On a too-hot-for-October afternoon in a studio warehouse just south of downtown Tucson, Nadia Hagen is getting snuggly with a jaguar.
Well, a jaguar jumpsuit. She’s stitching rectangular strips of fabric in white, black, yellow, orange, and African print, in rows over a no-longer recognizable pair of white coveralls.
The suit has a ceremonial look to it, which is fitting because it will be worn, along with a jaguar mask, by the bearer of the urn in this year’s All Souls’ Procession on Nov. 6.
Now in its 26th year, the Procession is a community celebration drawing over 125,000 participants and spectators. At its heart, the Procession is a commemoration of the cycle of life and death and a way for our community to grieve lost loved ones together.
Hagen is the event’s artistic director and the mastermind behind its finale, a ritual performance of fire, aerial acrobatics, stilt-walking, and music, intended as an energetic resolution for the end of the night. The performance traditionally ends with the burning of the urn, and with it the community’s wishes, prayers, and intentions.
In addition to overseeing the finale, Hagen designs the costumes for all of its performers, a process she begins every summer before the annual autumn event.
She says the jaguar has special significance this year because the man who will wear it works as a Jaguar Reserve Manager at Northern Jaguar Project in Sonora, Mexico. The suit is made, in part, from scraps of other costumes, is a testament to the resiliency of that animal, a hunter that has in recent years made its way into Southern Arizona.
This year’s theme is “the Hunter and the Hunted,” which Hagen says is more about mythology and animals and less about people. “I’m interested in how our past influences our present, and in the relationship of the predator to the hunted.”
Hagen’s approach is to let a theme or concept come to her based on what she thinks society is feeling and looking at. “It’s something that wants to be revealed,” she says. “I consume quite a bit of media, current events and documentaries and so I wait for that info to coalesce in a way that seems pragmatic.”
Many Facets of Light
Hagen says she approaches the theme — and the costuming necessary to portray — like a diamond. “I’m putting something in the spotlight and shining a light on the myriad facets of it. A diamond reflects light into a spectral array. Similarly, the theme can be interpreted in many different ways. It’s up to the performers and participants to reflect those myriad pictures.”
Hagen selects some of those facets and works to create a look for the various group participants in the finale: fire performers, aerial dancers, stage dancers, stilt walkers, urn ambassadors (who help explain to audiences how to contribute to the urn), and urn attendants (who help participants’ prayers get into the urn).
Each group also works with a specific director who then interprets the theme in his or her own way. Hagen gives a lot of autonomy to the various directors and trusts that the vision comes together cohesively.
All of Hagen’s concepts come first from two-dimensional drawings. She pays close attention to color palette and style, as all performers need to have some connection to each other. Each group of performers also requires special considerations, and because Hagen has experience in all those forms, she has a good sense of their mobility and restrictions for costumes.
“We are trying to express a mood and a theme, but the work is also very pragmatic. If you’re up on a harness in the air, being moved by pulleys, you have to be able to move and be agile,” she says.
This year’s dancers, who are working with a visiting choreographer Kimberly Miguel Mullen, will portray animals, wearing a base layer of nude or beige with earthy, copper, and brown accents of fur and sequins. They will wear “ears” of leather representing wild cats, hyenas, and other predators.
Three aerial dancers and three riggers working with director Kelsey Erickson will wear a minimal tribal print sheer unitard with only a few accessories, such as, red cuffs, colors and bull horns.
Fire performers will portray the Underworld deer and wear a special vinyl breast piece Hagen constructed to look like they’ve been injured or eviscerated.
Circus Roots and Inspiration
As the artistic director of the pyrotechnic circus performance group Flam Chen, Hagen had experience building costumes appropriate for physical theater. “Circus is all about the body, and what carries the story is the characters and how they look.”
Because they did fire-based performance, special considerations needed to be made for performers’ costumes. “Back in the day, it wasn’t possible to go out and by costumes made of inflammable materials. Many fire performers wear black, which is utilitarian. But I was really attached to white and I wanted my characters to have wide spectrum of color. So that forced me to learn to sew and design and build for the stage.”
Hagen says the market for purchasing costumes is larger now due to the Internet. “People’s aesthetics have evolved because they have access to so much visual stimuli. “If I wanted, I could watch every fashion show from Paris to Shanghai. In the 80s, that wasn’t possible.”
Hagen is very much inspired by haute couture, she says, as well as by filmmakers and directors Alejandro Jodorowski, Julie Taymor and Federico Fellini.
The All Souls’ Procession has always been something of a labor for love for her. Her costume budget for materials is $2,000, which she says is “reasonable” compared to the past. All labor is volunteer, except for the stipend she receives for directing the Procession.
Beyond the Human Realm
One of the beautiful things about the Procession and festal culture in general is that it takes us out of everyday realm and allows us to be a different persona, Hagen says.
Hagen hopes to offer a visual spectacle and emotional resonance with a world that highlights the cyclical nature of things and the importance of sacrifice and of being sacrificed. “This idea of hunting is not necessarily meant to be literal,” she says, adding that some members of the public have already sent hate mail, worried that the Procession will glorify hunting.
“That’s a big leap in logic,” she says. “To look at something is not to glorify it. To investigate a subject gives us perspective and helps us make informed decisions.”
While Hagen allows both performers and participants to have their own experience of the Procession, she admits that for her personally, the theme offers an invitation for a different way of living. “If I have a moralistic thrust it’s that if we went back to that model and actually emulated it, we wouldn’t be doing the damage that we’re doing as humans. Animals don’t take the biggest and the best. They cull the weakest. They make every herd stronger. They further the evolution of the herd. That is not what we do. We do the opposite.”
If there is a way that costume and the Procession can inspire a shift, Hagen would want it to be that we, as humans, re-learn how to be good hunters.
“As humans, we refuse to be sacrificed,” she says. “We only take. We don’t put ourselves back into the mix, we only remove ourselves from the cycle. What if we could reinsert ourselves back into the dance of sacrifice?”
Drawing on Tucson’s Heritage
While the Procession draws from various traditions, many easily link it to the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, which Hagen calls a “strong and beautiful influence.”
“It’s an easy reference for Tucson and usually people’s intro point and very often their cultural tradition or their comfort zone,” she says.
Many Procession participants and audience members paint skeleton skulls onto their faces, which Hagen sees as a valuable exercise. “Just sitting still for 15, 30 minutes in that way is a really worthy meditation. You’re contemplating the end of your self, your nothingness, or whatever that looks like.”
But for her own designs, Hagen acknowledges a deeper reservoir of visual imagery. Everything’s not going to be a sugar skull,” she says. “The world is filled with symbols and the constant exploration of those symbols is the job of the artist.”