Celebrating legendary women through dance

September 29, 2011

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Legendary women and female-centric legends are the subject of two upcoming dance performances by Luna Negra Dance Theate and Natya Dance Theatre. Lucia Mauro gave Eight Forty-Eight the details and a sneak peak.

Love. Madness. Grief. These are the emotions channeled by dancers in programs inspired by the sacrifices of a few lesser-known historic women. But that doesn’t mean they’re exercises in unbearable angst. Instead, these performances unveil the many dimensions of being human and how one’s actions can change the course of history.

For Luna Negra’s fall engagement, Spanish choreographer Asun Noales explores in abstracted segments the tortured life of Juana la Loca, or "Juana the Mad," the first queen of pre-modern Spain. She was also the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. The world-premiere ensemble piece, titled Juana, tangles obsessive passion with political subterfuge to comment on the dire consequences of betrayal. Noales was inspired by an early 16th century painting of a distraught and pregnant Juana walking at the head of her husband’s funeral procession. Around her neck she wears a key to his casket, indicating her eternal devotion; but there’s a twist.

Juana’s husband, brashly known as Philip the Handsome, was openly unfaithful to her and coldly ambitious. He even had her imprisoned so that he could claim the throne to which she was heir, but the Luna Negra dancers will not deliver a heavily brocaded period reenactment. Their costumes are actually lightweight suggestions of conquistador vests, puffy pants and a lace petticoat. Against the echoing sound of dripping water, the ensemble undulates on the floor. They carry the body of Philip across a wave that could easily represent Juana’s incurable anguish; her tottering mental state is reflected in vacant stares and a strangely rigorous isolation of her limbs. Her imagined sensual duet with her husband Philip explodes into a cacophony of dancers, who seem to be gossiping and fencing their way into the lovers’ intimate space.

Natya Dance Theatre also takes on an urgent tone in its world premiere, full-length narrative, The Flowering Tree. Choreographers Hema and Krithika Rajagopalan work within the vast rhythmic vocabulary of the classical Indian dance form of bharata natyam. Through patterned foot percussion, intricate gestures and facial expressions, the dancers show the relevance of an ancient South Indian folktale.

In the story, a beautiful but poor girl named Kumudha is blessed with the ability to transform herself into a flowering tree. Once the flowers fall, her sisters gather them to sell at the market. Soon a prince marries her simply as a palace novelty. His greedy sister commands Kumudha to keep changing into a tree so she can strip it of all its blooms. When they abandon her in the form of a half woman, half tree stump, the metaphor couldn’t be more glaring: the careless toll on the environment and the need to treat the earth with respect.

Both Luna Negra and Natya Dance Theatre present multifaceted portraits of feminine figures and the universe they embody.

Luna Negra Dance Theater performs ¡Mujeres! on Saturday, Oct. 1 at the Harris Theater in Chicago. Natya Dance Theatre will be at the Harris on Saturday, Oct. 8 for its production of The Flowering Tree.