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  • The Making of the Smithsonian Mulassa

    As the mulassa’s face came alive, so did her ability to breathe fire. Photo by Josep Maria Contel

    As the mulassa’s face came alive, so did her ability to breathe fire. Photo by Josep Maria Contel

    Every day at 5 p.m. at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, there was a cercavila, a parade with giants, big heads, a dragon, and dancers. On the last Saturday, another sunny one on the National Mall, visitors gathered in the Plaça Major as usual. What they didn't know was that they were in for a very special debut.

    A horse poked its head from under the Imaginary Figures on Parade tent. Up until then, it was a work in progress, its face and body taking shape under the direction of artist Miquel Grima. Now it proudly wore its shield and trotted into the performance square alongside its “handlers” with a sprightly air and a deliberate turn of its head. With the first notes of a newly composed tune, the mulassa began her dance.

    Seeing Smithy, as she became known, come alive, we realized this was a story that needed to be told. So the two of us, members of the Catalonia program curatorial team, arranged to continue our weekly meetings across the Atlantic and interview the principal artists who participated in the making of the mulassa: Grima, the imaginary figure maker; Jan Grau, the historian who helped Grima conduct research; Pau Fernández, the tailor who designed the mulassa’s dress; Marcel Casellas, the director of Cobla Catalana dels Sons Essencials and composer of the mulassa’s music; and Teresa Agustí, director of Esbart Ciutat Comtal who, next to Lluís Calduch Ramos, choreographed its dance steps. This is their story. 

    Catalonia mulassa (mule) at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Photo by Josep Maria Contel

    A mulassa, or mule, is perhaps the most playful of the Catalan imaginary beasts because mules are known for their stubbornness. Therefore the mulassa is designed to give a hard time, provoke and poke fun at those around it. In addition, “the mulassa represents the people of a town, not the rich, or the elites,” Grima explained to us. Most of those we talked to could not describe the mulassa without contrasting it with the eagle, which represents royalty or the state, and the dragon, the beast slain by St. George, patron saint of Catalonia.

    Mulasses have been a documented beast of the Catalan imaginary landscape since the seventeenth century. In planning to make the beast, Grima consulted with imaginary figure expert Jan Grau. They sifted through many examples of the mulassa, past and present, and even went to visit the famous Mulassa of Reus. One difference they found in modern imaginary figures is they have become more static.

    “Movement was very important, once upon a time,” Grau says. When he and Grima visited the Mulassa of Reus, they specifically looked at how the neck moved and the mechanism behind it. “The idea was to recuperate in many ways the original meaning of what was a mulassa. And movement is the meaning of the mulassa.”

    But beyond this historical recuperation, Grima chose the mulassa because of what it could mean within the context of a festival in Washington, D.C. An imaginary beast is built to belong, he explained. To be meaningful, it must carry on the stories of the community that commissions it. However, this task was more complex than usual, he added, as the character needed to participate in the Catalan imaginary beast tradition as well as respond to the audience at the Folklife Festival. Grima and Grau concluded that the mulassa was the most suitable beast for the event.

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    “The mulassa represents the people,” Grima says. It’s culture of, by, and for the people, just like the Festival’s mission.

    “Besides, we wanted to promote dialogue,” Grau adds, explaining that the mulassa represents the people, and the power of the people is speech.

    Another reason the mulassa seemed the perfect choice was the short time allotted for its construction. Grima had only ten days to complete his mission, but he had help. His open workshop in the Imaginary Figures tent meant that many members of the Catalonia delegation left their fingerprints on the mulassa, some by proximity and some because of their expertise.

    One afternoon, next to Grima’s stand, tailor Pau Fernández worked in concentration, oblivious to the surrounding music and conversations. The fingertips of his left hand went white from applying pressure to the ends of a rope on a wooden piece, and in his right hand was a needle. It took him a minute or two to acknowledge a question about what he was doing. He replied with a grin from ear to ear. “I’m making the mulassa’s tail.” He had gone around the Festival grounds hunting for materials to make the tail, and in the Street Decorations tent he found “thick frayed rope with blond highlights.”  

    In contrast with the Folklife Festival, which is planned years in advance, Grima points out that the mulassa is “an improvised figure, created sort of randomly for carnival, with leftover materials.” However, even within the structured framework of the Festival, there was room for improvisation. “We made our decisions based on availability. Whatever we had is what we used. That was that,” Fernández says, cheerfully recalling his rope hunt.

    Catalonia mulassa (mule) at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Smithy is surrounded by adoring fans as she prepares for her final dance.
    Photo by Josep Maria Contel
    The Dance of the Mulassa
    Performed by Cobla Catalana dels Sons Essencials

    During the last two days of the Festival, the mulassa debuted its ritual performance, complete with her own original tune.

