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Gathering the Divine Feminine with Maya Soto

Written by Kathryn Hightower
Choreographer Maya Soto in Gathering Bones
Photo by Joseph Lambert

A primal scream ripped through Seattle on May 18 and 19, 2013, erupting from the throats of Maya Soto and her team in Gathering Bones. Possibly one of the most cohesive and well-rehearsed works of the year, Bones featured movement, music, and costumes woven into a seamless whole. Gripping and honest, the work was obviously personal, yet it spread the universal message that the sacred feminine is ancient, alive, and well. Gathering Bones was one of the most genuine, authentic expressions Seattle contemporary dance has seen in a long while.

Soto and team prepared the hearts of the audience members in the room behind Velocity Dance Center’s Founders Theater. There, curious minds encountered the ideas of Clarissa Pinkola Estés, noted for her work on accessing the divine feminine. The dancers had taken part in two of Estés’ exercises, and the results were displayed. One, known as the “scapecoat,” was a coat covered in thick, red fabric. Each dancer had scrawled hurtful labels that had been hurled at her in the past, as a way of honoring her “battle scars.” Right away, it became clear that Gathering Bones was not simply an exercise in movement but an offering to goddesses of the past and present.

The women of Gathering Bones
Photo by Joseph Lambert
Two tableaux opened the piece. One, hidden in darkness, looked like a daguerreotype of an 1850s women’s club. The dancers stood and sat straight-backed with delicately folded hands upon voluminous black skirts. A dancer in white seemed to wound her own abdomen with a taut, sword-like hand, an effect enhanced by a red bloodstain across her belly and a surprised look on her face. The larger tableau was revealed as one dancer stood and moved as if drinking tea in an etiquette class. These delicate movements were interspersed with a sharp, soldier-like vocabulary. The dancers’ facial expressions were carefully calculated to appear calm and lady-like before they erupted into fierce anger. Like the famous Minoan snake goddess sculpture, each dancer bared her tongue, popped her eyes wide open, and held her hands up by her face. If this sculpture could talk, she would surely make the throaty hissing sound that these dancers adopted. Without a hint of self-consciousness, they heaved, sighed, and screamed at optimal points in the show.

In a lengthy fight section, duets and trios of dancers turned against one another in fierce combat accentuated by the polished sounds of Paurl Walsh. Epic and frightening, the music was reminiscent of a Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Dancers yelled wordlessly then grabbed their hair in frustration. The yelling grew in intensity until, in one powerful moment, they all screamed at once, with eyes open, staring at the audience before collapsing, strewn across the stage in painful-looking positions.

Dancer Danica Bito in Gathering Bones
Photo by Joseph Lambert
The inspiring ending featured motifs from the first section, now rendered softer and more proud. In the beginning, an arrogant-looking woman was flanked by two other dancers who preened at her with sharp movements. In the final section, however, the center dancer appeared relieved to have women on either side of her. They now touched her gently, wiping her brow and holding her hands. Other dancers crouched on their knees, and she was led to walk over their backs and shoulders. The last moment featured all the dancers crowning themselves by forming an open-handed triangle on their heads. As the lights dimmed, they swept one hand from right to left, as if looking out on the horizon toward a better future.

With Gathering Bones, Soto rode the wave of positive feminine culture that is currently sweeping the world. She recognized and honored the scary, brutal, all-powerful aspects of womanhood that have been shunned, yet she also tapped into the softer side of femininity. Rather than hiding from pain, the women pummeled their way through it, emerging on the other side as new people, strong and proud of their battle scars. This piece is certainly ahead of its time.

Gathering Bones heads to Portland next; Seattle should be proud to call the show its own.