Sharing the Stage with David Zambrano
Before the performance of David Zambrano’s “Soul Project,” presented by Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, in the East Village, through April 21st, the audience was ushered into the sanctuary but prevented from sitting on the carpeted risers that ring the floor. Zambrano welcomed us himself, and explained that we would be sharing the space with the performers. He was interrupted by a guttural sound, and then the crowd parted: in their midst, a man had started to dance—a fierce, martial, punishing abstract solo—and was speaking the words to the song “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” He was hemmed in, but he ate up every inch of space nonetheless. In just a few minutes, he was done; Zambrano said that that was a taste of what we were about to see.
St. Mark’s has no pews, only a clean, soft wood floor. Zambrano’s dancers—an international cast; Zambrano is Venezuelan, and now lives in Europe—and the members of the audience stepped onto it and meandered around one another. Zambrano had invited us to be as close as we wanted to be to the action. Some viewers kept their distance, and sat on the risers. As Ike and Tina Turner’s version of “Respect” played, pools of light shone on the floor, and the bemused spectators tried to figure out what was going to happen next. When “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from “Dreamgirls,” started up, one of the male dancers, Milan Herich, from Slovakia, began a solo in one corner, and a crowd formed around him. Wearing a necklace of colored squares and loose blue-and-white checkerboard-patterned pants (no shirt), Herich embarked on a visceral, dramatic movement study that matched the song’s intensity but made no literal connection. A few times, he swooped into a sudden backbend, punctuating a phrase. At the end of the song, he stood up and walked into our midst.
What followed were twelve more solos, which Zambrano had created in collaboration with the performers. The songs were all soul classics, by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, and James Brown, and all bore a resemblance to Zambrano’s own style of movement: gestural, impulsive, and highly theatrical. The tall and thin Young Cool Park, from South Korea, danced to Bettye Lavette’s “You’ll Never Change,” in a jerky, almost involuntary-looking way, responding to something within, his long hair flying. At the end, he was spent. The only female dancer, Nina Fajdiga, from Slovenia, wearing a polka-dot dress, a kind of dickey created from small pompoms, and an asymmetrical grass skirt, was ecstatic and seductive as she swung her hips and reached out, in a pulling gesture, drawing us near.
But we were never far away. The performers always used only a small bit of space, and some people were just inches from them; sometimes a viewer reached out and made contact with a dancer, wanting to be part of the show. This was fine with Zambrano. In a solo for himself, to “Let Me Down Easy,” sung by Lavette, he taunted those seated at his feet, taking off his tuxedo jacket in a kind of striptease, his Vandyke beard and mustache and his flicking tongue giving him a Mephistophelean air. He nudged with a young woman near him, and, remaining on the floor, she began a kind of improv duet with him, which Zambrano capped off by tossing her shoe into the crowd. Then another woman, clearly wanting to take part, insinuated herself into Zambrano’s orbit, and the two played off each other’s shapes and gestures, till the choreographer cried “Help!” and the piece wound down.
In such passages, Zambrano showed himself to be an open and generous performer, and he elicited the same spirit from his dancers. These solos’ choreography was so organic and so personal that it was difficult to believe it was rehearsed. One moment led into the next, as though the dances were being made up on the spot. The exception came in a solo for Peter Jasko, another Slovakian, to “I Will Survive/Free Again,” by Gladys Knight & the Pips. Jasko wore the danciest costume—a shiny blue unitard with a bare back and cutouts on the sleeves and legs—and actually had repeatable phrases, with positions approaching the balletic (passés, mostly). Which is not to say that this solo was any less fraught with feeling; several times during its course, Jasko suddenly fell flat on his back, only to leap up again and keep dancing. But there were surprises: when “I Will Survive” went up-tempo, Jasko didn’t follow.
The physicality of these performers was a marvel, and everything they did was imbued with passion, commitment, and drama. In a sense, they seemed more like actors or performance artists, though their abilities as dancers were undeniable. And the range of body types provided great variety. The two Mozambican dancers were a study in contrasts: Edivaldo Ernesto, long and lean, was ferocious in his attack (even when, or especially when, wearing a Phyllis Diller wig and full-length white lace gloves); Horacio Macuacua, short and solid, displayed an admirable combination of gravity and lightness. In his solo, to Ike and Tina Turner’s “A Fool for You,” holding himself upright, his feet pounded the floor relentlessly, mesmerizingly, his skirt shaking and the medals on his chest bouncing.
The evening closed with Park’s piece to Patti LaBelle’s version of “I Don’t Like Goodbyes” and “Over the Rainbow.” Unlike Jasko in his solo, when “Rainbow” gathered speed and crescendoed, Park went with it, reaching up with his arms, his entire body tensed. When he was through, Zambrano stepped shyly into the spotlight that Park had just vacated, thanked us for coming, and introduced the dancers. Having been able to see them at such close range, to have them standing in our midst as their names were called, made them acquaintances. I don’t think anyone at the church particularly liked having to say goodbye.