Dead On Parade

RESTLESS SPIRITS WILL have their chance for a little trickery and a bizarre treat when the second-annual All Soul's Day Procession gets underway during Downtown Saturday Night, on November 7.

Feature This year's festivities have been in the making for the past several months, and Weekly photographer Kristin Giordano has been following their progress. Her photo essay captures the three main groups spearheading this grassroots effort to dust off the Day of the Dead holiday and give it a permanent place on the local arts calendar. They are: the Big Head Puppet Company; The Spirit Group dancers, led by performance artist Jon McNamara; and the pyrotechnic ensemble Flam-Chen, led by Nadia Hagen.

Those grassroots start in the overgrown front yard of Big Head Puppets' Matt Cotten, whose house just north of the seasonal pumpkin patch on North Sixth Avenue has been the construction site for many of the parade's most colorful participants. Strewn about the yard, on sticks and in various stages of completion is a whimsical collection of skeletons, demons, and even members of the notorious Depression-era Dillinger gang, crafted by the puppeteers and their community volunteers. Coaxed from papier mâché and carved from foam, half-painted and creatively adorned, these masks, floats and effigies await their chance to come to life on backpack frames, bicycles and even the heads and bodies of their creators.

Cotten retrieves a Dillinger head ditched in a garden of squash (alongside a grinning coyote and a handful of skulls mounted unceremoniously on sticks): "The Dillinger head you can wear," he says, pulling it on and waving around his similarly styled, gun-toting puppet hands. "The rest are puppets which we might rig up like marionettes. They'll be on the roof of the Hotel (Congress)."

The cadre of locals putting these pieces together range in age and ability. A grant from the Tucson Arts District Partnership (TADP), secured by Jon McNamara, has helped with the cost of materials. "I just provide a place for people to make sculptures and effigies. We've got the mâché; they just come and use it." Though his Big Head group has also done workshops at the Children's Museum over the last two years, he says most of the people who've shown up on the succession of Saturday workshops this time around have been "all local underground arts scene." His group, which started as street performers four years ago, has four core members, of which Flam-Chen's Nadia Hagen is one. For his own part, the perpetually smirking Cotten says he moved from fire into puppets, "because it's safer."

THERE'S NOTHING WRONG with heating things up, however, according to Hagen. Among the group, the diminutive fire-eater and flame-thrower--a former TADP artist-in-residence herself--is the one credited as the procession's organizing ring-leader. Her Luna Loca Café, adjacent the Mat Bevel Institute on North Stone Avenue, has been the procession's unofficial headquarters, providing a united forum for what is, to say the least, a free-spirited association of artists. Hagen also designed the costumes for The Spirit Group dancers. And, of course, she'll be hard to miss on Saturday. She'll be the lady toting the flaming balls. Past visitors to Downtown Saturday Night can attest: Her performance artistry, most often found in the flame-resistant confines of downtown's Arizona Alley, leaves an indelible impression.

Hagen's a practiced carrier of the torch, having honed her skills years ago in the Pacific Northwest. She told photographer Giordano, "The first time I saw it, I said, 'That's it. That's what I want to do.' "

SPIRIT GROUP CHOREOGRAPHER Jon McNamara is the perfect bride. He vogues slowly for a small group of photographers, the late-afternoon sun shimmering on his white satin gown. Its train trails behind as he parades slowly over the cement slab between the Mat Bevel Institute and the Luna Loca.

A short time later, five "spirit dancers" drift in from the alley, escorted by Hagen. Robed in canvas, plaster of paris and cheesecloth, the dancers look half papier mâché themselves, awash in chalky white body paint. They appear to range in age from late teens to late 70s (it's nearly impossible to tell their sex, let alone age, behind all that costume).

The most ornately decorated among them (15 in the group; six on this day) is Zitta Lauricella, 76, a veteran of McNamara's community dance projects. Standing there in her flowing, skeletal garb, peacock feathers jutting out of the fur-lined tubes affixed to her skull cap, she looks and sounds like somebody's Jewish grandmother returned from the dead: "Watch the glass!" she warns as the girls take off their shoes and prepare to dance.

