Monday, August 14, 2017
Fringe 2017 - Review - Out of the Shadows - Gabriel Mata/Movements - 5 stars
#mnfringe show 24 - holy hell, that was... fringe crush absolutely, I may be in love; funny, sexy, vulnerable, powerful, perfect - 5 stars
Addendum #mnfringe show 24 - I have had it pointed out to me that I left out the title (oops); Out of the Shadows, my new Fringe love
#mnfringe show 49 - a return visit to @GabrielMata91's Out Of The Shadows; closing weekend, need to treat myself again to shows I like
#mnfringe show 52 - Out of the Shadows: yeah, yeah, I know, 3rd time; it's one of my favorites this year and it's the last day
I see a Fringe show more than once only very, very rarely. Even if a person saw a show in every single slot on the Minnesota Fringe Festival schedule, including the encore slot at the end on closing Sunday night, they could only see 56 shows. The festival had 167 shows this year. So at best, with no breaks for food (or adequate sleep) you could attend roughly a third of the festival. Two-thirds of it would remain beyond your grasp. If you go back to the same show more than once, that’s one less show somewhere else you could be seeing. Even most of the shows I enjoy a lot, I only see once. Normally, though, as each new Fringe year rolls around, I run across a show I break the “rules” for and I’ll go see it twice.
This year, I saw Gabriel Mata's Out of the Shadows three times.
Why? Because it’s a dance show that revealed a lot about both dance and the dancer to me, and as an audience member I wanted to get to know both of them better. The first time you see a story presented to you, your brain’s just trying to wrap itself around understanding something new. You don’t know where it’s going yet, what you’re going to learn, where you’ll end up when it’s over. The second time you see something, the suspense of “will I understand it?” is taken care of, so now you can relax and let more of your brain just examine the story and presentation from other angles. You catch details maybe you missed the first time. The third time you see something, well I suppose at that point it feels more like you’re visiting an old friend, a safe harbor. But it’s a little weird to feel like I know dancer/choreographer Gabriel Mata any better after watching Out of the Shadows. Because the more I think about it, he spent an awful lot of it lying to me.
“All this because a friend told me I didn’t know how to dance. She really saved my life.”
Now, lying onstage is common. Another name for it is acting. Actors pretend to be people they’re not all the time. They’re not actually in a given situation on stage. They’re a character in a story, not themselves in real life. Out of the Shadows plays with that fluid notion of reality in incredibly effective ways. But it does leave me wondering if I spent a lot of time hanging out with someone who’s still essentially a stranger.
“Ricardo calls this move ‘Descending from the Heavens,’ I call it ‘You Stole This From Martha Graham.’”
Out of the Shadows begins with an announcement. That announcement is that we won’t be seeing Out of the Shadows after all, but instead Gabriel Mata will be dancing a piece called Burning Dark Sky, choreographed by someone named Ricardo Martinez. The first time I saw it, the audience members around me sounded genuinely disappointed. Being a naturally gullible person, I wondered where this change in plans would lead us. The lights come up on Mata in place, but then nothing happens. No music starts. Mata even looks up at the booth for a second, incredulous. But then the music kicks in and he’s off. It’s a beautiful, graceful piece of modern dance and Mata seems to be sailing through it, doing astonishing things with his body that those non-dancers among us will never be flexible or coordinated enough to do.
“This is the most painful part of the routine, having to pick myself up from a very deep lunge. You should try it sometime.”
But Mata stops several minutes in, and asks for the music to be cut off. He apologizes to the audience. He’s forgotten the choreography. Also he’s not feeling well (possibly something he ate). And he admits he’s not being paid to perform, which leaves him wondering how he’s going to pay for rent, insurance, food, etc. Then he turns around and admits with a big, winning smile “I’m kidding.” Audience laugh. “I don’t have insurance.” Even bigger audience laugh.
“We need some happy thoughts. What makes you happy?”
Mata then walks us through his rituals - pre-show push-ups (a couple of them with claps in the middle because, well, if you can, why not?), and tapping himself on the chest to calm himself down; placing a kiss on the center of the stage for good luck, assuming the starting position, confirming the music was “late” (though in post-show, he makes sure to tell the audience to applaud the tech in the booth because he’s actually great - and in on the whole set-up.) Mata admits that on rising to the first position his mental checklist had him noticing one foot out of place, one leg not high enough, and when his arm was outstretched, he realized he forgot to remove his watch. He goes through each sequence of moves, speaking as he goes, noting the difference between what should have happened and what did happen. He opens up about the contentious working relationship with the choreographer. And all of this breaks down the barrier between dancer and audience. The performer is human. The dance demystified but no less impressive. In fact, pointing out the strains that certain positions place on the body makes the dance that much more impressive as a physical feat.
