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Open: 03/22/12- Close: 04/08/12 World Premiere Of Urban Odyssey
Reviewed for By: Rachel Wohlander

Lee Wexler/ImagesForInnovation ©2021  Federico Restrepo

 Puppetry is an ancient art, believed to date back to 30,000 B.C., and stems from traditions in Egypt, Africa, Asia and Europe. Dance is a similarly ancient and multicultural tradition. Loco7, formed in 1986 by Federico Restrepo, is a dance company created to expand the use of puppetry in dance theater. The fusion of dance, music and puppetry seems so natural perhaps because it holds a solid position in our collective subconscious dating back to its ritualistic roots. Loco7 makes these ancient forms new and surprising.

Loco7's production of Urban Odyssey, at La Mama through April 8, is a powerful and visually stunning interdisciplinary production, and a sensory banquet. Co-created by Restrepo (also performer, director, choreographer and puppet designer) and Denise Greber (also performer and costume-designer), it is the culmination of a ten-year exploration in depicting the experience of immigration to America, based on Restrepo's own journey from Colombia. An interplay of puppets, masks, live music, video, dance and poetry explore the internal and external struggles an immigrant faces.

The piece touches on many themes, including memory, alienation and identity, in the expressive language of dance with sparse poetic text by the Lebanese novelist, playwright and critic Elias Khoury. Elizabeth Swados' original music, arranged and directed by Kris Kukul, is not just a score, but serves as a rhythmic dialogue with performers, and sometimes the voice of the puppets. Watching the versatile musicians (Kari Bethke, John Sully and Martin Wallace) is at times equally mesmerizing as the dancers and puppets.

Puppets are well-suited for exploring themes of conflicted identity between an immigrant’s cultural past and new life in a foreign land. They sometimes serve as a second self, as puppets seem to duet with the dancers, becoming extensions of the dancer's body. In some cases the puppets are a literal extension of the body, such as a costume-puppet that makes the character of the immigrant (Restrepo) half man, half horse, signifying his outsider-ness in a delightfully humorous way.

Lee Wexler/ImagesForInnovation ©2021  Federico Restrepo (center) with the Loco7 ensemble

The playfulness of puppetry allows the show to address despair and displacement with lightness and whimsy. Images such as masked businessmen sucking the air out of an inflatable globe are funny and disturbing at the same time. The company plays on the childlike-ness of the puppets to compare the discovery of a new country to a second childhood, and the dichotomy of simultaneously being both an adult and child. The narrator, or “Memory Machine” (Greber), asks the audience to play along, saying, “You’ll understand what I am saying because you yourself are living the moment that everyone yearns for: You’re in your second childhood.”

The ingenuity with which the performers imbue inanimate objects with life is striking. A backpack becomes a tent, then a dress, then a character-creature, eventually coming to represent the protective walls we place around ourselves that may restrict us from truly connecting with others. Fabric creates a mobile, fluid ship, and subway train. Puppets range from small marionettes to larger-than-life figures, from a metallic skeleton to strange birds. Masks and huge puppet-heads sometimes represent ghosts of ancestors, dreams or intimidating politicians.

The dancers are strong, especially in the ensemble numbers, and their mask-work is eerie and provocative. The animation and video design (Laura Restrepo Guzman and Angela Sierra respectively) add yet another layer of rhythm to the dance and music. At one point, a video of overlapping immigration interviews highlights the absurdity of the arduous immigration process.

The ending seems to wrap-up too nicely, but for an abrupt twist tagged-on in the final moment. We are left with the conclusion that the struggles of an immigrant are on-going and that any hard-earned stability is short-lived.

I will preface this with the acknowledgement that I am a Caucasian from California, and my ancestors' Jewish-immigrant roots are far removed from my own experience. That said, there is much in this piece that seems to resonate with the human experience. After all, these conflicts of reconciling numerous identities, feelings of being an outsider, or dispossessed and alienated and constantly in flux are wide-spread. Urban Odyssey explores the universal notion of these themes, and asks us to consider just how much more difficult it is to be a stranger in a foreign land. Especially today, in a nation of immigrants that is still struggling to find its identity, and dealing with issues of racism as much as ever, this production is a powerful reminder of the empathy and respect we owe each other's unique struggles and diverse identities.

Ellen Stewart Theatre : 66 E. 4th St