IMPRESSIONS: Larissa Velez-Jackson’s “Zapatografia/Shoegraphy” at Abrons Arts Center
Friday, November 30, 2018
Creation, Writing, and Direction: Larissa Velez-Jackson
Performance: Larissa Velez-Jackson and Talya Epstein with Lillian Bermudez, Myrna Badillo, Martha Burgos, John Garcia, Ana Gonzalez, and Muñeca Sanchez
Dramaturgy: Gabriel Rivera
Scenic Design: Gabriel Rivera and Larissa Velez-Jackson
Lighting Design: Lillie De
There’s a secret to making someone laugh. Relate a scenario that has a seemingly predictable outcome. Then, swerve it at the end. Posited by Kant, refined by Schopenhauer, the incongruity theory of humor suggests a joke is a joke because of just that. Mismatch tickles our funny bone.
This theory may explain my contrasting responses to Larissa Velez-Jackson’s Zapatografia/Shoegraphy at Abrons Arts Center. It often felt like two separate pieces stapled together at the last minute, the line of demarcation jagged and rough. The first part, full of trite wit, left me lukewarm. The second, bursting with surprises, elicited belly laughs.
As the Spanish/English title indicates, this has shoes, shoes, and more shoes: preppy flats, vertiginous heels, and medical walking boots. They begin stuffed in a black suitcase that Velez-Jackson rolls onstage and end as an ad-hoc sculpture decorating that same suitcase.
She introduces the pairs to us. “Craft strategy,” she says, holding up hiking boots. “Kraft macaroni” follows, taupe Grecian sandals from which laces dangle forlornly. Her assistant, White Shadow (the entrancing Talya Epstein), situates the shoes at precise intervals on the floor.
Velez-Jackson puts on each and every pair, adopting the character of the shoes. For red sneakers, she becomes a game-day athlete. She jogs, she does jumping jacks, and she has her shoulders massaged by White Shadow. For silver tap shoes, she cheeses it up with jazz hands and showgirl poses. For sleek black heels, she vamps and struts. For fluffy pink slippers, she . . . you can probably guess.
The structure of a joke is simple: setup, progression, punch line. A gifted comedian, Velez-Jackson nails the setup and progression yet bungles the punch line, mostly because there’s not much of a punch line to swivel to. She fulfills the promise of ballet slippers with exaggerated arabesques and fluttering port de bras. By mocking rather than upending the stereotype of a ballerina, she doubles down on zigging rather than zagging.
During all this, five senior citizens sit on the sidelines behind a conference table. They are from Henry Street Settlement. (As her day job, Velez-Jackson teaches fitness classes to older adults.) For the longest time, they do nothing save watch politely.
Then, incongruence! White Shadow dons red flamenco shoes, which enlivens a female senior to join her onstage. The duo drills their feet into the floor with brio as another senior strums a guitar.
Ultimately, the seniors take the stage, dancing street cha cha as they cycle around a ring of spotlights. In aquamarine platform heels, Velez-Jackson serenades the audience. She holds extra-long, unblinking eye contact with me and flirts with others.
Zapatografia/Shoegraphy contains the best ending ever — an all-ages dance party. Audience members join White Shadow and Velez-Jackson for a Soul Train line before partnering up for a merengue. The smiles are big, the surprises more so.
White Shadow dives into a somersault; her senior male partner backs off before ripping into a forward roll himself. A baseball-capped showgoer dances with an older woman, their hips swinging like a pair of maracas — just two gals enjoying their Friday night. Everyone grapevines downstage and upstage as if they’re in a Richard Simmons exercise class. At the end, Velez-Jackson thanks us for attending her “minimalist formalist community experiment,” garnering a last chuckle from the audience.
It’s been said a laugh is the shortest distance between two people. Here, it’s a dance.