die, perpetually, and raise their contours above the precise present." García Lorca, Theory and Play of the Duende

So Duende is a visceral rather than a contemplative experience. It is a tangible force within life - responses - conducted is perhaps too organized a term, but at the least, poured forth in a minor key. There is both poignancy and pathos evident in its signature and often references are expressed in terms of loss, something hidden or missing, or of something precious left behind .

‘… and I will leave.
But the birds will stay, singing:
and my garden will stay, with its green tree,
with its water well.

many afternoons the skies will be blue and placid,
and the bells in the belfry will chime, as they are chiming
this very afternoon.

the people who have loved me will pass away,
and the town will burst anew every year.
but my spirit will always wander nostalgic
in the same recondite corner of my flowery garden.’

Juan Ramon Jimenez –
‘The Definitive Journey’ – El Viaje Definitivo’

Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958) was one of the greatest Spanish poets of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known for his writings which evoke the Duende. The above poem was recited by Carlos Castaneda in Journey to Ixtlan, for the Yaqui Indian don Juan Matus when don Genaro, his compatriot shares his revelations about his neverending search for his home village – a home he will never find again. The sentiments expressed in their conversation together speak of an ineffable sadness.

The image of instability, of moving on, departure and loss is apparent in Jiménez` poem. It suggests a strong sense of what it means to leave behind those things and the people that one loves – not through choice, but because one must. Some greater force is responsible here, which cannot be resisted or denied. Duende is apparent in the dimensions of the vision within the poem and in its timbre.

As a foil to the above text I quote another poem, this one by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. I include it here because for me, it shares with Jiménez` writing, the symbolism inherent in the image of the garden underpinned by a sweet-sadness.

‘The world is empty
if one thinks
of only mountains, rivers and cities

But to know someone here and there
who thinks and feels with us
and who
though distant is close to us in spirit
This makes the earth for us an inhabited Garden’

J W Goethe

There is a fundamental difference between these two texts. The first account is the memory of a real garden which must, with great regret, be left behind. The second is a global garden forever inhabited if only we may encounter other people in our wanderings and while there is apparent a trace of anxiety to offset the euphoria in Goethe`s words perhaps also, there is the possibility of solace to be taken for those wandering, homeless populations too. Here Goethe shares his vision of a broad and benevolent sense of belonging.

The garden, I would like to suggest, is a construct which is perhaps a cornerstone of civilized aesthetic endeavour, requiring not only good soil and a sheltered location, but constant nurturing, time and – a gardener, the man (or woman) for all seasons who stays put because above all, the garden is synonymous with belonging and home. To leave such a place is to leave a part of one`s self behind.

I am struck by the quiet power within that moment of leaving a meeting between two people. Disengaging. To be surrounded when that person has left by, if not an entirely foreign place, then a space which does not possess for us an intimate voice, for me heightens the poignancy and the pathos inherent in the event. Different from walking someone to the door of your home and yet, a departure in almost any context may hold the seeds of Duende. The Duende is here, beneath or entwined in the fabric of the movement away.

The Duende speaks of the little death which resides in many a parting. The demise of connection. The fear of failure for recognition and intimacy to outlast time and distance:


'... I see her falling far away in thorny quickset, bleeding at the hands of strangers ...'

Hawkwood J. Shed. 1980 - 2001. Ken Smith. Bloodaxe Books Ltd.

Phyllis Webb in her rendering of the Duende, speaks of residing in a place close to the edge, a place of change, of a present touched by something inexplicable evoking the vague sensing of a past which cannot be reclaimed:


Dark song
‘Does not appear
if it sees no possibility
of death’


‘Where is the Duende?
An air smelling of a child`s saliva
of pounded grass
announcing the constant
baptism of newly created


‘Like a straight fight
with the creator
on the edge of the well’

Webb P, Wilson`s Bowl, p. 63,
The Coach House Press, Toronto 1980.

What follows is a critique of my latest work in Wellington City, carried out in April 08.

