Gabriel Mata’s performance at Dance Loft on the 14th was one of those performances that doesn’t end when you leave the theater; You have to sit down with his work and let the ideas marinate.
A queer, Latinx, immigrant, and recent United States citizen, Mata is a Mexican-American choreographer, dancer, and performer. She recently completed graduate studies in dance at the University of Maryland and now resides in the DC area. Mata is also an artist whose work has gained national attention with performances in seven states, as well as venues like the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. You can read more about Mata’s life and process in our ‘A Quick 5’ interview with him here.
…his ability to bring the feeling of being in the studio, of being a human person doing the work that is dance to a performance space.
The program had four pieces, two of which had been previously released and two still in progress. “Trajectory without limits” (2016) opened the evening. Mata, in a lightly textured gray leotard, danced one of those effortlessly flowing, leggy modern dance solos that seem timeless. The meditative feeling was shattered as a flat white light signal hit and the sound cut out. For an instant it was a disaster, obviously a technical error had been made. Would I dance through it? Would he have to improvise to save the performance? Then “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” said Mata. A voice came from the monitor indicating where to restart, and the narration we were entering became clear: this was a technical rehearsal for the dance we were watching, and somewhere in the house there was a conductor with a God-microphone ( the traditional name for the microphone given to the conductor so he can give notes during a dress rehearsal, so named because when you’re on stage looking into a dark house, it feels a lot like the voice of God). He began back and forth with the director, and what was once easy became increasingly laborious as Mata repeated steps and phrases, and adapted to the choreographic changes the director was making to his work. The audience was peppered with awkward laughter as Mata called for a water break and stepped to the side, pulling a massage gun for her thighs from a dance bag in the wings. The exhaustion and emotional toll of repetitive stress and the encroachment on artistic freedom were evident. After a brief respite, rehearsal resumed, frustration mounting until Mata yelled over the conductor’s voice. “STOP!” Then, first with vocal instructions to the technical team and then with music, Mata recovered his space and his performance. The director’s disembodied voice was silenced and the dancer was able to embody his performance at his own pace in his own sequence.
The second job of the night, “undertones,” was a love letter to disco weirdness and history. Three scenes with near seamless transitions, each indexing a different aspect of the ways queer bodies exist together in space. Although the duet between Mata and local dance artist Greg David (them/her) was billed as a work in progress, it felt structurally complete and elicited one of the strongest reactions from the audience. Mata and David made an entrance. Dressed in black leather and sequins, they inched toward the audience under pink lights. “Hey baby” and “Are you looking for Dr. Love?” the jackets came off and fell on the stage as the performers turned their attention to each other, complementing their bodies and their movements. What started as a snap turned into “show me how you did that”, and in less than a breath we were at another rehearsal. Unlike “Boundless Trajectories,” however, this was a rehearsal for joy. The true joy of two queer dancers rocking out at a disco. “Ooo you go high, I go low… and a 5, 6, 7, 8.” That joy made the emotional whiplash of the final scene even more intense. The lights dimmed and Mata and David began to convulse and writhe on the floor, slowly retreating to the back of the stage. Distorted snippets of disco hits burst into an ambient but oppressive soundtrack. As blue and pink lights flickered on the back wall in the dark, it felt like a dystopian taxi ride home from the club through a liminal landscape of queer trauma and pain hidden behind the desire to do joyful work in spaces. shared. Lighting designer G. Rowan Ethridge should receive special credit for his work throughout the show, but the lighting for the “shades” was especially evocative.
Both works highlighted one of my favorite things about Mata as a choreographer: his ability to bring the feeling of being in the studio, of being a human person doing the job of dancing, into a performance space. Whether it’s the disrespect and objectification of “Boundless Trajectory” or the joy in community and collaborative oral tradition of “undertones,” Mata’s work centers on the lived experience of studio work, a time that for many dancers is his primary experience of the art form.
The embodied work is central to Mata’s work also in a second way, that is, as the work of representing identity and being required to represent an identity. “Tender Earth”, the final work of the evening, and another work still in progress, addressed this issue more directly. In one scene, Mata, wearing a button-down shirt, jeans, a stetson, and heeled boots, described a search for poses that would embody the “iconic image of a Mexican man”: “Iconic image of a Mexican man one” with broad arms. looking back over his shoulder and “Iconic image of a Mexican Man Two”, looking straight ahead with his gaze down under the brim of his sombrero. Five poses were repeated over and over again, vocally repeated and numbered in what seemed to be an impromptu random order with no end in sight. Little by little, poses that did not seem to fit the series were incorporated. Pose seven and eight, then pose six. The repetition became unbearable until “5-6-7-8” and the series of static positions imposed by a flowing, slightly jazzy, contemporary movement phrase that only seemed amusing was discarded. “I’m sorry,” he said, “sometimes I get distracted.”
It may not be accurate to say that Mata is interested in both the embodied work of being a dancer and the embodied work of identity, but his work explores how the work of being a dancer is also the work of being human, and how lived experience from that work you can dance.
“Gabriel Mata: Artist Portfolio Showcase” took place January 19-20, 2023 at Dance Loft at 14, 4618 14th Street, NW Washington, DC, 20011. A digital program of the presentation is available here. For more information about Gabriel Mata, visit his website here.
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