Tarraco Viva is an historical festival held annually in Tarragona, which explores ancient roman culture through detailed presentations, workshops, debates, and historical re-enactments.
This year instead of the usual overview of the festival I wanted to focus on one particular group: Nemesis Arq, a cooperative of archaeologist who specialise in the unique recreation of mystery cults and religious practices which took place amongst the ancient world of the Mediterranean.
Last year they struck a cord for share inventiveness and a different approach to the usual (though excellent) civic, military reconstruction which mark this type of festival: amongst the other events under their belts, like Isis and the ceremony of the sea, Augustus the god and Arcana Mundi, they put on stage their first production of the Bacchanalia, the complex and secret initiation ritual which would free the initiated from a mortal rebirth. Added to this was the appearance thiasus where the ecstatic retinue of Dionysus erupts on stage followed by the intoxicating music of Ludi Scaenici, one of the most successful performance groups of ancient music. As this is part of the Dionysian Mysteries, and Dionysius is linked to the cultivation and production of wine, the first production was originally set inside a large wine cellar in Falset the capital of the highly prized Catalan wine region of Priorat.
As part of Tarraco Viva 2015 the Bacchanalia returned, further enhanced this year with additional elements, characters and a different settings; instead of Falset it was set in the evocative cave like cellar of Cal Porrera, part of a beautiful restored old town house (now run as a superb guest house), with and added uphill journey to the “cave” where the initiation would be carried out until the grand finale with the arrival of the thiasus.
What I find so fascinating is that Nemesis is doing a new hybrid, an historical narration which transcends the trap of a linear textualized narrative moving instead into a richly evocative, emotional and visual representation.
BACCHANALIA IN PORRERA
Due to limited resources the props are minimal yet highly effective like the heavy use of candles to light the “cave”, incense adds a mystical touch and the remains of a slaughtered goat is fed by the three initiators, their faces ghostly, smeared with white clay. One can almost believe to be witnessing something holly secretive and the “cave” falls silent until the arrival of thiasus with its maenads and satyrs, the god Pan smeared in mud and anthropomorphically horned, ecstatically dancing at the extraordinary sound produced by Ludi Scaenici with their wind, percussion, string, hydraulic and bellow instruments. You leave the final scene almost with a sense of longing for the emotional freedom of ancient times.
One week later Bacchanalia was performed in Tarragona in a very different setting, in front of the replica of the Ara Pacis inside the Recinte Firal, a large enclosed space which has already hosted the previous edition of Tarraco Viva.
BACCHANALIA IN TARRAGONA
It was another powerful experience somehow formalized by the imperial shadow behind. Gone was the secrecy and intimacy of the cave , this was Bacchanalia laid bare with nowhere to hide and it worked. There was sound, movement and ancient anarchy, almost the antithesis of Nemesis other production Deo Augusto, a schematic, almost iconographic representation of the religious practices linked to the life and times of emperor Augustus.
One of Nemesis most challenging production must be Arcana Mundi: it takes a little bit of sensorial adjusting when one enters the underground car park of a large shopping mall. Here are the grey dust covered remains of a roman villa and an ancient basilica and burials, relocated several dozen meters underground when the Parc Central took its place. There is a touch of the surreal when the detailed explanation and representation of necromancy and divination are punctuated by adverts shouted at regular interval through the loudspeaker. Yet even here, with the eyes stinging from the exhaust fumes and the roar of cars passing by there is a public which listens fascinated to the making of an oracle.
And lastly there is Isis, the Egyptian goddess whose cult was adopted by Rome. This is the rite of spring which marked the beginning of the maritime season. The ceremony of the sea is performed in the open air between sea and sky on the beach of Altafulla where a solemn procession walks at the edge of the water ; it concludes with a small boat released to the waves.
ISIS, the ceremony of the sea