Review: Afro Yaqui aims for a major statement with their new opera, Mirror Butterfly

Photography by Renee Rosensteel.

Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2018–2019 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Mirror Butterfly by Afro Yaqui Music Collective, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo, season review panelists Maree ReMalia and Jason Baldinger. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.

By David Bernabo


With wide-eyed zeal, an expanded version of the already large Afro Yaqui Music Collective delivers a dynamic new opera with Mirror Butterfly: Migrant Liberation Movement Suite — a work that merges indigenous musics and movement styles with the more Western traditions of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. While the work, at times, feels overstuffed with ideas and ambition, the opera pushes an urgent political message — a plea to save the natural world from the evils of capitalist-driven industry — and surrounds that message with adventurous music, storytelling, and a merging of dance and martial arts.

In the press lead-up to the event, the ensemble discussed how the piece would address climate-based migration, but the performance presented a more broad treatise on the impacts of runaway industry on the natural landscape. The plot, told through narration, song, and rap, involves the fight of three mythical warrior sisters — a mulberry tree, a wildflower, and a mirrored butterfly — against the sword, an embodiment of capitalism, especially the history of extractive technologies used in the production of energy and materials. The stories surrounding the warrior sisters draw from Mayan and Zapatista parables, along with “The Story of the Stone” — written by Cao Xueqin and considered one of China’s four great classical novels — and also from interviews with activists including multi-disciplinary artist and former Black Panther “Mama C” Charlotte Hill O’Neal, Kurdish women’s movement organizer Azize Aslan, Afro Yaqui co-founder Gizelxanath Rodriguez, and Reyna Lourdes Anguamea.

The result retains the feel of folklore, bouncing between the real and the surreal and rendering characters as relatively flat embodiments of good or evil. The libretto is set up as a series of fights between the sword and the sisters. The warrior sisters experience blow after blow until the final boss level provides redemption and the literal and metaphorical dissolution of the sword.

On the page, the story is dense with detail and references — a fascinating read. If the characters are relatively simple vehicles for messaging, the message is more nuanced — falling somewhere between social ecology, primitive communism, and deep ecology. But integrated into the busy environment of the stage — with its 15-piece big band, four-person chorus, six dancers, and a light show — the words often are subsumed into the intensity of the performance.

On opening night, the audience was provided with supplemental materials prior to the show — a printed pamphlet containing the libretto and excerpts from the four research interviews and a program booklet containing a scene by scene breakdown of the plot. It’s a daunting pre-show read and if you didn’t dive into the reference material, the context for the characters and their actions are hazy. As this opera is still a work-in-progress, on the second night, stage manager Danielle Maggio prefaced with the performance with a two-minute introduction to the characters, symbols, and themes of the performance, which gave the audience the necessary tools to more deeply absorb the fast-paced extravaganza that unfolded before them.

In some ways, Mirror Butterfly feels like the work of three creative minds smashing their projects together.

Afro Yaqui co-founder and primary composer Ben Barson has composed a suite of complex music for an incredibly talented 15-piece big band. The music twists and turns, yelps and eases, cycles through gnarled time signatures, and smooths into sweet melodies. There is a merging of cultures and genres. Yang Jin’s pipa, sometimes called a Chinese lute, provides the foundation for many of the more contemplative compositions. The use of the pipa along with the string trio (violin, cello, and the two-stringed kobyz) allows Barson to mix the Western styles of jazz and funk with contemporary composition and musical styles from China, Mexico, and Africa. The results are thrilling, head-bob-worthy, and deep. The band grooves and plays like a unit. On its own, the music requires some processing and unpacking. It begs for repeat listens, and would be a worthy addition to anyone’s record shelf.

Choreographer Peggy Myo-Young Choy is interested in merging Korean and Javanese dance forms, Asian martial arts, and African dance into an Afro-Asian fusion. Working with dancers Weylin Gomez (“Sword”), Kelsey Robinson (“Mulberry Tree”), and Nejma Nefertiti (“Stoneflower”) among others, Choy built choreography that both applies to the characters’ physical attributes, but also enhances each dancer’s unique skill set. A different cast would mean a different show. The sword slices with precise movements culled from martial arts. The mulberry tree sways, arms looming high in the air.

When these elements are combined with Ruth Margraff’s libretto, the cumulative effect is a bit too much. In a sense, the piece is too efficient, too tightly constructed. Each element swings for the fences, attempting to be a major work in itself, but as a whole, the audience has few opportunities to process the dense material, having to pick and choose what to watch, who to listen to.

A generous response would be to equate the opera to the threat of climate change and its all-encompassing, unrelenting series of destruction. Like the hammer-blows of gentrification on a neighborhood or the iterative destruction of a tsunami (and the resulting floods and fires and chemical leaks and water degradation and disease), the opera presents scene after scene of challenging music, multiple-character narration, and messaging.

Within the chaos are many moments of beauty and clarity. Early in the piece, saxophonist Ben Opie rips a mammoth solo while Gomez and Robinson circle each other in an epic sword vs. tree battle scene. Later, a percussion trio rides a deep, nuanced groove to back Nejma Nefertiti’s fierce flow of, “I was once a migrant bent down in the fields, weak to men & family, exposed without a shield run out of my city pushed to the fear pushed to the dead zone, tulip of tears lost the ugly room, lost my mother tongue no money, sick water…” Rodriguez shines as the Mirror Butterfly, utilizing her training in opera to deliver theater-shaking (or at least heart-rending) vocal tones.

But a little dilution might go a long way. At the very beginning of the piece, four saxophonists stand in the second floor seats, alternating deep, bone-rattling solos. Each saxophonist is given time to explore an idea. The pace quickens until the musicians are trading 8s, then 4s, then 2s, then they’re all blowing together, a harsh cry into the darkness. It’s a moment that shows individuality within the group, but also the coming together of a ensemble. It also marks that last time that there is significant pause or silence. Soon, the 15-piece big band joins the four singers, and everybody is on stage telling their stories until the dramatic climax of the piece.

As a work-in-progress performance, Mirror Butterfly is an impressive entry into the field of jazz opera, especially for a collective that, to date, is mostly a musical ensemble. The stage direction is tight, and the performance is professional and energetic. And it’s a very fitting season opener for the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA season, a program that encourages artists to take risks and to attempt the next evolutionary step in their creative process. The ensemble is best when there is a looseness and the musicians and dancers have a little space to stretch. This is a stage full of highly talented individuals — musicians that can creatively improvise and a band that sustain a groove, dancers that can jump from intense physicality to quiet moments — and it’s wonderful when they have space to shine. Mirror Butterfly may be overflowing with ideas and experiments in form and compositions, but they are all good ideas. With a little sculpting, this opera can be a powerful and timeless statement.


Panelist Bios:

Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.

Maree ReMalia is a choreographer, performer, and teacher. Born in South Korea, and raised in the Midwest, her work celebrates diversity by opening possibilities for who dancers are, what they look like, how they move, and how they train. merrygogo is her platform for creating project-based performance works with communities of shifting collaborators. Through her choreography and teaching, she draws from improvisational methods across disciplines and the Gaga movement language to build community and make space for people to make new discoveries in playful and inquisitive ways.