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Article published in: http://www.autores.org.ar/spre/Creacion/Adaptaciones/pies/silence.


Tacit Borders: On Silence, Presence and

Resistance in Contemporary Latin American
Ana Snchez-Colberg
The article aims to offers an alternative perspective on the role of "silence" in contemporary
performance. The study proposes that recent trends towards a body-based performance question the
conventional assumptions which view silence in a bipolar juxtaposition to the dramatic text/speech acts.
This is particularly relevant when considering performance trends which question the centrality of text
as that which grounds/centres the theatrical event. In this work silence becomes a strategy for
disruption, exposing the limits of language within theatrical representation. Consequently, the study
argues that a more comprehensive understanding of the notion of silence needs to take into
consideration the manner in which the performer's physical presence affects the relationship between
text and silence. It proposes that silence, text and the body in performance need to be reexamined in a
tripartite, mutually influential relationship. The study proposes that the very "ambivalent" nature of
silence (and its relationship to the 'textual' and 'the physical') confounds and exponentially complicates
issues of theatrical 'presence'. Silence's multivalence within the theatrical event may, in fact, serves to
establish the performer's presence (not withdrawal as commonly assumed) firmly rooted in a
phenomenological being-in-the-world.

In an attempt to explore alternative views and theatrical practices which have silence as a core feature, I
am shifting the focus of discussion away from European and North American production (on which most
of the analysis of 'silence' has been centred upon) to that of Latin America. This shift is made with a view
to reexamine the phenomenon of silence away from a structuralist-poststructuralist/Modernist-postModernist context which has dictated -and one could argue limited - the way in which contemporary
theatre and performance has been considered and critically appraised. The work of two Latin American
artists -- Argentinean playwright/director Rafael Spregelburd, and Puerto Rican
choreographer/performance artist Merian Soto -- will be discussed as they exemplify alternatives
perspectives on the relationship between body, text, silence very different from those posited within
the cannon of Western theatre. The study suggests that their particular vein of silence affirmative of
presence lies within the interscite of cultural 'borders' and it is linked to questions of history and identity
(and their representation) within the larger context of a post modernist/post colonial debate in Latin
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'Language can only deal meaningfully with a special restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is
presumably the much larger part, is silence... ' George Steiner, 1967 Amongst the main writings on the
subject of silence in contemporary drama are Leslie Kane's The Language of Silence: of the Unspoken
and the Unspeakable in Modern Drama (1984) and Martin Esslin's seminal essay on Pinter Language and
Silence (1987). Both writings analyse the role of silence in Western drama in the work of Maeterlink,
Chekhov, Bernard, Beckett and -- specifically in Esslin's work --Pinter. The main thrust of both
discussions concerns the role of silence in the construction of meaning and structure in the work of
these dramatists. Silence, albeit commonly understood as a rejection of speech, is discussed as a
component and complement of the dramatic speech act. Silence acquires the status of a paralinguistic,
non-verbal communication cue revealing the character's psychological complexity, propelling the
dramatic action (which could be through a paradoxical negation of action) and by contributing to the
narrative structures (rhythm, pace, organisation of temporality, causality, etc) disclosing the world of
the play. Kane defines silence as 'not only the absence of speech' but also as various forms of
connotative, indirect expression which include disjunctive indirect speech, colloquial dialogue, negation,
repetition and echoing, pauses, over/understatement, silent scenes, mute characters, silence as a
metaphor for isolation, evanescence, silence/absence of the playwright, and unanswered questions.

The methodology employed by both critics is primarily a literary one, very much rooted in a structuralist
framework in which language remains the centering factor of the theatrical event (and therefore its
absence, a crisis of representation, an angst ridden loss of identity and logos). Both critics support the
dominant view of silence as negation/absence which they demonstrate is at the centre of these
playwrights' view of the world (both intra and extra theatrical). Negation and absence have thus become
the new metanarrative of contemporary western drama which takes on various forms:

of characters' ambivalence wanting and not wanting to reveal: 'we communicate only too well in our
silence, in what it is unsaid, and what takes place is continual evasion, desperate rear-guard attempts to
keep ourselves to ourselves'(Pinter in Kane 1984:132).
of characters withdrawing from temporal, spatial and social reality (Pinter, Beckett, Chekhov).
of silence as a form of entrapment, a gap/solitary confinement: '[the] individual is imprisoned in a
corporeal state and material world from which he desires to escape'(Kane 1984:25), 'silent responses
and muteness reinforce the portrait of man as not merely estranged from his world but entrapped in the
hell of the self'(Kane 1984:24).
of silence as a negation of the progress of time/space : 'flow of time ceases with the cessation of speech,
which determines a progression-non-progression of the verbal action' pauses 'stall the advancement of
thought, action and time' (Kane 1984:23).

