With their newest theatrical-dance performance, “Oxlaju B’aktun,” the Maya-Kaqchikel arts collective Sotz’il engages with mythical prophecy, cultural tradition, and contemporary reality to explore the significance of the thirteenth 400-year cycle of the Maya calendar, which simultaneously closes a five-millenia epoch of civilization and inaugurates a new era of history, their depiction ecompassing both the recurring cataclysms and continual renewal of human experience. Founded in the last decade by young Maya-Kaqchikel artists born during a generation of war, genocide, and a resurging Maya social and political movement, Sotz’il is dedicated to the research and performance of pre-Columbian Maya art, practicing a holistic blend of music, dance, theatre, and spirituality drawn from and responding to living tradition. Three of their members have been assassinated since 2009, culminating in the kidnapping, torture, and execution of Lisandro Guarcax, the group’s spiritual and artistic leader, in August of 2010. Though it provoked a wave of anguished protest in Guatemala and internationally, Lisandro’s murder has yet to be clarified or brought to justice. [See NISGUA’s blog for information about the eventual verdict in Lisandro’s case.]
Observers of the indigenous civilizations and cultures of the Western Hemisphere have long been intrigued by the intricate systems of the Maya calendar, especially the material and spiritual implications of the forecast end of the 5000-plus year “long count” on December 21, 2012. Such interest, like perhaps all encounters of difference, spans extremes, from modest and respectful gestures towards understanding, to reinterpretations which shamelessly appropriate and distort the worldviews described both by ancient tradition and modern indigenous communities. Both the mass culture and counter-cultures of the global North have seized aspects of indigenous cosmovision and bent them into the shape of their own ideologies: Hollywood through escapist daydreams of apocalypse which appeal to the self-annihiliating drive of consumer capitalism; the psychedelic and New Age movements through fantasies of esoteric revelation and utopic transformation which bear little resemblance to a real world of progressive social and ecological deterioration. In Guatemala, the government and private sector have also taken advantage of the 2012 moment to promote international tourism and processes of social renovation which, if one recalls the impacts that these sectors’ agendas have historically had for indigenous and poor communities, spark little hope that dominant structures will initiate or permit change in benefit of those below.
On March 21 I had the privilege to be present during a performance by Sotz’il of “Oxlaju B’aktun” at Guatemala’s National Theatre, in a plaza at the base of one towering, pyramidal blue walls of the ultra-modernist structure, its architecture seemingly inspired both by ancient ceremonial structures and futuristic technology. At dusk I file quietly into the square with other members of the audience, assembled around a broad circular arena inscribed with pine needles, flower petals, and cut fruits. The circle’s cardinal points are marked with un-lit censers of incense and firewood; within the circle a tecomate gourd marimba and other carefully arranged instruments and tools, a glowing censer in the center, with a backdrop of wind-whipped silhouettes of trees and the waning moon rising heavily, just beginning its journey away from Earth on its 19-year cycle. The seven performers are already within the circle, beating a heavy drum tattoo, the marimba melodically buzzing, flutes keening, preparing themselves in slow deliberate movement:
Q’uq’umatz (Mercedes Francisca García Ordóñez), the universal grandmother in ornate Kaqchikel traje and headdress, embodiment of authority, wisdom, truth, and the cycle of time and space.
Rejqalem (Juan Carlos Chiyal Yaxón), the bearer of time, pounding the drum.
Wuqu’ Kaqix (Daniel Fernando Guarcax González), “Seven Parrots,” wearing a massive clay mask depicting a twisted, sneering human face, the primary antagonist of the drama, representing the egocentric, ambitious, and destructive facets of human personality, flexing his back muscles and pacing anxiously.
Yaxbalamkej (César Augusto Guarcax Chopén), an agile and noble jaguar, crouching and yawning, the eyes of his mask fiercely green, teeth beared in a snarl.
Jun Ajpu’ (Gilberto Guarcax González, spiritual guide of the group), human twin brother of the jaguar, the pair of protagonists representing sun and moon, unity and spirituality, hunter and prey, carefully blowing orange sparks from the glowing incense, arranging ritual instruments, preparing the ceremonial space with sprays of water from a pine bough.
Kame’ (Luis Ricardo Cúmes González), a terrifying skeletal apparition studded with obsidian blades and bony armor, the lord of the underworld Xib’alb’a’, darkness and death, stalking the ring.
Tukur (Marcelino Chiyal Yaxón), the owl, messenger of the underworld, preening his feathers, hopping and stretching his wings as the energy and tension of the ring build, as the movements of each performer become more intentional, until the audience is in place and the plaza falls into dark and silence.
In unconscious darkness, flutes and ocarinas play bird calls, a key element of Sotz’il’s music, replicating the sound of a dawning tropical forest. Suddenly, the cosmos bursts into light and a tumult of movement as all seven performers dash around the ring, seven figures in chaotic but perfectly choreographed movement, tossing and catching a twisted, serpentine wooden staff in an equal exchange of power. This balance is shattered when Seven Parrots, the force of disorder, maliciously steals the staff from the grandmother Q’uq’umatz. The twins and the other players play the ritual ball game, leaping and bouncing a rubber ball off hips and elbows in a violent and acrobatic struggle. With a spiked obsidian axe, Seven Parrots strikes down the human Jun Ajpu’, and his jaguar twin carries him on his back in a tragic, balletic balance until he is revived. He is enticed by Seven Parrots, who offers him the staff of power, against the pained protests of the grandmother.
