Susana di Palma has created some of her best work for Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre when channeling the passion of Spanish flamenco dance and music into powerful reminders of past and current injustices. She not only honors the roots of her chosen art form but also finds common ground in the stories of other cultures all too familiar with persecution.
Friday night's premiere of "Zorro in the Land of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker (Moningwunakauning)" at Minneapolis' Cowles Center not only fiercely affirmed Di Palma's dedication to spotlighting humanity's darkest eras but also showed where this deep commitment derives -- her own family's narrative.
Di Palma's Ojibwe great-grandmother Susan Peacock Chisholm lost her two daughters when they were removed to a Catholic boarding school in Bayfield, Wis. Such forced assimilation, which occurred nationally, represents a shameful part of American history. Chisholm walked from the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation to retrieve her children. She returned alone.
"Zorro" used magical realism to imagine what might have happened if Chisholm (portrayed in her youth by Bridget O'Flaherty and in spirit by Di Palma) had the help of the masked crusader. This idea flourished through Heid Erdrich's often heart-wrenching poetry, Jonathan Thunder's vibrant animation, rhythms from both flamenco and native traditions, and of course, Zorongo's skilled dancers. The rich musical score by Pedro Cortés Jr. featured the soaring voices of Vicente Griego, Marisa Carr and Óscar Valero.
Nature played a key role. The company members appeared as ravens, their percussive feet mimicking sounds of flapping wings. Zorro (Antonio Granjero) was a manifestation of the Ojibwe "trickster" as well as a fox. First an enemy, then an ally, the woodpecker (Valero) supported this playful spirit. Granjero danced with swashbuckling speed and swagger; Valero fueled his fleet feet and ardent singing with canny flair. Each guest artist choreographed his own memorable solo.
Deborah Elias and Colette Illarde performed a haunted, beautiful flamenco duet as the daughters in adulthood. Perhaps purposefully, Myron Johnson as Father Odric used stilted movement in his scenes to convey a sense of being out of step, pious, and dangerously secretive.
As Di Palma uttered Erdrich's words in the final scene, it was impossible not to feel the lasting trauma of Chisholm's story: "It's a wonder how the moon waits/ As grandmothers wait, for years/ Until our children's children come home."