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Flash 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 really illuminate.

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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