Silence, therefore, becomes a metaphor for a Cartesian crisis of humans who having subordinated all
knowledge of self and the world to the medium of ideas (and to language as that medium's expressive
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tool) are at a loss when language, the main sign-post anchoring those ideas has been proven to be
nonsensical and non-exact. Silence, thus becomes the main symptom of a crisis created by language
'seen no longer as a road to demonstrable truth, but as a spiral or gallery of mirrors, bringing the
intellect back to its point of departure' (Steiner 1967:40) The recognition of the tautology of language
systems (and in more extreme cases the disappearance of those systems) results in a body which after
three hundred years of Cartesian dualism is rendered mute in a vacuum of non-congruency between its
various realms of experience. This goes some way into explaining the metaphors of the silent body as
'trapped in hell' in the tragic predicament of being fixed in a world were it will never be able to know
itself. However, whilst such view of the world (and consequently of theatre as a mirror of that world)
may serve as an adequate model to reflect on theatrical practice located within the early stages of a tugof-war between a dying utopian view of Modernity and a cynical/nihilistic early post-Modernism, the
question of its continuous relevance needs to be addressed. Can this view of silence and language
remain a viable model for reflection (and reflexion?) on the condition of late 20th century theatre and
performance as it has exploded in its representation, manifestations and presentations of its body
politic? Is it not time to reassess the manner in which devaluation of language (characteristically seen as
a nihilistic return to a void) has given way to ascribing to its end (and consequently, silence) a positive
valence in the way in which it has allowed for a valuation of the role of the physical presence in the
constitution of the world?

The devaluation of language Characterised by the increase of'silence in theatre'

Needs to be seen vis vis the growing focus on a physical counterpart -the body in performance. The
void is no longer an empty chasm but has been filled with what Garner calls 'post-Brechtian anatomies'
which seek to identify human-subject constitution outside of and in different terms to language. Such
view indicates a shift away from abstraction and representation to a focus on physical and material
factity, the 'thereness' of presence. States (1984) is amongst one of the first to consider the significance
of this shift in his phenomenological approach to theatre. He proposes that silence needs to be seen in
relation to physical presence as it aids to disclose the world on stage. The absence of speech allows for
other aspects of the theatre world to become prominent. For States, Chekhovian silence is not a place
for psychological retreat but a necessary pause for 'aholiday of pure tactile sensations' to take place in
which '...everything grows quiet, and only a silent tactile sensation remains' (States 1984: 73).

Silence, States argues, is a moment of respite (not withdrawal) which allows the entrance into a theatre
world in which 'the audience touches the furniture with its eyes...' (States 1984:74). Moreover,'the
world is no longer covered by conversation... the tactile world slowly encroaches on the human' (States
1984: 73-7) and this encroachment must signal a different relationship between subjects and their
world. Garner (1994) develops the phenomenal model of Merleau-Ponty as a possible framework from
which to orchestrate this reevaluation. In reassessing the theatre of Beckett as one firmly rooted in the
corporeal Garner suggests that '[it is ] in the silences in the breathing and the trembling that make
theatrical stillness an impossibility' (Garner 1994:81).

