By Marcia B. Siegel
What few signs of the rich culture embedded in Danza Orgánica’s artistic director and choreographer Marsha Parrilla’s heritage made token appearances.
Danza Orgánica. Presented by World Music CRASHarts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, on January 25.
Friday night brought Danza Orgánica to the ICA, the first of three companies featured in “Dance UP,” CRASHarts’ weekend showcase of local dance. The Danza Orgánica program featured excerpts from three works and only one complete dance. The assortment was probably meant to show off the company’s range, but all four segments of the 90-minute show might have comprised a single dance.
Danza Orgánica’s artistic director and choreographer Marsha Parrilla identifies as Afro-Taíno (loosely, African and indigenous Puerto Rican), and the company describes itself in uplifting (if not grandiose) terms as “a social justice-oriented dance theater company that draws elements from contemporary dance, African diaspora, and theater to rewrite mainstream narratives through movement that decolonizes the body and provides new ways of experiencing the world.” I didn’t see much of that in the choreography. A few signs of the rich culture embedded in Parrilla’s heritage made token appearances.
Parrilla makes movements from an old-fashioned, modern-dance perspective. Unlike Bill T. Jones or Mark Morris, modern dancers who started out hoping to relate to the audience with dancers of assorted body types who could perform well without necessarily having a lot of pre-learned technique, Parrilla’s movement doesn’t get more sophisticated than walking, crouching, and stretching. The company’s dancers report their training in dance, martial arts, puppetry, and various academic specialties. Not a bad mix, but none of these resources seemed to be developed beyond a minimum in the choreography.
An excerpt from Melaza (made in 2017 and to be expanded next fall) comes with a program note explaining that the dance reinvents the image of Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Friday’s excerpt began with a sturdy man in a hoodie (Earnest Gildon) facing upstage. He pulls the hood over his shaven head and begins a sketchy port de bras. To a recorded groaning of stringed instruments (composed by Garth Stevenson), Gildon extends his legs in the moves of a ballet barre. His bulky body isn’t suited to the ballet stereotype, but I liked his musicality and the way his arms and feet strove for good alignment in this basic exercise.
Gildon continued undisturbed as two women loped through, bent over, their long hair streaming over their heads. This move (or something like it) happened many times during the evening. It may have stood for a dismal state of mind. After a blackout, we heard loud thumps in the dark. The thumps turned out to be Fran de Paula, stamping his feet. When he entered from the side, he pursued the ballet man with flamenco-ish steps and finally pushed him out the other side of the stage.
De Paula and Parrilla danced in Ripe, an excerpt from the larger work Daca Yanuna. Program notes told us that this dance centered on four elements: Spirit, Mind, Body, and Nature, with Ripe the section devoted to Body. The note went on about “magical energy” and “vibrations,” too much for this dancegoer to ponder. What did intrigue me about the excerpt was how de Paula and Parrilla coordinated with each other and differed, within the implicit moves of a ballroom duet. She began sinuously, a bit like an Indian Bharata Natyam dancer, and he followed her lead, jerky and awkward where she was smooth. There may have been flashes of a tango. They ended clamped together but still dancing.
At the beginning of the performance — another excerpt called Seeds from Daca Yanuna — the stage was dark, with a candy-pink glow. Bodies were curled on the floor, rolling and reaching for the air. This turned out to be a coded action that would be used several times in different dances. In Seeds I thought the movers were embryos or something primal, and I had to dismiss the incongruity between the movement and the gaudy lighting.
The performance ended with the complete dance, Vessel, choreographed for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s “Life, Death & Revelry” exhibition last summer, which was built around the restoration of the nearly 2,000-year-old Farnese Sarcophagus and its carvings of maenads and satyrs. A program note explained that the dance was a “history of the transatlantic slave trade. . . from an Afro-futurist perspective.” The dance offered more embryonic rolling and glum processions. The dancers huddled in a group to watch their colleagues perform solos and duets. Elaine Fong’s drumming provided a steady beat to support the dancers; the recorded sound of a heaving ocean lent atmosphere.
The drums got more urgent and the dancers ran across, sometimes jumping, sometimes flopping over. Earnest Gildon emerged and began a simple clapping pattern in four counts, making his way downstage and inviting the audience to join. The audience joined. The dancers huddled together. The clapping subsided, then ramped up again. The dancers came forward in simulated celebration with jumps and waving arms, and the dance ended. The diverse audience heartily approved.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She has contributed two selections to Dance in America, the latest edition in the Library of America’s “Reader’s Anthology” series.