at the Merle Reskin Theatre, March 21-23
Dance has a mystical streak running through it, perhaps because it awakens the kinesthetic sense, the unacknowledged sixth sense of our bodies. When an exquisite dancer awakens this sense, we’re reconnected to the mysteries that lie in our bodies’ darkness.
So when a dance company invokes the symbols of that connection, then offers dance that makes Laverne & Shirley look psychologically complex, my reaction, aside from the “what the fuck?” look in my eyes, is to wonder why everyone clapped so hard at the end.
Danzahoy’s evening-length Travesia uses a fine old metaphor for spiritual transformation: the sea journey. Its beginning is promising: a sea captain wearing a doublet, tights, and a tall plumed hat climbs onto his ship. The passengers soon arrive. Two are contrasting stereotypes: a sultry black woman and a prim white woman in a long dress. They’re accompanied by a slender, unaffected woman; two swarthy sailors; and a wild-haired woman dragging a chest. I warm to the characters immediately, picturing a Heart of Darkness set in Danzahoy’s native Venezuela.
The ship (a cunning prop: mast, railings, and paddlewheel built on a cart) sets sail in a dry-ice fog. When it lands the captain has a lovely solo in which he keeps reaching up to grab something. Is it a bird? An insight? A vision? It doesn’t really matter, for the mechanics of the metaphor require only that the leader of the expedition be aware of some new discovery.
Then the two sailors leave the ship and with a sprightly jig start to play catch. For over five minutes they play baseball with a phantom ball. I close my eyes out of tedium.
A sailor and the slender woman dance a humorous courting duet that has some moderately inventive lifts; for example, the sailor throws himself into the arms of the woman, who carries him like a bride across a threshold. Then the other sailor dances with the black woman, a lovely yearning dance in which she eventually rejects him. But this duet is upstaged by a comic duet between the captain and the prim lady, who turns out to be a secret drinker. Eventually the captain kisses her, and she is instantly converted to the notion that men are a better drug than liquor. Great, I think; I want to go on a magical mystery tour and these kids just wanna go to the disco and flirt.
The ship again sets sail but the rejected sailor falls overboard. He struggles and thrashes and is eventually rescued by the captain and brought back on board. We’ve seen suffering but we don’t see why it was relieved.
It’s obvious that spiritual transformation for the couples isn’t going to go beyond falling in love, so I pin my hopes on the wild-haired woman. She is the only character whose destiny is not as clear as the noon sun. When her solo comes she sneaks away from the boat, dragging her chest behind her. As she comes to the front of the stage it becomes apparent that her breasts are bare, covered only by the layer of see-through mesh that is the top of her dress. Is she a prostitute? Just down on her luck? She weeps and hurls her chest into the darkness, like a woman finally letting go of a shameful secret. But no, she retrieves the chest and opens it. I expect to see the body of a child she did not nurture, or an emblem of a lost self. But the chest is filled with flowers. The woman’s spiritual mistake, the reason she is a down-at-the-heels slattern, is that she didn’t smell the flowers! But she smells them now and is accepted with open arms by her fellow passengers. I expect a break for commercials at this point.
But the dance continues. After a joyous dance amid fallen flower petals comes an inexplicable storm followed by a rainbow. Danzahoy sure knows how to work symbols of transformation into their act, but they don’t seem to have a clue what to do with them besides wearing them like costume jewelry.
But the applause at the end was warm and everyone I met at the reception afterward liked the performance. I suppose Danzahoy has found a formula for popularity–give your audience an illusion of something different, an illusion of transformation, but show them what’s familiar. Your audience will feel challenged and rewarded and happy with their lives.
I have a suggestion. Go see some local dance by some Chicago choreographers. It’s a lot cheaper and there are a lot of great dancers who will give as much kinesthetic feeling as Danzahoy. You might be really transformed.