El Gato Teatro Makes Her Home in Harlem

El Gato Teatro, a dance theater collective led by Harlem resident, Gabriella Barnstone premiered its latest work Nuevo Laredo at Dixon Place last week. El Gato Teatro fuses dance, theater, text, music, and sheer entertainment to create powerful works of art and magic. The production features stunning mask work, sharp design, and a sound track that is both haunting and irritatingly catchy. What were her inspirations for this bold new piece about the border town and the Mexican drug war? How does it work exactly to be an uptown artist producing in a downtown-dominated industry?

Nuevo Laredo
Gabriella Barnstone periodically checks her watch but seems unhurried or pressured by the audience trickling in on her open rehearsal. She has agreed as part of Dixon Place’s World Theatre Day celebration to open the doors and allow people a sneak peek at her creative process. Entitled Nuevo Laredo, this is Barnstone’s third show at DixonPlace, and her second Laredo. The original Laredo was done 10 yrs ago, and this is the response. The title bears significance in that it references her earlier work, and retains an “epic” feeling as she puts it. There is definitely something mythical about a border.

In a product-crazed industry, audiences too often miss out on watching a work in progress. At this rehearsal, lights and sound come up suddenly jolting everyone in the audience except for the elderly lady who is gently dozing in the front row. Friends and fans munch chocolates and check in on Facebook. The dancers are focused and seem unaware that they are giving a performance at all. The intensity of the focus is matched by their commitment to interacting with one another. Their movements are muscular and graceful as they drag, scoop, swirl, and thrust themselves across the stage. Barnstone’s choreography is clearly inspired by everyday movements, but is executed with the precision and flow of a superb cast. El Gato Teatro is a pick up group of artists, some of whom she has worked with many times.

El Gato Teatro
Carlton Ward as “El Chayo” dazzles as a sharply twisting and turning Man in the White Suit who both mystifies and impresses you with utter command over his own form. Ward’s cast mates tell me that he even mixes in a few visual tricks from clowning experience. As I later learned, “El Chayo” was the name used to refer to the recently assassinated leader one of Mexico’s most violent new drug gangs, La Familia.

Providing a stark contrast to El Chayo, David Hale plays El Sicario, the hitman. Clad in a dark military shirt and bare feet, he is deceptively agile. As I later found out, he was trained not as a dancer, but as an actor with movement technique, which is enhanced by healthy natural ability, and a well rehearsed powerful routine. Practically hurling himself around the stage one moment, the next he folds his hands and tells us straight-faced, “I could earn $20,000 a killing.” Hale does not shy away from the complexity of his character and conveys the nuance with precision.

I am particularly struck by the solo sequence of El Sicario when Hale recounts, in perfect “Gringo” Spanish, his fondest childhood memory of going to the circus with his father. In a matter-of-fact, almost monotone delivery, he tells us the story of how he was working for the police force, when his “arm began to grow.” Before he knew it, he was working for the drug lords of the local gangs and was torturing and killing others on a regular basis. His growing forearm initiated many of the sequences as he chopped, pushed, and swung it around the space. His physical strength, the inner turmoil of his duty, and his blank unfeeling mask aptly reflected his character’s brutal story.

Audrey Ellis, staggers on stage seemingly under the influence. She is fair skinned, with golden ringlets that hang on either side of her slim frame within a beige slip, recalling the alternate name for her character, La Nina Blanca. She swoops her hand up with her palm facing her face, drags her hand up her nose and forehead, and the momentum of this pass sends her reeling backward into the arms of El Chayo. Their pas-de-deux is at once sinister and sensual. Their interaction reveals the intricacy of their inter-dependency on one another. He places her on a pedestal, and drapes her in beautiful pink glittering garments, and the mask of death. Barnstone’s imagery sings.

As a statue of La Santa Muerte, Ellis experiments with stillness, jerking into new poses, before snapping back, and making you question your own eyesight. In a later duet with El Sicario, she is dancing as La Santa Muerta, death herself. Their exchange is softer, and more intimate. Audrey Ellis transforms herself into La Santa Muerta through her remarkable mask work. She carries Hale’s body- literally two and a half times her size, on her back then leans him up against her legs, before resting his head in descending pieta poses. Her presence on stage is natural and easy to watch.

The Show is the Thing
Inspired by Annie B Parson’s Big Dance Theater, Barnstone realized “you can get the movement from anywhere.” Tracing her inspiration for Nuevo Laredo leads you back to her childhood in Texas, where she grew up fluent in English and Spanish, and frequently found herself in conversations using both languages at the same time. The border town where she visited her grandmother, now deserted due to the media’s emphasis on drug related gang violence, is reflected in Paul Olmer’s sparse set design. Deliberate vacancies are filled by the fleeting shapes created by the dancers, like ghosts of people who used to be there. Sound Designer Nicholas Colvin borrowed the ambient sounds of a documentary film about La Santa Muerte, while Barnstone chose songs ranging from Mexican gangster rap to Los Lobos as the backdrop soundscape. We see Laredo as she sees it, revisited and now through a new lens, pregnant with memories.

Barnstone swears after each show closes that, she is “never going to do this again.” She defines success as simply “making the thing.” Rather than trying to elicit some particular reaction, she is more interested in the audience trying to decide the meaning for themselves. With all her shows, she relies heavily on the process of collaboration with her actors. This is one of the first shows she has not danced in herself. She trusts fully that “collaboration is its own reward.” In her rehearsal process, the scenario and motif is shared with the actors and then everyone improvises responses. Though she is the creative vision behind the piece, she believes that one person cannot have all the good ideas. Her work has been shown at mostly downtown experimental venues such as The Ohio Theater, The Kitchen, and the Chocolate Factory.

When I asked her for her feelings about the poverty amongst artists trying to survive in New York City, she responded that she feels very fortunate to be able to continue to make work and supplement her income with a career teaching yoga. She insists that what artists can do is “to be as professional as you can and hopefully the money and things you need will eventually will rise up to meet you.” Her beautiful website featuring past performances reinforces her insistence on documenting her work, even though it can never recreate the live experience of sitting in her theater.

Harlem is Home
Though her work is produced downtown and in Brooklyn, Barnstone has lived in West Harlem for about 10 yrs now. She was one of the few lucky people selected to purchase a newly renovated home through the housing lottery. “How does an artist buy a house?” According to her, with painstaking persistence.

She describes her experience when she first moved uptown and lived on Manhattan Ave. She remembers being embarrassed by the tourists from other neighborhoods who would pick her out of a crowd on a busy street to ask her “is it safe here?” In the past decade, she has witnessed the enormous growth and changing demographics in the neighborhood first hand. Like others who have made their home in Harlem, she faces the challenge of defending her right to call Harlem home amidst a gentrifying population. “All of a sudden you’re the enemy, even though I’ve lived here for 10 years!” She strictly condemns the process of eliminating affordable housing options in favor of the luxury high rises being built throughout Harlem. She believes that change and renovation are a good thing, but that affordable housing should go hand in hand with these changes.

Barnstone is one of many artists who have made their home in Harlem as an alternative to other densely artist populated neighborhoods downtown and in Brooklyn. “There are actually a lot of us,” she tells me. Yet, artists like Barnstone are typically forced to present their work downtown because of the lack of smaller, experimental venues in Harlem. Perhaps this growing population of artists in the neighborhood will galvanize one day, and venture to create work within the community they call home.

Nuevo Laredo is playing at Dixon Place 161A Chrystie St. (Btw. Rivington and Delancy) through April 23rd at 9:30 p.m. Tickets: $15 (advance); $18 (door)

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