with myself: Merián Soto Dance.
Search of Lost Time
Mae G. Banner
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
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
Now, instead of hitting the audience over the head, Soto pretty
much ignores us altogether, so lost is her choreography in
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
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.