Merian Soto, Taking a Cultural Journey Back in Time

By Kirsten Bodensteiner
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 23, 2005

We all have experienced time travel. That cheesy ballad popular in high school, for example, can instantly zap you back to your junior prom. For Puerto Rico-born Merian Soto, the vehicle is Latin music and dance styles popular throughout the 20th century. The veteran choreographer, based in Philadelphia and New York, plays with historical and cultural memory in her piece "La Maquina del Tiempo," performed Saturday night at Dance Place.

The sense of time was established even before the lights came up; in the darkened theater, drops of water could be heard plunking into two metal buckets, establishing a simple rhythm preceding the complex danzon , son montuno , salsa and timba-influenced movement of the first part of the program, "The Art of Improvisation."

On a set designed by Roger Hanna, dancers performed solos accompanied by Elio Villafranca's outstanding piano, Yunior Terry Cabrera's bass and Jose Serranno's percussion. Soto deliberately blurred lines -- the three dancers interacted with the musicians, and the solos moved organically into duets and back to solos again. While there was obvious structure, it had the energy of open possibility. Noemi Segarra's solo was especially impressive, her control allowing for interesting and seemingly impossible isolations. "Improvisation" ended in a frenzy with arms flailing and bodies flung onto the floor.

Nostalgia is another form of time travel, as Soto demonstrated in the evening's second section, "Paradise Revue." The work began with Marion Ramirez as a ballerina on an elevated, revolving platform, backlit behind a scrim, only her outline visible. After she discarded her tiara, corset and tulle, her delicate ballet postures transformed into a variety of sexy undulations. Perhaps this is autobiographical -- Soto, the child ballerina, now mining the movement of her cultural heritage.

The sections of "Paradise Revue" directly refer to cinematic choreography. Pablo Amores, in Soto's tribute to Fred Astaire, danced with his own shadow projected in triplicate, and in a spoof on cinematic images of Latinos, the women wore feather headdresses while Amores looked ridiculous in wings of rainbow-hued feathers as they danced the cha-cha around the stage. Clips from historic films, part of Irene Sosa's visual design, showed stereotypes of Latino culture, complete with shoulder shimmies.

Soto's sense of humor and the impressive talent of the troupe almost kept the audience engaged for the long work. Perhaps Soto is attempting to mine too much territory, and the work loses focus as a result. Still, salsa for Soto is so much more than a few sexy steps, and the audience left with a sense of the complexity of personal, and in this case Latin, identity.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company