Blackened Faces and a Veiled Woman: The Early Korcula Moreska

Article excerpt

Mock battles between Moors (or Turks) and Christians are one of the most popular features of the folk theatrical repertoire almost anywhere that Spanish culture was once dominant. Beginning, perhaps, in the late thirteenth century, and varying in form from small dances to massive street theater, they are still immensely popular along Spain's Mediterranean coast and throughout much of Latin America. Scholars have tended to pay most attention to the traditions westward travels from Spain to the Americas, where the conquered peoples often insinuated a "hidden transcript" of indigenous resistance into the "public transcript" of European Catholic triumph. (1) But the tradition also traveled eastward to parts of Italy and Germany under Spanish rule and, further, to parts of eastern Europe not ruled by but engaged in trade and diplomatic relations with Spain. One such place in eastern Europe where the tradition still thrives is the medieval walled city of Korcula on the Croatian island of the same name.

The island of Korcula sits in the Adriatic Sea, close to the mainland and about equidistant between Split and Dubrovnik. Known to Greek antiquity, because of its thick woods, as Korkyra Melaina (Black Korcula) and to the Romans as Corcyra Nigra, its strategic position on the Adriatic trade route between Europe and the East has meant that the island has been governed by external imperial powers for much of its history. Venice, the most frequent and longstanding of these, ruled the island for a brief period after 1000 and, again, in 1125/29-1180, 1254-1358, and 1420-1797. (2) Korculan attitudes to Venetian rule were ambivalent at best. In the last and longest of these periods, the only realistic alternative to Christian rule by Venice was Muslim rule by the Ottoman Turks. Korculans, according to Vinko Foretic, grudgingly preferred the former, "with all its evils," to the latter. (3) Testimony to an enduring Korculan resentment of Venetian rule can also be found in the still popular legend of the Crnomiri (Black Peace) brothers, reputed to have led an uprising against the first Venetian duke of Korcula, Petar Orseolo, in 1000. (4)

The island has a rich heritage of traditional sword dances. Five villages boast kumpanije (companies) whose members perform a linked sword dance, varying slightly from one village to the next. (5) The city of Korcula has two groups that perform a traditional moreska, a mock-combat sword dance in which two sides, variously identified as Whites and Blacks, Christians and Moors, or Turks and Moors, clash swords over the fate of a veiled young woman. The dramatic narrative of the moreska clearly locates the dance in the widespread tradition of mock battles among Muslims and Christians mentioned earlier.

The authors of this article have seen the moreska performed on several different occasions: at the opening ceremony of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival; at the opening of Korcula's annual Festival of Sword Dances, organized since 1997 by the island's Tourist Board; and in its traditional setting on 29 July, the feast day of Sveti Todor (St. Theodore). The traditional moreska on the feast day of Sveti Todor used to last a full two hours. To cater to the recent influx of tourists, the dance is now performed some fifty times a year in a shortened version, lasting only half an hour. The longer version, which involved more repetitions of the same dance figures, is no longer staged. (6)

Today's moreska begins with a scene in which the Black (Moorish) King drags the chained and veiled Bula (Muslim woman) into the playing area. He pleads his love. She protests her allegiance to the White King, whom she calls by the distinctively Turkish name Osman. The two "armies" follow, each consisting of an equal number of dancers, usually between eight and twelve apiece. After a vaunting exchange between the Black and White Kings, the two sides perform a series of seven figures, in which clashing swords cause frequent sparks to fly. …