What happens when the earth is neglected? Zorongo Flamenco Dance Co. asks this question in artistic director Susana di Palma’s new production, which is based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s play Yerma and divided into two separate shows, this month’s Romeria and October’s Marchita. This two-part structure is daring in itself, but Zorongo goes further than that: they’re presenting Romeria outside, on several stages at Minnehaha Falls Park.
When the production begins at the bandshell, it doesn’t seem that this gamble will pay off. Fellow audience members are too distracting—they talk to each other and on their cell phones, they come in, they leave, they block your view, they take pictures. It’s evident that the main characters—Yerma, the barren and abandoned wife (Adriana Meresma Fois); Juan, her careless husband (Timo Nunez; Raul Salcedo takes the part on Saturday and Sunday); and a crone, a witch of the old ways (Susana di Palma)—are all played by powerful and skilled performers, but their drama seems small and far away. The location doesn’t fit either: the bandshell awkwardly stands in for an interior.
But once the romeria (pilgrimage) begins, everything changes. The first scene over, we’re led down a long staircase (wear walking shoes!) through the woods. The green light filters through leaves, the smell of earth, the procession, the song that we’re encouraged to sing, all this changes the mood at once. By the time we arrive at the bottom of the stairs, the story of Yerma’s quest for fertility isn’t just something we’re watching; we are the romeria.
Even what you might normally consider a bother—the difficulty of seeing the dance through people and trees—becomes part of the experience. When Yerma dances her frustration, her wild-bird hands and her storm-weather shifts are given new meaning by a thin screen of branches. The disrespectful Juan’s modern attire and forceful hammer-beats seem all the more out of place, out of tune on this stage among trees.
The apex of the performance is just such a conjunction of story and nature. Yerma’s efforts to become pregnant through gentle sympathetic magic (having a pregnant woman step over her scarf) have been frustrated by her unkind husband. (Admittedly, in a modern context this element of the story is a little weak. What if the guy just doesn’t want kids? But we have to see the metaphor here: Yerma is not just a woman, she is nature herself.) So Yerma turns to darker magic: now it’s not just fertility she’s after, it’s revenge.
As the crone, di Palma beats out a spell on a stage lodged perilously in high rocks beside the stream. In this powerful moment, reality and performance blend. If di Palma were a real priestess (and in some way, artists are), we would see her this way: crowded together, straining for a view, and catching her violent incantations at last through birch leaves, the gliding stream’s sound in counterpoint to the driving flamenco beat.
Romeria is a cliff-hanger—the full consequences of Yerma’s neglect and revenge will have to wait until Marchita, which happens at the Southern Theater, Oct. 16-19. But it is an experience in itself, and not just for the eyes and mind. By taking us through the park, by making us walk a romeria of our own, di Palma and company get their point across bodily. Minnehaha Falls Park, like all the nature that remains, is beautiful, and being in it calms, soothes, and strengthens us. But how often do we go into nature? How much, in our daily lives, do we care for the world that sustains us?
Romeria continues through Sept. 21, with free shows daily beginning at 6 p.m., zorongo.org