Getting Closer: Integrated Arts Travel Study in Mexico

-- Kathleen Foreman, Georgette Pare - Drama

A Student's Perspective

-- Elan Pratt



In July 2000, the Department of Drama - in partnership with community-based Intercultural Contact Inc. and the Travel Study Program - offered an exciting international, inter-cultural and interdisciplinary initiative entitled "Integrated Arts Travel Study in Mexico: Theatre, Dance and Visual Art (Drama 572.17)". In keeping with the University of Calgary's Strategic Direction, Internationalization goals and the Drama Department's curriculum redesign initiatives, this pilot project provided a valuable educational opportunity for students to develop an awareness of international, Canadian multicultural and aboriginal cultural perspectives. Generous support from the Learning Commons Fellowship Program, the International Grant Committee, the Faculty of Fine Arts and the Department of Drama enabled the project to demonstrate how inter- disciplinary and international cultural perspectives may be expanded across the Fine Arts through creative activity and research.

The students involved were from drama and visual arts backgrounds, and came from both the UofC and the University of Victoria. The integrated arts approach facilitated cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural exploration, allowing participants to actively create as individuals, collectively within the group and interact with artists from a variety of cultural contexts and artistic traditions.

The course began with a 3-day orientation based at the University of Calgary and surrounding area, focusing on an investigation of the cultural perspectives of the group, as well as a brief exploration of the cultural histories of Southern Alberta. Workshops with guest artists Davida Monk, Lori Lukasewich, and Lana Skauge provided experience and techniques in dance, visual art and dramatic narrative focusing on the impact of landscape on creative expression. Blood Nation elder, Leo Bernard Pard, facilitated an introduction to Blackfoot culture at the World Heritage Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. Before leaving Canada, the students completed the first assignment by responding to questions regarding their cultural heritage and relationship to primal landscapes. Original poetry, songs and stories were performed and visual art projects in a variety of materials were presented. These 'at home' explorations in Southern Alberta provided foundation from which to view the collision and combination of indigenous and colonizing cultures during the Mexico portion of the project.

Students and faculty travelled to three geographical zones of Mexico over a three-week period beginning with one week of experiential research in the Central region. The group was exposed to a cultural overview by visiting pre- Hispanic sites and museums in the Mexico City area including the Museums of Anthropology and Modern Art and the archeological site of Teotihuacan. Travelling east to Tlaxcala, the group participated in a two day workshop with master artisan Martin Letechipia Alvarado at the National Puppet Museum in Huamantla.

In the second week participants arrived in Oaxaca for Mexico's Largest and most important theatre/dance festival, La Guelaguetza. At the Instituto de Communicacion y Cultura participants attended festival events and participated in lectures on the cultural history. Visual art forms specific to the festival such as textile arts were taught by local textile expert in ethnic costume, Antonieta Casas Florian. As well, students participated in music and dance workshops in the traditions of the festival, under the supervision of Victor Vasquez Labastida and Professor Fernando Rosales Garcia, both directors at the Oaxaca Folkloric Dance Academy.

In the final week participants travelled to the South Western region of Oaxaca, where they experienced cultural changes influenced by the sea and coastal lifestyle. In Puerto Angel participants reflected and synthesized their experiences and research. Final research projects investigated the impact of an integrated arts approach on individual and group conceptions of international, intercultural and interdisciplinary creative collaborations. These projects were finalized and presented/performed prior to returning to Canada.

The students were very well received in Mexico. The itinerary and course content, starting with guest artists in Alberta, was upbeat and motivating. The workshops (bilingual), those we took and offered, were great. The students have expressed - verbally and in writing - that this has been a pivotal experience in their lives as artists. The course experience was evaluated by the participants immediately following the completion of the course. Overall, the feedback on the course experience revealed consistent responses about what aspects worked well, and what aspects could be modified for future course offerings.

Another goal of this project was to capture the experience through video documentation. We have returned with approximately 60 hours of video footage and are now underway with the production of a promotional video which will help establish this initiative in Drama and Fine Arts programming. A 'video portrait' of this international, interdisciplinary, inter-cultural learning experience will provide the UofC and the Faculty of Fine Arts with an effective tool to allow students to communicate their experiences to other students and help encourage and perpetuate an 'international' consciousness across the campus.

