Wednesday, June 27, 2012

castells in new york

A girl of six or seven clad in teal, black, and white straddles her father's broad shoulders and gazes down at the crowd below. An oversized red helmet obscures her dirty blonde locks but not the enormous smile on her face as she prepares to become an integral part of a human tower several stories high. Minutes later, as dozens of teammates move briskly into position, locking down their arms and their concentrations, the girl begins a seemingly impossible climb up their backs and shoulders, like Spider Man on his way to get the bad guy. Her goal is to become a bridge atop the mighty tower, a summit upon which an even younger climber will momentarily perch, raising a hand in triumph.

As a little girl with Catalan roots, I had heard of such daredevils, known as “castellers,” or “human tower builders” in the northeastern region of Spain from which they hail. But this week in New York City I got to witness them in person for the first time, as a team from Vilafranca de Pened├Ęs painted the town with it's magical stunts. It was a mesmerizing scene, to say the least . . . Like ants building a mound or bees crafting a nest, each member of the 'colony' had his or her distinct role: stockier men formed the center of the “pinya,” or base, while all manner of men and women surrounded and supported them; additional stocky men comprised the second base or “folre” that anchored the first tier with strength and stability; a dozen or so men and women created the central scaffolding of the tower; our hero, an “aixecador,” or “riser,” helped seal the tower and provide support for the cherry on top of the cake; and finally, the baby-faced “enxaneta” or “rider,” ascended, waved, descended, and made it look so very easy.

To answer the obvious question, such towers do on occasion fall. But the castellers are highly trained, and serious injuries are, by all accounts, rare. I also learned watching a pair of documentaries on the subject (The Human Tower, Enxaneta) that team bonding among castellers is extremely powerful and often provides participants with a lifelong second family. What’s more, in a part of Spain where bullfighting was recently outlawed, casteller displays and competitions deliver a powerful and symbolic contrast to that other, more barbaric Spanish 'sport'.

I hope you enjoy this handful of images from one of the castellers’ recent New York performances. If you’d like to see more, the full set can be viewed over on Flickr.





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