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Flash Review 3, 4-10: How to Dance
Lessons from Soto in Chicago

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO--Merian Soto's Pepatian brought so much joy, passion, uplift and positivity to the lively, diverse house at the Museum of Contemporary Art Saturday night--I wish I could see the show again! Soto's work is a mainline connection to the spirit of dance, community, vibrant sexuality, and tradition moving with grace and potent force into the future. I don't think I can say I "watched" the work: I was drawn in, I participated, I was part of the community of souls gathered there to dance, play music, and be in the audience. There was no resorting to any formalist "breaking of the fourth wall;" with the performers clearly onstage and the audience members clearly in their seats, Soto's masterful choreographic direction did not imply any psychic walls at all between those who came to perform and those who held tickets. The MCA theater became a site for celebration of life and humanity. It was an outstanding evening, full of wisdom. To complete the circle of community in a most natural and exhilarating way, at the end of the performance everyone was invited onstage to dance for awhile to the ardent Afro-Rican sounds of Viento de Agua, the potent 8-member band that accompanied two of the three works shown: "Pelea de Gallos" (The Cock Fight, 1998) and the final main event "Así se Baila un Son" (How to Dance a Son, 1999, A Salsa Suite).

The evening opened with "Sacude" (Shake, 1991), a lush solo, exquisitely performed by Noemi Segarra. Here is a portrait of a beautiful, sexy young woman simultaneously embodying and refuting a song, "Atrevimiento" (normally sung by a man) about how she is disrespectful and impudent. The dance started in silence, Segarra rolling on the floor, spiraling through her spine and seeming to filter space between her fringe-like fingers and toes which she watched with open and curious eyes, like an embryonic siren in a black halter and lacy pants. There were five portraits of men in white frames behind her, decorated with white silk roses and playing cards. She developed in grounded, passionate gesture and defiant sensuality to a standing, rhythmic and arching being, singing the song "Atrevimiento," which later came on as recorded sound. The dance, which could have been very powerful conceptually stopping right there with these simple postmodernly Latinesque feminist layers, grew deeper and richer. As Segarra danced and danced, a spotlight on her elegant and dynamic feet, raising energy through fancy stepping, stomping and kicking, we saw the myriad layers of past and present, personality, stereotype, icon, and human being. Like a witch, she pointed to the portraits and they came crashing down one, another, then three at a time to end the piece and seal her triumph. The audience burst into applause and cheers.

"Pelea de Gallos," next on the program, was more straightforwardly conceptual and political. However, Soto's genius in staging action and her sensitivity to complexity and ambiguity made this work powerful on many levels. As in opera or 18th century ballet, the stage was set as a lively local scene with people gathering for an outdoor social activity, talking, flirting, and drinking. In this case, the action was to be a cockfight. A man in red entered with a "cockette" (Soto's term), the impossibly tall and lithe Stephanie Tooman. Tooman's beautiful and culturally schizophrenic costume by Amy Tarachow featured red velvet panties and a vest with white ruffled breast. On her head was wound an orange kerchief, and flowing back from her hips was a swath of shiny orange/red fabric that served as a bustle, skirt, and tail. With eyes wide and staring, this Cockette preened, posed and hopped around while the people placed bets and exchanged money. Later a man in blue came in with his cock, statuesque Niles Ford, who wore the smallest ass-revealing blue lycra briefs and a similar blue fabric tail/bustle. The Cock also hopped and posed, causing more excitement, betting, and hoopla among the onstage audience.

Predictably, the Cock and Cockette were set together for a fight. The people surged and slackened on sides of the stage as their bird was winning or losing. Tooman and Ford mocked pecking at each other with invisible beaks, jumped up vertically close together with legs flying horizontally, used their arms only as handless wings, and maintained round-eyed stares. The birds jumped up on each other's backs, or held their standing leg against the other's prone neck in dramatic near-victory. Their faces seemed bound in masks that could be either blankness or terror. Observing these two clearly accomplished and eloquent dancers deal with the physical and emotional limitations of being birds brought an additional layer of pathos to the work. This was no "Firebird," a human ballerina being transformed into an imaginary, fantastic bird. Instead I witnessed tragedy, the human largesse of the dancers being forced to fit into a tiny, too small space of a Cock or Cockette.

The Cockette won the fight, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. She was only momentarily the hero, and then dropped to the ground. The people at the fight carried the dead birds around in a circle and then off the stage as the musicians played a funereal version of "La Borinquena," Puerto Rico's national anthem.

"Así se baila un Son" was the big showpiece of the evening. It was a gorgeous display of social dancing that was both choreographed and improvisatory, generous and theatrically effective. I don't even know how to begin writing about this work. You must go see it. A play-by-play description is no substitute for the splendor, passion, and sweep of this music and dance piece. The way the unison, group, couple, and solo moments were composed, the fluid relationships within the cast of dancers, it all added up to joy.

The band Viento de Agua was set up behind a filmy curtain at the back of the stage. The action began with a solo in silence by Mambo patriarch Sonny Allen, who may be no spring gallo, but who possesses an ageless dancer's soul. Listed in the program as the associate choreographer of the work, Allen represented a link to tradition even while he danced eye to eye and hip to hip with much younger dancers. All of the dancers--Segarra, Allen, Gina Benitez, Sita Frederick, Antonio Ramos, and Ivan Rivera--were amazing; each one an individual feeling the heat in his/her own way.

I wish that Kota Yamazaki of Rosy Co. could see this performance (see my Flash Review 1, 3-31, Gender Gap Noodling). Where Yamazaki attempted to create the fluid community of young people in club life, he succeeded in doing that only among his male dancers. When the woman came onstage, she was shallowly sexualized and this gave the work a different, oppressive sociocultural message. I didn't mean to seem (in the Rosy Co. Flash) as if I have a problem with seeing sexy women dancers (Ha-ha Paul Ben-I, in Flash Review 1, 4-8, True Confessions)! Within Soto's work, there was an incredible amount of sexiness but it seemed that the men and women met on an equal battleground as pleasure warriors; and while the work in general modeled heterosexuality, there was plenty of same-sex partnering, surprising power plays, and various gender groupings.

"Así se baila un Son" was truly a lesson in "how to," but not in a way that says 'this is right and this is wrong.' "Asā se baila un Son" teaches that to dance the Son one must be alive, feel love, feel joy, express through the body, not be afraid to touch and touch deeply, to connect to history and tradition and great music. So many lessons!

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