American Dance Festival
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

August 4, 2016
Carne Viva, Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret

Jerry Hochman

Hot on the heels of an engagement by avant-garde Provincial Dances Theater, American Dance Festival presented another avant-garde company, Rosie Herrera Dance Theater, for a three performance run at the Joyce Theater beginning Thursday night. The program by the Miami-based company included the New York premiere of Herrera’s Carne Viva, and her popular 2009 piece, Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret.

Overall, I found RHDT’s performance to be visually stimulating, iconoclastic, at times shocking and at times hilarious, and  conceived by Herrera, the company’s Artistic Director and choreographer, with intelligence and considerable choreographic capability. But I also felt that Carne Viva required more than what was presented on stage, though its apparent theme is crystal clear, and found Various Stages of Downing: A Cabaret, notwithstanding its explicit theme, to be a collection of often brilliant skits but not more than that.

The words “carne” and “viva,” the individual meanings of which are familiar even to those with only a passing knowledge of Spanish, have a colloquial meaning when used together: “raw flesh,” or just “raw.” And if nothing else, Carne Viva exposes the raw nerves of the two relationships presented.

Dancers from the Rosie Herrera Dance Theater in "Carne Viva" Photo Grant Halverson

Dancers from the Rosie Herrera Dance Theater
in “Carne Viva”
Photo Grant Halverson

When the piece premiered, it included four dancers and three pieces of music, and that’s what the Joyce program indicated would be presented. But as performed, Carne Viva consisted of only three dancers and two pieces of music. No explanation was announced, but based on information provided to me, for whatever reason Herrera decided to present the piece as it appeared. Certainly an artist is entitled to modify a piece even after its premiere, but restricting the number of “relationships” to essentially polar opposites limits the piece’s potential significance and makes it uncomfortably obvious.

The first segment has Ivonne Batanero and Simon Thomas-Train performing to a recording of the song Fade Into You by Mazzy Star, and the second has Batanero and Leah Verier-Dunn dancing to Como yo te Amo by Rocio Jurado – and the difference in the tone of the two songs reflects the difference in the two relationships. In the first, as the curtain is raised and the somewhat dolorous and soporific song begins, Batanero is already being held aloft vertically by Thomas-Train. They’re positioned front to front with much of her upper body above his head, but neither touches the other and neither moves – except for Thomas-Train repeatedly adjusting his grip to keep her from falling. He holds her up (she does nothing to help him – she’s dead weight) for what seems like an interminable period of time until he can no longer do so, and then must drop her to the floor. After a period of time on his knees trying to catch his breath and regain his strength, he lifts and holds her up again, and again, as his body strains and shakes with effort, he must drop her down. Each time he cries out in pain, and each time she says and does nothing. The last time, he mutters some comments that I couldn’t decipher, but they’re words of frustration and despair.

Batanero returns to him again and again to have him lift her up and carry her. Finally (after the music stops), Thomas-Train grows increasingly frustrated at this burden he must carry, and when Verier-Dunn emerges from the wings, he hurls Batanero at her in disgust and storms offstage. Then Batanero and Verier-Dunn begin their encounter, and the implicit rage, frustration and inevitability expressed in the vocalization of the accompanying song signals the battle to come. The two women fight with each other – part wrestling, part boxing, part martial arts, and all aggressive – interrupted by occasional respites during which they briefly separate and examine each other from a distance, or simply hug. Finally, during the period of silence after the song ends, the fighting stops and they bond affectionately.

Obviously, the relationship in which the woman is totally dependent on the man for support is doomed to fail; and just as obviously, the relationship in which whatever mutual anger there is expressed and eventually dissipates is the one that endures. As set up, it could not be seen any other way. But as a consequence of Herrera’s focus on the two relationships alone, regardless of how clearly these relationships are visualized, Carne Viva has limited significance. And the movement in each segment is somewhat raw-looking and simplistic itself (which I suppose is part of the point) – sufficient to illustrate one body being lifted and carried by another, or dancers in a violent physical confrontation, and nothing more. That having been said, the fight sequences in the second segment, assuming they weren’t ad lib, are superbly choreographed and executed – more spectacular and authentic-looking than choreographed sword play in major ballet productions I’ve seen. And all three dancers deserve recognition for their commitment to the physicality and grit that the piece demands.

Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret (hereinafter simply Cabaret) is a brilliant display of mostly genuinely funny skits that would have been at home on an episode of the old Carol Burnette Show, albeit one conceived on a slightly deranged, judgment-free (and commercial-free) planet, filled with sight gags, witty allusions, gender irrelevance, bathroom humor, sexual innuendo, and undeniable talent both of the cast and the choreographer. It’s a great ride, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Dancers from the Rosie Herrera Dance Theater in "Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret" Photo Sara D. Davis

Dancers from the Rosie Herrera Dance Theater
in “Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret”
Photo Sara D. Davis

It’s apparent from the dance’s title that at least on the surface (or below it, as the case may be) Cabaret relates to the subject of “drowning,” and more specifically, “stages of drowning.” But the dance overall comes across as unfocused, with several of the scenes only tangentially (if at all) relating to Herrera’s nominal subject, and with a particularly inscrutable ending. And although drowning could be considered a metaphor for something more cosmic (as in, drowning in a sea of life’s issues), the piece doesn’t support that. It’s certainly no less, but also no more, than what it appears to be.

