Alissa Cardone
Hemispheric Institute
3rd Annual Encuentro Lima, Peru 2002
Seminar Course Project
Encountering Marianela Boan

 

Reaching over her head with the urgency of an addict Marianela Boan gestures like she's primping a temperamental hairdo, only she has no hair. Her head is shaved to a stark white military stubble. She teases the empty space, her terse jerking hands repeating a fitful fluffing action in a kind of grotesque mime, reassembling in hyperbole that simple characteristic movement played out by many women when trying to enhance their beauty with a quick and charming scrunch.

Marianela Boan's solo dance theatre work Blanche daringly begins upstage center, where she births herself from a coffin-like box, beckoning her character, who determinately resists, to rise from the dead in a desperate act of salvage. The stage is minimally set and somewhat austere - its bareness reminding me of the desolate atmospheres captured in photographs of abandoned mid-western desert towns. Boan seems to trade magic for matter, performing a tangible, precisely choreographed, skillfully executed, willful and even humorous investigation of Tennessee Williams aging Southern Belle, Boan provides a testimony to survival in Castro's Cuba.

Disoriented by language (my Spanish is not very good), the virtuosity of Boan's work for me stood out in her use of motions of the body, more specifically of her limbs - to execute gestures ripe with meaning. I felt Blanche in the flick of a wrist, in Boan's writhing fisted arm, a turned in knee, a click of worn out white healed boots. The hyperbolic, dynamically charged gestures called attention to the everyday/the familiar but with a magnified intensity that forced me to feel the significance, either the absurdity or the tragedy embedded in each action. Boan makes reading body language a necessary part of the spectatorship. Blanche the undead - gesturing to hair, a symbol of femininity, of luxurious beauty - when she has no hair - makes me question where has the richness gone? What has taken beauty away? Since meaning is obscured in the language, for me a spray of words, the movement opens my imagination and the gestures become my consonants and vowels, my route to understanding. Gestures like the one when she reaches up to tease hair that doesn't exist, drives the atmosphere of loss, and a kind of poverty that pervades the work - but at the same time - it's also funny.

Boan's sense of humor reveals a vision that has not sucumb to the inertia of nostalgia, nor the didacticism of spouting politics or trying to present answers to a perpetually bad situation. Her humor is an example of her wit as we laugh a somewhat uncomfortable laugh. Unlike in rich pop-culture America, Cuban artists function in veritable isolation within a parched and uncertain economy. Boan herself has addressed this uncertainty as the worst part of life in Cuba, "we could starve to death - anything is possible." But even though the Cuban economies isolation has meant (as in the early 90's) severe economic breakdown, poverty and hardship, for Boan she has used isolation as an opportunity, in a characteristic determined manner, "isolation as an opportunity to develop creativity and self-confidence" (Ballet International, 1995).

Under Castro, an entire people live in squalor with little means to find prosperity -materially or artistically. In that sense, Blanche seems to exist as a kind of warning, an example of the fate of any human being against the stern, violent likes of a Stanley Kowalski; simply replace Stanley Kowalski with Stalin, Milosevic, Hitler or Castro. Is dissipation and disillusionment a fate for us all under any brand of dictatorship? And if this is a message of Boan's work, how does she get away with saying this while living in a dictatorship?

"I've learnt to say everything - without calling it by name." Says Boan in a 1995 interview with Ballet International. The irony is of course that she has the respect and support of her government. It leads me to see the language of the body and dance theatre work in Cuba as a kind of potential secret weapon, a powerful metaphor, able to describe everyday existence in Cuba in a way that says everything and nothing, protecting itself by the very nature that dance as a medium has always been widely open to interpretation.

Art has always been a kind of antidote to people's struggles to make sense of worlds that have gone mad. Whether the struggle of man against power, man against machine, man against his changing self - artists create to try and re-create a vision of a better world, or re-create worlds to magnify and raise consciousness, consciousness about things that should be changed. Modern dance itself came from spirited rebelliousness, revolt against accepted forms, a fight against tradition that demanded the dance world make room for different bodies, bodies with sharp intellect at that. Modern dance was not about acquiescing. It was about experimentation. In thinking about this I want to spend some paragraphs on Marianela Boan's use of the word "contaminated" to describe her dance. Contaminated is a provocative adjective. Why contaminated? And where does she fit in to the post modern dance world?

In the American post-modern dance scene today the trend is towards positive qualifiers - Pure Movement, New Dance, Authentic Movement, Body/Mind Centering, Dance Alchemy - descriptions in search of authenticity, purity, originality, uniqueness. But contaminated, defined as: to soil, stain, corrupt, or infect by contact or association, implies a soiling, a dirtying - a non-pleasant intrusion of something from outside. Although Boan relates contaminated mundanely to her open use of different movement techniques in creating work, I think there is much more to the choice. It's not just an interesting, unique phrase, but an ironic notion of dance as inherently impure, a testament to the impossibility of authenticity, a self-conscious acknowledgment of the impossibility of purity in the face of globalization. In this respect, Marianela Boan stands refreshingly sober even if very alone from the perspective of the dance world.

I want to be an idealist. When I first began this dance critique I wanted to start with some idealistic statement about how despite cultural or social differences movement is universal and uniting. I wanted to give a feel good assessment of how seeing this Cuban dancer, in Peru, on my first trip to South America, I, as an American born dancer and writer, am somehow closer to Boan or a Cuban experience through the work. In seeing Blanche and in meeting Marianela, a proud, grounded woman, a gifted mover and generous teacher, I not only had to kill my idealism in exchange for a very welcome and sobering reality, but I had to realize its still okay to laugh a little.

Marianela Boan's Blanche becomes a life affirming work while at the same time demanding an excavation of the complexity of the situation in Cuba - both socially, economically and artistically. If time and place are vital factors in the making of art work - what are the dangers in reading the work outside of its birth-zone? What is my work as an audience member to engage with it in a productive way, without objectifying it? How do I not give in to the natural feelings of alienation, especially when I cannot understand the language, and am presented with certain symbolic objects/images that I do not understand?
One answer is to put as much work into my watching as Boan puts into her performing.

With her back to us and under a red light she alternated a breezy sway with sharp taunting poses - a raised shoulder, a seductively elongated finger - obsessively shifting a white handbag from shoulder to hand - holding it far away and then close to her body, as if it were some damned accouterment, an inescapable reminder of a once flawless femininity. The handbag, like the flag, and like the coffin-like box she births herself out of at the beginning of the performance, transform, becoming symbols, friends or enemies with weights and measures. With the music of the blues blending with the movement of her hips Marianela Boan captured for us the feeling of something distant, lost. We never saw her face in this section, we saw only half, the backside, of a once whole woman, clicking her white heels together like Dorothy as if by doing so, she could go home. Home for Blanche, back to her eternal literary bed, and home for Marianela Boan, back to Cuba, where her survival as an artist is a testament to the actualized creative desires of human spirit.