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Wedding Traditions Under Scrutiny in Magalhães' UNBRIDALED

by Jessica Abrams
October 13, 2014
Le Studio
9500 Jefferson Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 855-4353
Wedding customs vary from country to country. In Ireland, the bride and groom's hands are tied together in a tradition known as "hand-fasting" (thus inspiring the saying "tying the knot"); while in Ethiopia, the groom and his four best men sing outside the bride's house and ultimately force their way inside only to then hose it down with perfume. What does not change from country to country – for the most part – is the concept of two people (and, barring recent changes in America and some EU countries, those two people have consisted of one man and one woman) joining together to cohabitate, copulate, comingle assets, and to do it for life.

Critics of the institution range from Plato, who in THE REPUBLIC, called it a "natural enemy" of the "commonwealth" to Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre who chose to live in separate domiciles while still remaining a couple, to other artists and thinkers who either claimed that doing their work was dependent on having a sufficient amount of solitude or questioned whether marriage served women in the same way it did men. Still, the tradition is largely accepted without question, even in countries where women have made strides personally, professionally, and politically and thus have the means to live without it.

Why is this? Choreographer Marina Magalhães seeks to examine this cultural institution in her dance theater work, UNBRIDALED. Magalhães, a Los Angeles-based choreographer and native of Brazil who minored in women's studies at UCLA, uses dance, theatre and audience participation to ask us to re-examine one of society's oldest and most entrenched traditions.

The piece begins with four women grouped tightly together and gently swaying to Astrud Gilberto's Agua de Beber. Two women sit in chairs off to each side, watching impassively. The women dancing soon begin to encircle one woman in the center and they all continue to move in silence even after the song ends. They each face a different direction, their hands and fingers outstretched, bending, gesturing, as the women in the chairs take turns shouting "No!" loudly and forcefully. The energy builds: despite there being no music, the dancers jump, bend, dive onto the floor, finally eliciting a "Yes" from the dancers on the sidelines.

The mood, style and medium shift (as each will over the course of the evening), and now we are at a wedding, with dancers walking with plates of food and another dancer at the mic asking them – and us – "Why is it always like this?". The mood shifts once again when she incites the dancers to begin chanting "I don't give a fuck" and the "wedding venue" soon becomes a club, with the dancers gyrating to a thumping bass, having liberated themselves, at least temporarily, from the restrictive bindings of tradition and custom.

The tone changes yet again. We now hear the soul-crushing monotone of an immigration officer over the PA system reading the rules to a young woman being detained as she tries to enter the United States. Slowly, the other dancers fit the wedding dress that has been hanging from a hanger onstage on her. Two other brides, dresses painted green, walk onstage, occasionally posing. They each mirror each other in movement, at times breaking apart to express dramatic gestures of agony. One has her arms outstretched, body bent almost as if she were hanging herself. They cling together for support, then break apart, each resigned to her fate and yet looking to the other for answers as to how to avoid it.

The second half begins with four volunteer audience members – all men – asked to read marriage proposals to two women dancers; but before bachelor number two can get the words out, the dancers flood the stage and dance, Beach Blanket Bingo style, to Bruno Mars' "Marry You", a flash mob harkening back to the popular dance styles of the sixties, like the Pony and the Watusi.

More images and homages to the custom of matrimony as it spans time and space: Facebook, projected on the back wall, with women commenting on their various friends' wedding photos over the sound system. A shrine, in the Latin American tradition, being erected to bury the custom – or the woman unwilling to conform to it. One represents the profane, the other the sacred, but together they tell a story of women's obeisance to a tradition that continues to bind and oppress.

And then, once mourned and put away – at least for now – the real feeling of being "unbridaled" can be experienced. Now the dancing moves to the forefront. From small Flamenco-like footwork to hip-hop and back, the entire ensemble joins in on this celebration of freedom and raw, unadulterated joy. This is where Magalhães and her ensemble shine: with skirts twirling and flamenco music, even cartwheels, the sublime experience of liberation radiates to the audience and beyond.

Magalhães doesn't try to tell us that marriage is bad; what she tries – and succeeds at — is to ask us to examine something that, in this time of reinvention and transformation, may need some reinvention in its own right. And feeling the joy at the end of the show, one is hard-pressed not to allow oneself to be transformed as well – for a minute, for an hour, for a lifetime.

Photo © & courtesy of Bobby Gordon


Photo © & courtesy of Bobby Gordon


Photo © & courtesy of Bobby Gordon


Photo © & courtesy of Bobby Gordon

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