When I picture marshmallows, I conjure up images of soft, spongy white cubes of sugar and air. The Egyptians began the process making individual marshmallows by hand, extracting sap from a mallow plant and mixing it with nuts and honey. In the 1800s, candy makers in France took the sap from mallow plants and combined it with egg whites and sugar. Imagining a sea of them feels comfy and inviting.

szalt dance co. – MARSHMALLOW SEA – photo by Joseph Lambert

Stephanie Zaletel’s MARSHMALLOW SEA is inviting, but not always comforting. There is no fluff; no unnecessary air forced into its structure to make it appear larger. MARSHMALLOW SEA is an evocative work that brought the Bootleg Theater audience to its feet; a great start to the Fifth Annual Los Angeles Exchange Festival that takes place through October 15th in multiple venues.

Led by founding artistic director Stephanie Zaletel, szalt (dance co.) is a group of astonishingly talented women who work collectively, and with musicians and visual artists. For MARSHMALLOW SEA, they collaborated with the experimental hip-hop group clipping.’s Jonathan Snipes, textile designer Amabelle Aguiluz, and recycling artist and curator of the MorYork Gallery, Clare Graham. Together they have created an evening length work that totally absorbs one into a world of realistic fantasy.

szalt dance co. – MARSHMALLOW SEA – Photo by Joseph Lambert

Zaletel choreographs with the experiences of women forefront in her vision. The work is sensual, direct and sometimes harsh. There are images of strength, synchronized swimming, diving, rapid falling and collapse. Stillness does not scare Zaletel. On the contrary, she embraces it, reshapes it and uses movement silence as a force of nature.

Zaletel’s solo, with Lindsey Lollie seated quietly nearby, sets the scene. A dreamer and the dreamed of co-existing in time. Zaletel performs an amazing solo of inverted movements; images of swimming; walking off stage and back on again while Aguiluz’s water sculpture imperceptibly recedes. At the end, she frantically dives deeper toward the bottom of the dreamer’s fantasy milieu. Zaletel has created, however, dreamlike creatures who are clearly based on reality.

To the untrained viewer, Zaletel’s movement may sometimes appear clumsy, untrained or ugly. She has taken these adjectives and created her own vocabulary of beauty. These six women are very well-trained dancers who can hold an extension, execute a ballet penché with great control and perform various styles of contemporary modern dance. It is uncertain, however, if other dancers could perform Zaletel’s movement with the same intensity, calmness and fluidity. Zaletel’s use of time requires a sense of quiet not understood or possessed by many.

Jonathan Snipes performs live, using MaxMSP, field recordings and modular synth. A rhythmic bell, the flushing of a toilet, birds, voices in the background, humming for a shower scene, and other sounds combine to form an almost palpable atmosphere. Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago-Brandwein mixes pinks, blues and shadow to bring Zaletel’s world alive. Aguiluz’s costumes that look like layers of skin rather than clothing, help lay bare the lives of these women.

szalt dance co. – MARSHMALLOW SEA – Photo by Joseph Lambert

Not many choreographers can get away with making dancers suddenly stop and walk off or on stage. Zaletel utilizes this everydayness to move from one situation into another. For her, black outs are unnecessary and disruptive. Dancers move separately or together as another one walks by as if on a mission. Synchronized movements take place with precise accuracy. Stillness is interrupted by several dancers spread across the stage with an eerie timing that feels internal; not set off by any sound or visual cue. This can only happen, of course, with company members who are acutely in tune with and aware of one another as these women clearly are.

Describing MARSHMALLOW SEA would only take away from its mystery, its fantasy and szalt’s stark reality. Zaletel explores love, disputes, friendship, fear, mundaneness and more in this beautiful fifty-five-minute work. The dancers are Ariana Daub, Lindsey Lollie, Sarah Prinz, Eden Orrick, Amir Rappaport, and Stephanie Zaletel. They each quietly command the space and one’s attention, but it is Zaletel, Lollie and Rappaport having worked together since the beginning, who stand out. Zaletel has a raw perception of life and a directness that is completely refreshing. Go see MARSHMALLOW SEA.