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Review 3, 4-7: Heat and Heart
Soaking up Soto's Sensual Fiesta
By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus
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PHILADELPHIA -- Merian
Soto's "La Maquina del Tiempo (The Time Machine)," performed at
Temple University's Conwell Dance Theater March 18 - 20, was a feast
of sensual dancing in a lush visual and aural surround. Soto's work
draws on improvisational contemporary dance and a variety of Latin
social dance styles, plus tap, black street dance and strip tease.
It's a hot hybrid.
The seamlessly crafted
first half of "La Maquina del Tiempo," titled "The Art of Improvisation,"
begins in a dim rehearsal space with amber light filtered through
shaded 'windows' and water dripping into copper buckets. Here as
elsewhere, the set by Roger Hanna and lighting by David Overcamp
are both humorous and evocative using streamlined means. The piece
opens with Elio Villafranca's luxuriant and tender piano solo, richly
harmonic and jauntily rhythmical. His grand piano looks as if it's
had its share of knocking about. The sound, a bit tinny, is perfect.
Sauntering in wearing costume designer Christine Darch's breezy
trousers and two-toned shoes, Pablo Amores listens, then adds his
affable soft shoe, teasing glides, and dizzy-making spins to the
mix. Amores was a tap aficionado from an early age and also danced
on skates -- you can see it all in this first splashy but cool solo.
Then he playfully shows off his street dance chops.
The piano is joined
by Yunior Terry Cabrera's resonant bass. Together the musicians
are soulful, sensitive. The lithe Marion Ramirez dances a contact
duet with Amores, flying in in classic lifts. Later she solos with
swiveling hips and reaching arms, sliding, falling, rolling, listening
to an internal music. In this first half, Soto effortlessly eases
one segment into the next. There's an occasional and naturally-timed
pause for a breather. It's an easy segue to Noemi Segarra's siren-like
dancing with quick flicks and thrown limbs repeating urgent arcs.
Later she crawls, lioness-like, drawn to the bass. Music and dance
here are like the two wings of a bird -- there's no flight without
both. Amores, Ramirez and Segarra dance the sultry energy in the
music to full three-dimensional life, and the musicians in turn
goad the dancers to dance their wildest. Costumes are glamorous
with fabrics that flow, dresses that glisten, bun-hugging Spandex,
and spikey heels.
The dancers exclaim
to each other in Spanish and English, "Let's stop fooling around
and let's start rehearsing." Amores dances with both ladies, arms
floating free above the frenetic rhythms of feet stepping circles
around each other. Program notes list the source dances: Danzon,
Son Montuno, Salsa and Timba, the beginnings of these separate dances
visible to the unschooled eye as shifts in rhythmic emphasis or
patterns of stepping. This is pulsing lifeblood dancing, essential
and passionate. A video image of a clock changes shape and melts
away on the back wall. Time is irrelevant in this dance of intricate
steps, tossed back heads, and quick shimmies. Finally the dance
melts away too, ending with the three stretching away and rolling
on the floor.
"Paradise Revue," the
second part of "La Maquina del Tiempo", is more wide-ranging and
fantastical. It's a series of playful story-like scenes, springing
from Soto's research into classic Latin dance on film. Like the
first part, it begins with Villafranca's lush piano solo. This time
he's in a tux. Palm trees painted on black velvet and tropical video
images by Irene Sosa conjure up island paradise for a beachcomber
seduction duo rendered tongue-in-cheek. A shadow strip-tease takes
place behind frilly curtains. In Amores's take-off on Fred Astaire's
famous shadow dance, the shadow finally declares its independence
and dances on its own, until the infuriated Amores cries "this is
my floor" and in true B-boy style puts to rest any doubt as to who
is the hottest dancer. Hybridized dance styles are everywhere. Segarra
dances again, waving and flinging her limbs out from center, having
them fold back in on themselves, repeating loops and limb calligraphy;
then her moving's quick and passionate, like a flamenco dancer's.
At one moment the flamenco image is made literal with the music
shifting to a flamenco beat. Marion Ramirez displays her proficiency
in contact-improvisation-style falling while tumbling into the "waves"
-- a stage-width length of blue fabric, held aloft, as surf. A final
conga line production number has the whole cast in their most colorful
garb, each playing percussion -- maracas, tambourine, et al, as
a simmering black and white vintage dance film projects upstage.
This part of the show
is all over the place. The performers acknowledge as much in the
course of the performance in an onstage discussion about the piece's
concept, and how the 'Time Machine' image is a rationale for bringing
in so many influences and styles. Though amusing, the banter doesn't
The epilogue, "What's
Heart Got to Do With It?" takes us back to the rehearsal space image,
dancers and musicians filtering gradually out. Segarra gives one
last dance with Cabrera's accompaniment. It's a soulful solo, but
it reviews terrain we've already seen and as an ending it's a let-down.
For its joie de vivre,
and virtuoso dance and music turns, "La Maquina del Tiempo" will
readily appeal to broad audiences. Least appealing are the pastiche
and caricature of the second half. Gringa that I am, I'm not sure
how to go with the often unremitting exuberance or the graphic sexual
display. These portrayals, from striptease to seduction, to bump,
shiver and grind become puzzling -- put together what are they really
saying? The performing could use more nuance to make this reading
clear. As it goes on, the quoting of so many movement styles without
settling somewhere becomes perplexing too.
Still there's a pervasive
lusciousness and ripe joy in the dancing. For Amores, Ramirez and
Segarra, it's clear that feeling the pulsing of blood, trickles
of sweat, and the tricky timing brings them quiet ecstasy. This
is the winning quality shared with Soto's solo "Prequel (a):Deconstruction
of a Passion for Salsa," seen in last year's Dance Boom festival.
As solo performer, her raunchiness was a proclamation of mid-life
fullness. Despite being less mature, direct and self-assured, "La
Maquina del Tiempo" offers much life, heat and heart.
Lisa Kraus's ongoing web log is "Writing My Dancing Life."
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