Seizing the staff, Jun Ajpu’ comes under its control, his body doubled under its weight. He is offered other artifacts of power: the obsidian axe with which he was nearly killed, filling him with pain and inner conflict; a sightless black mask with its protruding tongue pierced with shells. His neck chained with an amulet, he will dance the majority of the performance in complete blindness. He struggles over staff and axe with his brother jaguar and Tukur the owl, throwing each other through the air and around the ring. He is threatened and taunted by the death-masked Kame’ and the sneering Seven Parrots. As the drama progresses, the grandmother Q’uq’umatz moves in slow sequence around the circle to each cardinal point, lighting incense, as the time-bearer Rejqalem picks up his massive drum and carries it on his back as if sustaining the weight of the cosmos.
The jaguar Yaxbalamkej is hunted by Seven Parrots and Tukur, finally captured in a metal grate despite his speed and strength. He collapses to the ground with his paws tied behind his back, with his mouth lifts a flute and painfully plays a mournful melody, is freed and served liquor by Seven Parrots and his allies, howls drunkenly and sprints about the ring. The grandmother laments his capture and degradation as he is fitted with a heavy silver plate necklace, forced to prostrate himself and kiss the figure of a golden skull at the center of the plate. He is held to the ground, tortured, his claws cut out with a knife of obsidian as his blinded brother Jun Ajpu’ can only listen to his heart-rending screams. Jun Ajpu’ struggles to remove his mask–as he pulls it from his eyes the light in the arena grows, but falls again as he fails. His domination complete, Seven Parrots even dares to steal the drum of Rejqalem, who continues to beat time on hollow turtle shells.
Moving around the perimeter of the circle, Q’uq’umatz and Rejqalem return finally to the point where they were at the beginning of the era of conflict, lighting the final tower of incense and fragrant wood, and Q’uq’umatz enters to heal Jun Ajpu’s vision and reclaim her staff. The lord of the underworld and Seven Parrots lose their dominion, and to the rhythm of the marimba the players dance, orbiting Jun Ajpu as he walks around the circle, a perfect balance of forces. As they exit the ring, Jun Ajpu blesses himself and each of the participants with a final spray of pure water.
While this description cannot substitute for the visceral experience of Sotz’il’s synthesis of music and movement, I hope that it at least gives a glimpse of the themes that the group engages with in the performance for those who will be unable to see it in person. I offer this synopsis of Sotz’il’s Oxlaju B’aktun with the awareness that I have omitted many details, and certainly failed to accurately portray the sequence and significance of the performance’s events. However, I think it is possible from this personal narrative to have some idea of how Sotz’il illustrates the central thesis of the prophecy of Oxlaju B’aktun, as described in their own synopsis of the work: “The passage of time and the movement of essential energies accompany the conflict between dual forces, opposite but all necessary for existence–is Humanity prepared to honor these energies and give them their place in order to find harmony?” At the end of the performance, a member of the group speaks to the audience in Kaqchikel and Spanish, explaining that the inauguration of a new cycle of the calendar offers a chance for humanity to seek balance and equality in the spiritual, social, cultural, political, and economic realms.
In Oxlaju B’aktun Sotz’il offer an allegory of human existence which is communicated largely through music and choreography, in addition to untranslated dialogue in Kaqchikel. Because their methods are so intensely physical, their work is allegorical without being didactic; though the ceremonial forms and significance of figures from Maya mythology are drawn from and respond to indigenous traditions, they also seem to have a universal archetypal significance, portraying a sense of horror and awe at the cosmos which underlies both spiritual and existential belief systems. The cyclical understanding of death and rebirth, violence and harmony, resonates with the historical experiences of indigenous peoples, repeatedly suffering dispossession and genocide at the hands of colonizers, while simultaneously engaging in practices of resistance and decolonization, and holding out hope of an alternative world-system of mutual respect among peoples and between humanity and its environment. Sotz’il’s work also draws powerfully on the personal experiences of the group–it is impossible to watch the scene of the torture of the jaguar Yaxbalamkej without thinking of Lisandro, murdered just as the group was beginning to prepare this work. At the same time, this torture is inseparable from the collective Maya experience of torture and genocide committed by the Guatemalan state and its national and international allies; and as a Guatemalan critic has also pointed out, one is also forced to confront the degradation of the Earth itself, as the population of wild jaguars is under threat of extinction across the Americas.
Refusing to look away from the realities of destruction, Sotz’il respond with a beautiful evocation of hope for balance and renewal, and it is clear that their artistic and cultural work is a powerful force for articulating this alternative. Seeking a new beginning, they affirm that “we are given the oportunity to come closer, if we prepare ourselves, to life in its fullness.”
(Quotes and descriptions of dramatis personae from Sotz’il’s program for Oxlaju’ B’aktun, collective production of Grupo Stoz’il, directed by Víctor Manuel Barillas Crispín, with technical support by Joselino Guarcax Yaxón and Clara Alicia Sen Sipac.)
More information about Grupo Sotz’il:
- Website of Grupo Sotz’il
- Ri Akux Nikotzijan “Your Heart Flourishes“, transformative art coalition dedicated to Lisandro Guarcax
- “The significance and brilliance of Sotz’il: Embodying Maya Liberation” by Czarina Aggabao Thelen