AUDIENCE REVIEW: "Manifested Destiny" by mignolo dance
November 15th, 2020
With the debut of their first evening-length piece, “Manifested Destiny,” contemporary dance company mignolo dance’s co-founders — sisters Charly & Eriel Santagado — put their artistic prowess on display. I attended the drive-in performance on November 15th, 2020, at 7PM at the Pearl Street Parking Deck in Metuchen, NJ, and from the moment I arrived, I was impressed by how they transformed the simple parking deck into a charming performing space. They sectioned off a portion of the lot, and cars full of spectators surrounded the performance space in a u-shape. In front of the vehicles, masked viewers sat on blankets and chairs. Marley was carefully laid on the floor and served as their makeshift stage, and the set design consisted of a brown leather chair and bookcase filled with a colorful assortment of books.
After a brief introduction, it was show time! The piece’s musical accompaniment was carefully crafted. The diverse mixture included text from thirteen distinguished American writers, text by cast member Nikolai Popow and Artistic Director Charly Santagado, and original music by Vicente Hansen and Charly Santagado. The movement directly reflected the text through precise intricate gestures that provided meaningful visuals of the words that bellowed both out of the sound system and at times the dancers’ mouths.
The choreography, a collaboration between Charly & Eriel Santagado and the ensemble of dancers showcased the tremendous technique of everyone involved in the performance. Each dancer represented a different author whose words served as the blueprint for the piece’s movement vocabulary. As they effortlessly traversed both high and low levels with phrases that used every inch of the “stage,” it was clear that each movement was intentional from a roll in the spine to a small hand gesture to a mischievous smile.
I particularly enjoyed the way that the dancers stayed in character throughout the entirety of the performance, even during group work. The intersectional identities of the authors they represented played a fundamental role in how they presented themselves, and how they were received by the other cast members. I interpreted these meaningful interactions to be reflexive of the varied American experience; even when they were all sharing the same space, their experiences were not uniform and some dancers had more power and influence than others.
An exciting element of the performance was the inclusion of the audience. Spectators in cars were invited to turn on their hazard lights during the William Tell Overture and many participated in lighting up the stage as the ensemble enthusiastically danced with smiling faces. It was a joy to watch.
I appreciated the counterbalance between sections that were serious, and ones that were lighthearted, which allowed for a well-rounded viewing experience. I laughed at the NYC-inspired portion of the performance that filled the space with the harsh honk of car horns and other sounds of the city during which the dancers’ movements reflected the hustle and bustle, and included gestures like the middle finger flipped by an angry pedestrian.
I was deeply moved by the portion of the piece choreographed to Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” The movements were light, fun, and full of energy in the beginning and later became smaller as the tree, who was beautifully personified by Karolina Holmstrom, gave away pieces of herself until she became nothing more than a place to sit. Not only were her movements skillfully executed, but this section of the piece also served as a reminder that the land we live on lovingly provides for us so we must not exploit it, but instead nurture it.
Overall I really enjoyed the performance. The choreography was intentional, precise, and executed beautifully to the engaging text and musical accompaniment. Charly, Eriel, the cast, and everyone else involved in the production should be proud of the work they did. My only critique regards the title of the work.
Naming a piece “Manifested Destiny” seems ill-conceived given the wicked history of the term “manifest destiny,” which inevitably carries with it a justification for genocide. Supporters of this ideal have used it to commit heinous acts, the repercussions of which are still felt widely nearly 200 years later. In this country, we are far from reaching any sense of true equality; the “liberty and justice for all” boasted by The Pledge of Allegiance since the late 1800s feels more like a smack in the face than a genuine ideal. People of color face systemic oppression every day, oppression which certainly did not begin with the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the subsequent increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement or end with the civil rights movement.
While the fact that more people are actively making the effort to be allies is a step in the right direction, it is important that such efforts take into account how their attempts at allyship will impact those affected by the issue at hand. Hearing the term “manifest destiny” in any form can cause harm to those who are impacted by this country’s history of genocide and white supremacy. As a black woman who has dealt with many instances of racism, I found the title insensitive, and think the fact that it was never directly addressed in the work did more harm than good.
With that said, I appreciate their effort to make a piece that comments on issues that people of color face. Just as there is room for improvement in this country, there is room for improvement in their execution of highlighting racial issues. Just as all this damage was not done overnight, we cannot heal overnight, but by having important conversations and understanding the failures of the past, we can proactively work towards creating the world we want to live in.
All things considered, I am glad I got to see mignolo dance’s first evening length performance. The skillful way that the dancers vibrantly brought the text to life was nothing short of exceptional. These artists’ passion and commitment to the work was palpable and I think that with a different title, the work as a whole would have a more positive impact.