Embracing Global Performance Traditions for a Whole Theater Experience

NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Professor of Theater Rubén Polendo gives his students the opportunity to get out of the classroom, leading local and regional trips, allowing the students to perform immersive and physically rigorous explorations into understanding different theatrical forms.

NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Professor of Theater Rubén Polendo was on the path to a career in science when he was asked to advise on a theater piece. This simple introduction to the stage quite literally changed his life. "What I witnessed in that room changed everything," he said. "My life up to then had been surrounded by protocol, hypothesis, and theory — and before my eyes there was creation, pure and simple creation."

Since that pivotal moment, Polendo has traveled the globe, making explorations into a variety of world theater traditions in an effort to create a "Whole Theater experience," a theatrical journey that is at once "rigorously visual, aural, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual," he explained. In fact, this exploratory methodology forms the core of Theater Mitu, Polendo's New York- and Abu Dhabi-based theater company — in essence, his lab — which, since its founding in 1997, has merged global performance traditions into innovative productions worldwide.

Polendo's first research trip to India resulted from his involvement with a South Indian Kathakali company that was in residence at Lancaster University in the UK, where he switched from a master's in biochemistry to non-Western theater. Since then, Polendo has studied performance traditions and the philosophies behind them in countries including Japan, Thailand, India, Ethiopia, and Iran. Through the investigation of theatrical forms from Kabuki and Muay Thai to Kalaripayattu and Ta'zieh, he seeks to answer the question that was the genesis of his research: How does one train for the Whole Theater experience?

For Polendo, the answer to this question is in the examination of how performers train their focus, emotions, spirit, and physicality. By studying and learning these elements, he — and the members of Theater Mitu — explore in depth a wide range of theatrical forms and codify them into a training methodology that shapes each work the company produces.

Recently, this methodology informed Polendo's adaptation of The Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit epic and one of Eastern literature's central myths, during which he directed NYUAD students in the University's first student-run theater production. "The type of theater I'm interested in is large, physical, visual, and hyper-theatrical," Polendo said. "The language and emotionality are scaled to the visual landscape and supported by the Whole Theater training. In turn, the best structure on which to build this is the epic."

For the production (Polendo's third play at the University), approximately 50 members of the Classes of 2014 and 2015 participated in The Ramayana as actors, assistant designers, producers, managers, crew, documentarians, and dramaturges. Collaborating with designers and musicians from Theater Mitu, the students staged eight performances, incorporating Turkish-inspired shadow puppetry; Balinese masks, ritualized movement, and percussion; and Afro-Indian drumming. As Polendo said, "Producing the work themselves makes the art a very personal experience for the students."

My field is the study of the human experience as it spans from the personal and emotional to the cultural and communal.

Rubén Polendo, NYUAD associate professor of Theater

It is with this in mind that Polendo emphasizes the foundations of Whole Theater in his courses. Giving his students the opportunity to get out of the classroom and experience firsthand some of the global performance traditions covered in class, he leads local and regional trips, during which the students perform immersive and physically rigorous explorations into understanding different theatrical forms. It is Polendo's hope that this intensive field research will give his students "the ability to go from instinct to creation in any field, and to master the discipline to follow through and to further articulate their process."

As such, on regional field research trips to India, students investigated Nepali, Newari, and Malayalam performance traditions with a focus on South Indian traditional dance and martial arts including Kalaripayattu, Kathakali, Theyyam, Mohiniattam, and Kalari-Yoga, and Nawari performance rituals such as Charya Nritya and Kumari. Closer to home, during trips within the UAE, they learned the tradition of Arabic clowning; the predominantly Yemeni, Omani, and Pakistani Pehlwani fighting form; and the Emirati tribal dance-ritual form of Ayyalah.

Polendo's current research focuses on these and many other world theater traditions. Through ongoing artistic field research, he examines their foundation work, preparation, theories, and philosophical values to further articulate his Whole Theater methodology, which is constantly re-envisioned and re-invented. "In many cases, these are further explorations into landscapes that have been incredibly fruitful," Polendo said.

Projects include the practical study of South Indian performance traditions — including Kalaripayattu, Kalaric-Ayurvedic healing traditions, Mohiniattam, and Kathakali — many of which are "lynchpins" in Whole Theater training and which Polendo has studied for more than a decade; the Japanese forms of Noh and Kabuki theaters, Bunraku puppet theater, and Butoh, whose theories, trainings, and ideas Polendo began studying 15 years ago and which are also key to the Whole Theater experience; Nepali and Newari performance rituals such as Charya Nritya, Lakhe, Kirtich Nach, and Harasiddhi; and Yemeni forms including Jambiya, Manakhah, and Harazi. Comprised of performative martial arts, dance rituals, street clowning theater, and narrative mask dances, among other forms, Polendo's research seeks to extrapolate the values of these global, and oftentimes ancient, performance traditions and fuel the exploration of their application into both original and existing theater works, thus challenging modern conceptions of what theater is and what it can be.

Polendo also continues to focus on the traditional performance and ritual forms of the UAE. In what is an ongoing research project, he is studying the Emirati cane dance of Ayyalah, the Emirati performance of Ma'alayah, ritualized bull fighting outside the Emirate of Fujairah, and the Arab/ Pakistani ritualized fighting art form of Pehlwani, while continuing to investigate the theatrical ecosystem of Abu Dhabi in order to produce highly original contemporary local theater productions.

Additional project-specific research will take place outside the UAE, in Juarez, Mexico, for Polendo's original piece entitled Juarez: A Documentary Mythology. Initial research focused on the documenting and amassing of interviews in Juarez (where Polendo was raised) and the surrounding areas to explore the emotional and personal effects created from living in the northern Mexican city known as the "murder capital of the world." A meditation on violence and identity, the piece navigates between present-day political strife and the mythological retelling of family memories, "ultimately interfacing potent interviews and firsthand experiences of life in Juarez with 1940s Mexican cinema — one filled with horror and death, the other with love, romance, and tradition — to uncover the strength of family, national pride, identity, and memory," Polendo explained.

With the goals of building a vibrant, global theater program for NYUAD, and sharing the arts with communities whose exposures to theater border on non-existent, Polendo hopes to create a dynamic production life for both the University and Theater Mitu in Abu Dhabi. As he said, "My field is the study of the human experience as it spans from the personal and emotional to the cultural and communal. It interfaces politically and socially. It is both classical and contemporary and expands through time. It is a collaborative art form and depends on the union of heart, head, soul, and senses to vibrate at its highest intensity. It lives between lines and explores between lines. Theater has historically been a key tool in the defining and articulation of a city, and as a liberal arts university, NYUAD has a commitment to engaging the community of Abu Dhabi. I think theater is key to this conversation."