Hirudinea is the taxonomic term for leeches, and “Hirudinea and Her Host” of everything I saw at the San Diego International Fringe Festival, is the work that most fastened itself in me. The 20- to 25-minute piece, by Zaquia Mahler Salinas, features lush choreography and knockout dancing by a four-woman cast. And it left me with big questions about Salinas’s artistic choices.
In her program notes, Salinas says the piece “explores the different ways we give to and take from each other in order to fulfill our needs” and that “we can suck one another dry.” Sucking, as in one woman taking another’s hand in her mouth, happens here. So does feverish eroticism, the women pairing off in charged embraces and combative clinches. One woman forces another onto all-fours and “rides” her. And there’s a moment when a woman is vampirically poised over another’s neck.
The dancers—Salinas, Desiree Cuizon, Angelica Lee Bell, and Sarah Navarrete—are young and gorgeous. And their costumes (by Elva Salinas), semi-sheer sheaths over flesh-colored maillots, sometimes give the impression of near-nude breasts.
All of which made “Hirudinea and Her Host” feel like it belonged in an artsy gentleman’s club. (In her review, my colleague Kris Eitland compared it to female mud wrestling.) Maybe that’s what Salinas was going for. But I think she shortchanged herself and her superb cast.
Her starting-place of exploring leech-like relationships is potentially rich, a gateway to dark, complex territory. As a dance artist, she needed to physicalize that exploration, and it’s no surprise that she went first to images embedded in popular culture—the dominatrix, the vampire. The problem is that she stayed with those clichéd, commercial images, rather than going more deeply and showing us something new.
Then there’s the nature of the images, in which attractive young women are exclusively sexualized. I applaud the risks Salinas took by playing with eroticism, and perhaps her intention was to critique clichéd ways of representing the female body. But that idea occurred to me only after hours of thinking and writing about this piece. If Salinas did set out to subvert conventions by presenting them, there was too much convention and not enough subversion.
I see arts criticism as part of a conversation involving the artist, the work, and the audience, in which the critic can expand and deepen the discussion by articulating themes, offering context, and, in a sense, posing the kind of reading group questions you find at the back of novel. Engaged discussion is particularly called for when an artist of Salinas’s gifts creates work as challenging as “Hirudinea and Her Host.” It’s in that spirit that I’m sharing the issues the piece raised for me.
“Hirudinea and Her Host” is part of the show “Perception and Perseverance” at the Spreckels Theatre (along with a piece by Blythe Barton, which I’ll review in another article) and plays one more time, Sunday at 5:00. I hope you’ll add your comments to the conversation.