September 12, 2015
In early September, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory curated a night of experimental dance at the Center for Performance Research (CPR) called Not Not Back-To-School. Part of the evening featured seasoned choreographer and performer Mariana Valencia and her newest work, So Far So Much, a self-described “ethnographic experiment.” As part of a Travel and Study grant from the Jerome Foundation, Valencia spent this past summer in Mexico City immersed in the cumbia sonidera subcultural street-dancing tradition.
Part dance, part reading, part performative lecture, So Far So Much begins with Valencia standing behind a makeshift podium. Despite her small stature, she appears authoritative. Her “costume” is merely a long, button-down shirt. She casually mentions that she bought the shirt at a thrift store in preparation for her summer trip to Mexico. Her wearing of it while mentioning it already punctuates the performance with a kind of literal and in-the-moment meaning. When the thing is the thing it proposes to be, it anchors the performance, makes it real and alive inside of its own immediate materiality. The small CPR stage is also littered with various objects, carefully arranged in a kind of semi-circle in front of the podium. Valencia animates the objects by moving into, gesturing near, and interacting with them. She simultaneously reads excerpts from journals and correspondence that she wrote while she was abroad. While she reads, she situates herself near the objects, incorporating them into sophisticated choreographed relationships. She emphasizes the text by narrating the stories through her body, conjuring images from the streets of Mexico City with her limbs, her face, and her quickly moving feet. Through this process, the objects begin to elicit an overwhelming sense of multitude, creating a pseudo cast of characters despite the fact that it is Valencia, alone, who inhabits this stage.
Officially, from behind the podium, Valencia reads aloud the performance’s “table of contents,” an explicit declaration of the themes and organizing principles that she will address throughout the piece. We are being primed to go on this journey with her, to enter the world that she both witnessed and internalized over the summer. So Far So Much is a translation. A transmission.
The piece achieves a total, coherent world created through text, narrative, movement, music, and objects. And Valencia is the glue that holds it all together as she brings her very personal research alive. She describes the smells of thousands of bodies mashed together in the streets of Mexico: sweat, paint thinner, marijuana, and fried foods. Moment by moment, she introduces us to an imaginary ensemble of Mexican drag queens, inmates, businessmen, mothers, and punk teenagers, all alongside her in this emerging constellation of chaos and meaning. Through her Latina experience and identity and through her body and its multiple imaginings, Valencia is able to bring an entire cumbia sonidera community onto a small stage in New York City, where we all participate in the magic and potency of a popular street dance. In this, the piece’s tone vacillates from funny and campy to contemplative and melancholic, mimicking the myriad aspects of the Mexican dance scene.
She is crouching on the floor, soaked in a bright pink light, when a Mexican dance mix begins to play loudly. Valencia makes a bullhorn out of thick paper and replicates the tradition of offering public “shout-outs” that she witnessed at the cumbia sonidera. With the bullhorn at her mouth, she begins to dance around with gestural nods to multiple forms including ballet, modern, voguing, and a smattering of salsa. So Far So Much is thus a cultural mash-up: it hangs in space as both a reinterpreted scene from Mexico City and as a tour of Valencia’s own quest for cultural and artistic meaning. As such, she describes her time in Mexico by using her own American identity as a lens for making sense of arising cross-cultural phenomena. She is constantly comparing what she sees in the sonidera to what she already knows of America, such as a moment in which she calls a man on the street “that Ricky Ricardo type.” The distance between the respective contexts feels both humorous and humbling. For Valencia, this trip draws a historical lineage in the sonidera tradition—a Mexican lineage, a queer lineage, and a dance lineage. This is evident when she screams her own “shout-outs” to the people in this audience who made this specific “solo” performance possible. She thanks all of us, a generous invitation into the space of cultural exchange, of participation and potentiality.
So Far So Much makes us believe in what dance can be. It is both irreverent and brave, asking us to push up against our own boundaries and expectations. We laugh. And we examine our own loneliness caused by our habitual investments in individualism. Valencia has pulled us out from our isolated ways of knowing and is asking us to observe the power of collective engagement. So Far So Much is a rich ethnography, but not in a predictable, National Geographic kind of way. We are not encouraged to fixate on the “Other,” but rather, we become consciously aware of our own performances of Self, and of our Americanized performances of (un)sociality. What binds us together in community? What do we all show up for? What moves us, emotionally, physically, and spiritually? The answers feel far away and fuzzy, and resemble Shopping and Television and War.
In the program, Valencia writes that the aim of So Far So Much is to “create a new type of performance where populous performance practices draw people together in an unforgettable experience.” And so it unfolds, as she demonstrates the ways in which her experience afar has brought her here, so close, so complete. And we, by proxy, are both grateful and transformed.