The American Dance Festival supports existing choreographers and dancers; it preserves dance history — and it is always on the lookout for new talent. Director Charles Reinhart found some last year when he saw Rosie Herrera at the Miami Light Project’s Here and Now Festival, where she was presenting the first version of her first major work, Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret. Reinhart invited her to ADF last year, to set the piece on student dancers in the Past/Forward program. This year, she has a program of her own. It includes a reprise of Drowning, and a new work commissioned by the ADF, which opens the evening.
The 27-year-old Miami artist (a Cuban-American native of Hialeah) makes work that really has no counterpart that I know about. Herrera is a trained dancer, and a trained classical singer, but she draws heavily on the melodramatic operatics of drag shows, Hispanic club dancing and cabaret shows, pop culture icons and symbols both Anglo and Hispanic, plus the conventions of hip hop and the mysterious logic of dreams. You will catch more of her references if you are fluent in both Spanish and English. If you are on the downhill side of, say, 30, some of them may water-ski right over your head. That is OK. Herrera isn’t stuck on pop culture for its own sake; she’s interested in people’s feelings. You will still have plenty to think about even if you don’t know a thing about voguing, piñatas or Prince, and you will have plenty to look at (thanks in part to David Ferri’s very fine lighting).
The work has action, oh yes, and it is certainly kinetic, but it is far from pure dance. In fact, the dances are the least developed aspect of her work. Herrera is an imagist, in a rather cinematic way. It is not the flow of motion that keeps your attention, or even the content of the connected skits, but the flow of images, which are frequently surreal and often glittering. She seems to have a native instinct for using coups de theatre — some would say overusing — to bludgeon the audience into a state of mind in which all the strangeness makes excellent nonverbal sense.
In Pity Party, the new work, for instance, the real action starts when incredibly slim, long-legged Luis Cuevas slinks down the steps from the top of the house, wearing skinny jeans, boots and a tuxedo shirt made like a halter top, taking the stage among the other dancers, all barefoot, like a prince among the plebeians — although they are all dressed to the nines as well, with plenty of glitter and surface glamour. Later Cuevas holds a miniature disco ball over a table where the others play out the action of Lesley Gore’s pre-teen angst song “It’s My Party (I’ll Cry if I Want To)” with Barbies and Kens that another dancer had snagged like a barracuda out of a bowl of water. Later a blindfolded woman beats a piñata to pieces. She reappears at the end, sitting alone, whistling in the dark. Around her, the rest of the cast assembles a surprise party, including an identical piñata hanging over her head. Off comes the blindfold, out goes the cake’s candle, down go the lights. Surprise! All of Herrera’s basic elements are contained in this controlled romp: sex, love, death, sex, water, sex, and revivification.
The same concerns drive The Various Stages of Drowning, which, in my opinion, remains the better piece. It’s a little tighter this year, with a smaller cast. Although I preferred a fuller stage, fewer bodies do allow the ideas more clarity. The scenes with the cakes — I don’t want to give it away, go see it! — are even weirder, funnier and more upsetting than before. To a far greater degree than some of the troupes seen earlier this season, Herrera can handle the disparate elements of her compositions, combining dance, song, theatrics and film into a cohesive artwork. She doesn’t have the control that will come with experience, but she has the freshness that experience will evaporate. See her now.
Program continues July 13 and 14 in Reynolds Theater. See our calendar for details.