Published on September 13, 2007
The Mexican dance-and-music spectacular "Jarocho" opens in Bangkok tomorrow, a special treat for local show-goers given it has not even been to Broadway yet.
Jarocho is an old Spanish word that evolved in Mexico as a term for something from the state of Veracruz.
It is used today to describe wandering bands of minstrels - a little like mariachis - which dress and play in the Veracruz style. Jarochos wear traditional white suits with white cowboy hats and play a style of music known as Son Jarocho.
The show's British director Richard O'Neal spoke exclusively with The Nation.
A former actor and dancer, O'Neal performed in successful West End productions like "Crazy for You", "West Side Story" and "Grease".
He also toured the world for two and a half years as a member of the long-running Irish step-dancing production "Riverdance", going on to spend three and a half years as its assistant director. It was then that the Mexican connection began.
A former governor of Veracruz was a fan of the show and approached its producers with the idea of doing something similar with traditional Mexican dance.
O'Neal was dispatched to the Veracruz capital Xalapa "to hear their ideas, to see some shows. I had never heard of Xalapa and didn't know where Veracruz was. That was October 2001".
Veracruz was the first Spanish settlement in Mexico and is today a melting pot of European, African and indigenous cultures.
O'Neal recalls his first impressions: "I was very excited and shocked by their enthusiasm. I was impressed with their percussive style of dance. They are a happy, proud people.
"At the time, I thought their dance lacked a little bit of musical energy, so there was work to be done."
The producers back in Dublin were not overly interested in putting on a Mexican version of "Riverdance".
But O'Neal was sent back to Mexico a couple of times to test the waters further. "By then I had started to fall in love with the people and the project. I realised I couldn't do both properly, so I left 'Riverdance' in early 2003, moved to Mexico, and started to create new pieces for 'Jarocho'."
Its first rehearsal in February 2003 didn't allow a lot of time before the scheduled debut in the summer of that year. The then governor wanted the show for an annual festival at an ancient pyramid.
"We performed three pieces from the show. It was successful, although to begin with the audience was ... quiet. They were intrigued at this new way of looking at their own culture.
"A lot of young people especially are proud of this work because they feel it represents them, the new generation in Mexico. 'Jarocho' is something young, very fresh - modern maybe - they can relate to."
Because "Jarocho" is an eclectic mix of traditional Mexican dance and music, O'Neal says it doesn't need a story.
"But at the end of the show maybe you need to know what the journey has been about. It's about the history of Mexico, told from the point of view of the culture of Veracruz.
"For me as a foreign director, I didn't think it needed that much work. It's all about Mexico. Everything was there already. I just needed to put them in a certain sequence, add a few elements of theatre, and that was it."
The first performance of the full show was at the State Theatre of Veracruz in September 2003. "Critically, it was very controversial. People were proud of their traditional culture. When they heard that a new show was being created, they were worried. When they heard it was by a foreigner, they were more worried. A lot of people were against the project and we had very bad press before the opening.
"Once people saw it they were proud of it, they were happy. And now, the whole country is behind the project. Last year we were voted the best show in Mexico," he says.
The production now has a separate "international" cast as a result of worldwide demand.
Bangkok is the show's third Asian venue, after its 2005 date at the "Latin Passion Festival" in Hong Kong and a performance in Macau in June this year.
O'Neal says the show "is still in development" and its outings in Bangkok and elsewhere allow it to fine-tune scenes for international audiences.
The show is due for a season on Broadway after which it will head off on more international tours.
"Jarocho" will play at the Thailand Cultural Centre Main Hall on Friday, September 14 at 7.30pm. Tickets at Bt2,500, Bt2,000, Bt1,600, Bt1,200 and Bt600 are available at the Thaiticketmajor website and outlets. Visit www.jarocho.net (in both Spanish and English), for more information.
For more on the Bangkok International Festival of Music and Dance, visit bangkokfestivals.com.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th.