Teresa Toogie Barcelo’s Metanoia, presented this weekend as part of Dance at The Odyssey, begins with a voice prompting a shared deep breath from the audience: an invitation to be present, together. Toogie stands up from her seat on a spinning Lazy Susan and removes several pairs of tights, layered over each other. Shedding her layers, whether of grief or of protection, she readies herself to dig deep into memory.

Toogie calls Metanoia “fertile ground for accidental meditation,” and the call echoes throughout the work, for consideration not only of the tribute happening before you but of the self — as Toogie says, “why and how our hearts, minds, and bodies change.”

METANOIA by Teresa "Toogie" Barcelo - Photo by Owen Scarlett @owenscarlettphoto

METANOIA by Teresa “Toogie” Barcelo – Photo by Owen Scarlett @owenscarlettphoto

With one unitard layer left, Toogie is met by dancer Genna Moroni in a stunningly outrageous full mask that is just one large smile. No eyes, nose, ears – just a smile, taking up the space of the full head. It’s joyfully uncanny, and at first Toogie is reluctant, but then the two meet in a reconciliation of limbs, supporting and observing each other. The duet is tender and thoughtful, almost a bridge to an imaginary space where the rest of the work explores the blurry cross-pollination of generations, movement, sound and space.

The rest of the cast – Reshma Gajjar, Jillian Meyers, Jobel Medina, and Lenin Fernandez, emerge in ruffled sleeves reminiscent of the traditional Cuban rumba shirt (Barcelo’s father was a triple-threat performer in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother a flamenco and classical Spanish dancer). Joe Berry’s score plays overhead: an amalgamation of lost and found music by Toogie’s father, Roberto Barcelo, and original recordings by Berry himself.

Meyers dances a solo to one of the found Barcelo recordings, expressive in the ways of a silent movie star. She moves with curious character, comedic and bittersweet, and comfortably at home in the nuances of the music.

The rest of the cast (minus Toogie) returns to join her, and their sleeves billow out to floor length, rendering them a fluffy octopus that moves as one. This is the liminal space Barcelo conjures — at once whimsical and corporeal, it allows us to contend with memory. We imagine and remember in the same scene, finding comfort in the known and hope in the surreal. These effects — a synergy between the choreography and the costume, are achieved by a longstanding partnership between Barcelo and costume designer Mimi Haddon, as well as costumer Lukas Van Der Fecht. Haddon’s knack for the otherworldly suspends the relationship to body in a way that allows the dancer to become something more, a feeling, not quite a creature. And Barcelo knows how to move them in a way that communicates her thesis on a level more subconscious than just dance steps.

 Cast of "Metanoia" - Choreography by Teresa "Toogie" Barcelo - Photo by Emily Wanserski

Cast of “Metanoia” – Choreography by Teresa “Toogie” Barcelo – Photo by Emily Wanserski

The movement she makes is not necessarily inventive, which I find can sometimes inhibit the choreographic flow in a quest to be entirely original. Rather, Toogie’s movement is employed with an expert understanding of humanness, cued by her holistic practices and the way she sees an entire individual. She evokes the inherent core of movement to express something greater. The scope of her vocabulary across many dance practices contributes here, but her intuition completes the puzzle. And in this work, the cast of dancers morph effortlessly alongside the music, conveying the whole and warm nature of a community at play in grief, remembering, embrace, and elation.

She has a knack for choosing collaborators, as well. Each one of them is uniquely extraordinary, all makers, leaders, and lovers in their own right. And you can feel the care and listening that oscillates between them as they share the stage in painting her memory-dream. Fernandez, now wearing the smile mask, reaches long and collapses in, moving from the heart and the gut. There’s abundant stretch and strength in his limbs, but also within each individual muscle. His acute control shows the emotion deeply and precisely; the hurt and joy moving in contrast to the giant smile with a heartbreaking dissonance.

There is something beneath the outer, obvious connotation of the smile mask hiding grief to make way for function. As the piece moves on, dancers in masks express a childlike joy, unrestrained and unfiltered. There is an anonymity that allows the body to become more of itself, and for the audience to see ourselves in the dancer. We shed our expectations for what the dance should be and open our imagination to accommodate playful insanity.

In a sort-of-vignette, Medina and Fernandez play ping pong with paddles that hold pictures of Barcelo’s parents, becoming agents of imagination. They utter affectionate noises, cuddle the paddles, loving and losing the ping pong balls as they toss them back and forth. They lip sync to Berry’s vocal recordings with delightfully weird facial expressions, and they also move gently and softly. Medina’s contemplation circulates throughout the body, connected intensely to thought, both delicate and steadfast. Moroni moves around them in a gossamer wedding gown of sorts, radiating light from her sternum, pushing it through the strength of her back and shoulder blades and tangling into form and friction.

Teresa Toogie Barcelo. Photo courtesy of the artist

Teresa Toogie Barcelo. Photo courtesy of the artist

Before a solo by Toogie, the three other women — Moroni, Meyers, and Gajjar — separate her cascading hair into three sections, and weave in and out of themselves to braid it. It’s a truly intimate expression of sisterhood, in silence and support. Gajjar is, throughout the work, a quiet and calm anchor, holding a softness for all to land. They leave Toogie onstage to make peace with her own mourning, their care still filling the space.

Her solo is a shedding of layers, a shedding of stress, until she is cradling the memories between her fingers. She moves in homage to her parents, the languages of her childhood home fading in and out with the music. Her conversation with them is poignant in a way that can only be felt through the sacred energy in the theatre.

To close the evening, Berry facilitates a special appearance by marionette Little Tony Clifton, who is then joined for an exuberant celebration by the full cast. Here it sets in that Toogie’s creation process must be void of ego in a way that allows such an unbridled modality of play. The trust and commitment by her collaborators can only exist in an environment that fosters the weird and wonderful individual. And to enjoy the entire cast in this finale is gleeful, beautiful.

When I first saw Barcelo’s work — a few years back in a warehouse in Boyle Heights — I was frankly not prepared to absorb the amount of emotion and reality she can bring through the surreal. She and her perfect band of misfits urge the deepest feelings out of this sublime atmosphere of the strange, and now all I want to do is dive deeper into it.

To learn more about Teresa Toogie Barcelo, please visit her website.

To learn more about The Odyssey Theatre and Dance at the Odyssey, please visit their website.

Written by Celine Kiner for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Cast of Metanoia – Choreography by Teresa “Toogie” Barcelo – Photo by Emily Wanserski