Savoring the Bittersweet Themes in ‘Muliebrity’ at Live Arts Fest 2015

While it sounds like a healthful breakfast cereal, muliebrity is the state of being a woman, a synonym for femininity. Muliebrity is also an irresistible dance production, a sweeping and seductive collection of dances about women presented by Blythe Barton and Zaquia Mahler Salinas for Live Arts Fest 2015 at the White Box.

Dancers Cecily Holcombe, Jaime Nixon, Cara Steen, Nicholas Strasburg, Brittany Taylor, Kate Vigmostad Chelsea Zeffiro in "The Occasion of Today." Image: Freya Fang

Barton’s “The Occasion of Today.” Image: Freya Fang


After their huge success at the Fringe Festival last summer – their production was honored as top dance show – Salinas and Barton partnered again for one of ten nights that charted the development of modern dance in America. The sold-out program had both satisfying and sexy elements, and a few sticky things that linger long after the program ends.


For about an hour and a half, we chewed on themes about women as mothers, lovers, abusers and victims, via three dances and a film. We watched masterful dancing and wrestled with provocative ideas about sexuality and costumes, relationships and musical choices.


A dramatic athletic dancer, Salinas is drawn to gritty un-pretty forms that inspire compassion and discussion. In the solo “Meditation,” dancer Sulijah Learmont clawed the air and walked with loose limbs from side to side as a caged animal. Her red dress suggested something risqué, but her dress wasn’t long enough to hide a white slip and underpants underneath. She was still an innocent young girl inside.


When Salinas presented “Hirudinea and Her Host” for the Fringe Festival, she and her dancers appeared on a darkened partitioned stage at the Spreckels Theatre.  The women were just as seductive and dangerous in the intimate White Box space.

Collaborator/dancers: Zaquia Salinas Mahler, Angelica Lee Bell, Desiree Cuizon, Sarah Navarrete in the provocative "Hirudinea and her Host." Image: Freya Fang

Collaborator/dancers: Zaquia Salinas Mahler, Angelica Lee Bell, Desiree Cuizon, Sarah Navarrete in “Hirudinea and Her Host.” Image: Freya Fang


Salinas conjured the darkest side of dysfunctional families and relationships. In sheer blue dresses, women wrestled wildly and threatened with their eyes. One bit her thumb to numb the pain. Straining guitar and kicks suggested a drug-fueled night in a bar. A smoldering Salinas was the most frightening abuser and shoved and pushed extra hard. One dancer rode on another like a whipped pony. A tall threatening dancer (Sarah Navarrete) with arms pumped looked like she was going to snap the neck of her captive partner (Angelica Lee Bell).


Salinas has been criticized for using sweaty erotic images to explore the idea of people sucking another person dry. Hirudinea is the scientific term for leeches. In an earlier review I compared the work to wrestling in shadows instead of mud. My colleague Janice Steinberg loved the fluid and fierce movement, but thought it belonged in an artsy gentleman’s club.

Angelica Lee Bell holds a striking pose in "Hiudinea and her Post." Image: Freya Fang

Angelica Lee Bell holds a striking pose in “Hirudinea and her Host.” Image: Freya Fang


Clearly the work is erotic and perplexing. It sticks with you like a leech. I love this dance because of its insidious design. Let’s applaud Salinas for creating aggressive narratives without the usual tricks, such as literal costumes and props, and without men. There’s nothing pretty or pink and the work belongs on a concert stage.


She lured us in with images of domination and vampires, but then the women morphed. We stopped seeing them in a sexual way. Salinas and her knockout cast reminded us that women are powerful and weak, nurturing and demeaning. Finding the host depends on perception. How they transformed into multi-faceted human beings while dressed in slinky dresses was unforgettable.

Barton is a classically trained dancer with her own company, Blythe Barton Dance, and she is company dancer with both San Diego Dance Theater and Malashock Dance. A tall, elegant mover, she make dances that tell compelling stories.


Like many of her dances, her new work The Occasion of Today for seven dancers unfolded like a book of short stories, but this one was extra thick. Sequences seemed very familiar. There should be a ban on handstands used to push dancers in a new direction. Complex gestures and sweeping floor patterns were the strength of the work, and it was all beautifully danced.

Nicholas Strasburg balances as Jaime Nixon carries Brittany Taylor in "The Occasion of Today." Image: Freya Fang

Nicholas Strasburg balances as Jaime Nixon carries Brittany Taylor in “The Occasion of Today.” Image: Freya Fang


A wow moment had four lining up on the diagonal and fluttering backward, as if someone had hit rewind. Equally potent were gentle touches to the face and ear. Imagine a mother checking her earrings and sanity. Dancers locked eyes and created short abstract narratives about marriage, friends, and breakups, but there were five songs to fuel the stories. Lyrics became jarring rather than helpful. When we heard the lyric “I wish I were a little girl” we also heard a sweet baby cry in the audience, which was magical. That made us wish for fewer words to process.

Barton is a gifted dance maker, and I look forward to viewing a shorter, tighter version of this strong dance. Perhaps she’ll choose instrumental music, or sounds mixed with silence so we can savor all of her luscious vocabulary and partnering.

Barton and Salinas also presented a short video with local dancers speaking about their struggles and inspirations. They spoke of getting up earlier to make it happen, worries about money, aging, and raising children, but also finding honesty and truth through dancing, as images of women dancing in a park near Ocean Beach scrolled by.

Muliebrity Program

Live Arts Fest 2015 continues May 2 at the White Box. Dance artists Katie Duck of Amsterdam and Yolande Snaith of San Diego present HERE WE ARE. 619-225-1803. Seating is limited.

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