Review: BRAVA presents Vanessa Sanchez and La Mezcal’s Pachuquísmo March 12, 2023 BRAVA Theater, SF
I leave Brava Theater with a new bounce in my step, inspired by the syncopated rhythms of Vanessa Sanchez and La Mezcla's show, Pachuquísmo. The nine female performers are hometown heroes returning to the stage that launched their year-long tour of the United States. These shows, a presentation of Brava! for Women in the Arts on March 11 and 12, are their penultimate performances, before moving on to their next project, Ghostly Labor scheduled to premiere at Brava Theater in November 2023. (Pachuquísmo final dates: Lincoln Center, NYC March 18 and 19).
Bows for Pachuquísmo Creator Vanessa Sanchez w Purple Bouffant center, band members on Right; Photo: J Norris
Pachuquísmo is a masterful work. It is a multi-disciplinary show layering percussive dance, live music, projected images, and narration to highlight oft-neglected events in our collective history. The primary focus is the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots of June of 1943, and in particular the role of las Pachucas, the Latinx women involved. A time when the swaggering Mexican youth in their loose-fitting colorful suits drew the ire of servicemen, who only saw a misuse of fabric during wartime rationing. The production is well researched and clearly presented serving as a resolutely relevant history lesson. Not only were my feet longing to tap along, but my social justice synapses were firing, as I enjoyed the unapologetically feminist, entertaining, and inspiring evening,
Sandy Vazquez, Kirsten Millan, Micah Sallid and Pachuquísmo creator and lead performer Vanessa Sanchez command our attention and respect with their impressive percussive polyrhythmic dancing, which draws from tap, Mexican Zapateado Jarocho and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. They are supported by a five-piece live band playing American popular music of the forties and Son Jarocho, the musical genre of Veracruz, Mexico.
In the opening dance the women wear skirts their hair in exaggerated bouffant hair styles (Hair and Costume Design by: Ariana Martinez). Their rebozos, long woven scarves, held away from their bodies ripple and wave, arcing over their heads, an extension of their swirling arms when they spin. Stopping to pose, a triumphant arm raised, the other resting on a cocked hip, they reference flamenco dancers and toreadors. The Chicano women in the 40’s saw the rebozo as representative of the complete woman, both feminine and strong and ready to fight for respect.
Later, the dancers appear in the oversized zoot suits identified with Pachuquísmo during WWII. The dancers move with a slouchy swagger. Hands in pockets, they tip back, creating a long diagonal from head to toe.
A narrator tells us that service men would routinely attack zoot suiter men, cutting off their trousers, while the police stood by. She tells us the story of Amelia Venegas, a Pachuca, who was jailed for carrying brass knuckles. Two dancers enter shoes a tapping, right arm extended, with bright red brass-knuckles wrapping their fisted fingers. Their percussive partnership concludes with their fists crossed to rest on their hearts in solidarity with Venegas, a rebel heroine.
Sanchez creates a fascinating solo rhythm with the Quijada, a donkey jawbone. Its natural rattle vibrates eerily, accented by the raspy sound of a stick run along the teeth.
The production is simple and effective. A full-stage backdrop is used for projection during the narration segments. For the dance numbers it becomes a colorfully lit sky reinforcing the silhouettes of the fabulous artists. A flat wooden floor provides the ideal surface for the complicated footwork, ensuring the audio textures of a sliding leather shoe as well as the hard sole impacts.
Musical numbers are interspersed with the dancing and narrative sections. Jazz singer and trumpeter, Natalie John shows off her many talents with a beautiful rendition of Dream a Little Dream of Me, a song made famous by singer Ella Fitzgerald and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The five-piece band makes some big noise with Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it ain’t got that swing). As the dancers join this number the long thin gold chains that complete their zoot suit outfits spin out from their waists as they twist their legs on the balls of their feet.
The rich talents of the cast are discovered over the course of the show. Singer Tanya Benítez takes center stage for a captivating acapella ballad, sung in Spanish. Her final long sustained note brings the house down. Luna Fuentes, also takes the center spotlight for a moment sitting atop a cajón, the box shaped percussion instrument, her finger strikes creating complex rhythms. Not to be outdone, her heels tapping as she waves the skirt of her flowered dress with her hands, singer and guitarist Argelia Arreola joins Sanchez on the dancefloor.
The only performer who remains in the band’s side-stage home throughout is bassist Ayla Davila, who is responsible for the musical direction and arrangements for Pachuquísm. She gets her due applause at the end of the night.
Vanessa Sanchez and La Mezcla are wonderful ambassadors of the Bay Area arts scene. It’s great to imagine them bringing the story of Las Pachucas and the Zoot Suit Riots to communities as disparate as Arkansas and Washington, D.C.
Company Bows for Vanessa Sanchez & La Mezcal photo: JNorris
Review by Jen Norris, published March 14, 2023
Performers: Argelia Arreola, Ayla Davila, Kirsten Millan, Luna Fuentes, Micah Sallid, Natalie John, Sandy Vazquez, Tanya Benítez, Vanessa Sanchez
Director & Choreographer: Vanessa Sanchez
Musical Director & Arrangements: Ayla Davila
Son Jarocho Arrangements & Advisor: Laura Rebolloso
Musical Advisor: Greg Landau
Historical Advisors: Dr. Catherine Ramirez & John Jota Leaños
Technical Director & Lighting Designer: Justine Fernandez
Audio Engineer & Sound Design: David Molina
Hair and Costume Design by: Ariana Martinez
Company Manager: Sharon Benítez