There were only two people in the world Rosie Herrera wanted to dance for: German dance theater pioneer Pina Bausch and global pop icon Michael Jackson. Both her dance heroes passed away within days of each other, in June 2009. Six months later, Herrera joined the South Florida dance community in mourning beloved local choreographer Jennylin Duany, who left behind many bereft collaborators, as well as a young husband and a baby daughter.
These three deaths led the 27-year-old Herrera to create her latest work, which was co-commissioned by Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center and the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, where the piece premiered last summer. Moved by the outpouring of love at Jennylin Duany’s funeral, Herrera asked her dancers to help her explore the close relationship between mourning and celebration.
“It just happened that everyone in the company was experiencing some kind of loss,” Herrera recalls. “Pity Party is about grieving.”
But it’s still a party. Herrera’s choreography has all the flash of the King of Pop, with the surreal theatricality of Pina Bausch. Some of the costumes could have been worn on a ‘50s-era American Bandstand broadcast, while others could have come from a drag queen’s closet – an homage to the drag stars who taught Herrera how to put on a show when she worked in a Little Havana cabaret as a teenager.
“The drag queens raised me,” she says. “My mom wasn’t around. They taught me everything about men and make up.”
Two drag queens, Gerardo “Geraldine” Pilatti and Fernando Dughetti, are now in Herrera’s ensemble, alongside b-boy Rudi Goblen, trained contemporary dancers like Luis Cuevas, Liony Garcia, and Ana Mendez, and dance theater choreographer Octavio Campos. That mix might seem eclectic, except that it is a faithful representation of the dance styles that characterize the Magic City.
“My cast is a direct reflection of moving and shaking in Miami,” Herrera explains.
“I picked these dancers because there is never a moment when they don’t amaze me with their generosity, their uniqueness, their voice.”
Herrera has a gift for showcasing her dancers. Rather than force them into the mold of her own esthetic, she has crafted her style from the over-the-top sensibilities of each of her dancers. True to her cabaret roots, Herrera sets the stage for a series of larger-than-life personalities.
Case in point: At the beginning of Pity Party, Octavio Campos summons an audience member at random to the stage and serenades him or her with the Bonnie Tyler heartbreak anthem, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Campos’ presence is so strong that the act of him looking into his companion’s eyes holds the auditorium spellbound.
One line from that song, “every now and then I fall apart,” serves as a stage direction for the rest of the performance. Every happy ritual of celebration comes undone. Wedding reception songs break down into animalistic stomps. The scramble for piñata candy turns into a battle and the piñata bat into a weapon.
Over and over again, the ensemble dances into a frenzy. They groove through a disco line dance. They gyrate like strippers. Then, in an instant, their rapture gives way to anguish.
Rosie Herrera’s “Pity Party” and “Various Stages of Drowning” at 7:30 p.m. on Friday through Sunday at the Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; call 305-949-6722 or go to www.arshtcenter.org.
Published in the Sun Post Weekly, January 2011.