A Hesychastic Instant

In Cuba, as in the rest of the world, the Coronavirus pandemic has brought cultural activities to a halt. This misfortune has had a profound impact on performers, on the public, and on presenting spaces. A difficult process of adjustment has followed this unfortunate paralyzation. For El Ciervo Encantado, it has been tragic, as we have had to suspend presentations of Zones of Silence, our most recent work, after only four shows into its premiere theatrical run.

It has been like interrupting a birth and telling the mother that the baby’s head is out, but that we are going to have to wait an indefinite amount of time, a few months perhaps, for the rest of the body. Inevitably, we think about the outcome of the situation: two certain deaths.

Yet art and nature have their mysteries. Time, life, and death all manifest, turn relative, and expand in enigmatic ways.

Because actually, nothing really comes to a halt. Not even the deaths of the mother and the child represent an interruption or a stay.

As we learned with Severo Sarduy, the only thing that is permanent and true is change.

It is impossible to deny that this shutdown has been painful. There is something very sad about a closed theater, and the impossibility of inhabiting it is a difficult challenge. It becomes necessary, then, to discover other ways, other procedures, other spheres, other ways of seeing and of being in life. This is a process. It is an inquiry that will yield a discovery that is beyond what is now known, displacing us towards other ways of thinking, and reinventing us in the process.

Everything will be changed by the disturbing and overwhelming experience of this pandemic, both the work yet to be created and the one that has already been realized, like Zones of Silence. Will the work be meaningful once this tempest has passed? The urgency of other silences or other screams will, mostly likely, impose itself.

There is excitement in this, as perhaps it will reveal the meaning of this moment as it forces us to grow inwards in that hesychastic manner invoked by José Lezama Lima that speaks of mental balance, rest, and serenity, where space is reduced and time grows and expands infinitely. In contrast to the systical, characterized by expansion, outward movement, and tumultuous passions where space expands and time is minimal, the hesychastic flies away, consuming itself unnoticed and fleetingly.

There are many other examples of creators, in the broadest sense of this word, that convene us from their experiences of survival to appreciate the value of each breath, to leave nothing for later, to not wait, and to discover other forms to continue to express ourselves in resistance.

The dead are very much alive. José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera speak to us from their works, from their (asthmatic and hypertense) bodies, from their lives. Both were in involuntary confinement, working from their home-prisons as if obsessed.

Lezama, confined, continued to create, protected in his library upholstered in books covered by microorganisms. No one would dare touch or clean that library, coated in years of dust and smoke exhaled by his distressed lungs. Only he would remain there, reading and writing for himself, for God, for all, sheltered by the hesychastic rhythm that kept him vital in the infinite time of every breath, bestowing on him a precision-filled consciousness of the instant of being alive, bereft of any perception of a future.

Virgilio, confined, never stopped translating or writing, standing nude before his Remington typewriter after his nights of loveless sex with a stevador from the port who was likely beautiful and abusive. From five to eight each morning, before running out, hemp sack in hand, to stand in patrimonial lines all over Havana, Virgilio religiously wrote, and wrote, and wrote with only the certainty that he would be the only one to read his “raptures.” Sheltered by the hesychastic rhythm that kept him in life, in the infinite time of each beat of a heart beleaguered by his constant smoking, bereft of any perception of a future.

There are many other examples of creators, in the broadest sense of this word, that convene us from their experiences of survival to appreciate the value of each breath, to leave nothing for later, to not wait, and to discover other forms to continue to express ourselves in resistance. This just may be the epiphany of this pandemic, which may easily outlive us.

Let’s listen then, to the bronze triangle, to the sound wave that expands, and to Oppiano Licario who in the final dialogue of Paradiso announces to us, as if an order:

“(…) hesychastic rhythm, we may now begin.”

—Havana, May 1, 2020

Translated by Marcial Godoy-Anativia

Nelda Castillo, a renowned director and educator in the Cuban theater scene, founded El Ciervo Encantado in 1996. Since then, they have developed their work through research and the creation of a language of their own. Castillo has worked to master a form of acting training that uses particular forms of expression to explore Cuban cultural identity in all of its richness and complexity, including the study of memory registered in the body-mind of its actors.

El Ciervo Encantado has a unique and disconcerting poetic force which integrates elements of performance art and theatrical staging, and which is based on rigorous research on the ways in which actors and pieces express themselves. Their work is conceptually and formally distinct from the language of traditional theater. Here, the blurred border from which they work becomes a ritual, it becomes body art, a happening, a staging, an installation, and a form of “artivism.” This makes El Ciervo Encantado a laboratory and space of exchange where innovative connections between theater, visual arts, music, literature, dance, and investigative theory, among others, are discovered and brought to life. Thanks to this constant interplay of knowledges, the work of El Ciervo Encantado connects with different art and culture venues, escaping any single definition. 

This group has contributed to the development of stage performance, as well as presentations and interventions in public and alternative spaces, using art to intervene in contemporary debates. It takes the Cuba of today as its point of reference, its inspiration, and starting point, in bridging larger global conversations. Mariela Brito, the group’s main actor-performer, has been involved from its inception, serving as the axis and main support of El Ciervo Encantado’s line of work. 

Marcial Godoy-Anativia is Managing Director of the Hemispheric Institute.


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