My dance partner, Fiona Baker and I were joined on this occasion by Sylvie Haisman, originally from Wellington, who has been living and dancing in Sydney in recent years and has now come ‘home’. Sylvie very kindly agreed to work with me and I am indebted to her patience, commitment and collaborative sensitivity in taking part in this phase of structured improvisation in the city. Sylvie and I had only been in touch through email up to this point so we were both, in the execution of this exploration, ‘in the company of strangers’.

My aims for this work were three-fold:

1. Document/video meetings between people with a focus on ‘leaving’.
2. Document/video CI dance as ‘conversation’ with a focus on ‘leaving’.
3. Document/video both of these scenarios within the context of the Duende.

In the first instance I wanted to create meetings of some substance in or on the edge of the greater flow of people around us, which differed from my last dance investigations in Wellington. The previous work in which Fiona and I were engaged in Opera House Lane was mildly interventionist and resulted in encounters with people using the space in a very peripheral manner. This was consistent with my objectives for that work in that I wanted to investigate just how subtle or minimal, engagements with the public could be. In fact, non-engagement typified our time in the space. Fiona and I carried out Contact Improvisation and solo movement (derived from authentic movement modes) principally referring to one another rather than members of the public traversing the space. From the public reaction at the time it was evident that we were apparently engaged in some kind of performance work. Consequently we were regarded across the spectrum somewhere between interest, tolerance and suspicion. We appeared to be having an intimate connection through movement and this effectively discouraged any moves by the public to seek involvement with us. I measured our degrees of success in what we were doing at the time by the degrees of interest elicited, eye contact, negotiated movement around us, speech with us, pausing and watching, averted gaze, distant appraisal and prudent avoidance. All was relevant and quite fascinating, if not mildly frustrating – I found myself upholding my agenda of investigating peripheral engagement with the public which ultimately, although interesting, left me wanting more definite contact. It is difficult to measure or evaluate peripheral states within encounters which may or may not constitute a significant level of engagement. In this instance, what was ‘significant’? Being noticed at all? Studious avoidance of our dueting in 'the Lane', (an unconscious joining with a member of the public passing through the space - an unwitting collaboration in our duet/activation of the space) evident through a circuitous path around our activity with care not to make eye contact? Yes, these constituted evidence of dialogue - significantly the kind of dialogue used all the time by dancers. Engagement without words. Eye contact or avoidance, body language as signifiers of a desire, intention or willingness to communicate with one another or at least evince a curiosity about what is taking place.

My initial conclusions after reflection and critical consideration of this work were that I needed to:

a) continue to examine subtle and minimal levels of engagement with people in the street. This cursory nod to one another in passing is testimony to the uncertainty of the territory being negotiated by both parties.
b) somehow find ways to make my own movement with partners more specific to the aspects of ‘leaving’ within the dynamic of the engagement. This would provide me with more substantial material to evaluate in terms of examining the constituents of what a meeting is made (arrival, engagement, leaving) particularly the notion of leaving and in turn, to use my findings as a basis for further questioning and
c) document engagements in the street with members of the public to contextualize the definition of meetings on a broader front and to observe the nature of the very brief encounters which would ensue.

As a result of considering the issues in point c) I carried out work in Nelson as a precursor to returning to Wellington, which can be seen in the post preceding this one, ‘Indeterminacy and the roaming body; Leaving – ‘a non-present potential to vary’ 3. (2 was videoed in Wellington). The notion of ‘leaving’ has been gathering emphasis from this time accompanied by a desire to investigate the Duende to see if this can be articulated through the work. I am not looking here for a grand canvas and a melodramatic composition. I am more concerned with Duende surfacing (if at all) in the small dance of leaving in the everyday.

In my most recent studies, I located myself again in Wellington City. Lambton Quay and Wellington Railway Station were chosen for their directional crowd movement, their spaces promoting temporary purchase for people meeting people. Cuba St was selected as a space allowing a little more relaxed arrival, engagement and departure time.

