On Stage

Soto's Body Clock

Choreographer Merian Soto's
Choreographer Merian Soto's "La Maquina" explores memory and culture.
By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 20, 2005

"The body," she says, "is a time machine. All our experiences are recorded in the body . . . in my body at least." The body in question is that of choreographer and dancer Merian Soto, whose evening-length work "La Maquina del Tiempo" ("The Time Machine") -- an intriguing vision of Latin cultural empowerment -- arrives at Dance Place this weekend.

A native of Puerto Rico, Soto began dancing as a baby ballerina at age 3, but that's not the only movement memory coursing through her body. While she admits that a foundational experience in ballet influenced her choreography and particularly her quest for the concept of line, there's something even deeper running through Soto: the sound of salsa.

"I immediately gravitated to some kind of rhythmic patterning that was related to the salsa form," Soto recalls, speaking of "La Maquina's" genesis. "It's in me, you know. It's almost more than a memory. It's just what it is: a foundation."

And there's one more important ingredient in Soto's personal time machine -- postmodern dance and movement improvisation, a byproduct of the choreographer having come of age in the mid-'70s.

Accordingly, "La Maquina," set for three dancers and three musicians, plays out improvisationally, employing a Pirandellian structure Soto created to break out of the theatrical box. The body is a time machine in motion, its movements and musical accompaniments spanning the Latino and Afro-Caribbean diasporas.

Soto, who is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and also teaches at Philadelphia's Temple University, turned to old Mexican movie musicals for further inspiration. In a witty series of vignettes, framed by black-and-white film clips, as well as video shot by director Irene Sosa, Soto stokes up a conversation between the body's sensuality and its power, particularly feminine power.

"I was interested in how media has shaped my vision of dancers. There's this whole layer of fantasy as well," she says about growing up watching both Mexican musicals and the classic Hollywood variety.

"I found in the [Spanish-language] movies Mexican musical numbers that were direct quotes from Hollywood films." But she also found the reverse: Hollywood films that culled their Latino characters from Mexican and other Spanish-language films. "The chain of appropriation is interesting because the Mexicans copied Hollywood's interpretation of what it is to be Latin, which was often copied from Mexican films. It's the issue of how the stereotypes feed on each other." And that is the issue at the crux of "La Maquina": history written on the body.

As Soto says, "One lives, one moves."

"LA MAQUINA DEL TIEMPO" -- Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7. Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. 202-269-1600. Merian Soto also leads a lecture and demonstration on Saturday at 2 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Free. 202-234-7174.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company