    “I composed the music in one night,” says Marcel Casellas, director and bass player of the Cobla Catalana dels Sons Essencials. “I wish I had had more time to toy with it, but I wrote it alone in the hotel bedroom in one night.”

    Teresa Agustí from the Esbart Ciutat Comtal dance ensemble felt something was missing from the mulassa’s first performance.

    “Does it have dance steps?” she asked Casellas. “It didn’t. So we offered.”

    By virtue of improvisation, the Smithsonian acquired a whole ritual instead of a mere ritual object, with contributions from a tailor, a composer, and a choreographer. It seemed that Grau’s wish to restore the more dynamic nature of the beast was materializing.

    However, improvisation doesn’t mean doing just anything thoughtlessly, rather knowing what fits. To understand the beast and its character, Grima conducted thorough research. “These types of beasts were often created on the spot for a celebration,” he discovered. “They were short-lived.” Thus, to construct a mulassa quickly didn’t make him a careless builder, but one working within his tradition. “I was building in a rush, as my goal was to have it ready so it could dance the last day.”

    The rest drew from their cultural bedrock to make fitting inferences. Casellas explained that the music for the mulassa is in two parts because, before she dances, she must interact with the audience. There is symbolism behind her dress as well.

    “The mulassa is a jolly creature,” Fernández says. “It is festive, without a corset because it is not bound by its place in the same way as more regal beasts.” He says the burlap dress and the bells captured the lighthearted nature of the beast.

    “You have to think about the character of the beast,” Agustí claimed, describing her choreography process. “The audience wants to see a dance that makes sense given the character of the beast.”

    Each member of the team gleaned from their individual experiences. All, however, share a familiar frame from which to scaffold a meaningful mulassa’s ritual performance.

    Catalonia mulassa (mule) at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    A daytime fireworks debut! #ThatGirlIsOnFire
    Photo courtesy of Department of Popular Culture and Cultural Associations, Government of Catalonia

    Each day of the Festival, the form of the mulassa became a little clearer, but for each of the collaborators, “the birth of the beast,” as Casellas put it, happened in a particular moment. “It is like Geppetto and Pinocchio,” Fernández says. “When does an inanimate object gain life? For me it was the moment when it had eyes.” In contrast, for Grima, the moment was very much connected with the beast’s ability to move. “Movement is very important to me when I build a figure,” he says. “If it works, then it can have life when it dances.”

    Casellas recalls the moment Grima told him the mulassa was ready to dance. For him, that was when the collaboration really started.

    “The music gives the beast a chance to move is a specific way,” he says. “The moment when I thought it ready to move is when I felt impelled to write.”

    Similarly, Agustí prized the mulassa’s ability to move. But for her, its debut in the Plaça Major was its true birth. “When I saw it go toward the plaça, that was it. That moment, it was alive. It moved its head—I know it is made of papier-mâché, but it was truly a magical moment.”

    The mulassa, the paradigmatic short-lived beast born in the temporary community of the 2018 Folklife Festival, now resides in the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

    “The mulassa is not mine,” Grima claims. “It isn’t mine in the sense that I can’t really sign my name on it. So many people helped me. It is by and for the community, a piece well done.”

    Catalonia mulassa (mule) at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    At the end of the Festival, Smithy’s principal makers posed proudly alongside their creation. Left to right: Marcel Casellas, Lluís Calduch Ramos, Teresa Agustí Morales, Pau Fernández, and Miquel Grima.
    Photo courtesy of Department of Popular Culture and Cultural Associations, Government of Catalonia

    It belongs to all the Festival participants and visitors, whether they quickly passed by one day or checked on its progress daily. “This mulassa was an experience,” Agustí concludes.

    Now, “whether or not the beast will really dance beyond the Festival is difficult to say,” Casellas says. “I sort of doubt there is anyone in D.C. who knows how to move it. But I still think that it is important to go around and leave traces. Yes, I think that leaving traces matters.”

    Smithy, the Mulassa of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, permeated the grounds with her charming joy, merriment, cheer, and mischievous levity. Perhaps outside of the context of Catalonia, she may not dance again. But, to her makers, the most important thing is that all of the pieces are in place for her to come to life again—that there is a living part of Catalonia forever left behind in Washington, D.C.

    Meritxell Martín-Pardo is a research associate for the 2018 Folklife Festival’s Catalonia program. She studied philosophy at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and earned her PhD in religious studies at the University of Virginia.

    Cristina Díaz-Carrera is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; most recently, she co-curated the Catalonia program at the Festival. Her current projects include looking at the role of women in Afro-Pacific marimba music and curating a program for the 2019 Folklife Festival’s social power of music theme.


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