With eyes closed, Blakeley White-McGuire and Daniel Fetecua Soto felt stones on their bare feet and the sun on their cheeks, but most of all, they felt each other. Taking turns guiding as the other moved blindly, the modern dance stars made their way through the Sacred Labyrinth on Block Island, RI, and into “The Tongue of the Flame,” what would become their new intimate dance theater duet.
Fetecua Soto and White-McGuire come from American modern dance royalty: White-McGuire is a former principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company and Fetecua Soto is a former soloist with the José Limón Dance Company. “The Tongue of the Flame” explores human relations and caretaking through modern and contemporary movement, improvisation, and even moments of dancing completely in the nude. So far, the original composition has had two in-process showings to limited audiences in the Bronx, New York.
Fetecua Soto and White-McGuire’s collaboration has been a long time coming. Throughout their celebrated careers, the dancers crossed paths and danced together on a few occasions (most recently as a part of the North Carolina-based company Movement Migration), but never had the opportunity to fully develop an artistic partnership until this past year.
”I felt it was really amazing, the connection,” Fetecua Soto said, about the times they had danced together in the past. “I think it was back in my subconscious, saying that we were going to dance together at some point, but it was never there. And then one day, it just appeared—it was like ‘we should do a dance.’ And then we started cooking.”
They began working on “The Tongue of the Flame” last summer, when, due to the pandemic, both dancers’ busy schedules suddenly opened up. As for many artists, the physical and social limitations of this period of isolation proved inspiring.
”In the pandemic, [we began] revisiting rules and societal structures and wanted to transgress them,” White-McGuire said. “Transgressing and releasing rules . . . but trusting that the other person is going to care, even without all of the boundaries. What does that feel like—to just fall into a place of trust with another person?”
Keeping in mind questions of trust and vulnerability, White-McGuire and Fetecua Soto began their research in conversations and excursions, such as to Rhode Island, where they encountered the labyrinth. This would become an important experience, both physically and conceptually.
“[Leading each other through the labyrinth,] you don’t have sight, but you have sight through trusting. That is a core of the piece: being able to trust the other person and open yourself. That person is going to be taking care of you,” Fetecua Soto said.
With information gained through these explorations, both in public as well as in private (as Fetecua Soto and White-McGuire are now partners, personally, as well as artistically), the piece began to develop. Eventually, once spaces began to open back up, the dancers officially started putting things together in the Bronx Arts Space in New York. The two would go at night after days of teaching, and experiment with just one commitment in mind:
“No rules—no rules,” White-McGuire said.
“No rules” is particularly significant for two dancers who come out of the two technical realms of Graham and Limón. White-McGuire, who is originally from Louisiana, started training at the Martha Graham School for Contemporary Dance when she was 19 years old. Rising through the ranks of the company, she spanned a career of 15 years dancing iconic Graham roles such as Medea, Jocasta, and the Chosen One in “Rite of Spring.”
Similarly, Fetecua Soto, a native of Bogotá, Colombia, danced with the Limón Company for 10 years and has also appeared as a guest artist in Pina Bausch’s “Rite of Spring” and “Tannhaüser.” Both Fetecua Soto and White-McGuire are master teachers of their respective legacies and teach in multiple institutions in New York, as well as in guest positions throughout the world.
“In the formal dance world, there’re a lot of rules,” White-McGuire said. “There’re certain body parts you don’t touch; there’re certain ways you don’t lift a person; you don’t kiss. We do all of those things.”
“It was kind of a shock—but in a beautiful way,” said Lloyd Knight, a current principal of the Graham Company who was present at both work-in-process showings. “The lights come off and then they come back on, and you just see these two humans. It’s like witnessing two people on the evolution of humanity. You see them explore each other’s bodies and interact, then you see them putting on clothes and interacting with other art pieces, as well. It took me on this journey of man.”
Knight, who has danced with White-McGuire many times and seen both dancers perform repeatedly, said “The Tongue of the Flame” was unlike anything he had ever seen from either dancer.
“I saw them both in a new light. It felt like I was witnessing them for the first time—it was really striking.”
Dancer Niccoló Orsolani was also at one of “The Tongue of the Flame’s” first performances.
“The performers are deeply in touch with the animal human being, too often forgotten by the social personas that we play every day,” he said. “The two artists are experiencing an almost primordial connection, rediscovering the human body and its games of power and weakness.”
White-McGuire and Fetecua Soto hope the piece encourages others to challenge traditional boundaries, too. In fact, the dancers are even expanding their mission by hosting workshops inspired by the practices developed from their new work. The first of these workshops occurred July 6-8th in the Bronx.
Meanwhile, “The Tongue of the Flame” continues to be a work-in-process, with an official New York premiere planned for this coming year. Fetecua Soto and White-McGuire say it will transform, even from show to show.
“I saw it twice and it changed both times,” Knight said.
He plans to see it again.
“I think it’s an important piece for these artists, especially coming out of the Covid era, being as brave and open as they are with the material,” Knight said. “I think everybody needs to see it.”