Posted by: trailerpilot | 03:29::2009

Luna Negra Dance Theater

Independent of its closer, last night’s tenth anniversary performance by Luna Negra was a fine evening. The company’s Latina Choreographers Project hasn’t been around quite long enough to birth a full program, but the choice to supplement the Project’s fruits so far with a work from Luna’s first-ever performance and by a female choreographer was shrewd, logical and satisfying.

Kirsten Shelton, Jessica Alejandra Wyatt and Vanessa Valecillos in Carmen Act I.  Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Kirsten Shelton, Jessica Alejandra Wyatt and Vanessa Valecillos in Carmen Act I. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

This piece, Nancy Turano’s Carmen Act I, was by no means outgunned, although it did underscore how high the caliber of Luna’s performers and choreographers has risen in just a decade. Turano renders the opera‘s titular character into three layers, presumably in order to assess her volatility and dissect her reckless opportunism as triplicity and/or a multiple personality disorder. As Carmen’s off-the-rails, maniacal gypsy persona, Kirsten Shelton does as much as is possible with a thin role, bringing impressive conviction to something that could all too easily slip into unintentional hilarity. Following her solo is another by Luna estrella Vanessa Valecillos, who in fire-engine red represents Carmen’s earthy seductiveness and, in a brief coda, a stylized sort of ur-mother power that doesn’t quite gel into statement despite Valecillos’ equally-assured interpretation.

Even less clearly-defined is what facet of the Spanish femme fatale Jessica Alejandra Wyatt is playing; this is not Wyatt’s problem, however; Turano simply doesn’t vary her movement vocabulary enough from solo to solo to show what differentiates these characters. It’s possible, I guess, that she’s keeping the palette narrow in order to underline that, conceptually, we’re watching one woman and not three, but as that’s a given in the title and the program notes (as well as no small amount of unison when the three dance together), there’s little need to keep the trio this closely-hewn. Roland Marconi’s original score is an atmospheric, vocal-free remix of the more-recognizable portions of Bizet’s opera, theatricalized with some sampled cackling, crowd chatter and soundscapelets. It, like the choreography, doesn’t offend but also doesn’t quite work.

Kirsten Shelton and Vanessa Valecillos in Sugar in the Raw.  Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Kirsten Shelton and Vanessa Valecillos in Sugar in the Raw. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

I had seen Michelle Manzanales’ Sugar in the Raw (Azucar Cruda) before, last Memorial Day weekend at the inaugural Dance St. Louis Festival. It was a fine piece there and also here, although if I recall correctly it was danced last night with a smaller cast, with two or perhaps even four fewer dancers. Created in collaboration with its premiere cast (2007), Sugar really shows who Luna Negra Dance Theater is; as the company’s Rehearsal Director, Manzanales has a clear vantage point on its identity, and she’s really made the most of it here. A work with no solo turns and only a few moments when the ensemble isn’t all onstage, Sugar underlines one of Luna’s greatest strengths, which is to say it may be a short chain, but has no weak links. It’s musically rigorous, following Gustavo Santaolalla’s brief song suite count by count, but the material stays fresh and inventive and there’s plenty to keep the eye (and mind) busy. Sometimes “it’s a wash” is used for dance pejoratively, but there are some choreographers who I feel can put a piece together in a way that may not pop with standout, memorable moments, but is nonetheless a rich visual experience with a sensory residue that stays firm in the mind even without any anchors of image or shape. Manzanales is clearly one of these choreographers, and if she’s looking to further explore this kind of tonal impressionism, I wholeheartedly offer my support.

Following Sugar was Eterno Despertar (Eternal Awakening), Maray Gutierrez’s 2006 inaugurator of the Latina Choreographers Project. A quartet “expressing with emotion the ambivalence and complexity of feelings that separation creates,” it uses sound (by Dave Norfleet) as its décor. Taking the place of what might be a Frederic Church-style backdrop of a lonely shore at sunset is a darkly saturated plain cyclorama and the atmospheric sounds of crashing waves and harshly whistling breezes. Working around a budget and touring schedule that doesn’t allow for much in the way of huge hand-painted drops, it’s a pleasure to be given a detailed sense of place through sound and lighting design (by Carolyn Wong) alone. It works. The dancers (Elise Drew, Ricardo J. Garcia, Louis James Jackson and Rebecca Lemme) gave the work their all, tight enough and able with the piece’s many lifts, some of which were quite thankless (although the dancers would never let you know it). It’s got some very nice moments: Bare-chested and in long skirts, the two men open Eterno with a duet that gathers tension for later release, and dance together well despite their qualitative dissimilarities. Drew and Lemme are equally strong–all of Luna’s women are–and, beginning also with a duet, slowly the four morph from being a single couple with a mirror beside them to a single couple with a mirror between them. Especially following Turano’s Carmen, Eterno shows itself to be much more adept at using compositional tools to symbolize multiple layers within single beings. My only complaint is that there’s a lot of boilerplate contemporary dance partnering work serving as filler; many of Eterno‘s lifts and phrases I’ve seen before, and Gutierrez doesn’t do quite enough to filter them through her own aesthetic.

