Vestigio (9 minutos depues)

Antares Danza Contemporanea

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, March 7-9

By Laura Molzahn

Sometimes I think critics have an entirely different experience in the theater than other audience members–not necessarily better, just different. If the press materials for Antares Danza Contemporanea hadn’t told me, I would never have known that the evening-length piece by this Mexican modern-dance troupe, part of the festival Cruzando Fronteras (“Crossing Borders”), was about “confront[ing] death, both physical and otherwise.” The same materials also informed me that the work “evokes the literary style of magical realism found in the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez…and Isabel Allende.” Still, I didn’t feel right about handing on my privileged information to the poor man next to me when he confided at the end that he didn’t have a clue what the piece was about. Because despite the confident self-assessment of the artists, I still wasn’t sure.

Vestigio (9 minutos depues)–choreographed by one of Antares’s three artistic directors, Miguel Mancillas–features a trio made up of two women (Claudia Landavazo and Elsa Verdugo) and one man (Mancillas). Another man (Luis Antonio Cancino) plays a secondary role, and five dancers in black seated around the periphery of a grid on the floor play a tertiary role. No one needed to tell me that Vestigio has something to do with religion: clouds of incense, ceremonial bells, and Cancino’s look of a village priest were enough. It was also clear that some sort of progression was going on: each of the three main characters is carefully prepared to “enter the ring” at the beginning of the dance, the women’s long cloaks removed to reveal iridescent, liquid gowns, the man’s boots drawn off by the village priest to expose his bare feet. About midway through, the trio are ceremonially redressed in bright, shiny unitards. The watchers on the periphery who ring the bells and announce their significance–first bell, second bell, “five minutes,” and so on–indicate a carefully timed event, as does the dancers’ counting on their fingers when another dancer falls, as if he or she were a boxer down for the count.

All this was clear enough, but the minute-by-minute progression of the piece was so deeply mysterious it was eventually dull. Watching the performance I was reminded how hard it is to make a dance based on a literary idea or adapting a literary narrative. I’ve seen texts incorporated in dance with varying degrees of success, but never a whole piece successfully “translated” from one art form to the other.

And what would it mean to translate magic realism to the dance stage? Used by writers, the term means a realistic approach to obviously fantastical situations and occurrences. Though now it’s most frequently applied to Latin American writers, it also describes the work of such figures as German novelist Hermann Hesse. Magic realism is, I suppose, a way of making spiritual things concrete and vivid. But dancers always do that, whatever their intention. Perhaps in light of that truth the metaphorical superstructure of Vestigio is overkill–a heavy intellectual framework that threatens to crush the more delicate spiritual work beneath it. Perhaps Antares should have gone intellectual all the way and labeled the three dancers in the program with their metaphysical identities: this one is death, the woman in the red dress is ego, the woman in the gold dress love, whatever.

But on the face of it the dance is simply a love triangle–or quadrangle, if you count the priest. Throughout the hour-long piece Mancillas seems torn between the two women and goes back and forth between them, sometimes dancing with one, sometimes the other, sometimes seeking out the priest for comfort; the women also develop a sort of relationship. Something is wrong, however, when such interactions go on so long and with so little development or resolution that the audience eventually responds to them with titters, as if the dancers were beginning to parody their characters. I don’t think they intended to.

Mancillas looks and seems young. Perhaps in Vestigio he’s simply working through his own current issues, and that’s fine. The choreography–what there is of it–can be very appealing, and the primary performers establish their characters clearly. Landavazo and Verdugo, the two women, are strong, fluid dancers; I only wish they’d been given more to do. For the truth is that a very little bit of stuff has been stretched over a very long period in Vestigio.

But I can’t blame Antares entirely–their problem is probably that they’re living too close to the U.S. border, figuratively if not literally. They seem to have been swallowed up by the Machine, by the professionalization of dance that probably originated in our culture and has spread elsewhere. Once you’ve been swallowed, you can’t make a simple, short dance–you’ve got to make an evening-length work about “death” filled with portentous symbols. You’ve got to receive grants and arrange tours. You’ve got to send press releases that tell critics what to think. And critics have to tell audiences what to think. And so the Machine cranks on. And dance worth seeing slows to a trickle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Edith Reyes.