éXodo offers new way to understand death, memory and culture

Sofia Benitez
Sofia Benitez
Courtesy of Sofia Benitez

éXodo, the Spanish word for exodus, mean­ing a mass departure of people. This is the title Sofia Benitez ’18, Daniel Dones ‘16, Jacqueline Geoghegan ‘16 and Ariana Sacris­tan-Benjet ‘18 give to their summer project. All coming from a Latino background, the four of them explored death through a shared cultur­al lens. According to Benitez, they incorporat­ed the capitalized X in order to represent all the directions life can go. “We are all here at Vassar and share much in common, but at the same time, we all come from and go on to dif­ferent paths.”

The project started with a conversation between Benitez and Sacristan-Benjet last se­mester. “Growing up in Mexico together, we’ve know each other for a long time, and we’re both interested in dance. So when we saw the call for proposal, we started talking about what was important for us, and we thought it was exciting to explore death through our cul­tural lens, which is very different from what we encountered here.” Benitez explained.

During this summer, the group read books and manuscripts, studied history behind rele­vant traditions, composed music, wrote poems and journals and traveled to museums and cemeteries, even the waterhole. From Sept. 18 to 25, elements of this creative process will be presented in the Collaboratory, including im­ages, recordings and writings. There will also be a set up that echoes with the setup in their theater performance in October, where a line of clothes and textures delineates the space. Finally, an interactive feature will be installed where people can participate in the process as well.

“It’ll be a transparent window into the proj­ect, and what we did over the summer,” Beni­tez said.

Many documentary photos and images will be on display in the Collaboratory. Benitez said, “I became very interested in the visual documenting of our process. Once when we were doing an exercise in the dance studio, we took photos of the process and all from dif­ferent vantage points. So unlike the traditional documentation, which seeks to be objective, our pictures were all different and interest­ing.”

The group also visited various museums and art centers, including the Samuel Dorsky Museum at New Paltz. “The museum was closed when we got there, but we just start­ed to move and work in that space. It was a corridor. And at one point, one of us started reading the names on the wall, which were do­nors of the museum. That became a wealth of signification and we became more sensitive to them through the lens of memory and death.”

The group also focused on examining and learning about the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday when people gather to pray for and remember family members and friends who have passed away.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance, Mir­iam Mahdaviani, the project’s faculty advisor encouraged the students to further investigate this theme. She commented, “I think they dis­covered deeper levels of meaning surrounding Day of the Dead, and how that impacted their own lives.”

After weeks of self-exploration and inves­tigation, the group started to consider how to convey and present this process to more people. “We tried different ways of how to structure [the materials we had]. We tried to integrate it, and not just a list of things. But the show is very reflective of the process, and we didn’t want to be all about the result…It was so much about being a character, but more about unearthing parts of us,” Benitez recounted.

She continued, “The Day of the Dead is a very positive twist of death, but the more we dive into it, the more we realized that there’re also a lot of heavy things that you have to go through…so [we thought about] how to pres­ent this without being super heavy and sad.”

After weeks of working and experimenting, the group’s summmer artistic project is turned into a devised theater piece that will be per­formed in the Shiva at the beginning of Oc­tober. “Is it a performance, or a theater work, or dance? We feel we’re still exploring and the project is never finished.” Benitez comment­ed.

Benitez said, “We’d explore colors, textures, materials and smell and so on. There will be an invitation for the audience to interact with all of these elements.”

Mahdaviani also pointed to the immersive aspect of éXodo. “It incorporates all the sens­es, not just hearing…audience members will use all their senses, seeing colors associated with Day of the Dead; hearing the evocative music that Daniel composed; feeling the tex­tures of rough mats, rice, and beans; tasting pan de muerto; and encountering the aroma of marigolds, which they have been growing since early this summer.”

For Mahdaviani, éXodo is an honest, per­sonal and compelling work. “Sofia, Ariana, Jacqueline and Daniel have given me an un­derstanding of Day of the Dead in ways that are individual to them, yet speak to our col­lective humanity. I’m incredibly impressed with the courage and honesty with which they went about exploring their personal reactions to the themes they will be presenting,” she commented.

Pacio was at one of the rehearsals of éXodo, and he was quite fascinated with the perfor­mance. “It was personal and beautiful-beauti­ful because it was personal. With a challeng­ing topic of death, I felt very well taken care of. I really enjoyed the dance vocabulary and carefully crafted sound by Danny.”

Besides the artistic aspect, what Benitez ap­preciates the most from working on the proj­ect is the closeness and intimacy among group members. “We became so close as a group. There’s so much trust and vulnerability…It was really precious for me being able to ex­plore very personal things with others, to talk about identity, about whether our voice was silences or not, etc. That was a very healing process. I’ve never had such an experience,” she noted.

With this honesty and intimacy, Benitez hopes that their narratives can speak to oth­er people as well. “We are striving to create something that we would feel speak to us, but could also resonate with people and their own experiences. We want people to feel that closeness, and to open up conversations,” she concluded.

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