Given our culture’s growing propensity to focus on the fearful and horrific aspects of Halloween, Americans living outside the Southwest tend to get a little weirded-out by the joyous and playful way in which our Mexican neighbors celebrate the Day of the Dead. Somehow, such activities as families picnicking on the freshly spruced-up graves of their forebears and feeding small children candies and cakes shaped like skulls strike us as more macabre than they really are.
Actually, there are two succeeding Days of the Dead in Mexico, reflecting the fusion of the ancient Aztec festival of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of the Underworld, with two Christian holy days that fall on November 1 and 2: All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Mexicans remember deceased children on November 1, Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels) and adults on November 2, Día de los Muertos or Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead). Preparations actually begin a day earlier, with extensive cleaning and decorating of homes as well as gravesites, plus cooking and baking of festive foods to make the spirits of departed family members feel welcome.
To the minds of people growing up in this and other Latin American cultures, there’s nothing creepy about the idea of inviting the dead into your home to eat the spiritual essence of the delicacies set out and listen to surviving family members reminiscing and making jokes about their dearly departed. These beneficent ghosts appreciate the attention and don’t take offense even when a family member mocks them by reciting a calavera (Spanish for “skull”), a humorous epitaph in verse that recalls their personality quirks and foibles. Personal altars bedecked with pictures and memorabilia of the dead loved one are set up to induce them to pay a visit, and everyone joins in the fun. Death, the festival seems to declare, is not a state to be dreaded by any means.
Some particularly creative examples of Day of the Dead personal altars are among the works to be exhibited at Unison Arts & Learning Center’s new gallery installation, which opens this Friday, November 4 with a reception running from 5 to 7 p.m. Artists whose works will be shown include Annie O’Neill, Michael Lalicki, John Bridges, Iya Battle, Serena Depero and Stevenson Estime. Admission is free, and the exhibition will stay up until November 20.
The next day, Saturday, November 5 at 8 p.m., the Unison Theater will pull out all the stops with a multimedia extravaganza celebrating Día de los Muertos in high style, albeit a few days late (the Veil will remain thin this time of year, and the spirit world still more accessible than usual). The Woodstock-based ensemble Dance Monks will interweave traditional music, ancient Spanish texts and Mexican legends with contemporary dance in a performance called Postcards from Mexico, choreographed to a slideshow of projected images by photographer Sebastian Belaustegui, author of Guardianes del Tiempo.
Consisting of Rodrigo Esteva, a Mexican choreographer, and Mirah Moriarty, who trained for the US Junior Olympics Gymnastics Team, Dance Monks have taught and performed throughout the US, Mexico and abroad at venues including New York’s Joyce Theater and Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, Washington DC’s Kennedy Center, Vermont’s Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and the National University of Mexico. Their style blends acrobatics, modern dance and tai chi into a colorful, visually exciting yet deeply reverential form of contemporary dance.
Following the performance of Postcards from Mexico, Unison will host a Mexican-themed party with traditional home-cooked Mexican delicacies and drink. Live music will be provided by Radio Jarocho, a New York City-based band devoted to the son, jarocho and fandango traditions from southern Veracrúz. The entire event is made possible thanks to support from the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York and local business sponsors Kimlin Propane, John DeNicolo, CPA, Bella Terra Apartments, Water Street Market and Hudson Real American Whiskeys.
Tickets for the performance, with dance party and food included, cost $25 general admission and $20 for Unison members at the door, $2 less with pre-purchase. To order, call (845) 255-1559 or visit www.unisonarts.org/programs/Postcards-from-Mexico.html. Unison is located at 68 Mountain Rest Road on the outskirts of New Paltz, a little west of the Wallkill River crossing. Come have some fun, and invite your favorite muertos to come along!