Strategies for movement investigation:

Subtle movement investigations in the Railway Station. These were designed to be virtually invisible to other users of the space but with an intent for the activity to be glimpsed as it were, out of the corner of one`s eye. The scenarios were orientated around dueting subtly in the crowd-flow using both speech and movement which would ‘almost’ fit in. ‘Leaving’ was a quality I pursued actively in this place at this time. This work began to address points a) and b) above.

I employed strategies which allowed me to interact with the public in ‘staged’ meetings on the street. The people I met for the most part, remained ignorant of both my agendas and the camera filming them. On a couple of occasions I sought and was given assistance from strangers in the street in ‘acting’ out a brief role. The reactions were very positive, curious and interested in what I was doing. I also filmed members of the public conversing and leaving impromptu meetings. This began to address the points brought up in c) above.

This work has allowed me to appraise again, ways in which Contact Improvisation Dance as a form of engaging with another person/stranger, may have correlations to other kinds of dialoguing in meetings between people which become temporary resting places, communicated and negotiated through processes which are essentially improvisational. The various phases of arrival, engagement and departure are present in both scenarios and each has observable dynamics.

I want to pursue the concept of indeterminacy as it relates to my dancing-as-conversation. That ‘…non-present potential to vary …’ as it relates to engagements on the street in the light of the Duende. I see these as maybe-myths or parables (non-religious narratives) for the city.

In my next post I will be qualifying the reference to myth and parable, critiquing the work in the Railway Station and introducing video clips from other locations; Lambton Quay and Cuba St.


Sylvie Haisman said...

I love that you are looking for the Duende in small everyday moments, rather than 'a grand canvas... a melodramatic composition'. The preservation of moments that would otherwise be lost or ignored - this makes me happy. Because laid end to end these moments make up our lives.
so my satisfaction with this preservation is, like the Duende, related to death - the satisfaction of preserving lived time from oblivion.

We tell stories about our lives, make our lives into stories, and I like that too, but stories edit out moments which don't fit into them.
This makes me think of strategies for foregrounding moments that we usually ignore: repetition or isolation. To clip a moment out of its ordinary context and pin it down, or alternatively to collect similar moments and group them together, making repetitive patterns. There must be others too...

nomads.hat said...

Hi Sylvie, there is a concept called 'Diegesis'which relates to films, stories or narratives where in the story, we are only shown certain moments-in-sequence of peoples lives or events. Diegesis deals with that part of the characters lives which we do not see. The gaps between their 'screened lives'. So what are they, the characters doing when we are not with them? I find this fascinating and in fact, constructed a project for my students to make work based on 'Diegesis'. The work has been very interesting.

Within the context of what we are doing, I am endeavouring to capture not so much Diegetic moments (because I think these moments are very much concerned with the main stage of our lives - the real-time screening if you will) but often those moments which we miss or take for granted unless spurred on to consider later in a moment of insight.

I like the way you put that - '... foregrounding moments that we usually ignore ...' that is exactly what I am doing. I think I am very much in the business of myth-making. Story-telling. Sometimes we even live other people`s stories ... even strangers we dont know. There is Diegesis there. Made-up lives made up of moments we think the other person ought to be or might be experiencing but which they don`t see. There is something Flaneuristic about this - observing other people and patterns of behaviour.


nomads.hat said...

There is also something interesting about the stories told in the Carlos Castaneda books re the Duende. Not only the poem I included in this post, but the idea, asserted by don Juan to Castaneda, that the difference between a 'warrior' and a normal person is that the warrior lives an impeccable life, totally responsible for all his/her actions at all times - because they are constantly aware of their own death sitting on their left shoulder - waiting ... so this colours and imbues their lives with poignancy and import, ensuring that every moment is lived to the full.

This is not a morbid behaviour. There is no time for morbidity - an indulgence. Death/Duende simply brings the realities of which we are a part, into sharp focus.