American Realness, Abrons Arts Center Underground Theatre
Mariana Valencia spends the majority of ALBUM staring directly at the audience. Her near affectless gaze conjures a tone of observational objectivity which deftly frames the central questions of her personal dance-music-text ethnography: who writes history, and thus decides who makes it into the records, and who is erased? What qualities make a work of art worthy of, say, a Nobel prize, and how do those standards define cultural paradigms of genius? ALBUM proposes an alternative to the norm in the form of Valencia’s own life, driven in part by her Latinx and queer identities. ALBUM asks what might happen if the marginalized rewrote the standards in their own image.
While Valencia’s life is the content here, ALBUM is not your typical autobiographical solo show. Valencia, for whom ethnography is a central aspect of choreographic practice, instead presents curated fragments of her herstory with the cool and clear distance of a researcher. These fragments range from the mundane–“This is what I look like when I fluff a pillow”—to foundational emotional touchstones from her life, including a brilliant, fake-French re-performance of an Edith Piaf song she sang for her father as a child. These and other objects, choreographies, songs, and stories are presented and repeated in gradually interweaving loops, gathering meaning like roving tumbleweeds.
The radical politics of Valencia’s references and objects also emerge as her restrained glare bores into us for longer and longer. She conjures a friend lost to AIDS in the 1990s and breaks down the structure of the chosen family of immigrants she grew up with as cousins in Chicago. It’s a lifetime of information, and rather than rail against its absence from the canon, Valencia puts it onstage and demands that we see it. She initiates a new contemporary herstorical practice which moves in and out of abstraction, objects, sound, and the body. She exits in a playful flurry of dance, the only moment of true spectacle. We watch as her autobiographical fragments accumulate into a whole greater than its parts. It’s a life, a body, it’s Mariana.
Photo: Alex Escalante