Merián Soto’s: Dancing For The Dead

TMM3 Bill Hebert lowres
photo by Bill Hebert

by Gregory King, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance at Swarthmore College for the Dance Journal

Widely celebrated throughout Mexico and acknowledged around the world by other cultures, November 1st is a day of honoring deceased loved ones known as Dia de los Muertos (Day of The Dead).

In 1989, recent Pew Fellow Merián Soto, created Todo Mis Muertos (All My Dead), for her grandmother Mamita, Maria Eulogia Pagan. After the passing of her dad, Soto felt compelled to restage the work, presenting it in venues such as Judson Church in New York and the ICA in London. Last year, Soto lost her mother, so it only seemed fitting that this year’s iteration was a ritual of dancing memories with a generous offering of love.

At the Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia, Soto appeared blindfolded, wearing a marigold-kissed dress and headwear adorned with flowers.

Carrying a skeleton (La Calaca Flaca) on her back and a wooden chair on her left shoulder, she allowed the crowd to guide her in this game of trust.

Barefooted and blindfolded, she was ushered along—a mussel on the riverbed being swept forward by seaweed.

Some of the audience was familiar: they meandered around knowing exactly what to do – gently leading her, then following her.

Others were less sure.

The dance was in the touching – identifying leader and follower.
The dance was in the reacting – attempting to make contact, if just to feel secure.
The dance was in the unknown – a process of investigation; improvisation at work.

Quietly, she approached the altar at the end of the procession, placing the chair on the floor. Still blindfolded, she knelt.

She swayed a knotted bag of dirt before releasing its content, using the soil to wash her skin. She squatted with her hands on her knees, a metaphoric representation of a sacred Mother Goddess: a grand plié with meaning – feet connected to the earth and pelvis low to the ground. She trembled her fingers, resuscitating all the trinkets that were pinned to her marigold dress.

She removed her bony accomplice from her back before engaging in a melancholy waltz.

Arms around necks, arms around waists, dancing with the dead – the dance of the dead.

She placed the skeleton on the floor and with her back to the audience, she undressed…. freeing herself from that which limited her.

In the soil, next to the bones, she laid herself bare.

Now a part of the altar, she became a candle waiting to be lit. Her journey led her to this place of stillness. Minutes passed. Finally, she wrapped a sheet of fabric around her naked breast. She disappeared into the audience, but not before receiving one last embrace from someone moved by her offering.

Her body was a medium for communication. Soto transported the viewer using her physicality—even in stillness. A traveling performance altar, she shared Todo Mis Muertos, which had very little to do with death but much to do with a spiritual acceptance of life’s journey.

About Gregory King

Gregory King received his MFA in Choreographic Practice and Theory from Southern Methodist University. In addition, he is certified in Elementary Labanotation. His dance training began in Washington DC at the Washington Ballet and later at American University. He went on to participate in the Horton Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress. His training continued at the prestigious institutions such as The Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Alvin Ailey School. Gregory has performed with The Washington Ballet, Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, New York Theatre Ballet, Donald Byrd /The Group, The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, New York City Opera, and Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.

His desire to integrate social activism into his choreography began with his graduate thesis, where he used the platform to push the conversation about homophobia and heterosexism. He is a lover of movement exploration and describes his aesthetic as a classical base with a theatrical flair.

He has taught at Boston Ballet, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Texas Ballet Theatre. Additionally, he has served as a teaching artist in public schools in and around Dallas, as Resident Guest artist at Temple University and Assistant Professor of Dance at Dean College. Recently, Gregory received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the National Society of Leadership and Success. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Dance and Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellow at Swarthmore College where he teaches Modern and continues to use his choreography as a means for social change.

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