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Chamacos Dance Company: “Viajes” (Review)

Randi Turkin 7 months ago

Chamacos Dance Company
Mexican American Cultural Center
October 25 – 26 at 7pm
October 27 at 4pm

Chamacos Dance Company excels at technique and expression with a dose of high-octane physicality and athleticism that Austin’s dance community desperately needs.


Etapas, Photo credit: Ulises Garcia | Courtesy of Chamacos Dance Company

Chamacos Dance Company opened their most recent full-length production, Viajes (in English, that’s Travels), at the Mexican American Cultural Center last night. The company’s choreography is deeply influenced by Cuban contemporary dance, and its dancers, hailing from Cuba, Russia, Mexico and the US, are a team of highly skilled performers excelling in both technical capability and emotional conveyance. The evening performance contained five separate pieces all composed by different choreographers with their own messages, but the show felt cohesive flowing smoothly from one transition to the next.

Opening the evening was Etapas (Stages), choreographed and performed by Miguel Alejandro Lopez Jorge. It was a three-section piece that seemed to be about living our existence in the moment with an eye on what will come. Jorge, dressed only in black shorts, began a slow diagonal journey across the stage with an intense focus on something in the downstage right corner. He desperately wanted to get to it, but at times appeared perhaps uncertain or apprehensive of what he might find when he got there. As he arrived at his destination, he found a button-down shirt and tattered jeans which he picked up, and then found his way to center stage where he began dressing. At this point, his movement became staccato, frantic, as if he were being pushed around and manipulated by an invisible force. In the third section, Jorge found a circular object mounted on rolling casters which he approached tentatively at first, but before I knew it, he was sailing across the stage atop it on his belly with his arms outstretched, giving us the sensation of flying. What I took away from this piece: keep your eye on the goal, and when it gets hard – because it will – keep working. Because eventually you will soar.


Etapas, Photo credit: Ulises Garcia | Courtesy of Chamacos Dance Company

The second piece titled La Semilla (The Seed) was choreographed by company co-founder, Aurelio Planes Rodriguez, and performed by co-founder, Inna Grudtcina. The program notes state that the solo was inspired by the soulful song it’s set to, Between These Hands, as well as the movie Roma. I haven’t seen the movie, but I can tell you what I gathered from the movement. Grudtcina began the dance on the floor, just outside a large circle of light. She peeked her face out and inched her way into the light, but then disappeared again into darkness. Shortly thereafter all we saw was her feet walking the outer edges of the circle. It’s like she only wanted to expose a little piece of herself at a time. Eventually we got to see all of her, a stunning beauty dressed in a long black silk gown topped in black lace. The movement was disjointed and uncomfortable and at one point, though on the floor, her legs began running and kicking, as if she were fighting off an attacker. She made her way off the floor but collapsed in what appeared to be exhaustion or weakness, and there was a desperation that escalated throughout the piece. As it came to a close, Grudtcina placed herself in a birth position, balancing on both hands and feet, with her torso horizontally pointed up toward the sky. From out of nowhere, and completely unexpected, Jorge from Etapas slid underneath her and emerged from between her legs, settling into a fetal position. She arose and backed away from him, but then came closer as if out of curiosity, reaching out to him with the first sense of calmness presented in the piece. At this point, based on the stress I felt for her throughout the piece, I could only think that she had been raped and this was the aftermath. An unwanted pregnancy that ended with the birth of her child who she found she may want after all.


La Semilla, Photo credit: Ulises Garcia | Courtesy of Chamacos Dance Company

The third piece of the show was titled 90 Millas (90 miles) and was choreographed and performed by Arianna Nunez Jordan. The stage was completely dark save for the spot Jordan stood only a few feet from the front row where I was seated. As she scanned and surveyed the entire audience, vigilant of her surroundings, she discreetly revealed a blue balloon which she slowly inflated with deep breaths. When she began twisting the neck of the balloon so the air wouldn’t escape, I was keenly aware of the creepy squeaky and scraping sounds her hands made on the latex in the silent theatre. I knew a big moment surely must be about to happen, and sure enough, she brought the balloon close to her torso and hugged it tightly until it popped, and the stage was suddenly plunged into darkness. The pop was so loud and startling that I immediately thought: gunshot. Moments later, the lights faded up to reveal another blue balloon floating eerily about five feet above the stage floor. Jordan ignored this balloon until the very end of the piece, but what happened in the interim was incredibly disturbing. Throughout the piece, she repeatedly tried to scream out for help, but no sound escaped her mouth. No matter how desperately she tried, we would never hear her because it was as if she were trapped in some sort of spiritual in between where she could see us, but couldn’t quite reach us, and we, on this physical plane of existence, were unaware of her presence. Her athletic movement was frantic and consisted of self-manipulation, a common theme throughout this entire show, and gave us a sense of inner turmoil and struggle. She tried desperately to get our attention, at one point doing a jumping jack motion across the entire stage, only feet away from us. After convulsing in a fetal position center stage, we finally heard her anguished cry, what she’d been trying to communicate the entire time, what sounded to me like, “DaDa, NO!” – like a child’s cry for her father. She seemed to reach a turning point before heading to the floating balloon and hugging it like a child who needs a lovie for comfort.


