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Luna Negra Review

Chicago based Luna Negra Dance Theater performed at the Strathmore on Friday March 19th. The program included Danzon, choreographed by Eduardo Vilaro, with live music featuring the Turtle Island Quartet and award winning Paquito D’Rivera on the saxophone. Guest choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Nube Blanco (White Cloud) started the program off and Vilaro’s Quinceañera closed out the evening.

In Nube Blanco (white cloud), Ochoa takes up the theme of “zapateo” (rhythmic footwork) synonymous with Flamenco and creates an interesting juxtaposition by combining it with modern dance’s line, and use of space. The piece begins with a single male dancer on stage, clad in black with blood red shoes that draw your eyes to the feet even before the first percussive note is struck. As the opening solo develops, other dancers enter the stage, with the men and women in all black with red shoes. The women’s skirts have a white ruffle underskirt that is airy and shows off the movements beautifully. Diana Ruettiger costume design works wonderful with Ochoa’s movement, which is expansive, percussive and earthy, and the dancers own the work and space wonderfully.

Ochoa draws on the vibrant use of arms, hand gestures, clapping and stamping of flamenco for this piece and marries it to interesting group work, and theatrics. She uses the shoes, shirts, and skirts as clever props–dancers get in and out of their clothes and shoes throughout the piece offering us humor but often also portraying their beautiful vulnerability. The bare-chested men use their shirts as a matador’s cape while evoking scenes from a bull fight, and the women’s shiny red high-heeled shoes slice through the air glinting like horns. The dancers vocalize throughout the dance, sometimes speaking, sometimes creating sound scores using whistles, and abstract sounds. Towards the end, the dancers come in stripped down to their underwear with just one shoe on. The height difference caused by the missing shoe creates a loping walk that is labored, poignant and funny at the same time. The staccato sound of their clacking heels adds to the image of a group that is weighted down and staggering. Against this background, one of the dancers enters clad in layers and layers of the white ruffle underskirts, bouncing through the stage like a cloud—the counterpoint creates a stunning effect. The group shuffles through space and twitches and shakes, and in the ending image a wall of dancers slowly collapse and roll of the stage, leaving just the namesake white cloud visible on stage.

Ochoa has a strong vision and uses it effectively throughout the piece all the way till the dramatic ending. Unfortunately, instead of relying on her strong dance sections, she introduces several incongruous comic elements in between the dance sections as transitions. I found them mostly distracting and the fact that they occurred only as transitions and were never fully integrated into the piece reinforced that they were unnecessary to the already strong dance. But that is a tiny quibble in an otherwise strong dance.

The much talked about Danzon was the second dance of the evening, live music always creates new energy for the dancers to feed off of, and this was no exception. Vilaro’s program notes says that he created this piece from his memories of the Cuban Danzon, a formal social dance where couples follow a set of codes on when, how and what they do on the dance floor. Typical Cuban Danzons have built in musical preludes for the couples to walk through the dance floor and greet each other and talk to each other. There is a clear musical transition that signals the start of the dance when everyone pairs up and begins the formal dance portion and there is a harkening back to bygone days of grand old ballrooms. And often there is debate about whether the current version was a mockery of the colonists by the locals or if it is just took on its own form.

Vilaro is a master at blending different genres, and we see ballet, modern, and hints of Salsa and Son mixed in fluidly. The dancers eat up the space and riff off the musicians wonderfully. Paquito D‘Rivera’s playing is infectious and the way the music bubbles out of his saxophone makes you want to just giggle for no reason. But the idea that this was a collaboration beyond having the musicians on stage is a stretch to put it mildly. Abstraction is a slippery slope, particularly when the new version becomes an exercise unto itself. Vilaro’s version of the Danzon is so abstracted that it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the original social form in which people promenade, chat, and socialize on the dance floor as much as they dance.

The evening closed with Vilaro’s Quinceañera, his clever take on the popular Latin American custom of the birthday festivities of a girl turning 15. We see young women confused by the impending rush and doom of adulthood and all of its accompanying pleasures and trials. A section on girls trying to walk in high heels is side-splittingly funny, while it also draws attention to the fact that it is still a teenager who is trying to fill an adult’s shoes. We see snapshots of all the characters that make up your average teenage social. In one section, we see the young men at the party trying to impress the girls with their bravado and awkwardness all at once. There is the couple that has imbibed too freely of the wine, the girl who is left alone when everyone else pairs off for the dance and the life of the party who people can’t get enough of. In this quick and wonderful sketch, Vilaro takes us smoothly through the highs and lows of a young woman coming of age, of her joys, fears, awkwardness, and finally, to her transformation from a gawky teenager into a confident adult. And just as seamlessly, Vilaro’s vocabulary moves in and out of genres like ballet, jazz, modern and hints of Latin social dance forms. The focus though is primarily on modern dance, and less so on regional Latin American forms. Whether that approach is a loss or advantage is debatable but it is definitely a feather in Vilaro’s cap that he can make it all fit together so smoothly.