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Silence therefore, is liminal, both rupture and portal. It allows the body to contaminate the text and
enter the theatrical space actively participating in its creation. In two earlier studies (Sanchez-Colberg
1996, 1998b) it has been proposed that the entrance of the body (at the point where silence shifts from
teleological negation to topological affirmation) presupposes a focus on a body-space nexus. From a
phenomenological perspective this nexus rather than generating a logocentric crisis (and as Esslin would
have it, an atrophy of identity) in fact marks the beginning of perception and sets the first 'coordinates
anchoring the body in a subject' (Merleau-Ponty 1966:146). Silence thus signals the entrance into a
corporeal dimension which, rather than foreboding a retreat from the world, is in fact 'our general
medium of having a world' (Merleau-Ponty 1966: 146). This body schema is a practical, open system
(more Spinozian than Cartesian) which, different from language, is one of constant rearrangements and
renewals through which we are constantly resituating ourselves in the world. This open, practical system
has flexibility ,as opposed to schism, as its main modus openrandus. and thus suggests an alternative
view of memory and identity. When considered from a corporeal dimension memory is no longer the
result of abstracting experience into finite, discreet moments products of rupture, separation, loss (ie;
Freud, Lacan, a criticism which can also apply to aspects of Merleau-Ponty's position). Rather, memory is
a process of constant reintegration. Fluidity may be at the heart of identity and subjectivity (without
necessarily having to be tragic). This etymological shift counteracts the various negations proposed by
Kane's and Esslin's methodologies. Fragmentation and disaffection occur with the insistence that
translating experience into language is the only means to endow it with 'meaningfulness'. In silence,
could we not perceive the body as a physical figural, to borrows Steiner's image, within a system which
is not verbaland, therefore cannot be translated into such, an alternative alphabet, more hieroglyphic
than sign, of 'just perception' (Steiner,1966: 34)? Has this new understanding of silence signalled the
final transition into the realm of the senses confirming (yet again) performance's location in the the
erotic? We've only begun to understand the implications of such shift which I suggest needs to be
reassessed in relation, but not limited, to the post-modern discourses on desire, fetishism, consumption
with which it has been inscribed. The subject "I" is an empty space, an "I" which resides outside of the
Word. This being no longer listens to what is pronounced in an interior landscape, but to the space
which circulates amongst his words...(Eduardo del Estal, 1994).

The reasons to shift the discussion of silence in performance to a Latin American perspective are
multiple. Silence within this context summons multiple associations which both magnify and extend the
discussion so far. The phenomenon, as a feature of Latin American cultural processes and products, is
linked to the larger issues of silence in its sociopolitical domain. In its widest historical consideration, the
idea of silence is inextricably linked to the perception of Latin America as an 'empty continent' (Subirats,
1994) whose 'progress' remains defined, even after five hundred years of colonisation and over two
hundred years of self-governance, in terms of a process of acculturation based on the absorption of
political and artistic agenda coming from European and, more recently, North American cultures.
In a previous study (Sanchez-Colberg, 1998a) the notion of this empty, silent continent was linked to the
notion of a 'savage body'. This predominantly female, archaic body is a central figure of Latin American
iconography, whose history is one of enforced 'aesthetisation' through the language of political and
religious ideologies inscribed on its landscapes as well as strategies to silence its subjects through death
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and rape. The result of this conquest is a culture of mestizaje, a cultural hybridity which confounds
notions of the post-modern hybrid as a culture of surface. This hybridisation predates both European
and American Modern-Post Modern practices. From the point of view of Latin American, hybridity is not
a recently adopted strategy of resistance borrowed from Euro/American Post-modern practices. This
hybridity is in fact at the heart of its cultural (and by association personal) identity. It has endowed the
continent and its subjects with an anthropological and historical density. In this mestizaje one comes to
face with a culture of chaos, dense in its vertical axis which, for an outsider, seems to progress at an
almost snail like pace in its horizontal chronological time. This is a complex historical and socio-cultural
problematic which has not yet been assessed in full and which has been neglected in European/North
American centred post-colonial debates .
Within this historical sketch I want to discuss two Latin American artists, Rafael Spregelburd and Merian
Soto, whose production is located within this debate. Their perspectives are at times complementary, at
others contradictory, yet both are contemporary and coexisting, giving testimony of the very different,
rich and distinct performance practices in a continental body of histories, territories, politics and
societies which resists generalisation.
In Varios Pares de Pies Sobre Pisos de Marmol (Various Pairs of Feet over a Marble Floor), Argentinean
playwright/director Rafael Spregelburd explores the narrative of Pinter's Betrayal from the more chaotic
and confusing perspective of Old Times. Such proposal heightens the thematic of Pinter's plays --written
ten years apart -- in which the various characters battle to impose on the evolving narrative, their own
vision of the events. The free reinterpretation and re-assemblage of the two stories propels the work
beyond a mere exploration of the nature of Pinterian language. The staging of Varios pares de pies...
becomes a metacommunicative exercise into the nature of theatrical representation. Actors, director,
spectators are plunged into confusion as they are forced to make sense of characters and situations
which have been exponentially "twinned" and intertwined.
Spregelburd materialises on stage his interpretation of Eduardo del Estal's 'grammar of disorder'. Del
Estal's concept proposes a particular view of contemporary art based on the idea of an organising
system, innately chaotic, yet governed by obscure and unnameable rules which support its existence.
For Spregelburd, this particular notion of chaos is a more accurate 'sign of the times', and thus closer to
the essence of theatre and performance than any attempts at verisimilitude and cohesiveness. Within
this framework, Spregelburd defines his theatre as focused on 'the task of 'presenting' a new object,
with its own rules, different from that which we call reality; a new object more potent than life, more
concentrated, marked by a succession of 'privileged moments', of a superior intensity which can be
perceived from multivocal/multifocal perspectives' (Spregelburd, 1998). In his work, the intuition of
chaos is at the root of all human relations and exposes the conflicts of the characters in a manner both
humorous and pathetic. In Varios pares de pies... as in most of his work to date, silence is used as a
strategic tool in the establishment of this theatrical chaos: Much has been said about silence and its
value in theatre, from Beckett to the present. I think that the challenge for today's theatre writing is to
be able to find a silence "not Beckettian". This is the aim of a lot of my work.
That there is "nothing left to say", "that everything has been said before", that silence and "waiting"
constitute the essence of human existence are ideas which have shaken the theatre of this century (and
will continue to do so).

