Meet the choreographers behind Motley Cow’s epic sci-fi dinner theatre

Sci-Fi Colab

Motley Cow — Wednesday, April 5 at 6 p.m.

University of Iowa associate professor Eloy Barragán and junior dance major Angelia Mahaney created the dance portion of Motley Cow’s sold-out Mission Creek dinner. Mahaney, Barragán, Motley Cow chef David Wieseneck, chef/publisher Drew Burk of Spork Press, poet Richard Siken and local musician Brendan Hanks will take guests on a five-course, sci-fi adventure aboard a spaceship.

Barragán and Mahaney work with dancers Hartle and Happel. — photo by Eleanore Taft

Pushing the envelope with experimental dinner theater

“The people [choreographers] that inspire me aren’t necessarily the people that are making what I wanna make,” Mahaney said, but “people that are breaking boundaries or doing things that I haven’t seen before.” Wednesday evening at the Motley Cow is sure to just that, combining music, dance, cuisine and poetry for an innovative multi-disciplinary experience.

The choreography is organized into six short pieces, layered between the courses and accompanied by local artist Hanks’ original score. Each course will reflect a different part of the spaceship on which the story takes place, and each dance section will express both the area on the ship and the flavors on the menu.

“Each section will be titled with an element of the course. For example maybe it’s pineapple, or octopus, or chocolate,” Barragán said.

Staging a performance in a restaurant is something new for both choreographers, and unlike a typical performance, the audience will surround the dancers so the choreography has to work from every angle; the unusual shape of the space requires a different approach than a traditional theater.

“It presents a lot of really interesting challenges that push you to do things that aren’t really regular for us,” said dancer Benton Happel. “It’s not a stage where the lights and the distance hide things; it’s a really intimate setting.”

Barragán demonstrates a lift with Shannon Hartle in rehearsal for Wednesday’s performance. — photo by Eleanore Taft

Different paths lead to the same profession

Barragán learned to create by observing master choreographers, first in his Vaganova-style ballet training in his hometown of Mexico City, then at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, and throughout his international career as a professional dancer. At first, he hesitated to begin making his own work.

“The masters of choreography, or the great choreographers, it was almost untouchable. They used to tell us, ‘You are too young, you have to wait,’” he said.

In recent years, Barragán said he has seen that model change, as more young people successfully enter the field and classical ballet companies incorporate diverse styles into their repertoire.

When he began making his own work, Barragán approached choreography in a very structured way.

“I used to be the person that stood hours in the studio, counting and having scores and writing every step down,” he said. “It looked beautiful in my mind but then when I put it in the dancers and for whatever reason didn’t work it was like a total block. I find myself spending so much time in trying to make it work,” he said.

Now he works much more collaboratively with his dancers, letting the work evolve in rehearsal rather than teaching them something that is already complete. To young choreographers just starting out, Barragán says, “Keep curious, keep learning, allow yourself to play and fail.”

Mahaney and Barragán demonstrate steps. — photo by Eleanore Taft

Mahaney started early, creating her first piece while still in high school in Fairfield.

“I had never taken any sort of choreography class before,” she said. “I had no advisors or mentors, so it was really just me doing this and knowing nothing about it.”

Mahaney went on to study her craft intensively at California Institute of the Arts and then at Iowa. Despite gaining education about the process, she aims to draw from somewhere inside for the source of her work, rather than building around learned structures or modifying existing techniques.

“The biggest challenge in choreography and in movement invention specifically is to let yourself take ideas from other work, but also to not subscribe to any sort of template that you think that you should follow. Movement invention itself comes from not thinking about any other person,” she said.

Mahaney and Barragán rehearse for the Motley Cow dinner at Barragán’s home studio. — photo by Eleanore Taft

Two approaches come together to build one piece

Mahaney likes to begin with very specific movement and teach it to the dancers exactly, and once they have the movement sets down she begins to experiment.

Barragán moves the opposite way, beginning with more experimentation and refining it to create set choreography. He said that by collaborating with dancers, they are more invested in the movement.

“They own the piece, they embody the piece because they feel that they are part of it,” he said.

Regardless of the approach, the choreographers agree that it is best to keep an open mind throughout the process.

“It’s really easy to get stuck on one idea,” Mahaney said. “You get so attached to the concept of what is happening instead of actually what you see. That’s when more of the improvisation comes in.”

“To me it’s like a playground, that you are with that kind of openness like a kid. To be open and to be willing to try anything,” Barragán said.

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