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Multi-layered tale of Mermaids and Jersey Sacrifice

Keila Cordova's approach erupts into a mythological world of mermaids and island romance.

Here's what you need to know about choreographer Keila Cordova: she approaches all of her dance-theatre works from a multiplicity of angles. Whether she's creating pieces about the weather, cloning, Manifest Destiny—or in the case of Volcano, My Love—the modern relevance of mermaid mythology, she sculpts a multi-tiered tableau teeming with vivid imagery. In some cases, including her current Fringe show, whole worlds well up from this process.

In Volcano, a shipwrecked man floats through a sea swimming in strange creatures. He's captured by a mermaid; with each kiss, she steals his memory then later releases him to live on land as a stranger on an island kingdom. Here, mermaids haunt the dreams of the women that love him.

This part-play, part-dance piece bursts with poetry, scripted scenes, direct address narrative, dream sequences, mesmerizing ensemble numbers accentuated by K. Moriah Smith's sheer, shimmering costumes, and myth borrowed from many sources (such as the Greek notion that bathing in river Styx robs our personal history).

A pair of microphones flanks the stage cabaret-style; multiple performers grip their stands to sing or speak. Multiple perspectives emerge, some didactic (an awkward academic speaks of mermaid mating patterns), others tragic. Hints of humor poke at contemporary fascination with The Jersey Shore.

Shon Causer's lighting imbues Cordova's text with fantastical hues: bright rays of sun passing through the sea's surface, tunnels of light shining around a towering volcano or glimmering off the ocean. Cordova's choreography contributes characterization: underwater sirens sway at the hips through deep currents, island girls whirl long legs through the air in ceremonial dances. A special nod goes to Kate Abernethy—long a central dancer in Cordova's work; here she anchors the ensemble with her graceful presence.

Through these elements, Cordova explores the meaning of mermaids and unfamiliar (even repulsive) traditions, teasing out threads at the loss of virginity, passing from adolescence into adulthood and independence giving way to a new body in paired union. The result: an incredibly rich—if occasionally incoherent—fusion of style and subject matter capable of yielding a wide variety of aesthetic experiences and meanings.

Her past four Fringe shows have all displayed this thorough approach. But like an architect employing the same tools to erect dissimilar structures, the culmination of Cordova's techniques reveal a thoroughly distinctive voice. If any one of Philadelphia's obscure choreographers deserves more attention, it's Ms Cordova.

Now you know her. Go find out for yourself.

--Jim Rutter

Volcano, My Love. Presented at Conwell Dance Theater at Temple University, 1801 North Broad Street. Friday, September 14 at 9PM, Saturday, September 15 at 2PM and 8PM. Tickets: $15