at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, April 22 and 23

Performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena has said that Mexican culture is itself “performative.” In Mexico two ritualistic cultures and religions meet: the indigenous Aztec culture and European Catholic culture, both of which used public rituals, ceremonies, and processions. In a mingling of the two religions, Aztec gods and goddesses became Catholic saints, and Catholic customs and rituals became the public face of Aztec belief systems.

Add to those influences the fact that much of Mexican life happens in the plaza and the street (because of the friendly weather conditions) and the result is an environment in which art, religion, and everyday life are effectively integrated–so much so that the “creative” life and “regular” life (whatever that is) are often indistinguishable. This environment has nurtured street performers, dancers, and performance art in general, and in particular a young dance/performance troupe (formed in 1987) known as Asaltodiario, which appeared at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum as part of “Del Corazon: Mexican Performing Arts Festival 1994.”

The six members of Asaltodiario (“daily assault”) mix street dance, acrobatics, and guerrilla theater, and in their native Mexico City perform mainly in the plazas, parks, and other public areas. Here they displayed plenty of verve and strength, but their theatrics and posturing didn’t quite fulfill the promise of street performance. Being indoors and onstage, they were unable to jump on and off poles or walls without literally bringing down the house. Asaltodiario clearly had to accommodate their athletic choreography to the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum auditorium. But small choreographic bits that might otherwise have been lost worked well in the enclosed environment.

The first of two pieces was Without a Time Limit, choreographed by Miguel Angel Diaz and Gabriela Medina. Called in the program “an interdisciplinary event . . . influenced by the great ritual tradition of Wrestling,” it features a beautifully designed set that suggests three corners of a boxing ring with two ropes attached to a pole at center stage. Above the pole is a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and at one side of the stage two colorful wrestling masks dangle from the ceiling, gently blowing back and forth. Two dancers engage in unison in stylized kickboxing, contact improvisation, sparring movements, the expansive, dramatic postures of referees as they count down a fighter, quasi-dramatic wrestling poses (running in place with one fist in the air), and surprising drops to the floor reminiscent of break dancing.

Two more masks fall from the ceiling, and as the lights go down a vendor selling masks and toys makes his way through the audience, urging people to buy for their boy, their girl, their wife, their husband, “Mascaritas! Mascaritas! Por su nino, su nina . . . ” The vendor even has a little wooden toy in which two tiny boxers fight, which he demonstrates before the lights come back up onstage and the bell rings. Three more wrestlers emerge dressed in variations on a Spandex theme. Medina holds a little wooden toy of the same sort the vendor was hawking, and using the smallest of gestures (reminiscent of the work of Ellen Fisher) makes the little wooden boxers fight one another as she crouches below the hanging masks, deeply engaged with the toy while the three dancers move in synchrony. Here Asaltodiario takes a specific, important aspect of Mexican culture–wrestling–and treats it with a sense of fun.

The second dance, Paraphrase of Passion, is not quite as successful, though there are some beautiful touches in the surreal tradition of performance art, such as a baby Jesus suspended in space, its chubby hands blessing two thugs beating up a third man; an unexpected headfirst entrance from the ceiling; and Medina and Diaz writing on the back wall with spray paint.

Asaltodiario maintain in the program notes that in Paraphrase of Passion they’re addressing “violence, terrorism and war,” but somehow the piece seems angst-ridden and posturing: it just doesn’t penetrate the difficult subject matter. Though most of the piece is quite melodramatic, there’s a touch of irony in the frustrated “announcer” who stands off to the side providing some much-needed comic counterpoint to the weighty material.

Any illustration of evil should be not merely the illustration of suffering, sadism, or cruelty but also of senselessness, ignorance, and stupidity; juxtaposed with these should be the fragility and beauty of all life. Addressing the nature of evil means meditating on many things metaphysical, sociological, theological, and artistic. Paraphrase of Passion attempts to show the duality of life by including a few instances of kindness and compassion, but this still seems a young work by a young, idealistic company. The piece is ambitious if nothing else, but one wishes that Asaltodiario had chosen a subject with more autobiographical punch and less of the “man’s inhumanity to man” school of performance art.

Despite the flaws of Paraphrase of Passion and despite the fact that these pieces were not seen outdoors (where the reactions of the passing crowd would have been part of the performance), there was something noble and exciting about this young work. With time and continued effort, this troupe’s nascent power may emerge.