nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 2, 2009
Vocal Migrations totally represents the La MaMa experience, as far as I'm concerned. It's a performance work unlike anything I've ever seen before, and it's something you simply wouldn't see at any other venue in New York. Presented in association with the government of the State of Veracruz, Mexico, this unique theatre piece is part travelogue, part meditation on translation and cultural differences, and part musical/dance celebration. It's the ideal theatrical adventure with which to begin 2009.
The creator and composer of Vocal Migrations is Tareke Ortiz, a Mexican/American artist whose current focus is "the promotion of linguistic rights and nonviolent communication among indigenous communities." His chief collaborator is Cruz Ramirez, who is the Moral Leader of the Asociacion de Voladores Independientes de Papantla Kogsni SC (Papantla Independent Flyers Association), and the director of Escuela de Danzas Tradicionales en el Centro de las Artes Indigenas del Parque Takilhsukut (Traditional Dance School in the Indigenous Arts Center in Takilhsukut Park). Ramirez is a keeper of the flame of the centuries-old rituals of the Totonac people, who lived in eastern Mexico at the time of Columbus and who still reside there, in relatively small numbers; their language is unrelated to any other on Earth. One such ritual is the Danza de los Voladores de Papantla (of which you can see a terrific photo here), in which five young men climb a 30-foot tree or pole and while one dances atop it, the other four swing down on ropes to the ground. It's thrilling to watch, and there's documentary footage of the Danza in Vocal Migrations (the slideshow is by Alejandra Cerdeo and the film is by Cumbre Tajin).
Ramirez has brought with him to La MaMa seven of his students, and about half of the show is given over to the dances of these Totonacan Flying Men. The other half is mostly occupied by a choir comprising nine diverse singers, some of them La MaMa veterans, who perform surprising compositions (by Ortiz) that feel like chants but resolve themselves into songs of various types. My favorite of these was "This form is not a visa and cannot be used instead of," which is performed in front of animated projections of the paperwork required to bring the Flying Men from Mexico into the United States for this production. There are also a few numbers performed by Ortiz on the piano with accompanying video/audio/projections.
The effect of all of this is a simultaneous exhilarating immersion into a culture that most of us are unfamiliar with and a heady exploration of unfamiliarity as an obstacle to be overcome. Voiceover dialogue is in many languages; the song lyrics sound like nonsense until you realize that they're not; the ritual dances of the Totonacan Flying Men have rhythms and moves that isolate them from the tap vocabulary and style they sometimes resemble. Ortiz brings the point home in a finale in which the Totonacans and the choir members both participate; it's unexpectedly moving as it relates what's different and what's ultimately the same about these two disparate sets of performers.
The music sometimes feels monotonous and slow, but there are moments throughout the show that dazzle and engage. Ortiz performs a duet with a prerecorded version of himself. The projections themselves move physically through the space as the screen is transferred from place to place by cast members—a nice touch, that. The Flying Men's dances are enhanced by costumes in brilliant colors and intricate designs; the three different hats worn by each of the men are particularly beautiful. And the climax of their performance—a sort of human windmill—takes the breath away.
And there's nothing in Vocal Migrations that's like anything I have heretofore encountered, and that's the very spirit that this show both embraces and exemplifies. It's also what's made La MaMa the quintessential indie theater producer for almost half a century. Check this out or whatever's next at this invaluable space.