Like Life and Love. A review of Rosie Herrera’s “Carne Viva.”

Rosie Herrera’s Carne Viva at Miami Light Project last Thursday started with a deceptively static pose: dancer Simon Thomas-Train holding Ivonne Batanero overhead. But this is not a traditionally triumphant dance lift. His arms extend straight up, his hands gripping her armpits, while her arms reach directly out to the side, so that she becomes his cross to bear. Mazzy Star’s ethereal, pitiless Fade Into You drones around them. She looks down at his uplifted face, and in the absence of action, their expressions seem to pulse with possible meaning – tenderness, hurt, longing, questioning.

His arms start to tremble with strain, until they can take no more, and he drops her. Batanero clings to him, wrapping herself around his body. Thomas-Train lifts her overhead again. And again. And again. Each time his physical struggle grows more intense; his back muscles twitch, his spine and shoulders buckle, sweat pours down his reddening face. When he inevitably drops her, he collapses to his knees, wrapping his arms desperately around her thighs. Watching them is simultaneously mesmerizing and unbearable. Is he pleading for her to forgive him because he can’t support her anymore? Begging her to hold him up? Why does he persist in such an impossible, painful task? Why does she passively, implacably allow him to keep lifting her?

Carne Viva, which was the first Miami performance by the Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre in some half dozen years, took place at Miami Light‘s space The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse in Wynwood and showed us how much the Miami-bred choreographer’s work has changed. Gone almost entirely were the plethora of gleefully ironic pop culture references; the absurdist, unnerving moments; the vividly theatrical costumes; the stream of surreal, visually lush imagery. Instead, Herrera has pared down to a spare, brutally honest physicality that vibrates with ideas, emotions, and questions, both simpler and more complex. Carne Viva, which only lasts 30-40 minutes, is the first part of a trilogy in which Herrera plunges into questions about the intersections of Catholicism, love, relationships, power, sacrifice, and faith – in self, art, love, others, the world. It’s heady, intense stuff that arises entirely from what happens onstage. Carne Viva, as its name hints, is raw and alive.

Members of Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre in “Carne Viva.”

The second scene echoes older Herrera terrain, as Batanero, Loren Davidson, and Herrera (in her one brief appearance) tenderly wipe down the collapsed Thomas-Train with slices of sandwich bread, baloney and orange cheese. Which they then make into sandwiches and eat. His Christ-like body is their (packaged) bread, and the set-up’s deadpan silliness is the work’s only light moment. Perhaps it’s Herrera’s joke to and on herself for tackling such serious stuff.

Because the last two segments are as relentless as the first. Both are duets where physical interaction becomes a literal and emotional metaphor for struggle, dominance, attraction and repulsion. Thomas-Train and Batanero grapple to a section of Olivier Messiaen’s piercingly sad Quartet for the End of Time. She holds his body – again, Christ-like – across her thighs. She ascends him again, this time to stand on his shoulders, then walks down the front of his body as he bends backwards – an astonishing, precarious moment of exaltation and subjugation.

Subsequently, Batanero and Davidson alternately embrace and push each other away, grabbing, pulling, wrestling with longing and for dominance in patterns that repeat with increasing speed and violence. They can’t stay away, can’t stop hurting each other. They’re accompanied by Rocio Jurado’s achingly over-the-top bolero Como Yo Te Amo (How I Love You) – as in the other segments, the music deepens the emotional tone, with a sarcastic edge, as if to say ‘how ridiculously too much it is that we need each other so much.’

Like the rest of Carne Viva, the music works on multiple levels, in ways that can seem contradictory. The piece leaves you exhilarated, drained, inspired, saddened, thoughtful. The way you hope art will. Miami Light Project has said it will present Herrera’s troupe next season. Let’s hope so.

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