David Herrera Performance Company places mortality under the microscope in ‘Slumber’
When I [die],” David Herrera once said to his mother, “hopefully it will be after your lifetime, but if I do, dance for me.”
Herrera, founder and artistic director of David Herrera Performance Company (DHPCo), believes that death should be celebrated, or at least not marked by dreary funerals and somber months of mourning.
“What if we don’t have to go into a dark place or a super sad place?” he asks. “What if we can concentrate on the joy of the life that was, as opposed to the death itself?”
These questions are posed in DHPCo’s upcoming dance and theatrical performance, “Slumber,” which runs April 27-28 at The 418 Project. Within the show, the company explores the boundary between life and death, and asks audiences to interactively experience “the underworld” with Herrera’s all-female cast.
“Slumber” tells the story of two best friends and Death—but in this instance, Death is both a character and a sign of impending doom for one of the friends. “The storyline roughly follows the Greek Orpheus myth,” explains Jean Johnstone, DHPCo’s theatrical director, “where Orpheus enters the underworld to seek his beloved, Eurydice. From there, we have taken many liberties, and been influenced by many stories and myths from around the world, but the idea is the same.” These inspirations include, the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, plus Latino, Pan-Asian, Ancient Greek, and Native American beliefs and ritual practices.
With a cast of eight dancers and one actress, Herrera and Johnstone worked hard to reconcile the dance and theatrical elements of the production. “[Jean] added a whole other element on top of it,” says Herrera, “she got the dancers to understand that movement is not just movement for its own sake. But rather, it is an action and reaction to certain circumstances.” Although she is the only actress, Sarah Coykendall’s performance as queen of the underworld is sure to get audience members out of their seats … literally.
Instead of being passive onlookers, the audience becomes a part of the stage in “Slumber.” “For example,” explains Herrera, “there is a moment through the river Styx where the audience becomes the riverbank. The piece is performed down the center and around them, breaking the boundaries between audiences and performers.”
With a completely original instrumental score by Kevin Dusablon, “Slumber” is set against sometimes gloomy, sometimes playful compositions that are tailor-made to the actions of the performers. Though modern dance is DHPCo’s specialty, they have an internationally influenced style that features partner work, lifting, and even some elements of cabaret. “This performance is unlike anything I have ever been a part of,” says Taylor Carvey, a resident dancer of DHPCo for two seasons. “We are so excited to share this story with audiences.”
Both Herrera and Johnstone are UC Santa Cruz alumni, who met in the theater department in the late ’90s. Although they fell out of touch after college, they have reunited for the sake of creative expression 10 years later. “We found we worked seamlessly together,” says Johnstone. “We both somehow really enrich each other’s work.” They are ecstatic to return to town, especially at the end of National Dance Week Santa Cruz. “I like to include Santa Cruz in our tours because of what it did for me personally,” says Herrera, who refers to the community as his safe haven. “I like to bring the work back so that people in the community and students can see what someone who was young and naïve in the past can accomplish because I was serious about what I was doing.”
Despite its universal themes, Herrera notes that the idea for “Slumber” came from a very personal place—the death of a friend. The resulting piece is a reflection of his experiences with death as a celebration of life and a melancholy event. “I don’t think the audience knows what they’re in for,” Herrera says with a laugh, “and I think they will be more than pleasantly surprised.”
“Slumber” begins at 8 p.m. April 27-28 at The 418 Project, 418 Front St., Santa Cruz. Herrera will hold a workshop on Thursday, April 26 at UCSC’s Theater Arts Department. For details, visit dhperformance.org.