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Going Whole Hog

Backdropped in layers of flowy plastic sheeting, an enormous inflatable nut brown sow dominates the stage. Projected video make it appear uncannilly as if it’s breathing. The sow lies on her side peering out at the audience with a weepy eye. The English expression, in a pig’s eye, often emphatically means Like hell I will or I won’t do it and It seems, at least to me, that’s partly the message choreographer Silvana Cardell and her dramaturg Blanka Zizka want you to come away with. Or, to use another porcine idiom, perhaps we ought not to eat like a pig, or at least don’t kill them, or any other bodies.


Cardell Dance Theater: “Disposable Bodies”


Cardell Dance Theater, The Wilma Theater, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 6 - 7, 2023  


Merilyn Jackson

Animal Presence, sculpture by Daniel Cardell with video projection by Colin J. Sass, part of “Disposable Bodies” by Silvana Cardell. Photograph by Pablo Meninato

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Cardell Dance Theater restaged “Disposable Bodies” for the Wilma Theater’s proscenium stage, expanding the work’s breadth and depth in ways that last year’s white box premiere at Taller Puertorriqueño could only partially provide. Yury Urnov, who recently became the Wilma’s artistic director as Zizka takes her final bows, saw last year’s premiere and invited Cardell and Zizka to bring it to the proscenium stage. There, they took full advantage of the technologies the newly renovated Wilma afforded. The original production was funded and presented by an NEA grant through Terry Fox’s Philadelphia Dance Projects. This production also received support from Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series and Dance Department where it was previewed earlier in the week.

The Czech-born Zizka co-founded the original Wilma not long after emigrating to the United States decades ago and presided over its remarkable growth to become Philadelphia’s premiere jewel box theater on the Avenue of the Arts. She retires as artistic director with this show and droves of audience came to wish her farewell.

A Guggenheim Fellow and Pew Center Grantee, Cardell also emigrated to Philadelphia decades ago, and says, “My Latin American heritage and in-between-ness—living at the crossroads—of places and cultures subtly but profoundly shape my choreography. This cultural influence shows in the design of intimate partnering, the rhythmic development, the architecture of the space, and the social justice-infused themes of my performances.”

William Robinson, Tyra “Crux” Jones Blain, Muyu Yuan Ruba, Tyler Rivera and Mackenzie Morris in “Disposable Bodies” by Silvana Cardell. Photograph by Pablo Meninato

Cardell commissioned her cousin in Buenos Aries, Daniel Cardell, to make the inflatable hog and then brought it back from Argentina to JFK deflated in a large carton, somehow getting it through customs without a squeal. So pigs do fly, even as it did a bit too early in this production with lift lines hoisting it up into the fly loft.

The work centers on the death and destruction we humans inflict on other animals and, I think, on each other. In style, while Cardell acknowledges her early practice of ballet discipline and growing up seeing tango and folklorico dancing, this work unfolds as a series of episodic installations. The story and ethos it conveys is told more imagistically with media and stage effects than choreographically. 

Merián Soto, long a significant dancemaker on Philly’s dance scene, is first on stage. As formidable as any matador when she pulls out her long knives, she later tenderly frees a piglet from its cage, caressing it, only to bring out her knives again at the final scenes.

Soon, the other performers, William Robinson, Mackenzie Morris, Muyu Yuan Ruba, Tyler Rivera, Ty-Crux Jones Blain are dancing, creating Pilobolus-style four, six and eight legged creatures, crawling up the plastic sheets, now shivering with hanging hog carcasses, as if to find their own hook. But mostly they are running, running frantically in circles, fists balled up, hiding behind the scenery or bursting back through it.

Ama Ma’At Gora, Mackenzie Morris, Willam Robinson, and Muyu Yuan Ruba in “Disposable Bodies” by Silvana Cardell. Photograph by Pablo Meninato

Maria Chavez’s moody sound design with its hog farm grunts and Colin Sass’s terrific hellscaped video projections, along with Sass's and Bess Rudisill's lighting design, and Paula Meninato’s sculptures carry the day. Another section of good stagecraft is when a dancer releases a stream of a non-liquid substance (reddish pebbles?) that simulates a pool of blood as she writhes in it, her agony projected from above on the screened backdrops. Is she menstruating, part of a ritual, or has she been slaughtered?

A moving spiritual section toward the conclusion had the dancers rolling out sheets of shiny mylar that look like an icy lake, a nude dancer in shadow is caged at one end and the word “animal” is projected or printed onto her body as if being branded. The others slowly pull her offstage as projected sheets of water stream down the backdrops. Four dancers poke long sticks into the back of one dancer eventually lifting her high into the air balancing her there for a moment. The sticks become bows and arrows with the four in back-to-back formation ready for the hunt yet protecting each other. Their toga-like costumes, also of plastic sheeting which reminds me of the plastic we buy our meats from in the supermarket, drop as they all wander the stage nude. The aesthetics and ideologies blur here, as if in a dream.

Merilyn Jackson

Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.



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