Indigenous Calendar August, 2015: A Maya Circus Jaguar Tells a Story

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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It may be difficult to believe when we see the news, but we homo sapiens are the ultimate social animal. Our success is mostly due to our ability to interact with each other socially. On a micro level that ability was critical in the early days of our evolution and our migration. On a macro level it is more important to our survival today than at any time in our history. Language was and remains the greatest enabler of our social interaction and storytelling has played as great a role as any of our other uses of language.

Cirque du Soleil is a Canadian arts, entertainment and nightlife company. If you are not familiar with them your reaction may be "so what?" This description, while accurate, does nothing to answer your question. A slightly better answer comes from their web site: "... to evoke the imagination, invoke the senses and provoke the emotions..." But this also comes nowhere close to a true answer. The answer cannot be explained in words: it can only be experienced by attending one of their shows.

I've been lucky enough to attend about half of their shows over the thirty years that they've been around and I am one of the privileged "victims" of one of their hallmark stunts: taking an audience member onto the stage without warning to "perform" alongside them.

This photo was not taken at a Cirque du Soleil show — although it is typical of the kind of scene found at one. It was taken instead in Guatemala at a Maya cultural festival. While the performer's costume — a jaguar — is almost certainly an accurate portrayal of the kind worn in ancient Maya rituals, it is doubtful that the acrobatic feat is as accurate. The rope was tied between two makeshift wooden poles at a height of about 15 meters. As in Cirque shows the performer had safety equipment. While the Maya are known to have had advanced technology in ancient times, it is unlikely that they had the kind of safety equipment that would have made such acrobatics a part of their rituals.

As I watched the performance I was reminded of acrobatic acts in Cirque shows. I even found myself wondering whether a Maya ritual might make a good theme for a future show. A few months later they announced Joyà: A Taste of the Extraordinary — a resident show located in Mexico's Riviera Maya. I went there to see it soon after it opened last November. While the production uses the kind of dramatic, theatrical license that is essential in such a show, it is based on indigenous storytelling legend from the region.

Shortly after I saw the show, a biographical drama film was released about the life of Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything. Hawking is also a storyteller of sorts and his story is about... well, everything! A year after Joyà opened, Cirque will premier TORUK: The First Flight. Inspired by the film Avatar, it will likely contain at least some of the same indigenous peoples' themes.

The Maya created their own stories that, in their own way, strove, like Hawking, to create a "Theory of Everything." Cirque has transformed traditional circus performance art into a form of storytelling and is now branching into eclectic formats for their shows that, in their own way, are "Shows of Everything." The human experience is, and always will be, reflected in the way we tell our stories.

The Maya are the subject of our documentary, Ancient and Modern Mayan Peoples.

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