Sebastian Hernandez identifies as gender non-conforming, and the evening long dance/theater production was presented to a sold-out house at Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) this past weekend examined that complex subject. It also took on subjects like sexual preferences, trauma and the stripping away of external masks donned to conform and be accepted by others. HYPANTHIUM was previously shown as a work-in-progress on REDCAT’s NOW Festival last July 2018. It has grown in length since then, but not all that growth was positive. It was still, however, full of striking images, beautiful dancing and honest realities.

Much of HYPANTHIUM’s focus was on the issues of what we perceive as normal, so for the reader, I will honor Hernandez’s gender identification with the use of the pronouns they or their, and the more commonly used ones for performers Angel Acuña and Autumn Silas Randolph. Although modifying the use of gender non-specific language is sometimes confusing to my generation, I want to try and honor it here.

In their program, Hernandez states that Hypanthium takes it name from that part of a rose that holds nectar. In all flowering plants, it is a cup-shaped tube, sometimes called a floral tube which It is present in most flowering species. Like everything in nature, the hypanthium comes in a variety of shapes, and it is this differentiation between the hypanthium species that is used for identification. Hernandez’s work directs our attention to the differences in humanity; differences that are perhaps more alike in all of us than we realize or admit to.

As the audience filed in, the sound of a steady heartbeat is heard. An ice bag sculpture by Maria Maea hangs above center stage with descending hues of yellow, green and blue. Three blond wood chairs sat along stage right with a pair of women’s low heel shoes on each one. As performance time approached, the heartbeat sped up and was joined by a beeping noise that evoked a hospital monitor.

A film, directed by Hernandez and shot by Rafa Esparza, presents Hernandez dressed in tights, a halter top, high heels and long pink tassels flowing from their head like a unicorn’s tail. They are walking along one of Los Angeles’ older bridges (4th street perhaps) just after dusk, appearing distressed or disoriented. The words “How bad can it get” were repeated as they moved back and forth the bridge avoiding cars, walking along the cement wall or lying on it. Their dilemma is not address or resolved before the film’s completion, but we are left with the knowledge that it is an ongoing problem.

In a darkened theater, the trio of performers were first seen walking along the theater’s side grid area. There were flashing light effects which turned out to be the flashes from camera strobes. Streaks of red, white and black peeked out during the rapid flashes, until the performers reached the stage area and a beautiful static moving solo by Randolph costumed in all white dashed in front of us.

When the lights came up to full, the trio huddled together moving in frantic circle with their hands on each other’s faces and placing a hand inside the other’s mouth and holding the lower jaw. It was disturbing at first, but soon morphed into an overly long examination of bisexuality. This section felt like Hernandez chose a piece of music and felt obligated to fill it up with movement but ran out of ideas before the song ended. The point was made and stated until I no longer cared.

They brought my mind back from wandering with two powerful solos performed in a gaudy green light. One by the amazingly beautiful dancer Randolph and the other performed by Hernandez. Both solos were filled with a constant motion that used the floor as an active partner. Randolph’s was sensual and earthy, whereas Hernandez’s incorporated brief but articulate elements of hip-hip popping fused with a grounded release technique. Both solos appeared connected, but never met.

Hypanthium. Chor_ Sebastian Hernandez. Photo by Vanessa Crocini4 Hypanthium. Sebastian hernandez. Photo by Vanessa Crocini Hypanthium. Sebastian hernandez. Photo by Vanessa Crocini3 Hypanthium. Sebastian hernandez. Photo by Vanessa Crocini5 Hypanthium. Sebastian hernandez. Photo by Vanessa Crocini7 Hypanthium. Sebastian hernandez. Photo by Vanessa Crocini8 Hypanthium. Sebastian hernandez. Photo by Vanessa Crocini12 Hypanthium. Sebastian hernandez. Photo by Vanessa Crocini13 Hypanthium. Sebastian hernandez. Photo by Vanessa Crocini14
Angel Acuña, Autumn Silas Randolph, Sebastian Hernandez in Hypanthium - Photo by Vanessa Crocini

At the end of HYPANTHIUM, I was left with a sense that these three characters were actually one person: he, she, & they. Each section, like the one performed on the diagonal in a stream of harsh white light, brought them together, mixed them up and revealed similar traits that overlapped. During this diagonal, the three were almost fused together. Hands became a mask that was then wiped away, and each one took a turn being in the lead. To me, this section encapsulated the essence of HYPANTHIUM; the exposure and striping away of the masks we were to conform. We all have different masks for different situations, and Hernandez’s work was telling me that those masks are no longer necessary.

The section with the wonderful chairs designed by Rafa Esparza that looked like straight back rocking chairs gone awry, was a stylized conversation and competition between three characters wearing sunglasses and heels. It was both poignant and humorous. A grid-shaped walking section spoke to stereotypical attitudes of LA.  Other stereotypes were exposed, relationships ripped open and emotions like jealousy turned into a demon faced cartoon within the digital video by Gabriela Ruiz and Sebastian Hernandez; 3D digital artist: Derek Houlgin and sound by Andrew Eastman.

Hernandez is a beautiful mover who knows how to use the floor and well-versed in the use of metaphors. Several sections, however, of HYPANTHIUM would benefit from some editing. Also, the sound level was far too high for the REDCAT black box space. The club style music bounced off the black walls and I felt that it grew louder with each passing. The dancers are beautiful. The movement vocabulary feels thin, but when Hernandez excels when he settles down into the more theater-based parts of the work.

The lighting by REDCAT’s Lighting Director Matt Johns was stunning. It broke up the space into multiple areas. The costumes were designed by Hernandez and Randolph and again, the beautiful and talented dance artists were Angel Acuña, Sebastian Hernandez, and Autumn Silas Randolph.

To access Sebastian Hernandez’s Facebook page, click here.

To the Schedule of Events at REDCAT, click here.

Featured image: Sebastian Hernandez: HYPANTHIUM – Photo by Vanessa Crocini