“I call this the future hip and knee replacement move, possibly some ankle surgery.”
This playful relationship with the fourth wall felt familiar to me, and when Mata later runs down a roll call of his dance instructors, I learned why. One of his teachers was Joel Smith, of Casebolt and Smith, who charmed their way to box office success at the Fringe here in 2009 and 2010 as touring artists. Their cheeky brand of comedy, speaking while dancing, to break all the moves down for us, got audiences appreciating them both as dancers and actors. Mata employs similar strategies here. But he’s got another less funny subject woven through the second half of the performance, even as the connection to the audience is strengthened, and the larger work of the dance is assembled piece by piece.
“Those words describe me, they really do. They were just said with such hate, I didn’t know what to do.”
Here’s where it either gets autobiographical, or the acting reaches another level. Mata talks about the racism he fears he sees in the eyes of the audience, judging him for his dark skin. Mata says he and his family are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. He talks about being the target of hate for being both that, and gay. He talks about trying to forget Spanish, lose the accent, Americanize his own name. He also talks about the struggles of being an artist, always needing the backup plan of a friend with a couch who’s willing to take him in as a houseguest. “This isn’t a hobby for me. An artist shouldn’t have to live like that.”
“My worst nightmare is forgetting the dance, and being naked. This is pretty close.”
Normally the trials and tribulations of artists don’t interest me. After all, I live with them, too. Boo hoo, nobody asked us to do this. Suck it up and do the work. But Mata isn’t asking for pity. Despite the hate, he wants to remain a good person. Despite the challenges, he believes what his mentors believe, that dance has the power to change the world for the better. And he’s trying to do that. Out of the Shadows is part of that mission.
“I should have kept improvising - maybe not for 30 minutes.”
So, the unseen choreographer Ricardo is a fiction, right? This is all the work of Mata. Problem is, I start pulling on that thread and I start to doubt everything else, too. But at some point, I have to stop overthinking it and just accept the piece for what it is. Out of the Shadows presents a dance, and a dancer - whether that dancer is entirely real or not.
“I should have done more Mexican things, sacrificed a chicken…”
In a clever move, for part of the show Mata is engaged in discussion by a disembodied but friendly voice over the sound system in the theater. (It sounds like it’s Mata’s voice but regardless…) This voice encourages him to stay and continue dancing. Because this voice is engaging him in discussion, when Mata responds at one point that, “A person isn’t illegal. A person can be undocumented, but a person is never illegal” - he’s not lecturing the audience, he’s talking to another character. The audience hears, and often cheers, but the redirection of those words means we can hear them, and not try to reject them (“Wait, I’m not racist, why are you saying that to me?”)
“This part I pretend I’m flipping a giant tortilla.”
After some dancing improvisation to several different kinds of music, Mata enters that section I mentioned before, where he takes us through the evolution of his education in dance. It starts with a friend telling him he can’t dance (she was right, then). The first teacher reveals to him the wonder of the simple step/touch move. And it proceeds from there, adding one step, one school of movement, one technique after another, until he’s told us about all his teachers and assembled a whole vocabulary of moves right in front of us, in just a couple of minutes. He has also shifted from small basic moves to ones that encompass the whole of the stage.
“Modern dance isn’t boring. Golf is boring.”
Then he sheds his layer of civilian clothes (and his watch), all without stopping his body’s impulse to dance. He returns his unitard to its original state, when we first saw him. And he eases out of his current dance and back into the starting position for that dance he never quite finished. Only now, as he performs it, flawlessly, in full, and in silence, we know him, we know the moves, we know the dance. And somehow, because we understand things better now, both he and it are even more dazzling to watch in action.
“At first I was afraid, I was petrified…”
Out of the Shadows is a really great Fringe show, in part because it allows us to see behind the curtain, just a bit. We appreciate it more, because we know what it costs. The art, even as it gives up some of its secrets, isn’t diminished, but enhanced. It plays on the mind and the heart in more indelible ways because it’s not afraid to be real, even when it’s fake. Theater can really screw with my head sometimes. But when it’s a show like Out of the Shadows, from an artist like Gabriel Mata, for some reason I don’t mind.
5 Stars - Very Highly Recommended