María Muñoz, Mal Pelo: Bach
Tania Pérez-Salas Compañia de Danza: Made in Mexico XX

Terrace Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; March 13, 2015

Carmel Morgan

María Muñoz in 'Bach' Photo © Jordi Bover

María Muñoz in ‘Bach’
Photo © Jordi Bover

A double bill featuring María Muñoz of Mal Pelo, a Catalan contemporary dance ensemble based in Barcelona, Spain, and Tania Pérez-Salas Compañia de Danza, from Mexico, appeared as part of the Kennedy Center’s month-long “Iberian Suite: Global Arts Remix” festival, which highlights the arts of Portuguese and Spanish-speaking cultures. Muñoz opened the evening with an intriguing solo “Bach”, and Tania Pérez-Salas Compañia de Danza closed it with “Made in Mexico XX”, a large ensemble piece. While on the surface the two performances had little in common other than the Hispanic heritage of the choreographers and their classification as contemporary dance, on a deeper level both works explored gender roles to some extent.

Muñoz and Pep Ramis founded Mal Pelo in January 1989, and they both continue to serve as its artistic directors. Muñoz’s solo “Bach”, which premiered in 2004, takes serious and playful turns. It was very rewarding to see an older female dancer command the stage in the manner Muñoz did. From the moment she walked out and casually dropped her jacket at the edge of the performance space, she had the audience’s full attention.

Two large squares of light, one on the scrim and one on the stage floor, appear like an open book, making up the space within which Muñoz travels. She moves slowly at first, with a lot of careful and measured gestures and simple steps. You could her breathing and the swoosh of her feet. To a recording of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier” (Gould can be heard famously humming now and then), Muñoz contemplates, her face a canvas of uncertainty and discovery. The music stops and starts. Muñoz would complete a section, then ponder while keeping moving, the music later catching up with her.

Initially, the music seemed incongruous with the dancing, but gradually, dancer and music gain a kind of synchrony. Muñoz embodied the feelings of the pianist Gould as he played.  She and Gould are both passionate interpreters. Gould hummed, and Muñoz’s head tilted and bobbed to the music like the hands of a conductor, her shoulders pulled this way and that, and her eyebrows actively danced.

Like a male flamenco dancer, Munoz later dons a jacket and buttons one button, grabbing at the jacket’s center now and then. Her hair pulled tightly back in a low ponytail, and wearing a black shirt and pants, she could have been a man. Yet she exuded an energy that seemed feminine and powerful, striking and soft at the same time. Toward the end of “Bach” there are pale ghostly projections of Muñoz on the scrim and floor, and bars of light that squashed her underneath (here and elsewhere she employed some mime-like skills). Though “Bach” may have gone on a bit long, I thoroughly appreciated it, and admired greatly Muñoz performance and choreography.

“Made in Mexico XX”, a three-part work choreographed by Pérez-Salas, and performed by members of Pérez-Salas Compañia de Danza, presented a stark contrast to the “Bach” that preceded it.

The music, featuring a collage of Mexican composers, could not resemble Bach less. A lot of it is bass-thumping loud, with a raw contemporary edge. The costumes (also by Pérez-Salas), all in black, give off a hard rock vibe, and some of the hair styles scream urban chic.

“Made in Mexico XX” begins with three women and two bare chested men, all in black pants. The women’s shoulders and backs are shown off by their sleeveless tops. Everyone had gorgeous muscular backs; they looked like models. All were handsome, athletic, and assured. When the music goes pop, pop, pop, like a machine gun, their bodies jerk, and they rise and fall from the floor. I have little patience for chairs as props, especially black wheeled office chairs, but I admit that I saw something in this piece I have not seen done with them before – a man lifting a woman above his shoulders while seated in a wheeled chair. Not an easy feat!

The theme of “Made in Mexico XX” revolves around gender relations and domestic violence in Mexican culture. Program notes said that the work specifically addresses the concept of ‘machismo’. The women do not dance as victims, but there are clearly unequal dynamics displayed. Both men and women swing their pelvises to and fro. Between the thrusts, the women crawl on their hands and knees with their bottoms moving up and down. In one section, the women wear glittery high heels and mimic singing into a microphone while upside down. Although there are no whips à la “Fifty Shades of Gray”, they probably would not have been out of place. Toward the close, women are pulled and dragged by their male partners. A male held onto the ankles of his female partner. He stood, and she is bent over, head toward the ground, hands on the floor, kicking like a frog in water while remaining in his grasp. At the end, the men walk directly over the women, now flat on the ground, as if they were merely garbage.