nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
May 27, 2011
Every now and then, I see a production that makes me clasp my hands with delight and I want to send everyone to experience it for themselves. By this date, you have sadly missed the enchanting, hilarious limited engagement of Rocha Dance Theater’s Mandorla as part of the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival. I do have high hopes that this multimedia piece will be performed again in some incarnation as choreographer, director, costume designer, and dancer Jenny Rocha is a resident artist at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn. If you enjoy innovative, high-energy dance performances tinged with wry wit, make a point to see her work when you can.
A mandorla, for those of you not familiar, is an ancient symbol of two overlapping circles—the space that both inhabits forms an almond. It symbolizes a dance of opposites and a realm where opposing forces can coexist. In her piece of the same name, Rocha presents a satire on the plight of the struggling artist: the search for work that often leads to feelings of exploitation and desperation vs. what it means to release that and create just for the sheer joy of creation. The space between is tricky to maintain, and this talented ensemble under the direction of Rocha executes their collective response to this challenge brilliantly and with much humor.
Rocha’s choreography is a no-holds-barred mixture of modern, hip-hop, and jazz, rife with lifts, spins, body rolls, athletic extensions, beautiful lines, and the occasional yoga-inspired arm stand and inversion. We are treated to a merciless cattle call and catty girl fight, resulting in the dancers tiptoeing out sideways from exhaustion and shame over their behavior. There are moments in a kick line where at first glance it appears someone is out of sync, but in the end it is wonderfully timed for effect. We bear witness to the yearning and frenetic pace of the artist, the exhaustion of the business end of “The Business” before the ensemble rekindles their love and passion for their craft. Rocha herself presides over all: part protagonist, part mistress of ceremonies, somehow managing to channel both the grace of Claudette Colbert and the comedy of Buster Keaton.
Rocha outfits the ensemble in black and white, using red as an accent on her own costume. Like a swarm of music box ballerinas who have been working for too long in back rooms, the dancers are festooned in tutus, bustiers, harem pants, bras, large buttons, suspenders, footless tights, neck ruffles, fingerless gloves, floppy bows, and fishnet on legs and arms. Where there are not bobbed haircuts, red lipstick and black-lined eyes peek out from under a tangle of curls in half undone up-dos. Most notably, there are the tags the girls are wearing to indicate they are on sale: 25% Off, Best Offer, Act Fast, As Is and—perhaps the saddest of all—Time is Running Out. At one point, the ensemble dons white hooded jumpsuits decorated with expletive punctuation, turning the stage into a jumble of implied curse words as the performers whirl and shake.
Mercifully providing the dancers an opportunity to breathe and change costume at intervals, Rocha continues to tell the story with the assistance of video producer Joseph Rivas. With a large projection on the back wall, Rivas and Rocha have created short films taking place just outside of the theatre, showing the girls sitting outside on the sidewalk waiting to get called with a mixture of anxiety, consternation, and boredom on their faces. We see Rocha, giving up and running to get lotto tickets from the corner bodega in a last act of desperation, only to tear up her spent dreams and blow them into the camera.
The set design of David Bengali and Mikaela Liakata is at once spare and evocative, blending carnival elements with a cattle call wasteland. Dismembered parts of stock white fashion mannequins litter the upstage area. White clothes hanger sculptures hang from the ceiling. Black and white wooden blocks painted with stripes and graphics decorate the stage, which the dancers utilize and occasionally beat upon as accompanying percussion to the band. Dans Maree Sheehan adds to this feel with her light design, creating a canopy of red and white holiday lights strung from the ceiling. A bare bulb with a long red ribbon pull falls stage center, and a white rice paper shade lamp decorated to resemble the man in the moon drops down from upstage, transfixing Rocha in a contemplative artist moment. Whether or not it was an intended effect, the silvered tin siding on the theatre walls reflects the ambient light beautifully.
Brooklyn indie band One Ring Zero rounds out this experience with an electric live performance. Strains of vintage circus organ are incorporated into klezmer-infused melodies, calling to mind the European cabarets of the 1920s.
Rocha has assembled a strong, energetic ensemble and their commitment to Rocha’s vision is a credit to both her direction and passion towards her own craft. I do hope this production is remounted and that more people have the opportunity to experience it. At the very least, when the circle of Rocha Dance Theater’s next work overlaps with the circle of my own life, I look forward to experiencing the space between.