My parents eloped to Mexico City from Texas, and I grew up hearing stories about their newlywed jaunts across the border for tequila and tamales at outdoor taverns lit by paper lanterns. The food, music and art of that country filled my childhood. When we moved east, our Mexican blown glassware and tin and ceramic folk art came with us, and mariachi bands played at my parents’ parties on more than one occasion.
So anything Mexican is guaranteed to catch my eye, which is why I’m looking forward to the Mexican-inspired works by Anna Sokolow that Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company will perform at Dance Place on July 29 and 30. They won’t be performed outdoors — forgive me for breaking with this section’s theme — but they do take as their subject the lives and art of painters Frida Kahlo and David Alfaro Siqueiros, and include images of their works, meaning the black-box theater at Dance Place will contain more than a whiff of Mexico’s bold, fertile natural world.
For nearly 20 years, Singh has had a fascination with the dances of Sokolow, a pioneering mid-20th-century American choreographer. It started when he saw her 1945 solo “Kaddish,” and was moved by its sharp, condensed melancholy. Sokolow, who died in 2000, was a former Martha Graham dancer known for dark musings on the Holocaust and alienation in urban society. She also choreographed the off-Broadway “Hair,” among other stage works, and taught Pina Bausch, Jerome Robbins and Martha Clarke.
Sokolow’s influence was wide. She spent much of the 1940s in Mexico, organizing its first modern dance company. In later years, she returned there to stage her works and create new ones drawing on the country’s art and politics. In 1988, she was awarded Mexico’s Aztec Eagle Honor, the highest civilian honor given to a foreigner.
Over the years, Sokolow befriended painters Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, as well as Siqueiros, a politically active and frequently jailed muralist. From these relationships sprang two of the works Singh will be presenting: “Frida” (1997) and Sokolow’s 1984 homage to Siqueiros’s support of the underclasses, “Homenaje a David Alfaro Siqueiros.”
Both works address complicated identities, Singh says. Sokolow depicts Kahlo as an equal to the celebrated and domineering Rivera. “She goes into the relationship with her eyes open knowing he was a womanizer. She wasn’t as pliable or impressionable as people make her out to be. . . . She was fierce.” The dance, accompanied by traditional Mexican music, begins with Kahlo as a young girl before the life-altering bus accident that left her in chronic pain; it traces her relationship with Rivera and ends with a sequence of her paintings, “like a synopsis of her life,” Singh says.
The Siqueiros piece, given its U.S. premiere in 2011 by Singh’s group, deals with the artist’s interaction with his community. Several of Siqueiros’s murals are projected as backdrops, and the dancers recite poems by Siqueiros and others in Spanish (they’re translated in the program notes). A year ago, Singh arranged to perform the piece this summer. He says that now, after Donald Trump’s election, it takes on a stronger meaning, “about resistance and the role of the arts in resisting the oppression.”
Mexican artists “were the first to talk about the hybrid identity happening there among the mixed race and indigenous people,” Singh says. “Others were trying to make the country’s identity binary, and the artists were talking about how complicated it was. Now with the rhetoric about a wall going up and a pure America, it’s timely.”
Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh will perform July 29 at 8 p.m. and July 30 at 7 p.m., at Dance Place, 3225 8th Street NE. Tickets are $30; $25 for Dance Place Members, seniors and artists; $15 for college students, and those ages 17 and younger. Advance sales admission (ends one week before performance weekend): $25; $20 for members, seniors and artists. Call 202-269-1600 or visit www.danceplace.org.
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