Weaving their bodies in a loose circle around a line of candles, the young actors appeared to be performing some ancient mystic rite. One lifted a small human statue with tender reverence. Another peered hard into a hand-held mirror, as if scanning for a secret identity.
Lyrical language filled the stark white room — Spanish, English, French, snatches of Korean — as the tableaux vivants of CalArts students grew steadily more sensual and intense.
It was a few days into rehearsal of "Piedra de Sol" (Sunstone), a multimedia performance piece based on the famous poem of that name by Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. Heavily influenced by Surrealist imagery, and laden with references to Mesoamerican and Greco-Roman myths, Paz's 1957 poem is a rapturous, metaphysical rumination on erotic life forces and the search for an authentic self (or selves) within other people, other cultures and the flow of time and history.
The theater piece, a kaleidoscopic swirl of spoken text, dance-like movement, visual projections and live music, is being presented four times, Friday through Sunday, at the Getty Villa near Malibu in conjunction with the sculpture exhibition "The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire," which examines how the European conquerors sought to understand the New World's indigenous empires through the lens of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Watching the rehearsal, the show's adapter-director, Maria Morett, who'd recently flown in from Mexico City, took notes and studied the actors. A few minutes later, chatting in a conference room on CalArts' Valencia campus, she tried to distill the conceptual essence of the ambitious play, and the prolific, cosmopolitan artist whose poetry inspired it.
In addition to writing poetry, Paz, who died in 1998, was a tireless essayist, launched a leading literary journal, and served as Mexico's ambassador to India. He's perhaps best known for his 1950 philosophical treatise about Mexican identity, "The Labyrinth of Solitude."
"I would say that this is the greatest poem of Paz," Morett said in her ebulliently accented English. "So it's going to be an encounter with the figure of a man who was a poet, but at the same time he was a traveler of cultures, of worlds. So in this poem, or also in this production, we are trying to connect with those moments, with that culture."
That culture, Morett said, is centered on the massive circular Aztec sculpture that has come to be known as the Piedra de Sol. Unearthed from the ruins of the former Aztec capital that became present-day Mexico City, it was initially construed by archaeologists to be a calendar, but actually may have functioned as part of a sacrificial altar.
Sacrifice, including self-sacrifice, is a key image in Paz's poem. But the metaphor suggests not merely physical violence but rather the opening-up of the self, the shedding of old identities and the adoption of new ones.
To Morett, it also speaks to the actor's challenge of portraying different characters. Most of the performers in "Piedra" play multiple roles, assuming the personas of Aztec gods, historical figures such as the medieval lovers Abélard and Héloïse and, in some cases, aspects of Paz himself.
"You cannot be Octavio Paz or Héloïse or any character if you cannot lose yourself," said Morett, who obtained permission to produce the play from Paz's widow, Marie-José Tramini.
Working with a team of nearly 30 student actors, designers, musicians and technicians at the experimental suburban L.A. art college, Morett is striving to create a roughly 75-minute piece that will immerse audiences in Paz's aesthetic and intellectual universe. "Piedra" also contains interpolations of other poems by Paz, dramatized episodes from his life, and fragments of works by the Surrealist poet-theorist André Breton, whose writings deeply influenced Paz.
"When you sit in that show, it's an experience," said Michael Vanderbilt, one of the work's student producers. "It's not just the words, it's not just the video or the costumes or the choreography. It's a Surrealist experience. It's all about the feeling that you're getting from all those things that you're being bombarded with at once."
With its non-narrative, experimental structure and melting pot of idioms and cultural reference points, "Piedra de Sol" was an ideal work to launch a new initiative, Duende CalArts, said its founder, faculty member and Broadway and television actor Marissa Chibas.
Chibas said the idea behind Duende — named after the Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca's concept of a kind of creative phantasm necessary to make theater — was to increase the production of works by Latin American and Latino authors, and the involvement of Latino artists at CalArts.
"To me, diversity encompasses aesthetic diversity as well," said Chibas, the daughter of a former Cuban revolutionary leader who later broke with Fidel Castro and defected to Miami. In general, Chibas continued, U.S. theater still skews toward 19th century Anglo-European models. "In order to truly have diverse programming, that means to move away from traditional narratives and to incorporate other cultures and other languages."
Morett, a playwright who has worked throughout Mexico, the U.S. and Europe, said she regards "Piedra" as a work in progress and hopes someday to present it in her homeland. A firm believer in spiritual portents, she said she has received several positive omens about the production, which CalArts first asked her to direct a few days before the anniversary of Paz's birth. Morett finished the adaptation on the anniversary of Paz's death.
"I like to ask permission of Octavio Paz," she said, "and I feel like all the signs are, yes, do it!"