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However, what is gained from continuing this line of thinking without going deeper into its possible
variations? Beckett's primitive silence erupted from the need to empty the stage from all "noise".
Contrary to this, the "baroque" silence of our times will transform that noise, such dispersion, into
Silence is no longer the opposite of the word, emptiness no longer the opposite of "sense". Both
elements need to be seen as mutually influential in order to be grasped. The word is the interruption of
silence, what springs from that is the interruption of the emptiness by the "known". Both are sides of
the same coin.
The opposite of silence -and also the word- or better still the opposite of the pairing silence/word is
chance. Chance and catastrophe (where causes do not necessary precede the effects ) are the true void,
the true blank screen onto which we project all our perception, ideas, form and images (Spregelburd, in
correspondence, Spring 1999).
In this chaotic formulation silence adopts various forms. At its most elemental, silence indicates the gaps
and ruptures and is paradoxically also the seams which (could) connect the two stories. Silence provides
a syncopated, rhythmical alternation between the two stories whilst, concurrently dissolving any
attempt at the construction of a single unifying narrative from the synthesis of the two. The silences,
therefore, counteract any attempts to see the story as fully argumented, ready for immediate
consumption. In Varios pares de pies... Spregelburd demands from his audience an active participation
in the creation of a virtual future space based on hypothesising 'what will happen in the immediate
moment, with those beings, those actors, those props and objects with autonomous existence which are
not only present to represent an absence' (Spregelburd, April 1998).
Spregelburd's theatre echoes and confirms Garner's proposal that silence in performance 'resist the
construction of a diegetic elsewhere' (Garner 1994:81). Silence instead, 'effects a disclosure of the
theatrical present in its physiological actuality' which speaks inevitably of affirmation (Garner 1994:81).
In Varios pares de pies... this effect takes place in moments filled with the physical presence of
actors/characters and through the incorporation into the mise-en-scne of what seem totally arbitrary
objects. The first scene opens with the entrance of Jerry and Emma (Scene 1 of Betrayal).
Contrary to the restraint of Trevor Nunn's recent restaging at the Royal National Theatre, Spregelburd's
actors explode into the stage in a high octane level of energy. The verbal speech acts are accompanied,
contextualised and interrupted by actors constantly shifting their location on stage as if in some Alice in
Wonderland game of musical chairs. This exacerbates the sense of fluidity and openness of the
performance. Characters are neither fixed by their lines not centred and grounded in their spatiality.
Women are dragged from chairs into settees, out of the blue a character may turn around and slap
another, a character momentarily recognised as 'being' from one of the stories, appears sitting on the
lap of a character from the other. Lighting cues, blocking and shifting of furniture are purposely not cued
to support the alternation between characters, stories and event. Most of this activity takes place in
silence, corrupting the text with physicality, the fissure where Spregelburd's own 'cultural' cuts into
Pinter's play.

