Hidden Jewels of Lima: La Agonía de Rasu Ñiti

By Tony Darrington

This week we have a Peruvian Ballet as our Jewel, not the National Museum itself, for it is hardly hidden and people have yet to take the building to their hearts as a jewel of architecture – though it doesn’t look bad at night-time, illuminated.  We also include a detour to the Ballet Folklórico de México – in only a few senses can that be considered the same genre – in order to wonder, for a moment, where the Ministry of Culture should be putting its sponsorship. Have we here in a Ballet Clasico-Folklórico a genre in its own right – one that might have world appeal?

For Arguedianists, the performance on May 20 at the National Museum theatre was a dream come true. José María Arguedas captured a quintessential, if but a small, part of Peruvian “heritage” when he set down on paper in 1961/62 the drama of La Agonia de Rasu Ñiti (The Death of a Scissors Dancer – Rasu Ñiti). That original work inspired the music for Nilo Velarde’s ballet.

 Access to performances of classical ballet has traditionally been confined to a relatively small audience of enthusiasts who live mainly in the capital. This new work, which fuses the (westernized highbrow) hochkultur of the coast with the Andean, could be the seed that will produce a genre as world-renowned as that of the Ballet Folklórico de México. The comparison should not be taken too far.

However, the Peruvian Times had a chance to review both the debut of La Agonia de Rasu Ñiti – the ballet, and a special performance of the Ballet Folklórico de México. They were performed within ten days of each other, albeit five hours flight-time apart (the detour).

The Mexican performance took place in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City on May 29 this year. That building is, architecturally speaking, as artistically luscious – marble plated, art deco – as the Lima Museo de la Nación is functionally puritan: exposed concrete and harsh rectangular lines. The “Bel-ar” (Belles Arts), as our French-speaking friends would have it, was built as an extravagant contrast to the economic greyness of the 1930’s depression and as a statement that Mexico was emerging from the chaos of the Revolution.

 The Ballet Folklórico de Mexico takes familiar – sometimes well-known – mariachi and ranchero music and astounds the audience with lavish, colorful choreography: more Moulin Rouge than Covent Garden.

In contrast, La Agonia de Rasu Ñiti production is much more cerebral and was the “World Premier” of Nilo Velarde’s (composer) ballet. The music is clearly classical and scored for a full symphony orchestra. It is modern but not atonal and contains folkloric themes. It has the makings of an iconic work.

Rasu Ñiti, as it is called for short, is about continuity and rebirth – of a scissor dancer from Ayacucho but also as a metaphor for community tradition and renewal. The original story was set down by José María Arguedas in 1962. Some years ago it was dramatized by Sara Joffré and danzante José Navarro in Lima, and by Navarro with Susana Melo as producer in London at the Instituto Cervantes. It has now been turned into a world-class ballet by an extraordinary team which Peru should be proud to add to its growing list of “global producers.”

My wish list is that Rasu Ñiti should be taken on national tour and then internationally – wherever there are sizeable Peruvian communities – returning just in time to be part of the Opening Gala at the new Peruvian National Theatre (bang next door to the Museum).

The team comprises: coreografía, Jimmy Gamonet; melografía, Daniel Kudó; vestuario, Cateriana Andrés; conductor Luis Valcárcel; director of the National Ballet, Olga Shimasaki Okada and, of course, the corps of dancers of the National Ballet, the musicians of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional and two “real” Tijeras Dancers, Fidencio “Huamani” and Gabriel “Lucifer.” The ballet is divided into three scenes which are titled “La despedida del Danzak”, “Los recuerdos de Danzak” and the “Danza final, muerte y renacimiento del Danzak”.

There was little to be faulted in the choreography and the orchestra was on top form. The music incorporating Andean motifs only rarely did not convince as the rhythm and tempo adopted just occasionally spoke more of folk than of Volk (a hint of the “folksy” or “film music folk” against the inspiration of the Ayacucho “Agonía”). If it was intended then it was daring and in tune with the times: perhaps more Varcárcel than Velarde (both are incidentally dynastic names in the “arts section” of the “Peruvian Model”)

A recording of this ballet-cum-tijeras together with notes should be part of the materials issued to all teachers in the extended training offered in a new deal for education that many are expecting as a dividend from the (Peruvian) economic boom and a series of election promises.

The homage from Juan Ossio is worth reproducing from the program; not least because the Minister is also one of the leading anthropologists specialized in the field.

A Deserving Tribute:  With this ballet we are not only paying homage to Jose Maria Arguedas on his centenary but also to the scissor dancers who have been recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage to Humanity.

“This story made into a dance has as its musical base a melody executed by scissor dancers of the department of Ayacucho, known as “Agonía.” The piece that inspires this musical interpretation is one I collected in 1972 in the community of Andamarca (a province of the department of Ayacucho) during the traditional fiesta to clean the irrigation canal (Yarja Aspi).

“The scene was the home of don Tiofanes Gallegos, a great friend of our notable writer from Apurimac, when he was sponsoring the position of Major of Dancers, the highest ranking position required of the principal irrigation users in the community.

“This celebration is held in August and the principal actors at the festivities held on the 24th and 25th of the month are the scissor dancers, whose skills are woven within a context of myth and magic under the patronage of the spirit of the mountains or guamani.

“I welcome and congratulate our National Ballet and National Symphony Orchestra for this adaptation, and I also thank all those who have contributed to this production and performance.” 

Just one note of dissent. No invitation had been sent to our newspaper. Fair enough – the PT bought two tickets at Wong dated and printed for this performance. They were not faked! We turned up at the door of the Museo de la Nación where there was a “getting frustrated” queue of other ticket holders. The Museo / Ministry staff denied that they had sold any tickets for the performance and security staff blocked entry. Not good. Entry by invitation only they said. We wielded our credentials. Curtain up and the theatre was half empty leaving the queue outside.  The distribution of invitations should be much more sensitive and if A puts tickets on sale make sure B knows about it. Above all, don’t leave the true Arguedianists out in the cold. Arguedas wouldn’t have liked it.

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