DURHAM — One of the American Dance Festival's functions is recognizing new talent. After festival director Charles L. Reinhart saw Miami-based Rosie Herrera's work, he immediately invited her to be in a showcase program last summer. The strong response persuaded Reinhart to invite her back this summer for her own slot.
The results reveal a highly creative artist full of humor and compassion, whose arresting theatricality makes it easy to forgive structural and timing problems.
Herrera, 27, is gaining attention through pieces that draw on the extreme mixture of colors, sexualities and cultures in the Miami area, incorporating images and situations that can shock, amuse and move all at once. Her background as mime, showgirl, cabaret performer and drag show choreographer shapes her style and presentation.
Last year's "Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret" was set on ADF dancers, but this year her own wonderfully eclectic troupe populates this Fellini-like dream world, in which drowning can be from fear and despair, but also from love and desire. Herrera's striking vignettes are too good to be spoiled here, but indicative elements include 10 birthday cakes on stools, a drag queen lip-syncing Celine Dion, a rolling bathtub turned final resting place, and a film of the characters in a lifeboat.
The piece is more performance art than dance, while what dance there is can seem underdeveloped and repetitive. One exception is a section for two male lovers, one wanting out of the relationship, which is full of athletic lyricism and dark subtext. It makes one hunger for more such choreographic richness among the intriguing theatrical episodes.
For this year's commissioned work, "Pity Party," Herrera uses many of the same elements, this time exploring the fine line between happiness and grief, pleasure and sorrow. The scenes take place before a glitter curtain, the stage often filling with cheesy nightclub routines and disco moves.
A joyful piñata party turns ugly as the blindfolded honoree beats the paper creation to a pulp; a good-natured sing-along turns into sexual aggression. There are several mesmerizing dance segments - a nearly comatose woman slumps repeatedly over a table; a lone man pays tribute at a funeral - but the piece is mostly theatrical in nature.
Both of Herrera's hourlong works could use some tightening in sections that go on longer than the material can support.
However, both fit squarely into this year's theme of "dance theater" and should delight all but those looking for more traditional modern choreography.