Shadows Against a Sunset

pataSola dance’s Rift By Olivia C. Davies
  • Photo courtesy of pataSola Dance
  • Photo courtesy of pataSola dance
  • Photo courtesy of pataSola Dance

March 23, 2018, Vancouver International Dance Festival

Responding to the ongoing worldwide struggle of violence against women and girls, pataSola dance has created a theatrical performance work that pays homage to victims and survivors, while offering a transformative experience of surrender and sanctity. This work, Rift, is the newest full-length work by dance collaborators Salome Nieto and Eduardo Meneses-Olivar.

As a company, pataSola is known for creating works that intersect the line between material and spiritual worlds, and Rift is no exception. The work includes powerful visuals both onscreen and through costuming, which combine to provoke an intense response, particularly within choreographer-performer Nieto’s captivating performance. We are immediately drawn into the world she has created with her expressive face, hands and curvy frame. Throughout the performance, the range of her theatricality is expressed, and we see her shape-shift – transforming herself and her world.

Using a multi-layered approach to tackle femicide, pataSola wove elements of flamenco, butoh and dance-theatre to approach the difficult topic. Nieto is an enigmatic force onstage, and through her performance the way I perceive the plight of women in our world was altered. Her eyes implored us to join her on her journey as she shaped her body in a series of gestures that suggest lamentation, unbridled joy and nurturing motherhood. These images were then transmitted through her body with a sculptural intensity that was matched by the soundscape produced by fellow collaborator, Meneses-Olivar. Additional layers of shifting landscapes were generated by sequences of projected moving images on the screen upstage, which lent to the performance by filling the space and activating the imagination.

Rift was performed in Vancouver’s KW Production Studio as part of the 2018 edition of the Vancouver International Dance Festival. The three-sided audience arrangement surrounded a performance space covered in white drafting paper with childlike drawings and markings. These included a drawing of an authority figure holding a sign that read “Big Stop Ahead”; another showed a horse galloping; and yet another was a bright red stick figure girl, seated cross-legged with an angry expression. Two eyes drawn directly in the centre of this canvas look directly out at the audience from their disembodied stare – an ominous image that keeps me transfixed and attentive.

As the lights dim to mark the beginning of the performance, we hear the echo of heeled steps hitting the floor as Nieto walks behind the audience to enter the performance space from stage left. She takes a stand at the centre of the canvas, and a red-light gobo spills down upon her glowing white figure. She is dressed in a simple white dress, with white make-up covering the parts of her body exposed by the dress. Her dark, wild hair is a striking contrast to the serenity evoked by her otherwise luminous presence.

She strikes a strong flamenco position: arms shaped and body curving to embrace the audience. Her eyes look deeply into us – the spectator-witnesses – and she begins a slow revolve that shows her moving her arms to embrace a newborn child. Then, turning her back to the audience, she revolves again to return with fury in her eyes and a body contorted in pain. Moving through these slow revolutions, she continues to transform, embodying ecstasy, beauty, strength and their opposites.

At one point, Nieto’s character speaks directly to the audience. She tells the story of a young girl who was raped and murdered and left for dead. “Boys playing at being men,” are the ones accused of the crime. She tells us how the name “Maria” is given to the unidentified bodies of women and girls in the morgues. Silence follows this eulogy. She then lets out the powerful canto hondo (deep song) in requiem. With this sound reverberating through the space, Nieto begins to thrash and shred the canvas under her feet. This violent act of shredding the ground has a way of closing the stories she recounted. It is a sequence that gives a sense of clearing the path for a new way forward. The audience is left in darkness to ponder the story and allow it to settle in our psyches.

This speech act has the effect of breaking down the invisible barrier between Nieto and us, and in sharing these threads of story, she also reveals the impetus behind the making of the work. This moment of revelation comes right before a significant shift in tone and texture. Nieto’s character tears apart the paper canvas beneath her feet. I find myself caught up in the rapture of what has just been said, the emotions I am left to feel in reaction to the words, and the resulting action of this violent deconstruction. The catharsis was real.

In the next scene, I was especially fascinated by the emergence of a creature – part animal, part human. The being wears a stylized mask depicting an expressionless woman’s face, paired with a stylized flamenco skirt. The skirt has a deep red inside layer with a white and black patterned outer layer. This creature, played again by Nieto, invokes a passionate performance that held me captive to every gesture, flinch and flutter. The skirt took on its own life as Nieto moved into it, her body completely disappearing under the ruffles and layers until the supernatural creature emerged.

Moving across the destroyed canvas, this creature is fierce and powerful, taking space and clearing the path for her dance. In one recurring shape, the woman-creature is seated in a squat with the long red train of her skirt flowing out from under her in an attitude of simultaneous vulnerability and defiance. Powerful cinematic imagery flowed, and we are given a taste of the supernatural capacity of performance made possible in mask dance forms.

In the final scene, Nieto re-enters in the original white dress costume, accompanied by the sound and image of rain falling against glass. Her character, now an old woman, opens a simple white lace fan. The light-filled figure creates a starkly contrasting dark shadow against the projections behind her. Against a backdrop of an image of the sun rising, she tells us the story of how white butterflies are considered mythical beings who can move between the world of the living and the dead, carrying the souls of dead children on to their final resting place. With this enigmatic image, we are reminded of the renewal possible with each new day. The dignified grace of the motionless old woman evokes the subtle strength and power of the performer herself while paying respect to the victims and survivors of violence against women.

I left the performance transformed and inspired to learn more about this dark subject. I am grateful to pataSola dance for providing additional resources to the subject of femicide in the program notes. Nieto’s enchanting performance will remain etched in my memory.


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