Born and raised in Uruguay, choreographer-performer luciana achugar — letters lower-case on purpose — is an award-winning member of New York’s alternative dance scene. Her cutting-edge dances have been presented at respected venues such as The Kitchen, Walker Art Center and Portland’s Institute of Contemporary Art. And though she is a graduate of CalArts, achugar had been a no-show in Los Angeles. Until this weekend, that is, when Meg Wolfe and Showbox L.A. presented achugar and collaborator Michael Mahalchick (also a CalArts alum) in their “Puro Deseo,” winner of a 2010 NY Dance Bessie Award.
Performances were held at downtown’s Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, a perfect space, it turned out, because of its low-ceilinged and cave-like appearance; it was hard to make out where the theater’s back wall met the floor and ceiling. Unlike the feeling one gets from looking out over the ocean, however, this limitless horizon was discomforting, de-stabilizing. Indeed, “Puro Deseo” was a kind of nightmare. achugar and designer Madeline Best reversed lighting convention by setting much of the piece in blackness. Side lights flashed on just long enough to illuminate key moments. Otherwise, we were surrounded by darkness, thrust inside our own heads, at the mercy of our imaginations.
When achugar wanted us to see, “Puro Deseo” delivered tightly controlled scenes of cryptic repetition and ominous enigmas. achugar shuffled forward and backward along a lighted diagonal, turning her head at exactly the same moment each time to gaze expectantly at us. Mahalchick was revealed as a collapsed heap, who, in successive scenes moved upstage with a weighty gracefulness. achugar growled and yelped like a wounded animal; she threw herself to the floor with fearsome velocity and risk. The only planned accompaniment, initially, was their singing, chanting and gasping for breath, but faint sounds from the church down the block drifted into the theater. “Puro Deseo” presented a universe of contradictory symbols and impulses — ripped, risque and slovenly appearance; wild and dangerous-seeming gestures; but tightly managed theatrics and minimal, yet extreme expressiveness.
About an hour into “Puro Deseo,” light dawned and achugar and Mahalchick lined up for a synchronized arm duet. Initially their semaphore signals proceeded in unison. But with one seamless orchestration they transitioned into harmony. A marvelous moment partially because — I’ll admit it — it felt “normal.” achugar’s work, however, “lives” on the fringes of abnormal, and that’s a place that’s less comfortable to visit.