In covering veteran Austin theater artist Rudy Ramirez’s 2019 showcase of forward-thinking Latinx art festival, FUTURX, I witnessed many talented Brown artists muse on a future for our people. One of the plays, however, took a different approach. “Mexico Expropriated”, as this 15-minute dance piece was called, looked to the past, critiquing our traditions as a means of rewriting our own future.
Via a provocative half-TED-talk half-burlesque presentation, Jessica Peña suggested symbols that I had held proudly, la China poblana y el charro, for example, might in fact, be more fraught that I’d realized.
Now, Peña has brought “Mexico Expropriated” into a full-length production, part of her final work as a graduate student in UT’s Peformance as Public Practice program. Within the online presentation, Peña uses the legacy of renowned Mexico City dance company Ballet Folklórico de México as a starting point for interrogating Mexicanidad’s more toxic elements, including machismo, racism, gender violence and cultural appropriation.
Originally set to premiere in full and in-person in April, Peña and her crew have since used their time in quarantine wisely. In addition to shifting “Mexico Expropriated” to a pre-recorded virtual performance, her team has created an entire website to host the experience, one complete with background information on each dance featured, interactive video elements, and a humorous breakdown of Mexico’s cultural history.
Heavily inspired by the multi-disciplined performances of Mexican neo-burlesque genre stalwart Astrid Hadad, “Mexico Expropriated” plays like an energetically paced variety show. Peña uses many novel storytelling devices over the course of the production’s hour and a half runtime. Elements pulled from ballet, neo-burlesque, modern dance and stand-up comedy uncover the wide disparity between the Mexico that is sold to foreign tourists (via government funded groups like Ballet Folkórico) and the “real” Mexico that Peña herself was born into.
Alongside a dedicated team of composers, stage managers and designers, is an enviable ensemble of performers including Austin theater heavyweights Jesús Valles and Mariana DeYoe-Pedraza as well as seasoned dance artists Venese Alcantar Medovich, Erica Saucedo, and David Cruz. These co-conspirators seem to share Peña’s passion for “Mexico Expropriated’s” subject matter, a fact seen in the consistent energy this ensemble brings to the show’s many discipline-spanning choreographies. Such mindful camaraderie often goes a long way to ensuring a segmented performance remains cohesive overall, especially a production that varies as wildly between its individual elements as Peña’s.
A story told over the course of five distinct vignettes, “Mexico Expropriated” traverses several geographical regions of Mexico while moving both backward and forward through pivotal eras of history. At first audiences are dropped into a performance supposedly recreating a dance of the Aztec Empire (à la Mexican ballet company Arte De Folklore’s production, “Leyenda de Quetzalcoatl”). Against composer James Parker’s score, which is grounded by bongo drums and rain sticks, four dancers — each sporting brightly shimmering metallic headdresses and stoic expressions — gather and stomp in a huddle. Moving in tandem, their legs slice the air with ballet-esque high kicks that then hurdle back toward the earth to shatter into displays of frantic footwork.
This hypnotizing presentation comes to a head as a young, terrified dancer is laid onto the stage, ostensibly for human sacrifice. Before the ritual can unfold, however, the presentation is interrupted by a frazzled Valles who, in the role of this cabaret’s gregarious emcee, declares that every aspect of this very presentation — the dances, the pointed footwork, etc. — is fake. With no true idea available for how the Aztecs moved, Valles explains, productions such as this opening number simply use elements of modern, European dance to fill in the blanks.
For the second vignette, “Burlesque,” Peña moves away from the hoity-toity world of Ballet Folklórico and straight into the working class cabarets of 1950s Mexico City as a means of exploring female autonomy. Helmed by a trio of dolled-up dancers, this performance at first features everything one might expect from burlesque showings of the era: shimmering, revealing costumes and the serpent-like movement of hips that is only broken by sharp, sexual gestures made for the audience’s (see: male) gaze. Quickly, that sensuality escalates into violence. Dancers grope and grab one another in increasingly outlandish ways. Police sirens cue a dancer to backhand one of her co-stars and throttle the other — all still in time to Parker’s now sultry, jazz-forward soundtrack.
For a much needed reprieve, we’re introduced to the company’s leader Pari (played by Peña), a seasoned dancer who was pushed off the more respectable, high-society stages of Mexico when the cultural revolution began favoring a more European-centric standard of beauty. When the performance resumes, “Burlesque’s” second half takes a kinder, more female-centric approach. Sharp, violent movement is replaced with fluidity as Pari and her dancer Eri embrace, guiding one another across the stage. Swaying and spinning in each other’s arms with supportive abandon, their bodies blend into one.
Exploring these themes of Mexican feminine identity further is vignette number three, “Jalisco.” While there are several praise worthy dances that explore gender expectation within this segment, the most outstanding of these addresses Mexico’s ongoing femicides. Shot in black and white and set to a forlorn acoustic guitar that strums sporadically in the distance, the performance starts with three women dancers, lying lifeless on the floor. Their spoken words narrating throughout: “Bodies together, bones piled on bones, bodies, bodies that are not ours [… ] for hundreds of years….” Slowly, limbs begin to reach around their surroundings as if reaching cautiously in the dark. These arms and legs regain structure, raising their dancers from their rest. Standing tall, the women’s arms stab and swing erratically but not without control, as if each swing of their arm has the power to strike those responsible for their pain.
Interestingly, the show’s fourth vignette, “Danza del Venado,” features no dance at all, and instead uses a short-film discussing Ballet Folklórico’s appropriation of indigenous culture, particularly its re-creation and subsequent warping of a ceremonial dance from Mexico’s Yaqui people. This segment ends with a monologue by would-be-dancer David, musing on why the dance makes him uncomfortable.
“Veracruz,” the final segment of “Mexico Expropriated”, features an original piece of choreography that uses elements plucked from throughout the show to paint a more transparent picture of Mexican identity. Wearing their cultural influences on their sleeves, the dancers now combine elements of Spanish footwork, full-body gyrations characteristic of Afro-Mexican culture, high kicks that remind of the Aztec section of “Mexico Expropriated” and floor work that harkens back to moves seen in burlesque for a final celebration of liberation from strict artistic ideals.
As this final dance comes to a close, I’m left with the belief that, for the most part, this yearlong wait has been worthwhile. Peña’s FUTURX previews hinted at a production brimming with heart, humor, and excitement; it seems the artist hasn’t lost sight of what first drew me to her work in the first place: an impressive ability to balance scholarly research with a genuine passion for her art form.
When I briefly summarized the performance for a drama critic friend of mine, they remarked that they usually avoided productions like “Mexico Expropriated” because they were “screeds” as opposed to two-sided conversations. To that end, one could argue that Peña’s production is not concerned with having a conversation or playing devil’s advocate for organizations like Ballet Folkorico (for that, one would likely have to consult Peña’s 100-page thesis).
I would argue, however, that Peña’s show intends to be and succeeds as a powerful tool for starting such conversations — a crucial first step toward a future where beloved traditions and beliefs are viewed as dynamic entities, not static unquestionable truths.
“Mexico Expropriated” isn’t a piece that has all the answers, and it never claimed to be. But I challenge anyone who will experience “Mexico Expropriated” — even the individual that will disagree with every last one of Peña’s assertions — to view a straightforward performance of Jarabe Tapatío (that’s what you White folks call the Mexican hat dance) through the same unquestioning lens as they did before.
You can watch “Mexico Expropriated” at mexexpropriated.com