Lydia Platón Lázaro reviews Puerto Rican dancer/choreographer Merián Soto and her performance “El mundo nunca será el mismo” [The World Will Never be the Same]. Here are excerpts; read full article at Thinking Dance.
A tree branch, like the proverbial offering of peace, is a limb: an extension of what is deeply rooted in the earth. Since 2005, Merián Soto, a Philadelphia-based veteran performer, choreographer, and faculty member at Temple University, has been practicing branch dances, a modality of movement. These movement events are a form of connection with nature and presence, an experience of deep roots for both movers and the audience that invites spectators to bear witness as dancers and branches move meditatively. It may be experienced as an offering to nature and an invitation to be nature. This powerful convivium has been described as being able to “transform landscape in performance.” [. . .]
Here in Puerto Rico, where I’m writing this review of Soto’s work, the pandemic comes after a suite of events that have literally uprooted our branches, especially in the last four years. This particular performance of the branch dance extends its condolences to our current state of exhaustion, while making an offering to a post-Hurricane Maria (2017) fragility, a post-earthquake (2019) recovery, and a still-crippling economic debt and financial crisis on the island. The world will never be the same, indeed; the piece is aptly titled El mundo nunca será el mismo (The World Will Never be the Same). Puerto Rico is the island of Soto’s birth and a big part of her corpus has revolved around ideas of diaspora, popular culture, and Latinx identity, all while exploring the forms of contemporary dance, improvisation and transformation. For me, viewing Soto in a branch dance performance in 2021, one of the first times that we could gather in small groups to see live performances, the performance spoke to the circularity of return: on one hand, of Soto herself, offering this practice in Puerto Rico, and on the other, returning to collective kinship in public spaces.
Soto’s piece was commissioned as part of the exhibit Anarchy, Dialectic, and Desire, Gender and Marginalization in Puerto Rico in the Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Raquel Torres Arzola and presented on February 27, a month before the anniversary of the lockdowns. The exhibit places Soto’s work in dialogue with a series of other performances which centered on the body, including dance performances by Awilda Rodríguez Lora and Karen Langevin. These local artists share with Soto the circularity of return from the United States in different moments of their personal histories, and also propose novel ways of looking at dance practice. Rodríguez Lora, for instance, works with upending female stereotypes in La Mujer Maravilla (Wonder Woman) while advocating for a reflection on ethical sustenance as an artist. A seasoned dancer, Langevin is an improvisational movement artist who is exploring the relationship between nature and culture in her new series titled Mamífera. When seen together as part of a curatorial project based on gender, we see how dance practice is challenging the historical moment through three different generations.
In this iteration of Soto’s branch dance, the “natural” landscape evoked is in the imagination of the spectator as we are transported by Soto’s movements, sounds, her own breath and voice, projections on video screens, and the powerful presence of the branches in the interior patio of the museum, a modern brick building that used to be a school in the middle of urban San Juan. Not only is Soto re-signifying the contemporary art institution as a “natural” space, but she is also partly playing a “medicine” woman, whose long branch arms embrace our sorrow. The use of the video screens creates a repetition of images in different time frames that powerfully construct an ancestral archive of blowing winds, island landscape, and the terrifying beauty of nature, the sublime. Within the meditative trance conjured by the dance, the context for the “nature” pictured in the video tends to blur. It is difficult to distinguish between images of the tropical and what I assume to be the mainland U.S. forests where the artist has been practicing these dances for years.
The dance transforms, allowing for the imagination to soar into the Atlantic map of the circularity of migration that defines the island, in the circular migration of our history. The performance also physically represents liberation from confinement for Puerto Rican viewers, as part of the few live performances we have been able to witness due to COVID 19 restrictions. Franz Fanon’s description of the dance circle comes to mind. [. . .]