The institutions and artists that we worked with in Canada and Mexico are uniquely community based, while quietly attracting international interest. There were moments of shared learning that touched us deeply and gave us confidence in ourselves as cultural agents. The project facilitated exposure to and interaction with pre and post colonial cultural values, history, traditions in both Canada and Mexico.

If, as Raymond Williams states, "culture is the way in which people write themselves into the land", the purpose of this project is to help participants develop creative and critical tools from which to view their own and others' cultural traditions and evolving artistic practices. Within the multicultural community of the UofC there is a need to develop a cross- cultural aesthetic and address issues of cultural appropriation.

The greatest monetary (and moral) investment in setting up the future of this program, have already been covered in: research, research travel, departmental and University support, completing the pilot , and securing video documentation. Much of this has been made possible through the first- time project funding that we received.

Obviously, we want to see the course offered again as soon as possible, to capitalize and spotlight, the support initiated here and in Mexico. This unique relationship between the U of C and Intercultural Performance Contact Inc.(IPC) successfully models institutional and community partnership. Response from Dr. Ann Calvert, the Dean of Fine Arts, and Douglas McCullough Head of the Drama Dept. has been very positive. With their support we have submitted a letter of interest to the Travel Study office to run the course next summer.

Future offerings of the 'Integrated Arts Travel Study in Mexico: Theatre, Dance and Visual Art (Drama 572.17)' aim to continue fostering the development of emerging artists through cultural exchange amidst the ever shifting and evolving perceptions of culture and social process.

Sun, Sand, Surf. . .Sculpture?

This summer I and seven other students were enrolled in the Integrated Arts Travel Study to Mexico. I registered for this course not knowing what to expect. A trip to Mexico sounded like a good way to get credit! What I learned was beyond my expectations.

Travelling through a diverse section of that large country I observed the ease with which Dance and Drama melded. How Art can educate. How the three disciplines combined can create something powerful, moving and more than what they could achieve on their own.

In Huamantla, a small city four hours south of Mexico City, I learned how to make a marionette out of a ball of clay. This resourcefulness - to create with what was readily available - was inspiring. I saw examples of this determination and ingenuity throughout our journey.

In Oaxaca I witnessed a celebration of regional diversity called La Guelaguetza. Indigenous groups from all over the state performed traditional dances in a jam-packed stadium. That same evening, a spectacle of dance and drama, depicting folklore from pre-Hispanic time, filled the stadium whose only purpose is to facilitate this festival. Later that week we met with the performers and conducted a workshop in improv techniques. Through mangled Spanish, wild gesticulations and lots of laughter, we found a common bond in our desire to create.

What I discovered were endless possibilities for creating without borders - borders between countries, cultures, language and creative mediums. As a bonus, I got a bit of a tan, too.

What other students said....

"I learned that art can be created by everyone - 
regardless of age, race, education."
"Being a strong woman doesnUt get you thrown out of your culture. I have learned something about what it means to travel as an artist, to make connections   with a variety of people (artists and other professions) and solicit a genuine and enriching  exchange between us."
"I have learned the importance of a journey.  That it is the struggle to climb to the top of the pyramid that you will remember and not the souvenirs you bring back home." "In Canada everything is progress.  Things seems to move forward at an alarming rate.  In Mexico TtimeU is a 
continuation from the Aztecs and before to the present.  The present is an expression of the past - who we were then - leading up to who we are now."
"Being place in an entirely new cultural location was an extremely eye-opening experience.    It was as though my artistic expression grew ten-fold over the past three weeks in comparison to the past two years." The pride and attention paid to history impresses me.  I have learned how important history  can be in expression and how myself might be able to incorporate it  - that of my family, my country - in my work."
"I learned that I am capable of doing so much more that  I have ever given myself credit for." "The most important thing is not to limit myself to one art form or to one idea."
"I can adjust to just about anything. I can be more flexible than I thought and I can accept the fact that something is beyond my control and all I can control is how I react to that." "If the Mexican people can accept the old, assimilate the new and still retain what is important to their own individuality surely it's not a stretch for me to accept that I can contribute my artistry in what ever form and enrich other people's lives."

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