Theatre Review – Factory Theatre & Nightswimming/Broken Tailbone by Carmen Aguirre

Photo by Javier Sotres

Broken Tailbone is a problematic show, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Writer/performer Carmen Aguirre is a huge name on the west coast, with a formidable national reputation as well. She has teamed up with director Brian Quirt from the always enterprising Nightswimming for this one woman vehicle. In the guise of teaching a salsa lesson, Aguirre dispenses her musings on history, politics, love, life, and Latinx culture in general. What she has to say is certainly interesting. I’m just not sure about the format.

The problem I’m referring to is that the bleacher theatre seating has been stripped away, leaving an empty dance floor. There are a few seats along the wall, but, basically, the audience has to participate in Aguirre’s dance lesson. Unfortunately, what started out with great enthusiasm faded over time. It’s a hard slog having to stand, shimmy, shake and twerk for 80 minutes. Audience members started to peel away, after what few seats there were, were taken. And, if you were seated because of age or mobility issues, you had trouble seeing Aguirre on the stage because your view was blocked by dancers. Providing rest periods when dancers could relax on the floor, perhaps, could keep more in the game? Broken Tailbone does ask a lot of the audience, but those who stayed the course were clearly having fun, shedding clothes as the lesson progressed.

Aguirre has chosen 15 songs from various Latinx countries, spun by DJ Don Pedro (Pedro Chamale). Each song has a story, usually connected to a political upheaval. Each song spurs on both memory and a specific salsa dance step. Aguirre begins in her own native Chile. Her family came to Vancouver as refugees after the overthrow of Allende, and her Uncle Nelson started the first Latinx dance hall. In the early days, the dances were fundraisers for the cause back home, but in today’s climate, you can’t bring up politics in Latinx dance halls anymore for fear of starting a riot. Given Canada’s diversity, there are just too many Latinx political opinions, from the far right (aka the Cubans) to the far left (aka the Nicaraguans). As for the dance steps themselves, they are also related to politics. For example, flicking dust off the shoulders is flicking away the dastardly CIA. Swivelling down to your ankles in the merengue is crushing the capitalist system. Aguirre makes no bones about her own very socialist viewpoint in this show.

Photo by Javier Sotres

I was genuinely interested in Aguirre’s history-cum-dance lesson, although it became a radio show for me because I was sitting. In fact, I learned quite a few things. In salsa, nothing moves above the waist because that’s the formal Spanish heritage, while everything moves below the waist because that’s the African cultural contribution. As well, did you know that Chile today is the most capitalistic country in the world? After the political songs, Aguirre moves on to the fucking songs replete with great stories of lovers past and present. And yes, we do learn how she broke her tailbone.

The Fiftysomething Aguirre is charismatic and charming, and her humour-laced candour is plucky, to say the least. The stories she tells are great, and I also appreciated her gentle banter with DJ Don Pedro. Being Guatemalan-born, Pedrolito (as La Jefa calls him) also had a story to tell. Apparently there is no fixed script, just talking points about each song, which is why Aguirre’s delivery feels fresh. Lighting designer Michelle Ramsay makes sure that the mirror ball gets lots of play.

Director Quirt and Aguirre have come up with a gutsy format. I’m just not that sure how audience-friendly it is.

Photo by Javier Sotres

Factory/Nightswimming, Broken Tailbone, written and performed by Carmen Aguirre, directed by Brian Quirt, Factory Studio Theatre, Oct. 2 to 13, 2019.