Review: The Footwear Follies of ‘Zapatografía/Shoegraphy’

Few dancers can sustain a career in New York without a second — or third or fourth or fifth — job. For more than a decade, the performer and choreographer Larissa Velez-Jackson has made a living teaching fitness classes to older adults. But in the past few years, she has begun letting her worlds mingle, bringing her students and members of local senior centers into her playful and strange works for the stage.

In her latest, “Zapatografía/Shoegraphy,” which opened at Abrons Arts Center on Thursday, she has assembled a small but unforgettable cast from the Henry Street Settlement Senior Center (Abrons is part of Henry Street, a social service agency on the Lower East Side) and the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Center in Brooklyn. How often do a neighborhood’s longtime working-class residents and its experimental arts hubs meet? Ms. Velez-Jackson gets us thinking about that relationship, while keeping any concrete resolutions out of reach.

For most of this curious, charming, and category-defying hourlong show, her older-adult participants simply watch, seated at a long table onstage, like amused judges. Aided by an expressive masked assistant named White Shadow (Talya Epstein), Ms. Velez-Jackson pulls more than a dozen pairs of shoes out of a suitcase, distributes them around the stage and proceeds to try them all on, her gait and character morphing with each style of footwear. There are prim flats, extravagant heels, ballet slippers, work boots. An adroit physical comedian, she makes her onlookers laugh as she mimics, in her off-kilter way, an athlete, a pop diva, a bird.

Through this all, Ms. Velez-Jackson seems to be questioning entrenched conventions of contemporary performance, in particular the convention of performing for an audience of insiders: an audience made up mostly of other artists, as opposed to, say, members of nearby senior centers. “Who am I talking to?” she says in a slow, fragmented opening monologue, echoed by a voice-over that translates each line into Spanish. It sounds like she’s genuinely wondering. “The audience is the real space,” she adds.

To bring these worlds together may not be entirely natural for Ms. Velez-Jackson, and admirably, she doesn’t hide the awkwardness of this endeavor. Gradually and a little clumsily, “Zapatografía” transforms into a dance party, with the cast grooving to salsa beneath a disco ball, then leading a Soul Train line for everyone. (There are advantages to a dance audience full of other dancers; people were eager to join in.)

“You made it through our minimalist formalist community experiment!” Ms. Velez-Jackson exclaimed as the evening drew to a close, offering as good a description as any of what had just happened.

Through Dec. 8 at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan;

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