To a casual viewer, it must have been a bizarre spectacle, even for a drama class.
Ten minutes into the lecture, the actress who was speaking began a Tai Chi demonstration, complete with the controlled turns of a well-practiced martial artist. Twenty minutes into the talk, there was a cacophony of noises, punctuated with emphatic hand motions that rose and dipped according to the strength of the actress’ voice. Thirty minutes in, she was a study in canine observation and imitation: The actress barked, wagging a makeshift handkerchief tail and even proceeded to tap her neck in a manic scratching motion.
And yet, we sat there enthralled — a group of drama students, professors, curious theater lovers and me. This woman, with an arsenal of exotic demonstrations, embodied everything that an actor could ever wish to accomplish. She channeled intensity, immense control and an uncanny ability to lead us into whatever world she wanted to create.
If there were any doubts that the body could be a canvas for art, Teresa Ralli of El Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani shattered them all.
The lecture and demonstration, titled “Yuyachkani: The Actors Prepare” and given during professor Jill Lane’s “Survey of Theater and Drama,” was the first in a series of lectures and performances prepared by the Grupo Yuyachkani in a celebration of the award-winning Peruvian theater collective.
Created 34 years ago, the group is well-known for creating deeply symbolic repertoires that integrate all forms of art — from drama to song to dance. In the process, they have created works that are at once revolutionary and oddly familiar, paying the perfect homage to the culture that fostered them. The marriage of new and old is backed by incredible passion: The Grupo Yuyachkani, born out of a humble wish to change the world, seek to use their art not only as a creative outlet, but a means to get a jaded people to embrace their culture and, perhaps, find the motivation and inspiration to change it.
Talking to Teresa Ralli, one of the founders of the group, only confirms that zeal. Explaining her practice of kung fu (also part of the demonstration), she stresses the importance of physical presence.
“Especially in my more patronizing culture,” Ralli said via translation, “it is important to me to teach young actresses to find inner and outer strength, to get their voices heard.”
Indeed, her complete love of her art translated into a powerful demonstration and could be summed up by the final 10 minutes of the lecture.
She gave a snippet of one of the group’s most popular pieces called “Musico Ambulante,” or Traveling Musicians, which focused on four different animals as they journey through Peru. Each of them, she explained, represented a cultural faction. The donkey, for example, represented the people of the Andes; the cat, the people of the jungle; the dog, the people of the northern coast; and the chicken, those of African origin.
Ralli smiles at the memory, while donning the dog-like mask and makeshift tail she used in the play. The children, of course, enjoyed the play for the animals, but at its core, she explained, “Ambulante” is a political commentary.
“It was an exploration of the silly cultural differences that divide the country. They should instead unite them,” Ralli said.
With one line, Ralli transformed a piece that could have been dismissed as childhood whimsy into an elegant metaphor for her beliefs.
El Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani will tackle two pieces this weekend, hoping to spread their message of social justice and hope with performances of “Adios Ayacucho,” which features both modern and ancestral movement, and “Antigona,” a reinterpretation of Sophocles’ classic “Antigone” that highlights the conflicts women in Peru face.
Ralli’s selfless fervor for her art is but one symbol of what has sustained Yuyachkani for these many years, a fervor that is also an apt representation of the social mission of the group.