‘Latin Xpressions’ is admirable but mediocre

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - 5:22pm

My mother thought she was in for a night of flamenco when she agreed to accompany me to “Latin Xpressions” this weekend at the Power Center. Regrettably, she was wrong.

“Latin Xpressions,” an annual show put on by the Department of Dance, featured multiple works choreographed by Spanish or Latin American choreographers as well as School of Music, Theatre & Dance faculty. Performers included guest artists as well as BFA students at the University.

Right from minute one, I wondered why this show had been called “Latin Xpressions.” Pieces were set to Latin music: I caught a lively castanet beat or delicate marimba in almost every song. Yet, the dances themselves were far from Latin styles. Almost all numbers were modern dance except for one, which may have been included in the lineup just to label the show as vaguely Latin. I wasn’t expecting this twist, and it was clear that the audience wasn’t either; confused chuckles and hesitant applause followed most pieces. The program and posters featured dancers in red tops and long flowing black skirts, leading me to believe I’d be watching a night of flamenco-style pieces, not modern dance with a few tinges of Latin influence. A friend later told me that the program was choreographed by people of Latin or Spanish origin, but there was no introduction to the program to offer that insight.

The first few acts were enjoyable at best; the last two, “Interlude 3” and “End With You,” were phenomenal. The show kicked off with “Prized Possession,” choreographed by Rosie Herrera, a lovable and quirky piece. Each dancer had large swaths of velcro on the chest of their costumes, and each embrace with a partner was followed with a slow burn, crackling rip as they pulled apart, an amusing and appreciated addition to the dance. But after the applause died down, I could already sense the unease from the crowd: Is this what they’d come to see?

The following performances were similar: pleasant but unsettling. Frequently, flamenco music switched abruptly to jazz, leaving the audience craving the former and unsure about the latter. “Cuca Deluxe,” a piece based on la cucaracha (cockroaches), featured dancers acting like insects: scattering when light shined on them or being symbolically stomped on by a crunching sound effect. The hilarity of this segment lost interest fast, and even more so when dancers were “crushed” but came back to life multiple times during the piece.

The first exception to this mediocrity was “Interlude 3.” Dancers entered the stage in intricately frilled lace tops and traditional skirts to perform a mixed routine with elements of samba and merengue, among others. Though a little uncoordinated at times, the piece moved the audience. By the end, everyone was clapping to the beat, egging on the dancers.

I dare say the final dance, “End With You,” choreographed by the acclaimed Ron De Jesús, a prior dancer with Hubbard Dance Street Chicago, made the whole program worth attending. Three rotating staircases of lights dropped down slowly from the ceiling, teasing the audience with a subtle black and white strobe effect. All the dancers were precise with their movements and spatially aware of everyone around them, creating a sense of harmony within lighting fast mounts and lifts. I had the magical sense that I was in the eye of a hurricane, like watching the currents and waves of an ocean crash around me while staying perfectly stationary.

With some more careful marketing, “Latin Xpressions” could become a staple, enjoyable show. But this weekend’s performances, while carefully executed, were mediocre at best.