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The Gigantería project revives an old colonial Cuban tradition with “La quema de La Tarasca (Burning the Tarasque).”

Those who walk around the Cuban capital’s Historical Center, often run across passacaglias, stilt walkers and living statues, with colorful and elaborate outfits, in perfect harmony, to foreign visitors and local residents’ amazement, with the antique facade of this corner of Havana.

The Gigantería project is responsible for their presence. Founded in 2000 and directed by Cuban Roberto Salas, Gigantería’s work, which has become a source of pride for Havana residents, represents a challenge aimed at taking one of the world’s oldest artistic expressions, theater, to open-air public spaces.

Recently, Gigantería was involved in the organization and production of the third edition of the show “La quema de La Tarasca,” included in the program of activities of the Fourth Leo Brouwer Festival of Chamber Music, pretext used by Cubanow to speak with Salas about this troupe and their determination to revive an old colonial Cuban tradition.

How would you describe Gigantería’s scope and the work already carried out since its founding? What elements distinguish it in the panorama of the Cuban stage?

For 12 years, Gigantería has been performing on the streets, the main stage for its productions. We have a conversation with the city through various performances. What people know the most are the passacaglias in the Historical Center, which is a style of life. Gigantería is an experience of self-managed local development; we are members of the Agencia de Representación Artística Caricato and also count on the warm support of the Historian’s Office of the City of Havana.

We work with passacaglias, living statues, put on shows in plazas, thinking of street theater as a vital space of creative expression, considering the city an urban space for interacting. We work a lot with stilts to revive an old tradition. Africans brought the stilts, the work with masks, giant dolls, for bringing fantastic characters to the public scene. I think without meaning to do it in the beginning, Gigantería has become a point of reference for street art in the capital, over the past 12 years, and we have become professional event presenters. We’ve brought our own esthetic, our own way of conceiving characters to more than 150 events, not only as shows, but also as hosts for them, and thus we’ve participated in various fairs, concerts and festivals.

Tell us about the composition of the group…

Gigantería’s composition is similar to a community. We’re members of a National Council of Stage Arts’ performing agency, but our work style is more like a community, made up of 15 or 16 people, some of them theater graduates, and from the San Alejandro Academy. In a general sense, they use Gigantería as a school. Gigantería opens up to its members, trying to create training mechanisms, organize workshops, bring them together with teachers, learning.

Why the interest in reviving the old tradition of the city: “La quema de La Tarasca”?

I’m a theater expert, and when I studied the history of Cuban theater I encountered this old tradition that aroused my curiosity. Of course, when I read the history books about the Tarasque I couldn’t imagine how it was. Then, thanks to the Internet, I could see with my own eyes how those ancient Tarasques in various regions of Spain, like Seville and Madrid, were and realized that this tradition was still alive in Europe but not in my country. From there, we decided to use the Tarasque as a pretext for organizing a macro show or, as I like to call it, a street ritual of purification.

What were the tradition’s origins in Cuba?

The Tarasque is a street puppet, which has a legend associated with Saint Martha, of biblical origin. Martha is Lazarus’ sister; this was used by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, when the Feast of Corpus Christi began to gain momentum. The puppet began to be known in these ancient processions  and took on great importance and popularity throughout Europe.

In Cuba, as in other places in the Americas, Spaniards established their traditional religious celebrations, among them the Feast of Corpus Christi, and starting specifically in the 17th century, news of the Tarasque’s presence began to appear in our ecclesiastical records, year after year, possibly for two centuries, until King Charles III prohibited them. And why? We should understand that those celebrations sought to bring a liturgical message to the city, and thus, little by little, elements like the Tarasque were incorporated to make the procession brighter and more colorful. But there came a time when people were more interested in the celebration around the Tarasque than in the liturgical procession. The King considered all this a cooling of people’s faith and that’s why the puppet was expelled from all kingdoms protected by the Catholic Church, and thus the tradition was discontinued.

Of course, we’re not producing a religious show, because we’re not celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi. We’re, in fact, decontextualizing a street puppet that was very important in our cultural past and we’re revitalizing all that, adapting it with the myth of the scapegoat.

How are the puppet and the legend combined?

The Tarasque is an over five-meter-long physical creation. It has the appearance of a dragon, the head of a lion, the shell of a turtle, tail of a scorpion, legs of a bear, and the tongue of a viper; it corresponds to the ancient tradition about this legend. It was a monster that lived in the woods. The King of Tarascón sent his troops after it but could never destroy it by force. Martha — and here the monster’s relationship with this woman comes in — was the only person who could tame it through talk and wisdom.

When we look it up in a book on Christian symbols, The Tarasque is presented as a symbol of paganism. In ancient medieval slang, the legend of Martha and the Tarasque was used to represent virtue and vice, good and evil, etc. The fact is the Tarasque was defeated by Martha who led it to the town by her apron strings, where the villagers killed it in the night. The next morning, standing on the body of the defeated beast, which was blamed for all bad things that happened in the region of Tarascón, Martha converted many people to Christianity. This is what the old legend tells, and of course, all this was the pretext and point of the ancient processions. We adapted all this with the vision of the scapegoat. The Tarasque is sacrificed meaning that we can actually banish evil from our lives and it says: “I am guilty, you’re always looking for the guilty one, I surrender.”

What does Gigantería’s procession consist of?

The Tarasque is exhibited all day at San Francisco de Asís Plaza for people, the general public, to write on it, to lay their hands on it and through their thoughts transmit all negative things they want the puppet to take away from their lives. It’s an action that’s closer to ritual than to performance, and I always say that faith begins where reason ends.

Then, the performance continues with the procession, starting at 10 p.m., which takes the monster to the esplanade of La Punta, on the Havana seafront, where it’s burned.

This is the third time that Gigantería, the group I represent and that’s led the reviving of this character, has staged this show. Since 2010, the monster has been taken out annually. The two previous times, we took it for a walk around various sectors of the city for three days and this time it’s only for one day, in the context of the Leo Brouwer Festival.


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