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La Danza del Venado

The development of La Danza del Venado began at the 2012 De Colores Festival of New Works, and in 2013 was awarded support by the Canada Council for the Arts’ Grants to Theatre Artists: Individual Creations, as well as the Ontario Arts Council’s Playwright Residency Program with Alameda Theatre Company. It has received staged-readings in Toronto and Vancouver, under the dramaturgical guidance of Stephen Colella.

La Danza del Venado, or Maso Yi Ihua[1] in the Yaqui language, is an ancient dance celebrated by theYaqui People – a native community from the Sonoran Desert that has been divided by a border that did not exist before the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.[2] The dance narrates the life and death of the deer, the sacred animal of the Yaquis.

Sundered by the recent formation of two nations, the current reality of the Yaqui People evidences the absurdity of all borders. In 1492, the Europeans did not arrive to a wilderness but to a densely populated land with advanced civilizations. In that same way, the creation of the US/Mexico border did not occur in a vacuum – it divided peoples and histories.

Mexico is a name coined in the nineteenth century that barely evokes the last five hundred years, but the historical depth of its culture and the roots of its peoples are much older and are found on both sides of the border — and on both sides of the Atlantic. It is within this history of colonization and the creation of borders where the mestizo identity comes into being. To talk about Mexico (and Latin America for that matter) is to talk about mestizaje. A mestizaje, or hybridity, that defines our “cosmovisión[3]”.

As a Mexican writer in the diaspora my work emerges not only from the clash of European and Indigenous cultures but also from the effects of forced migration, which has become the basis of what is now known as “mestizo poetics”: the dialogic exchange between two ethos¾one based on separation and the other on interconnectedness.[4]

Inspired by my own experience of crossing the border from Mexico into the United States as a child to reunite with my father, La Danza Del Venado is a multidisciplinary play unpacking the fallacy and futility of borders, both geographical and literary. In this story the traditional Yaqui dance becomes a reflection on the ancestral connection to the land of many migrants who have been forced to cross border after border into the North.

In Yaqui cosmology the deer represents the first member of the tribe–the oldest brother–who offers himself in sacrifice to feed the tribe with his own flesh. Some Yaqui legends say that at night the deer transforms into a man and teaches the tribe the art of hunting, the secrets of agriculture and the principles that must be observed by the tribe. Recovering his animal form during the day, the deer offers himself to the hunters and becomes the aliment that sustains his people.

Leticia Varela[5], a renowned Mexican anthropologist, affirms that the music and lyrics of La Danza del Venado have remained almost entirely intact over the centuries, from the pre-Hispanic age to the present.

The music of La Danza del Venado is created with traditional instruments, employing the reed flute, percussion, rasps, gourds, small rattles made of butterfly cocoons filled with pebbles, and chanting to accompany the dancers. The deer is the main character of the dance. Generally there are at least two other dancers known as Pascolas, or hunters. The main dancer imitates the movements of a wild white-tailed deer, aesthetically portraying the amazement, fear, curiosity and solace that the sacred animal finds in nature. Wearing a deer head atop, the main dancer evokes the feeling of freedom inspired by all things wild. The life of the deer is recounted with elegant jumps, turns of the head and proud body movements – travelling through nature, jumping into the air, listening to the sounds of his surroundings and grazing in the meadows. In the last part of the dance we see the deer ambushed by the hunters who stalk him with bows and arrows. A dramatic hunt ensues, and the hunters prevail. The percussion slows as the heart of the deer ceases to beat. The deer succumbs offering his life in sacrifice to feed his tribe.

In this multidisciplinary play, the ancient dance serves as a metaphor to narrate the story of Quino, an 11-year-old boy with an adult-sized responsibility: to bring his six-year-old sister, Lili, all the way from the outskirts of Mexico City to their mother in Clinton, Mississippi. On their way north they meet other migrants: Lauro, a middle-aged man going back to L.A. to reunite with his family after being deported; Julián, a young man in search of better opportunities, travelling from Honduras to Florida; Yadira, a pregnant woman escaping persecution, trying to get to New York City to be with her husband; and Sammy, one of the smugglers that Quino and Lili’s mother has arranged to take her children across the border. In a desert full of murmurs and shadows, the group is followed by the mythical presence of El Venado, a deer dancer. The cosmology of the Maso Yi Ihua dance, mixed with poetry, ties together the stories of these migrants – stories that reflect one of the great surrealistic tragedies of the global age.

Ari Belathar
Toronto, Ontario / Tucson, Arizona
April 2014

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[1]Deer Dance

[2]The Gadsden Purchase (known as Venta de La Mesilla in Mexico) is a 29,670-square-mile (76,800 km2) region of present-day southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico that was purchased by the United States in a treaty signed by James Gadsden, the American ambassador to Mexico at the time, on December 30, 1853.

[3] A way of seeing and interpreting the world.

[4]The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry. Edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman, 2009.

[5]Varela, Leticia. (1984). “La Cosmología Indígena Sonorense en la Danza del Venado”. Memoria del VIII Simposio de Historia y Antropología, Universidad de Sonora, pp. 285-293.