Sometimes poetry is what's found in the local customs of a people. The ones not on display for the tourists but the ones where people display themselves for each other. In Catalunya (and I intentionally use the Catalan spelling), this poetry takes the form of building human castles. For the last several Fridays, I have attended the rehearsals in a local gym constructed especially for the Castellers.
The origin of this "sport," or sculpture in motion, dance practice, even, is obscure, but goes back at least 200 years. In the book I'm consulting, Human Towers: Castells: Touching the Sky with the Hand, by Josep Almirall, the theory set forth is that sometime between the 18th and 19th centuries, small castles were built as part of a dance. With some rivalry, the forming of human castles became independent of the dance and took root in the city of Valls. Eventually the practice spread throughout Catalunya.
The formations that the members of a particular colla, in this case those from Vila de Gracia (the particular neighborhood where I reside), are intricate and dangerous, and require enormous skill and group effort to make sure that everyone is safe. They demonstrate what Robert Hughes and others call the characteristic spirit of the Catalan people: seny, meaning commonsense, down-to-earth wisdom. Stability. One needs lots of stability to build a human castle.
Castellers from Gracia, Badalona, and Sitges making a Pillar formation
This past Sunday, only because one of the members had been kind enough to tell us about it, a photographer, another resident here at Jiwar, and I went to an outdoor display of three different groups or colles in a nearby plaza: the one from Gracia (in blue), one from Badalona (in yellow), and one from Sitges (in dark red). I had hoped to film a video of the building of one of the towers but my IPhone malfunctioned. Here are some stills instead.
Musicians from the Gracia colla playing the timbal and gralles
Why do I call it poetry? Because there are structures that the members follow. But each time a castell is made, it will look different because of the people composing the structure. As it should be. I think of the levels as stanzas and the number of people at each level the number of lines. For instance, in the image above, There's also live music played on two instruments: a gralla (a strident-sounding pipe) and a timbal (small drum), which I got to hear for the first time in the plaza. Even the way the members of the colla dismantle themselves is done with careful grace.
Since the Eighties, women have participated as Castelleras. In fact, they have become very useful in the higher layers of the structure because they often weigh less than the men. But no one is too old or almost too young to participate. I have seen corpulent men and women as part of the base of the structure. And, at the very top, I have seen young children (no more than 7 or 8 years old though they look even younger).
In a world of exclusivity, this practice is one of inclusivity. If I lived here, I could join the local colla. In fact, the young woman we met at the rehearsal urged me and my friend to join in as part of the base, but both of us begged off with bad backs. Perhaps, with my poor sense of balance, I could only be part of the pinya, the base, which stabilizes the entire structure. And in the plaza, I saw members of different colles helping to form the pinya while a particular colla created the rest of the castell.