University Dancers Interpret Surrealism Through Movement with Cadáver Exquisito
By Maura Kolhonen '18 | Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Maura Kolhonen '18
Wednesday, December 6, 2017
On December 1 through 2, the University Dancers presented Cadáver Exquisito, an evening of surrealist dance theater directed by faculty members Thomas Vacanti and Leslie Frye Maietta. Staged in the round at the Totman Performance Lab, the production was inspired by the lives and historically experimental writing of Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda. Cadáver Exquisito was crafted in the style of exquisite corpse, an artistic technique invented by surrealists in the early twentieth century. According to the performance program, exquisite corpse is described as “the method by which a series of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed.”
Vacanti and Frye Maietta employed the technique of exquisite corpse in this performance by choreographing separately, then coming together and finding ways to blend their work. This was “a new way of working” for the dancers, Vacanti said, and a “very interesting experience” for all involved. “Leslie [Frye Maietta] and I really looked upon our dancers as collaborators,” Vacanti said of the creative process that generated this piece. Although collaborating with and coordinating rehearsals for a cast of 35 dancers was challenging at times, Vacanti and Frye Maietta agreed that the outcome was well worth it. Frye Maietta said, “I really think about dance not just as physical movement but as a movement, and to see that many bodies in space… you can never replicate that kind of energy.”
Tapping Lorca as his inspiration, Vacanti found particular interest in “the politics of [Lorca’s] time and his assassination.” He was specifically drawn to Lorca’s early and later poetry. He explained, “[Lorca’s] later poetry eerily predicted his death. You could feel that he really understood the situation that he was in,” and he noted how this contrasted with the “sense of hope” present in Lorca’s earlier writing. Determining that he and Frye Maietta would like to end the performance on a positive note, Vacanti decided to think about Lorca’s work in reverse, beginning with his later poetry and ending with his earlier poetry, signifying that “art survives and art gives us hope in life.”
Frye Maietta focused on Neruda and his work as the inspiration for her choreography. She was interested in the “double meaning of light and dark” in Neruda’s poetry, as well as his references to the natural world. Frye Maietta described, “horticultural time is something that I am really interested in, and I feel like it is really reflected in a lot of Neruda’s work. Yes, there’s a lot of passion and lovelorn work, but there’s also reference to nature, to the natural world, which I think is tied into the idea of this cycle of life and death that I’m drawn to.”
The production took place in the Totman Performance Lab, a spare, former gymnasium with exposed girders and ductwork, which contributed to the performance’s experimental nature.
Dance major Paulina Schaefer ‘18 reflected on her experience in the Totman Performance Lab: “I think that something I’ve learned is just to look at space in a different way and figure out how you can transform it. You can really make anything a performance space. I think that [the totman Performance Lab] has made all of us, the department, dancers, and professors, really excited for new possibilities and having more performances here that are more accessible to people.” Frye Marietta explained how the dance program allows the space to influence their creative output, saying, “We have been experimenting in here, asking ‘How do we challenge ourselves to make work differently? To see things differently? To ask new questions, and allow for that experimental energy?’” Vacanti added that the nature of how the space is used is what the UMass Amherst dance program is about, “That’s our philosophy... thinking out of the box, thinking experimentally. We’re always continually pushing the envelope, last year with an immersive production, this year in the round.”
Stacey Hazen ‘18, a dance major, has danced in the round with the dance department before, but she felt that dancing in Cadaver Exquisito was a “unique experience.” “It feels different because [the Totman Performance Lab] is our normal studio space” she said, explaining that this made it feel “comfortable” as a performance space. The dancers had varying familiarity with Lorca and Neruda’s work prior to being cast in Cadáver Exquisito. Some had no previous exposure while others had some familiarity, like dance and public health double major Emily Small ‘19 who kept a “Spanish influence” in mind while learning choreography.
With the performance in the round, every audience member had a unique perspective of the performance. Groups of dancers performed separate choreography in areas throughout the space, making the experience different for every audience member depending on where they were sitting. The lighting helped pull the audience’s focus, reflect the mood of the pieces, and signify transitions. Dancers sometimes vocalized with laughter, crying, or spoken words and numbers. Lorca’s and Neruda’s poetry was read aloud in the original Spanish during the performance. This jumble of technical, artistic, and theatrical elements worked together to create a surreal experience.
The audience was left with an image of hope, as plants that the dancers had carried out inhabited the stage. The sprouts seemed to signify the impact on art and writing that Lorca and Neruda’s legacy created, as well as the power of a single person, story, idea, or performance. Vacanti and Frye Maietta agreed that performances such as Cadáver Exquisito are important because “dance is important.” Vacanti expressed, “it’s important that we get these ideas out there and start a conversation that dance can be experimental, thought provoking, scholarship, research...it can be all of these things that fit into a university.”