The group evolved by word of mouth and through a call-to-artists announcement in a local paper. It was McNamara who applied for and received the $2,000 Artist-in-Residence grant from the downtown Arts District Partnership, which has funded much of the proceedings. While The Spirit Group doesn't follow a narrative per se, Hagen explains that the bride and groom are "traditional Mexican posada characters...killed on their wedding day."

"It was Jon's artistic decision to switch their sexes," she says, with Jon playing the leading (lady's) role. If you didn't know, you might miss it--his spare, dancer's body, long hair, chaste veil and gown, heavy make-up, and passion for the role earn lusty comments from the peanut gallery.

"That's good!" says Hagen, taking it as a compliment to her costume design. "You want to watch ugly people jump around...go to the supermarket!"

It's hot in the sun, where the Spirit Group squints amidst snapping shutters. And taking it all in from the perimeter, videographer Victoria Angel (IntaVideo), who worked with McNamara on his Miasma show earlier this year, continues recording the proceedings. Keep an eye out for a local screening in the coming months.

Members of the two puppet groups languish in the shade and wisecrack. Cotten gets bored with the austere wedding procession and asks anyone who's listening, "Should we dance around with puppets or something?"

The head of a massive red caterpillar with fangs ("the demonpillar," its creator coins on the spot), gun-slinging marionettes, and 12-foot skeletons, white-washed and wired from broken tree branches, rest against the muraled wall.

A disembodied skull waits patiently in the basket of a yellow Raleigh bicycle. It's the bike on which Big Head member Jeff Thomas made his entrance, completely ensconced in a Chinese-dragon-like snake head, with the skull bobbing like a hood ornament. His mustached smile peered out from the dark: "I rode all the way from Matt's house (on the other side of Speedway)!"

Soon the four Big Headers have crashed the slab, Thomas crouched on the ground in his snake head, Cotten manning a towering, marionette skeleton, and Charles close behind as he fits a foam skull with an opposable jaw onto his close-cropped head. They're clearly in their element.

The dancers have dispersed; and much as they arrived, the participants are quickly disappearing one by one. "I think that's enough," Kristin says as skull-headed Charles crouches like a monkey and scampers amidst the other puppets for the final shot, a slow exposure from her pinhole camera, mounted on a tripod.

WHILE ITS IMAGES are ubiquitous, especially here in the Southwest, not everybody is a fan of the Día de los Muertos holiday: From those locals who see it as just another commercial co-opting of regional culture to one UA librarian, who took exception to her public-sector employer's Día de los Muertos celebration as "a religious ceremony that violates the separation between church and state," opinions of the origins and meaning of the holiday vary widely.

But a day to honor the dead is widely recognized as universal, with every continent having its own version. While All Soul's Day originates in the Christian countries, manifesting itself in Mexico as a day for people to clear the headstones and bring flowers to the graveyards of their ancestors, the Chinese celebrate a similar rite to honor all departed souls, called The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts. And Hindu tradition prescribes that on the first day of the new autumn moon, the head of the family performs ceremonies for the dead of the last three generations. Here in America, we at least recognize those who died in battle on Memorial Day and Veteran's Day. It's probably a good thing, too, as one dictionary of folklore says, "It is proper to note that the souls of persons who died by violence are more restless and dangerous to the living than the souls of those who died 'naturally'."

Poppets Presents and Flam-Chen highlight the second-annual Nightmare on Congress Street at the Rialto Theater, 318 E. Congress St., on Saturday, October 31. Call 740-0126 for information. Also on Halloween, Big Head Puppets will hold up the Hotel Congress bash, 311 E. Congress St.--with a rumored "giant puppet shoot-out" across Congress Street later in the evening. Call 622-8848 for tickets and information.

The free, All Soul's Day Procession featuring dance, theatre and pyrotechnic performance, assembles at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 7, at the Zenith Center (west of Fourth Avenue on Seventh Street). The public is invited to join in the procession by "making a costume, building a float, decorating a bike or walking" on a route proceeding south on Fourth Avenue to Congress Street, the Ronstadt Transit Center, down Pennington Street to the Main Library Plaza, and then to the TCC fountains west of Church Avenue. For more information on Downtown Saturday Night events, call 624-9977. TW

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