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Similarly, physical objects contribute to the sensorial disorientation/reorientation. Physical objects other
than those of Pinter's play (in Betrayal, the tablecloth Emma bought in Venice, books, letter; in Old
Times, the drinks offered and drunk) appear on stage further diffusing and diverting the flow of the
narratives. At the moment when Anna (in Old Times) arrives at Kate's house, Kate and Deeley have just
been conjecturing as to whether or not she is vegetarian. On entering Anna mentions "I brought this"
(one of the few additions to Pinter's libretto) and drops the carcass of a chicken on a table. The
appearance of the object produces a very long silence which Spregelburd agrees serves to eroticise the
dead chicken in as much as it fills it with possible significance, of 'erotic pulsation'. The spectator is
drawn to co-ascribe and inscribe sense to this moment.
Further in this play-with-plays a bulky iron apparatus is brought in to the scene to substitute for the
tablecloth which Emma (in Betrayal) has supposedly bought in Venice for the flat she shares with lover
Jerry. The apparatus appears at the moment where Emma (played at that moment by two actresses
both on stage) is confessing her betrayal to Robert. The object has the effect of switching the discussion
into a debate as to where it would be best placed. Later on, in a scene where in a very non-Pinteresque
moment of physical contact Jerry is about to hit Robert with it, he stops in mid action momentarily
fascinated by this object which he seems to be seeing for the first time. Further on, the two objects
intrude upon Old Times. In a scene where Anna is lost in the recollection of her past, the other three
characters, sitting away from her momentarily cast their sights on the chicken, then the iron-thing, then
back to the chicken. The actor who has been playing Jerry (although not in Old Times) appears to be
wanting to speak, as if he had finally grasped the connection and significance of these objects. He is
silenced by the other characters. The tale of the past, ever more distorted and dislocated is allowed to
Similar strategies are employed in Spregelburd's most recent project, seven plays based on Hyeronymus
Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins. Three plays in the planned heptalogy have been completed: I. La Inapetencia
(Inapetite) II. La Extravagancia (Extravagance) III. La Modestia (Modesty). La Modestia "narrates" the
story of three sisters who, faced with the imminent death of their Mother, are attempting to discover
who among the three was adopted. Unfortunately, neither parent seems to remember. In typical
Spregelburdian fashion, the three sisters (Maria Socorro, Maria Brujas y Maria Axila) are played by the
same actress. The character of Maria Axila appears only on a television screen. She is visible throughout
most of the play, although not always audible. The play is structured as a series of telephone
conversations between Maria Socorro and Maria Brujas. The audience alternates between hearing one
side of the story and then another. The changes between the 'end of the line' are punctuated by
changes in lighting and by the fact that the actress shifts between sitting on the right side of a table
when 'being' Maria Brujas and on the left when Maria Socorro.
Within this set up the theatrical pauses within each half of the conversation are important. On the one
hand, they constitute a silence on the part of the character in view. The pause also discloses the
unheard presence of the 'other' not on stage. The pause creates a sense of false anticipation. The
audience knows information has been given which may help decipher the conundrum of the sisters'
identity. However, the coming to know of that information is delayed. By the time the audience is
transported to the 'other space', the actual piece of information is lost in the passage across dimensions.
Thematically, silence occupies the space of the information never revealed by the Mother. This occult
knowledge is the axis of the family's world order (disorder in this case). This knowledge is terminally
silenced by the Mother's death. Hence this primordial silence, origin of order is identified with Death,
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another silence. However, Spregelburd does not refer to death in the poetic terms which associate it
with silence and life with noise. Rather death becomes a territory filled with the unknown. It is death's
concrete presence what filters through in the play's silence. Expanding on Del Estal's model Spregelburd
makes a parallel between life/death and a figure/ground relationship in which ideas, thoughts, text, the
known constitute the significant figures drawn upon the ground of sense which is silence, the unknown,
death, chaos.
La Modestia is the most recently completed section of the heptalogy, premiered last April 11 [1998]
after almost a year of gestation which included an informal presentation of the piece in progress as part
of the Royal Court Theatre International Summer School for Writers in 1998. Like Varios pares de pies...
the play interweaves two stories. One takes place in contemporary Buenos Aire and narrates the series
of confusions and misunderstandig resulting from a brief moment of mistaken identity (caused by a
character in Scene 1 being at the wrong place at the wrong time). The second story in Trieste at the turn
of the century, where the consumptive writer Terzov is being cajoled into producing one more
manuscript before his death. It is the manuscript's identity which is in question, has it been written by
