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Dancing with myself: Merián Soto Dance.

In Search of Lost Time
By Mae G. Banner

Merián Soto Dance
The Egg, Oct. 1

Ten or 15 years ago, the
dancing of Merián Soto was highly politicized. She choreographed Living Theater-style works about the colonial oppression of her native Puerto Rico, blending movement with newsreel backdrops, poster art, and jolting statistics on poverty rates, police brutality, and forced sterilization of women.

These dances, though true, were tough to watch, bludgeoning the audience.

In recent years, Soto’s dances have focused more on pleasure and beauty. Yet, they are still grounded in politics: the politics of culture and memory.

In La Máquina del Tiempo (The Time Machine), presented last Friday at the Egg in Albany, Soto reaches back to her love of popular Latin American dance forms: the danzón, son montuno, rumba, conga, and timba. All are buried deep within a theatrical structure of contact improvisation and laced with stateside jazz, hiphop moves, and a touch of Brazilian capoeira.

Now, instead of hitting the audience over the head, Soto pretty much ignores us altogether, so lost is her choreography in private reminiscence.

Three exquisitely trained dancers move at their own very slow pace, their bodies conversing with each other and with a terrific trio of musicians as they navigate Soto’s three-part work that expands from “The Art of Improvisation” to “Paradise Revue” (a sendup of 1940’s dance movies from the United States and Mexico), and then segues to the concluding “What’s Heart Got to Do with It?”

The dancers, Pablo Amores, Marion Ramirez, and Noemí Segarra, were as much at home in balletic extensions or jazzy slouches as in pelvis-rocking popular dances. They seemed so determined not to play to common stereotypes of steamy Latin dance that they practically foreswore any bite by the rhythm bug. Instead, they insisted on maddeningly slow-motion solos and duets in which they touched in velvety contact improv moments. Sometimes, Ramirez would run circles around a slinky Amores, or play-fight with him in a low-to-the-ground capoeira game.

Once, all three faced front for a beat-heavy unison passage, and, I thought, “Ah, now they’re gonna dance.” But, no. The choreography remained resolutely inward, to the point of self-indulgence. There was no playing to the audience.

It’s a good thing the musicians were so great. For me, the elegant, romantic piano jazz of Elio Villafranca, the heartbeat upright bass of Mark Vanderpoel, and the versatility of Eddie Venegas on violin and trombone made a scintillating musical evening. Much of the dancers’ energy came from reverberating to the trio’s jazz lines.

The middle section, “Paradise Revue,” gave Soto a chance to groove on the kitsch of stereotyped dance movies, while reminding us of how they perpetuated a shallow picture of Latin culture. In contrast to the sepia tones of the opening section, “Paradise” sported eye-popping costumes, with sequins, feathered headdresses and Cugat-style ruffled sleeves. Prop palm trees lined the sides of the stage. A backdrop of changing projections featured torrid dance scenes, blue Caribbean beaches, and the Condado hotel strip on the Puerto Rican shore.

Ramirez danced in silhouette, stripping behind a red backdrop lit with a yellow spotlight sun. Her fingers and long limbs were exaggerated in this chocolate shadow, so she looked like the faux-African dancer, Josephine Baker, who made an art of self-exploitation.

Amores, a fluid dancer with a fine jazz sense, embodied the growl of the trombone, while Ramirez became the bass in a sportive duet. Later, Amores did a magical shadow dance, inspired by a Fred Astaire number, in which his live body converses with three projected shadow selves who move to their own beat, in what seems to be a repeal of the laws of physics. This was clever, satisfying and mystifying.

Soto and the Egg’s hardworking stage crew got into the act for a couple of conceptual interludes in which the house lights were turned up and the dancers, choreographer and crew disputed whether the audience would understand or appreciate their work. In fact, the audience seemed to enjoy this byplay. I found it as self-
indulgent as the more improv-involved dance passages.

The final, “Heart” section was the loveliest and most fully shaped. Segarra, in a wine-colored negligee, undulates to the spare sounds of the bass. As she dances, the bassist moves with his instrument from his place at stage right to the center. He keeps playing, always attentive and responsive to the dancer, who seems deep inside herself, dancing with purity.

The bass breathes with her. She dances closer and closer to him, rubbing up beside him, drawing life from his music. It seems she wants to merge with the instrument, to be bowed by the player. At last, they embrace and exit. That’s love.

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