Tania Perez-Salas’s Macho Man XXI is relentless: an hour of visually gorgeous, physically gripping, emotionally grueling – even abusive – dance. After her company’s Saturday night performance at Miami Dade County Auditorium, presented by Fundarte, one woman said she was left longing for some kind of redemption; for the men to be punished, for the women to triumph, or at least find some kind of meaning.
But Macho Man doesn’t give us that relief, or a traditional structure of struggle-climax-resolution. You could fault the piece for its relentlessness and repetition. You could also say that it reflects how women, especially in the choreographer’s native Mexico, keep suffering. And how abusive relationships are so often, by nature, repetitive and inescapable for the women trapped in them. (The piece has been a hit – though sometimes controversial – in Mexico.)
Perez-Salas would know – the piece was inspired by her own longtime abusive relationship. Though she’s no longer with her powerful former partner, she’s only made one other dance since Macho Man premiered in 2016.
Macho Man opens with the 12 dancers in buttoned up white shirts and black pants, moving in rigid grids with military precision. But order soon starts to fall apart, as the men tear off their shirts, and roughly strip the women down to flesh-colored briefs and bras. They treat the women like people-sized rag dolls, gripping their arms, pushing and flinging them, standing over their prone bodies to roll them back and forth. In between they stride, stomping, raging and posturing.
That physical and emotional dynamic mostly continues in what follows. The men are dominating, contemptuous, angry, violent. Solo women sometimes break out in desperate action, leaping, thrashing, but they’re always sucked back into the passive-violent dynamic. In some sections the women robotically execute seductive dances: slinking mechanically through a glimmering chain curtain, slumping in towering heels, hips pumping wearily. They don flimsy red dresses to straddle the men, who lean back, arrogant and expectant, in rolling chairs, slinging the women across their legs in a dark caricature of a lap dance. The dancers are magnificent; utterly committed and fiercely expressive.
The music is mostly Mexican electro-pop by the likes of Nortec Collective, a stripped down, pulsing, bass and brass heavy soundtrack which powers the relentless atmosphere, the beat-driven muscularity, the sense that men and women alike are driven by cultural forces beyond their control. Intermittent traditional Mexican pop, with its extravagant sentimentality, is an ironic counterpoint to the cruelty onstage. The stark, dramatic lighting by Gabriel Torres Vargas reinforces the bleakness; the sleek, body-emphatic costumes are by Luciana Corres.
Macho Man gets darker as it progresses. Late in the piece the men again take the women to the floor, then cover them with a giant black cloth, as if to bury them – it seems like a reference to the thousands of women who’ve been violently sexually assaulted and murdered in Juarez, and across Mexico. The women emerge through holes in the fabric, swirling giant blood red skirts as if in a traditional folk dance, like desperate, vengeful ghosts – but even here, the men grasp their waists, rough partners.
At the end, a lone woman runs onstage, leading the other women in yearning, agonized movement, reaching and contracting in on themselves, to Chavela Vargas singing La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), the aching, universal ode to the pain of Mexican women. Onstage they are, finally, without their men. But they are a long way from being free of them.