I didn’t realize until last night how long it’s been since I’ve attended a world premiere and experienced the luscious power of seeing a great work intensified exponentially by the fact that it’s being performed for the first time. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa‘s Nube Blanco (White Cloud) ended the drought.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in the studio.  Photo by Altin Kaftira.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in the studio. Photo by Altin Kaftira.

Educated at the Royal Ballet Academy of Antwerp and associated with a litany of global dance companies, Columbian-Belgian Ochoa’s pedigree may explain her choreographic fluency, but understanding where it comes from doesn’t make it any less impressive. Five minutes into Nube Blanco, I felt I was seeing Luna Negra glide confidently into its quinceañera, the belle of the ball and five years early. The company performed Ochoa’s work pitch-perfectly, hitting every tonal shift and visual joke with a maximal balance of clarity and subtlety. There are an interesting collection of echoes in Ochoa’s dance: Paul Taylor, in composition and especially during Bobby Briscoe, Hamilton Nieh, JP Tenuta and Javier Amaya’s showstopping, Cloven Kingdom-esque men’s quartet; Crystal Pite, in a smart, hilarious inventiveness and efficiently-framed internal logic; and Dutch fashion designers Viktor & Rolf, in the way Ochoa’s references to the history of dance form (here the zapateado technique of traditional flamenco) are puréed with touches of the surreal and absurd. This last may come as no surprise, given that Ochoa recently collaborated with the fashion house for an event at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

Far from being a portfolio of her good taste, however, Nube Blanco is the fully-realized expression of an individual voice. Opening with a macho solo (by impressive newcomer Amaya), one group each of men (in high-waisted black flamenco pants and blood-red character shoes) and women (also in red heels, along with flirty tulle skirts under sheer black shifts) enter the stage, laughing, catcalling and gossiping. Immediately, and throughout the piece, Ochoa shows serious chops not only as a dancemaker but as a director of dance theater: None of the text or light acting reads as half-baked, and each dancer is obviously full of useful information about how what they are doing relates to the scene as a whole. Even though the “narrative” arc bears no logic, it’s firmly grounded in the rich textures of Maria Dolores Pradera’s voice, whose songs’ energy and mood translate into stage action with ease; it’s impossible not to notice how much Ochoa loves this music. In a perhaps unconventional way, Nube Blanco could almost be read as an homage to Pradera.

JP Tenuta, Ricardo J. Garcia, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Bobby Briscoe rehearsing Nube Blanco.  Photo by Altin Kaftira.

JP Tenuta, Ricardo J. Garcia, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Bobby Briscoe rehearsing Nube Blanco. Photo by Altin Kaftira.

The chic costume elements (by Diana Ruettiger) are ripe with hidden mileage: Ochoa brings each back onstage multiple times in various guises. Following an astoundingly hot solo by the liquid Garcia, his frozen arm becomes a towel rack upon which a line of entering ladies casually drape their shifts (which, having been removed, become opaque and nearly unrecognizable), and one of the piece’s finest moments comes when Wyatt holds a shoe up to her ear and leaves an angry voicemail for her boyfriend, complaining (in Spanish) about his perpetual tardiness and warning him to wear the white t-shirt she bought him. He stands beside her the entire time, bare-chested with a white t-shirt hanging out of his mouth, which flails around as he dances a solo that playfully yet poignantly suggests his frustration at being left mute in the face of her motormouth commentary and constant disapproval. A similar, subliminal seriousness rides just underneath the entire work; part of what makes it so satisfying, and so funny, is that it’s as grounded as it is silly. The closing scene, featuring the ensemble limping rhythmically in one shoe each and Wyatt again in the most brilliant costume-repurposing of all, not only brings the piece’s title home but hints that something ethereal and pure might be found among life’s draining, pedestrian quarrels and struggles. Nube Blanco not only announces the Latina Choreographers Project as the plum prize for a barely-visible creative demographic: It points toward a Luna Negra Dance Theater that’s a platform for the most vibrant, inventive work in the concert dance field.



  1. […] I can’t really be objective about Luna Negra Dance Theater, who I saw perform Saturday — I’m a regular teacher of its company class — but they looked great last Saturday at the Harris on a triple bill marking their tenth anniversary. I was especially grateful to see Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Nube Blanco” again — nothing of this most recent performance made me feel like taking back any of the gushing praise I slathered upon its world premiere last March. […]

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