Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Multi-layered tale of Mermaids and Jersey Sacrifice

Keila Cordova's approach erupts into a mythological world of mermaids and island romance.

Multi-layered tale of Mermaids and Jersey Sacrifice

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Here’s what you need to know about choreographer Keila Cordova: she approaches all of her dance-theatre works from a multiplicity of angles. Whether she’s creating pieces about the weather, cloning, Manifest Destiny—or in the case of Volcano, My Love—the modern relevance of mermaid mythology, she sculpts a multi-tiered tableau teeming with vivid imagery. In some cases, including her current Fringe show, whole worlds well up from this process.

In Volcano, a shipwrecked man floats through a sea swimming in strange creatures. He’s captured by a mermaid; with each kiss, she steals his memory then later releases him to live on land as a stranger on an island kingdom. Here, mermaids haunt the dreams of the women that love him.

This part-play, part-dance piece bursts with poetry, scripted scenes, direct address narrative, dream sequences, mesmerizing ensemble numbers accentuated by K. Moriah Smith’s sheer, shimmering costumes, and myth borrowed from many sources (such as the Greek notion that bathing in river Styx robs our personal history).

A pair of microphones flanks the stage cabaret-style; multiple performers grip their stands to sing or speak. Multiple perspectives emerge, some didactic (an awkward academic speaks of mermaid mating patterns), others tragic. Hints of humor poke at contemporary fascination with The Jersey Shore.

Shon Causer’s lighting imbues Cordova’s text with fantastical hues: bright rays of sun passing through the sea’s surface, tunnels of light shining around a towering volcano or glimmering off the ocean. Cordova’s choreography contributes characterization: underwater sirens sway at the hips through deep currents, island girls whirl long legs through the air in ceremonial dances. A special nod goes to Kate Abernethy—long a central dancer in Cordova’s work; here she anchors the ensemble with her graceful presence.

Through these elements, Cordova explores the meaning of mermaids and unfamiliar (even repulsive) traditions, teasing out threads at the loss of virginity, passing from adolescence into adulthood and independence giving way to a new body in paired union. The result: an incredibly rich—if occasionally incoherent—fusion of style and subject matter capable of yielding a wide variety of aesthetic experiences and meanings.

Her past four Fringe shows have all displayed this thorough approach. But like an architect employing the same tools to erect dissimilar structures, the culmination of Cordova’s techniques reveal a thoroughly distinctive voice. If any one of Philadelphia’s obscure choreographers deserves more attention, it’s Ms Cordova.

Now you know her. Go find out for yourself.

--Jim Rutter

Volcano, My Love. Presented at Conwell Dance Theater at Temple University, 1801 North Broad Street. Friday, September 14 at 9PM, Saturday, September 15 at 2PM and 8PM. Tickets: $15

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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