February 24, 2000

Así se baila un Son by Merián Soto with Gina Benitez and Ivan Rivera.
Photo by Jack Vartoogian


Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

February 24, 2000

Reviewed by Jan Hanvik

During Staging Identity: Latin American Music and Dance, A Conference and Festival at the University of Florida, choreographer Merian Soto mentioned that people have complimented the dancing in Así se baila un son (How to Dance a Son) while wondering where the choreography is. (Son, according to writer David Gere, is “a pan-Hispanic cultural marker” developed in Cuba in the mid-to-late 1800s that married Spanish and West African music and dance.) Soto?s comment reoccurred to me throughout the performance.

While salsa dancing is the technique chosen by Soto to convey her choreographic message, the dancers don?t do what salseros do at a club, party, or class. “Swivel hips” Sonny Allen, in dark glasses and white suit, dances alone in silence, in obvious self-enjoyment at the beginning. He?s not about technique, but is a silky, self-confident mover doing what conservatives call the work of the devil, i.e. enjoyment of the body. Noemi Segarra enters. Ballet-and modern-trained, she similarly exudes self-confidence and lust for dancing. Various sections with chairs follow?for Segarra alone, for three women, for Segarra and Antonio Ramos stopping just short of sexual intercourse, for Ramos alone loving himself almost as passionately, for Ramos, who flies across the stage to leap onto a chair being carried by two other men.

Soto?s exploration of the marriage/divorce/irreconcilable differences between high and low art?a subject fascinating to cultural studies aficionados but irrelevant to audiences enjoying whatever art form they love?is endlessly re-worked. Does Soto means for a section to be unison? Exactly how much structural “give” is there? While Ramos and Segarra are typically (for high art concert dance) trim, athletic, and trained in ballet and modern, Gina Benitez and Ivan Rivera with their robust forms and more earthbound style, are no less impressive for inspiring us, (as does the Venus de Milo) with what any body can do, be, or inspire us to do or be. Wild solo improvisations alternate with tightly choreographed, body clasping duets. In a party section, the duets and lifts are familiar?till all fall down, and continue, moving forward sitting down, hips and arms still irrepressible.

Soto reworks the circle dance, dancers crossing the circle?s center to continually change partners. A couple dances a duet admirably, if unsurprisingly, while to the same music, another couple mimes sexual foreplay. Fast dancing happens to fast music, slow dancing to fast music, son/salsa/rumba steps happen to the music, as does idiosyncratic, internally “felt” dance.

Choreographer Hanya Holm once declared that a choreographer?s worst mistake is to confuse choreography with putting movements to music; With Soto the indivisibility of the dancing and Viento de Agua?s music remarries the art forms divorced only in “developed” cultures. Yet when one song wails “Don’t suffer any more for him” in the way of a telenovela or soap opera, and a caring man comforts a sad woman, she has reconstructed her “casual” choreographic structures to achieve a high communicative end.

Soto has dancers enter one by one, carrying large reproductions of record jackets, presumably homage to the great salseros. Sonny Allen again dances alone in silence at the end, reminding us that this dance?or dance?is not about gimmicks, popularity, disputes about high versus low art, but about loving life, about trusting, loving, and enjoying our bodies, about giving, releasing, sharing, self confidence, being loose, being happy, not sweating the small stuff since it?s all small stuff.

The other dance on the program, performed first, was Pelea de Gallos or CockFight. It seems to be a one-trick pony. A man and a woman play the fighting cocks, townspeople gather around, place bets, argue. The cocks fight and die. The nobility of the elegant dancing by Niles Ford and Stephanie Tooman can?t dignify the cockfight or teach us much that we couldn?t imagine.