Gabriel Mata’s performance at Dance Loft on 14 was one of those performances that doesn’t end when you walk out of the theater; you have to sit with his work and let the ideas marinate.
Mata, a queer, Latinx, immigrant, and recent, new citizen of the United States, is a Mexican American choreographer, dancer, and performer. He recently completed graduate studies in dance at The University of Maryland, and is now based in the DC area. Mata is also an artist whose work has gained national attention with performances in seven states, as well as at venues like the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. You can read more about Mata’s life and process in our ‘A Quick 5’ interview with him here.
…his ability to bring the feeling of being in the studio, of being a human person doing the work that the dancing is to a performance space.
The program featured four pieces, two of which had been previously premiered, and two still in progress. “Boundless Trajectory” (2016) opened the evening. Mata in a lightly textured grey unitard danced one of those long limbed, and effortlessly fluid modern dance solos that seem as-if eternal. The meditative feeling was shattered as a flat white light cue hit and the sound cut out. For an instant it was a disaster, obviously a technical mistake had been made. Would he dance through it? Would he have to improvise to save the performance? Then “Sorry I made a mistake” said Mata. A voice came from the monitor indicating where to restart, and the narrative we were entering became clear—this was a technical rehearsal for the dance we were watching, and somewhere in the house was a director with a God-mic (the traditional name for the microphone given to the director so that they can give notes during a dress rehearsal—so-called because when you are on stage looking out into a dark house, it feels a lot like the voice of God). A back and forth with the director began, and what was once effortless became more and more obviously labored as Mata repeated steps and phrases, and adapted to choreographic changes being made to his work by the director. The audience was peppered with uncomfortable laughter as Mata asked for a water break and walked off to the side, pulling out a massage gun for his thighs out of a dance bag in the wings. The exhaustion and emotional toll of repetitive stress, and of the encroachment on artistic freedom was obvious. After a brief respite the rehearsal resumed and frustration built until Mata screamed over the directors voice. “STOP!” Then, first with vocal directions to the technical crew and then with music, Mata reclaimed his space and his performance. The directors disembodied voice was silenced, and the dancer could embody their performance at their own tempo in their own sequence.
The evenings second work, “undertones,” was a love letter to the queerness of disco music and history. Three scenes with almost seamless transitions each indexing a different aspect of the ways queer bodies exist together in space. Although the duet between Mata and local dance artist Greg David (they/she) was billed as a work in progress, it felt structurally complete, and it elicited one of the strongest reactions from the audience. Mata and David made an entrance. In black leather and sequins, they advanced slowly towards the audience under pink lights. “Hey baby” and “Looking for Dr. Love?” jackets came off and were dropped on the stage as the performers turned their attention to each other, complementing each other on their their bodies and their movement. What began as a complement became “show me how you did that,” and in less than a breath, we were in another rehearsal. However, unlike “Boundless Trajectories,” this was a rehearsal of joy. The very real joy of two queer dancers rocking out to some disco. “Ooo you go high, I’ll go low… and a 5, 6, 7, 8.” That joy made the emotional whiplash of the final scene all the more intense. The lights dimmed and Mata and David began to convulse and writhe on the floor, slowly retreating upstage. Distorted snatches of disco hits broke through an ambient but oppressive soundtrack. As blue and pink lights flickered across the back wall in the dark, it felt like a dystopian cab ride home from the club through a liminal memoryscape of queer trauma and grief hidden behind the desire to do joyful work in shared spaces. Lighting designer G. Rowan Ethridge should get a special shoutout for their work over the entire program, but the lighting for “undertones” was especially evocative.
Both of these works highlighted of one of my favorite things about Mata as a choreographer: his ability to bring the feeling of being in the studio, of being a human person doing the work that the dancing is, to a performance space. Whether it’s the disrespect and objectification of “Boundless Trajectory” or the joy in community and collaborative oral tradition of “undertones,” Mata’s work centers the lived experience of studio labor, time which for many dancers is their primary experience of the art form.
Embodied labor is central to Mata’s work in a second way as well—that is as the labor of performing identity and having the performance of an identity demanded of you. “Tierra Tierna” the evening’s final work, and another work still in progress, addressed this theme the most directly. In one scene, Mata, wearing a button-down, jeans, a stetson, and heeled boots, described a search for poses which embodied the “iconic image of a Mexican Man”—“Iconic image of a Mexican Man One” with broad arms looking back over the shoulder and “Iconic image of a Mexican Man Two, ” facing front with the gaze down under the brim of the hat. Five poses were repeated over and over again—repeated and vocally numbered in what appeared to be an improvised random order with no end in sight. Slowly additional poses crept in which didn’t seem to fit the series. Poses seven and eight, then pose six. The repetition became unbearable until “5-6-7-8” and the series of imposed static positions was discarded for a, slightly jazzy, fluid phrase of contemporary movement that just looked like fun. “Sorry” he said “sometimes I just get distracted.”
Perhaps it isn’t accurate to say that Mata is interested in both the embodied labor of being a dancer and the embodied labor of identity—but that his work explores how the labor of being a dancer is also the labor of being human, and how the lived experience of that labor can be danced.
“Gabriel Mata: Artist Portfolio Showcase” ran January 19-20, 2023 at Dance Loft on 14, 4618 14th Street, NW Washington, DC, 20011. A digital program from the performance is available here. For more information about Gabriel Mata, go to his website here.