Terzov? his wife Anja? what are the real intentions of the doctor/publicist Smedorovo?
Once again, at its most basic level, the play centres around the effects of silence which hides the truth
and disperses any relationship between cause and effect. Silences are also "in-between" that which is
said, which provokes an emptiness which leads to a bombardments of ideas, words and non-sequitors.
In performance, silences inevitably became referential to the "other story", which in its absence acted as
ground for the story which had taken the stage. In this particular play, the relationship is reversible, both
stories serve as figure or ground. The silences began to generate in the spectator the expectation that
the 'zapping' into the other story could occur at any moment. Every effort is made within the
presentation to avoid any hint of when the jump will occur.
The border between figure/ground needs to remain uncertain territory. This territorial uncertainty, this
border as silence, is one of the thematic arguments of the play. Trieste, the setting of one of the story is
a zone of uncertain boundary, site of the first ethnic conflicts in the Balkan area.
During the play's opening season the silences and ambiguities of the play were transformed into
references to Kosovo and the war which was taking place in the region at the time of the play's opening
in Buenos Aires. The silence of the play became an extra-theatrical link between two continents and
across the consciousness of those present. The dissolution of notions of identity and nation is a
permanent driving force in Spregelburd's Heptalogy.
Puerto Rican choreographer Merian Soto's incursions into silence take two paths. In terms of the
'movement language' of her work, Soto betrays a mistrust of codified movement vocabularies in similar
terms to the mistrust (or critique) of language to convey the experience of the self in the world
previously discussed. Within her work, silence marks a retreat away from codified movement
vocabularies. She attempts to shape her work by-passing the conventions of a formalised movement
vocabulary which she regards as a normative, regulatory aesthetic. Her continuous search for
improvisatory strategies which allow for a formulation of movement at the point of performance is a
personal goal directed at combating the aesthetics of virtuosity of both ballet and contemporary dance
which she sees imbricated in hegemonies of Western aesthetic and physical control. For Soto, this
control is imposed not only on individual bodies performing, but is transferred to the larger scenario
which dictates who and what work constitutes "dance history". Soto believes that in spite of moves
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towards cultural globalisation Latin American dance and performance is still examined against European
and North American models. Latin American contemporary dance artists are measured against their
ability to assimilate Western dance practices, or worse still are relegated to the place of the "exotic
other" allowed into the international stage as long as the work satisfies the needs of agenda based on
liberal tokenism.
In solo work like Tu y Yo (1989) and Todos Mis Muertos (1988), Soto focuses on developing strategies of
performance with which to shape the energy of the event (which she refers to as 'energy surfing') into
theatrical imagery. She attempts to circumvent the representational qualities of prerehearsed,
'technical' movement vocabulary. For Soto, as long as dance remains fixed on measuring its
'performance' levels on the acquisition of virtuosic technical skills (focusing on the mastery of what is in
effect a language) it will remain embroiled in the dead end of mimesis and conspiratory in supporting
the mechanism of representation which creates passive, silent spectatorship. Todos mis Muertos (All my
dead) and Historias are two of her most prominent works tackling that problematic.
Todos mis Muertos (All my dead)was originally created as a site specific event to celebrate the day of the
dead at the Museo del Barrio in the Bronx, New York. The piece has been subsequently restaged for the
theatre and the transference has served to magnify some of its themes. Soto describes the piece as a
work of mediation between non co-existing dimensions. The piece is a dialogue between her own
recollection of her dead (her father, her blind grandmother) and the histories of those with which she
was invited to celebrate at the Museo del Barrio. It is a 'dialogue' shaped in silence. The event begins
with the entrance of the artist, a solo figure,a creature from the edges of both our perceptual and
theatrical vision into the place where the spectators have congregated. She merges with the crowd,
dressed in yellow, balancing a tall hat made of tropical flowers. She is blindfolded, on her apron like
dress dozen of small fetish figures, fragments of photographs and objects belonging to those no longer
here. Reference to vision and blindness lead to an emphasis on tactility where the visual is a means to
the physical. She makes her way to the centre of the space grasping and feeling the hands of those
audience members who have been strayed, unawares, into her pathway. They are asked to greet , urge
and guide her into the space. She stands alone amongst the crowd an Uhr-Mutter, primordial being in
which all past present and future resides.
She begins to dance a slow rumba as she takes various objects from the endless pockets of her dress,
