Mariana Valencia’s dance rhapsodies & polemics on AIR

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | Photo by Maria Baranova

New York-based choreographer Mariana Valencia brought her 2020 solo show AIR  to the Philly Fringe September 17-18 at the Drake Theater’s Proscenium Stage in Center City. For more than an hour, Valencia narrated her personal stories about growing up in Chicago’s Hispanic-American community in the 80s.

Mariana Valencia started her dance career on a local Chicago TV show at age of three. As a child, she had been captivated by watching Chicago’s Telemundo broadcasts. She later trained in Graham and Horton technique, receiving her BA from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA in 2006. She has since become a notable New York-based choreographer, whose dance segments are laced with social commentary and depictions of cultural icons.

Her accolades include the 2018  Bessie Award recipient for Outstanding Breakout Choreographer and commissions by Baryshnikov Arts Center, Her stage experimentation deconstructs the expectations of concert dance, and with AIR, she does so in real-time, with calculated risks.

The audience filed into the theater to find Valencia already on the Drake stage prepping for AIR. She’s changing into her first costume and chats with a stage assistant, then engages the members of the audience, debriefing them about the show. She checks to see if everyone in the audience has a copy of a big single-page program listing a dozen scenarios, with background on the characters and narrative themes in the show.

And asks, “Does everyone have their paperwork?” She then instructs the audience to say Buenos Noches back to her whenever she says it, adding a sharp aside to those who don’t follow this rule, she deadpans, they should  “Take your paperwork and go.” As Valencia told the New York Times when the show premiered BC (“before Covid”), she always “reads the temperature in the room” to inform the performance, so there is a sense of immediacy. Within her warm and ironic style, there is both precision and a unique physicality that captivates. On AIR can frustrate in that Valencia doesn’t offer a balance by including more pure dance segments.

AIR is a dance-theater polemic honoring her heritage and US Mestiza and Latinx artists. It is also a show that confronts the entrenched American failures of cultural bigotry and views of “the other.” Her experience in Chicago schools in her own neighborhood consisted of the kids being taught by white teachers in a system that didn’t think it was worth educating immigrant kids because they could only get jobs “as maids and janitors.”

In the most dramatic of vignettes in the show, Valencia is locked in a deep kneeling position with a single spotlight on her. In voiceover, she describes how at the age of five she helped her grandmother clean the bathrooms and bedrooms of a rich white family.

She talks about how as a child she was transfixed with existential pathos by the characters on the hit comedy, Mexican TV show ‘El Chavo del 8’, including the story of a man who lived in a barrel.  

In one scene titled ‘La Figura- Solo B,’ Valencia balances spoken word and dance in a tableau based on ancient pre-Columbian jade figures, which have new relevance in an Instagram archive. The articulation of Solo B, she explains, is a Spanglish term “meaning Just Be,’  as she radiantly embodies the poses of the jade figures.

In another captivating scene, Valencia mimics the photo portraits from an agitprop mural of disaffected adolescents in her community. Set to a smoldering dance club track, Valencia does a series of elliptical poses, holding them until they burn the floor, not speaking this time, but her postures and expression speaking volumes.

She affectionately recalls appearing on ‘El Club del Nino’ in Chicago hosted by a friend of her grandmother’s  Maritza Chiraboga, a gay man who died of AIDS in the eighties.  She hilariously channels the astrological guru Walter Mercado, a popular botoxed broadcast astrologer in a shimmering gold cape, who made predictions in January 2020, BC, including a vision of children being held in cages at the border. She also portrays Edna Schmitt, a Telemundo broadcast journalist who reports stories about milk consumption among Mexican teens rising and other urgent social issues in the community.

In the final scene, on the back wall of the theater, there is projected a film of 3-year-old Marianna performing on TV. She is holding a corded microphone as she sings, dances, and tries to keep on beat with little success, but doesn’t give up. The audience in the studio is completely enchanted.  

After the clip, Valencia playing Edna recalls what that was like. Drawing to a close, she signs off by reminding the audience “to stay safe, get vaxed, wear a mask, and make eye contact with everyone they meet.”  And, it goes without saying, don’t forget your paperwork.

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