Exotic Birds of Paradise: Dzul Dance’s Maya 2012: a new beginning

Baruch Performing Arts Center, January 26-29, 2012

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux


Javier Dzul of Dzul Dance. Photo by Deena-Mariam Feinberg, © 2012.

THE WORLD’S MOST ORNALICIOUS BIRD is undoubtedly the Resplendent Quetzal, the now habitat-threatened, cloud forest dwelling wonder with a sacred history in Mayan mythology. The quetzal, being the namesake of the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl, or “feathered serpent,” carries spectacular plumage, chiefly an arterial blood-red breast and iridescent green tail feathers trailing up to two or more feet behind. Birdwatchers in Costa Rica exult in them.

Dzul Dance, of Mesoamerican heritage (multi-talented founder Javier Dzul was born and performed Mayan ritual dance in southern Mexico as a youth), is undoubtedly one of New York’s most exotic companies. Launching the new year, Dzul performed the newest entry in its repertory, Maya 2012: a new beginning, based on Mayan culture, at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Maya’s title alludes to the beginning of a new cycle (or an apocalyptic ending in certain popcult circles) as calculated by the Mayan calendar; individual segments evoked Mayan themes. Whatever the outcome on December 21, 2012 (be sure to mark your calendar), watching Dzul perform is an intense, mystical experience.

Maya was presented by Dzul’s ensemble company – dancers Chellamar Bernard, Courtney Jackson, Nicole Lichau, Orlando Martinez and Matthew Sparks; dancer/aerialists Javier Dzul, Robin Taylor Dzul, Kyla Ernst Alper, Ji-Hyeun Bang and Cornelius Brown; aerialist Desiree Sanchez; and guest contortionists Anna Venizelos and Jonathan Nosan.

The program, which had premiered in 2011 at the Mazatlan Cultural Festival, was highly symbolic and non-narrative, opening with “Ritual,” an extended performance by Javier Dzul on a pair of aerial silks evoking the jungle lianas of Dzul’s youth. While it’s probably a misnomer to call such breathtaking, upper body strength demonstrating aerial acrobatics “dance,” it’s a focused pleasure to watch. (The same might be said of Elizabeth Streb’s recent “Kiss the Air!” extravaganza at the Park Avenue Armory, which was certainly not dance per se.) Later, Robin Taylor Dzul, and the triad of Alper, Bang and Sanchez would perform aerial silk routines; and the performance concluded with Javier Dzul astride the ribbon/rope, reprised.

Watching Dzul perform is an intense, mystical experience.

For those unfamiliar with Mayan cosmology and traditional dance (presumably most everyone), the company’s dancing appeared arcane – a hybrid of modern dance and acrobatics, with no clear sense of Mesoamerican method. To mitigate this, each piece was introduced with explanatory voice-over narration by Stephany Dzul. This element was less successful than it might’ve been because Dzul’s voice was disembodied (better in live performance to feature a live narrator) and didactic (better to be poetic unless the description is so). Mayan or not, the Mesoamerican poet Nezahualcoyotl could’ve been conjured for, at least, “Chilam Balam (voice of the jaguar).” The names of the individual segments themselves, including “Xibalba (the underworld),” “Kan (snake)” and ”Wayab/Nahual (the one who transforms),” did provide allusive clues as to the dancers’ general actions, as did the complex, variegated costumes, headgear and make-up. These included feathers trailing from the dancers’ arms and legs, a snake-print leotard and glittering half-masks.

The segments themselves were mesmerizing: for example, “Forest of Kings,” in which the company’s dancers transformed into stone gods and birds of tropical paradise; eventually an emerald earth entwined with a mysterious sky. In “Itz Wayob (power of the witch),” the company’s dancers formed three male-female pairs, conveying the dualistic power of a “shape shifter” (witch) to create chaos or harmony. In “Curse,” Javier Dzul and Kyla Ernst Alper danced under Mike Inwood’s natural lighting, Dzul curled up like a netsuke, then acting the magician to conjure Alper’s clay to life, and she transforming further to a hummingbird or fairy flower. In “Xibalba,” Dzul commenced as aerialist, then with five female dancers who formed a snakelike line, and who then proceeded to dance with five males, imitating warriors, ocelots, jaguars, frogs, bats or spirits, perhaps. In “Ka’ an che’ (liquid from heaven),” Robin Taylor Dzul performed in stark-contrasting white, shedding vivid red petals from a three-rung suspended line.

In “Harmony,” a unique interlude, Anna Venizelos and Jonathan Nosan performed a contortionist duet, their bodies achieving backbone flexed positions unimaginable even when observed, suggesting petroglyphic human dolls.

Maya closed with “Wayob/Nahual (the one who transforms),” creating a linear tableau with Javier and Robin on the central aerial silk, and the company forming a descending slope.

Dzul’s Maya, while impressive and magical, would’ve been even better with a few refinements. The music, generally effective, was sometimes overdramatically ominous and murky. The costumes lost in simplicity – especially in color, what they gained in ornacy and mottle. And, although the company is relatively small, there were times at which there was too much going on to follow, a hazard, it seems, of modern choreography. Another challenge faced by Dzul relates to the acrobatic and ritualized elements of the program: watching the performance sometimes felt like watching a tree sloth methodically clambering in a rainforest. It may not be possible to modulate pacing when refined, precision movements are required. Perhaps the modern mind is too restive to accommodate such subtle slo-mo sophistication.

A larger issue, reflected in many current performances – in music, literature and dance, is that less is often more, and that, despite everyone’s earnest desire to be seen, withholding supply is a better strategy, and that an intimate environment demands more direct audience connection. Dzul might be better served by taking its approach to an extreme – either Big Tent à la Streb and the synchronized Ballet Folklórico de México (for which Javier Dzul was a principal dancer), or a more focused, solo/duo plus aerial “chorus” model à la the Ballroom and Latin Dance domain in which Robin Taylor Dzul has competed. For the former, Dzul will need to write “Big”; for the latter, he just needs to be himself and fly, with his colorful, talented company, into our common, cosmogonic dreams.

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