90Millas, Photo credit: Ulises Garcia | Courtesy of Chamacos Dance Company

Awake to the Sound of Calling was choreographed and performed by Bonnie Cox and Erica Saucedo with live vocal accompaniment by Cassandra Reveles. The performers set up what appeared to be a Día de los Muertos altar with LED lights covered by a transparent cloth which I assumed to represent candles; a long line of paintbrushes which I took to represent flowers; and a long line of what looked like yellow/orange confetti, which I believe were marigolds, the flower of the dead so often used in Mexican culture to celebrate those who have passed on and believed to bring spirits back to earth. After building the altar, the taller of the two dancers performed a solo and was soon joined by her duet partner. The two performed phrasing that included both unison and conflicting movement, and often performed partner work in a repetitive fashion. One thing that stood out to me is that the taller dancer always seemed to “catch” and carry the second one, acting as the more maternal and grounded of the two. One of the partner phrases always ended in what was supposed to be a hug – the taller dancer embraced her partner, but the second dancer was unable to return the gesture, her arms stiffly extending straight out rather than embracing. It made me wonder if the grounded dancer was human, and the second was a spirit who had been summoned. It also made me wonder if the “spirit” was a young girl, potentially a daughter taken from us too soon, since the taller of the two seemed to be doing the heavy lifting and guiding throughout the movement. Vocalist Reveles entered after the initial duet and began singing in Spanish in a clear and melodic voice, sweet as honey. During her song, the two dancers placed all of the paintbrushes on the body of the spirit dancer – in between her toes, in her mouth and cradled in the various nooks of her appendages – before beginning a slow procession to the front of the stage where they removed the paintbrushes and formed them into a pyramid shape on the floor. From here the two moved from technical modern dance to Latino dance with stomping, hip swaying and clapping – it appeared to be a celebration of the spirit’s life. It was only after this section that the spirit was able to lift the maternal dancer up, switching roles in the partnering work and, finally, returning the embrace. I think the spirit was saying, “Goodbye. I love you, please let me go.” At the end, the three performers removed the paintbrushes from the pyramid shape and began lining them up across the front of the stage. Then they began handing them to individual audience members. It wasn’t until the third one was handed out that we realized we were supposed to be lining up the paintbrushes along the stage, too. The final paintbrush was placed on top of another one perpendicularly to create a cross in the center of the stage. Together we made an offering to the dead. (Note: after the show, I read the program notes and saw that this piece was created as an attempt to begin processing the mass shooting in El Paso.)


Photo credit: Jesus Jimenez Jaro | Courtesy of Chamacos Dance Company

The final dance of the evening was titled Viajes (Travels) and was easily the most uplifting piece of the night. Performed and choreographed by company co-founders, Rodriguez and Grudtcina, Rodriguez began the piece with a solo displaying stellar dance technique and high energy in a mix of modern dance and Latino movement while Grudtcina stood at the side of the stage watching him. When she joined him the two shared a lovely and very sensual duet. Eventually he became preoccupied with his own movement and when she approached him with three suitcases, he brushed her off, too engrossed in what he was doing. She left him and returned with one suitcase covered in stickers, at which point a sense of excitability connected the pair. They began tossing the suitcase back and forth to one another and then opened it to reveal a certain treasure – vacation apparel! Who doesn’t get excited when it’s time to go on holiday?! They scattered the various garb all around the stage but ended up returning it to their suitcase before sharing another beautiful duet. (I should note here that their partner work was exquisite, combining ballet and modern technique that resulted in gorgeous long lines and at times, intimate moments between lovers and a sense of taking flight.) In the final section, a video scrim appeared along the back wall of the stage and displayed footage from around the world and locally, including from the Trail of Lights which takes place annually right here in Austin. Since the dancers were dressed all in white (had they just gotten married and were leaving on their honeymoon?), when they walked in front of the video screen, the colors streaming from the projector moved across their bodies in a visually stimulating manner. It made me think about our own travels, whether near or far, and how, while we may physically be in a certain place for a limited time, those experiences live within us forever becoming the things that make us who we are. The piece ended with the dancers dressing in the contents of the suitcase – Rodriguez in a beach hat and women’s panties and Grudtcina with a men’s beach shirt wrapped around her neck as a scarf and a bra placed backward around her waist with the breast cups rounding out from her lower spine – and performing an almost drunken dance, basking in their own silliness. It made me think: A local can always pick out a tourist in a crowd.


Photo credit: Ulises Garcia | Courtesy of Chamacos Dance Company

One thing I found interesting about this production is that although it was set as five different pieces, together they formed one cohesive full-length show, a difficult feat to accomplish as things can easily become choppy and disconnected in a group show of this sort. The company found interesting ways to transition from one piece to the next. For example, the male dancer in Etapas appeared in La Semilla as the newborn. The blue balloon scraps (bullets?) from 90 Millas were left behind for the dancers in Awake to the Sound of Calling. And three of the paintbrushes (flowers?) were left center stage for Viajes. Perhaps the threading together of different ideas to create a sense of oneness was the whole point.

I don’t normally write such a long dance review, but each piece was so riveting that there was no way I could choose only one or two pieces to write about. I would have liked to have seen at least one group dance because each of the performers was so breathtaking to watch that seeing them all move together would have been a real treat. Each dancer possessed fantastic technical and athletic capabilities that we aren’t seeing much of from smaller companies in Austin these days. And the emotion that emanated from each of them clearly affected me in a big way because, obviously, I left the theatre with a lot to think about. I very much look forward to seeing more from this young company.

Cover photo credit: Cori Baker | Courtesy of Chamacos Dance Company

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