After five full weeks of dance, it was hard to shake the sense that we'd already seen it all. But when an elegantly dressed young man shot a young woman sitting across from him at a café table in the face, without warning, with a high-power water hose, it was a wake-up call to say the least. He might just as well have fired the hose in our direction.
And that was just the opening bid of choreographer Rosie Herrera's Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret, which played during the final week of last year's American Dance Festival. By its conclusion, Herrera's work hadn't flinched in its spoofing of Celine Dion—or its unhurried physical representations of androgyny and gay male desire. Send-ups of old-school sex symbols made us laugh before we started asking ourselves why we were laughing. Then a moment in a hospice silenced us, followed by a surreal film sequence that dared to suggest that, ultimately, no one stays onboard a lifeboat.
ADF invited Herrera back to restage one of the more stunning, and humane, works of last season with her own company. It commissioned a new work from her as well.
INDEPENDENT: The title of last summer's work, Various Stages of Drowning, brings one question immediately to mind: Who's drowning?
HERRERA: Good question. I think it symbolizes several different types of drowning: drowning in somebody's presence, by an experience, by an emotion or being drowned by memory.
It also comes from my personal experiences, having felt at times like I was drowning, too—professionally, emotionally or psychologically. There are five stages of drowning; I used that as a structure to help separate these different ideas.
I've always had a very strong connection to the ocean, to the freedom of being underwater. My father's Cuban and my mother's Puerto Rican, so I'm genetically predisposed to being below sea level. (laughs) But Various Staging of Drowning was based on a series of dreams. When I started developing a structure for putting them all together, I was interested in creating the surrealist atmosphere of a dream. The closest I could get to that world would be underwater.
There's an element of enigma in many of the relationships you depict on stage. In the first male duet, there's reluctance and intimacy—and at least the possibility of coercion. And yet the musical frame, an old recording of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," is overtly playful. It interested me that the audience was laughing at some moments and very quiet at others.
I love that tension. I think humor is a really powerful tool for the stage. There's something unifying and intimate about laughter. People drop their guard and just have the physical experience of laughing, a natural experience of reacting to what's going on. And from there, they're in that moment with you; you have a lot of flexibility for where you can go.
I love working with these dualities in my work, where something is not always as it seems. I think that also is part of what I love about cabaret: There's this juxtaposition of very forward, entertaining, almost striving energy, and it's always grounded by this dark, sexual humor.
It's like sardines in spaghetti sauce. It gives it that ... something.
The male duet also directly represents male desire—gay desire—in a way only a handful of stage artists I've seen in theater or dance have dared to. It was pretty fearless. Then there was the hospice sequence. Someone was terminally ill, and another person was providing that person very tender care. It was moving and honest. It's also a place artists never really take us in live performance.
That section was inspired by a very dear friend of mine who lost her lover of 37 years. I was with her through her grieving process. Of all the things she got mad about, I thought it was so powerful that what she missed the most was that she wasn't there to take care of him, to feed him, to dress him or comb his hair. I think that's a really selfless and beautiful thing.
Also, it meant working with [company member] Geraldine, who lost her mother very young and started working in drag, really, as a means of reconnecting with her. That was the only way I could help her go through that process.
Between January and April, you actually believed you were working on a different piece for the ADF premiere.
I started creating this work, Dining Alone, about solitude and aging. But I would keep coming up with ideas and realize, "Oh, that's Pity Party, let me put that aside." Eventually, I just gave in and said, "We're feeling Pity Party; that's what the dancers are saying to me with their bodies; that's what we're going to do." This whole time I thought I was responding to the dancers. It wasn't until two weeks ago that I realized I was the one who was grieving. I love that I created this piece, and I'm glad that I continued to work, because that was my way of grieving. I just didn't know it.
I've often thought that stoicism is next to denial. You do have to get grieving out, I think. Because if you don't, it stays.
And it turns into something else. I just imagine it turning into a huge tornado inside. You deny yourself the opportunity to celebrate—and learn—from someone's life.
You get frozen, or stuck. You can't go forward.
And that's how you drown.