Cabaret opens to a tableau of the interior of a cabaret, but not any cabaret that would be recognizable. The denizens, most of whom are carrying on conversations either with others, themselves, or a superior being, include a man happily bathing in a bathtub at stage right, balanced  at the opposite side of the stage by a couple sitting at a cabaret table having dinner, a drink, whatever. Suddenly the man at the table, who appears to hold some sort of seltzer bottle to the side of his lap , sprays the woman across from him. Drenched, the woman thereupon leaves the table in disgust. The rest of the cast (except for her companion at the table) stop moving until she returns, which she soon does, wearing a different dress and smiling as if nothing happened. After a few seconds, the man at the table sprays her again. All action on stage again stops (except for the man at the table, who, unconcerned, fiddles with his smartphone) until she returns again, smiling and wearing another outfit, only to be sprayed again. Presumably, this is the first “stage” of drowning. The dance’s last scene – another man bathing in a bathtub who falls asleep (or perhaps dies) while a video is projected behind him of members of the cast drowning in a sort of ocean-size bathtub – presumably is the last “stage” of drowning.

In between are a series of cabaret acts in which the relationship of the skit to drowning is, with one or two exceptions, more tenuous. One of the exceptions, and by far the most gut-bustingly hilarious of them, is a solo featuring Gerardo Pilatti, who according to the program notes is “Miami’s infamous drag queen Geraldine.” Infamous or not, his act here – lip-syncing to Celine Dion’s rendition of My Heart will Go On from the film Titanic – is a brilliant example of, and commentary on, a drag queen lampooning an easily lampoonable ‘straight’ star (while also, not coincidentally, connecting the scene to Herrera’s theme). And the spoof is not only of the singer and the song – Herrera’s witty staging also is a rollicking take-off on the movie itself, including the famous scene on the ship’s prow (here atop a ladder), from which Pilatti jumps and…drowns. The skit stops the show – and could be presented out of context without any loss of its giddy impact.

Another very funny skit, but one that appeals to have no thematic relevancy, has a female dancer at a celebratory party (I saw it as a coming-of-age birthday party of sorts) getting attention from three men and loving every second of it – but she’s costumed like a baby, a big baby, and acts like one until the men, who wear suits, place her on a pedestal (a tall bar stool/table). She relishes the attention – but a cake has been placed at the top of the table, so when she’s plopped onto it, cake oozes from the “baby’s” bottom. At first she likes the feeling, but after the fourth or fifth time (there are ten stools, each with its own cake) she starts whimpering, then crying and wailing like a spoiled brat. I suppose that this scene could reference the poor big little baby drowning by cake ooze, or metaphorically drowning in over-attention, but it’s a stretch. [This skit includes a fleeting but hilarious example of Herrera’s wit beyond what I’ve already described – a play on the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty (the cake adagio?) as the big little baby girl/princess moves from suitor to suitor before being elevated and plopped. During the course of the dance, I saw – or thought I saw – other “throwaway” references to iconic ballet images – Giselle (Act I) and The Dying Swan (or I suppose it could have been any old swan from Swan Lake) (there’s the drowning connection!). I suspect there were many more such abused “quotes” that I missed.]

Yet more of a stretch (if there’s a connection at all) is the scene into which the previous one segues, in which, a bearded baby-faced man wearing a similar baby outfit is hoisted and plopped on cakes too – by the same three “suitors.” Unlike the spoiled baby girl, this baby has a grand old time. Eventually he deposits the remainder of one of the cakes, and himself, on the stage floor, and plays with the gooey mess…and, it appears, himself as well. If this scene has anything to do with drowning, as opposed to being a commentary on the relative straightforwardness of the stereotypical characters portrayed, it’s that he’s drowning the cake.

The reason, at least in part, that Cabaret doesn’t work as well as it might have is that its title provides a themed focus that’s not supported in all of the skits. Not delivering on that limited focus makes the piece come across as less than it is, which is unfortunate because the piece as a simple sequence of wild and crazy cabaret acts (and without the “drowning” video at the end, which takes the piece down with it) is fun and visually explosive on any number of levels.

Finally, and as I mentioned in my review of Provincial Dances Company earlier in the week, it’s demeaning to the dancers, as well as to audience members who might want to know who they’re seeing, not to name the dancers who are clearly featured. Aside from the mis-listing with respect to Carne Viva, none of the dancers in individual Cabaret skits is identified, even where the dancer is clearly the lead or dancing solo (I could discern Pilatti from the company’s web page, but couldn’t be that certain with respect to others.) While a program may be printed in advance and consequently be inaccurate on the date of the performance, there’s no excuse for not identifying the featured dancers either by paper insert, casting board posted at the theater entrances, or announcement.

Even though I don’t think the two pieces on this program quite hit the mark, Herrera has undeniable choreographic competence coupled with a biting, sophisticated, and irreverent sense of humor that alone is sufficient reason to see her company.