photographs, candles, earth to create a real altar in front of the video monitor which projects the virtual
image of the altar created for the original celebration. Her mute character is the axis uniting the various
spatial dimensions of the event, the virtual altar of the event past, the stage space in which objects from
that virtual space --which seem to spring out of the dancer's body -- are materialised in a concrete
physical 'thereness' and the space filled with spectator. The scenes constituting the performance are
fragments of imagery: the figure dances with a child skeleton, at one point she is a drunken tobacco
chewing grandmother. Later the creature disrobes, takes off the blind fold. She is no longer that
creature beyond history, but the artist nude and vulnerable making the spectator aware that as they
watch they in turn are being watched by the dead. She lies down on the stage space, empty tomb-like,
beginning and end of all that has been.
Similarly to Spregelburd, Soto associates death with silence and the unknown. However, her treatment
of silence is slightly different. Silence as death is both the point where history ends but also the point of
contact with a collective memory, repository of these histories. In her work the recuperation of the past
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leads to silence. The journey into personal history in Todos Mis Muertos becomes a political one in her
group work Historias (1992) in which she attacks head on the mechanisms which have silenced Puerto
Rico's cultural and historical identity (first through Spanish and most recently the neo imperialism of the
USA). To recapture, reenact and rewrite in the physical body a history lost in that silence is the main
focus of Historias . First performed at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the piece evolves as a series of
vignettes presenting on stage various 'lost' chapters of Puerto Rican history and the identities that
disappeared in that process. Soto is aware that, different from Todos Mis Muertos, Historias is bound to
the mechanisms of representation which are part and parcel of working in a proscenium environment.
However, together with her long time partner and collaborator, visual artist Pepon Osorio, they set out
to reclaim the theatrical space as one of encounter and not passive consumption. One of the signature
features of their work is the 'squatting' of the performance space which is then transformed into an
installation site. In Historias, this strategy is used to turn the mechanisms of representation against
itself. Osorio 'squats' the audience's space by covering the seating with drapes on which he has etched
tableaux of the history which will be reenacted. Whereas in Todos Mis Muertos the crossing of theatrical
elements across the various space was aimed towards mutual celebration, in Historias the spillage of the
theatrical elements into the audience space opens up an arena of conflict in which the spectators are
made to confront their tacit conspiratory role . The habitual action of sitting down to view a
performance becomes a wilful "turning their backs" to history thus actually and metaphorically silencing
it. Once that step is taken, the audience is constantly reminded that their silence as spectators is a
passive silence which contributes to perpetuate the violent acts seen on stage. Although Historias is a
reenactment, the elements of the performance, particularly the relationship between silences and the
physical presence of the performers are strategically used to infuse the event with 'presentness'.
One of the more poignant moments of the event retells the campaign of mass sterilisation forced upon
Puerto Rican women by the US Department of Population between 1945-1977. This resulted in the
forced sterilisation of 35% of the female population of an average age of twenty-six years old. An overvoice is heard retelling the words of an officer in the US Office for Interior Development 'it is the goal of
the USA to prevent population growth in countries which will create revolutions which will intervene
with the interest of the multinational corporations'. On stage five female bodies remain motionless
while the voice is heard. Once there is silence they slowly begin to move, rocking left to right, curling.
Out of the movement the single word 'no' is shaped. The scene may be an reenactment, however, the
physically shaped 'no' which breaks the silence gives the scene potent actuality. Silences in Soto's work
are multivalent, on the one hand they belong to the realm of Kristeva's 'abject', acts and experiences
whose physical intensity escape all possible signification and remain 'unnamable'.
It is also the silence of complicity, but also the place of an alternative. The piece ends in a moment of
silence where all dancers enter and interact with each other as if to salve and reconfigurate the broken
anatomies of Historias. It is in that final moment of silence where the bodies reclaim their history and

10 | T a c i t B o r d e r s A n a S n c h e z - C o l b e r g , a l l r i g h t s .

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(1998a) "Caribbean Airs: An Introduction to Contemporary Latin American Choreographic Practice",
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Pelican Books.
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Correspondence between Rafael Spregelburd and Ana Sanchez-Colberg between April 1998 and April
Merian Soto, Interview. ICA November 1996.
w-mail: spre@argentores.org.ar
Espacio cedido por ARGENTORES
11 | T a c i t B o r d e r s A n a S n c h e z - C o l b e r g , a l l r i g h t s .