Friday, February 06, 2009

tetris by Toni Leago Valle

When I first moved to Houston 5 years ago, one of the first artists to whom I was drawn was Toni Leago Valle. I met her in Fieldwork, where she was showing work that incorporated storytelling and dance---which was exactly where my head was at the time. I was especially drawn, however, by her choreography. She uses an interesting and often surprising movement vocabulary, especially when partnering with another dancer. There are images from the first piece I saw of hers in Fieldwork that remain in my head, simply because the partnering work surprised and delighted me.

In the intervening years, Toni has become a friend and sometimes collaborator. She hired me as director for her last evening-length work, Cracked (2006), during the last two weeks of rehearsal of which I had the poor judgment to have a "heart event" and have since felt guilty that I wasn't there to play more in the final moments. (Oh, but wait, this isn't about me, is it?) She also worked with me on a short movement piece I made for a Fieldwork showcase (along with another friend and sometimes collaborator, Misha Penton of the new Divergence Vocal Theater).

So, last night, I went to see Toni's latest full-evening show, tetris. I'd seen a lot of photos from the show, had her bring a snippet of it to the neoNuma Arts Holiday Salon back in December, and even wrote a preview piece about it for OutSmart's January issue. So going in, I knew this piece was about a young woman's fractured identity and all the dancers around her were the many voices inside her head---from internal critic to inner child.

What I saw last night was a surprise.

First of all, this is the first piece I've ever from Toni that didn't use text. All the storytelling was accomplished via the movement, music, and news and pop culture video and audio clips from the 1980s. Not relying on text makes for more ambigous storytelling, but that's not a bad thing. In fact, that's the most appealing thing about this show. Back when I was helping Toni on Cracked, one of the things I remember saying to her more than once was, "cut this bit of text---you don't have to explain everything, we get it---or if we don't it's still there and it's not your fault that we don't." By doing away with the text---and I'm speaking of this piece in the context of Toni's larger body of work---it feels like Toni took a big personal risk, to let the storytelling happen or not, according to the audience's ability to look at dance.

But second, and perhaps most important, it works marvelously. Even when I wasn't clear on every dancer's role in the main character's head, I was enthralled. Even when I wasn't syncing up the video to the movement, it was never dull and never looked thrown together. If I wasn't "getting" every moment, I was getting that there was purpose and thought to every moment.

The evening itself is a bit of roller coaster, starting as it does with video of the Challenger crew boarding the shuttle to the tune of Peter Schilling's "Major Tom." I hadn't seen that video in years and it was a sucker punch to the gut, especially how Toni reminded us of how often we saw that explosion, over and over, with stops to point out where it begain and diagrams that gave us nearly second by second explanations of it.

But it's not all doom, as Toni's sense of humor is evident throughout the evening. A highlight of that being a duet wherein each dancer is trying harder than the other to pose for the flashing cameras about them, occasionally pointing out someone out in the audience and motioning "call me." Very funny stuff, expertly played by the dancers.

And speaking of the dancers, I want to mention two in particular. Priscilla Nathan-Murphy was also in Toni's Cracked. She was mesmerizing then and she's no less so now. She is able to fill the theater with her presence and deliver the goods on her movement ability. From her toes to her fingertips, everything is articulated and everything moves with purpose. I have no idea if she thinks so, but when I watch Priscilla dance, I feel like she's aware of every movement she makes. Some dancers get by with occasional tossing off of unfocused movement. Priscilla never lets you see those, if she makes them at all.

Also of amazing stage presence was a dancer making her contemporary dance debut, 9-year-old Bianca Torres-Aponte. I've never seen a child on stage be so focused and in the moment of the performance. When she first appeared, I was drawn by her presence, but then when she actually danced, I realized here is a little girl with no little ability. I half expected her to do mostly pedestrian movement, but Toni gave her some more complex choreography and it was lovely. At her age, any number of interests might come her way before she makes grown-up decicions about her life, but if she's able to maintain the focus she displayed last night, there's little doubt she'll grow up to do well, whatever she does.

Go to Toni's website and see if you can still score tickets for her last two performances. tetris is an evening in the theater well spent.

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