PORTLAND, Maine — In academia, it’s called the summer slump. In the theater world, this is the dark season. But for scrappy art groups on the fringe, like Esduardo Mariscal Dance Theater, late-August is show time.
Since May, Mariscal has been letting his dreams and visions take flight with “Luz,” a light-filled dance production taking over Portland Stage Company this week.
Magical, silly and absurd are the adjectives the Mexico native uses to describe the one-hour multimedia performance that translates to “light” in Spanish.
“I think of my work as painting with dancers,” said Mariscal, an international choreographer who came to Maine in the 90s to teach at Bates College.
“I like surreal images to be playful,” said Mariscal, who calls his style of theatrics “comical surrealism.”
One part Cirque du Soleil, one part Def Jam Poetry, the low-budget show is high on spirit, soul and feats of light.
At a recent dress rehearsal at Casco Bay Movers, a team of performers skipped, bounced, jumped and shimmied across the stage.
“It’s like going on a trip without using drugs,” said Mariscal of his 14-member dance troupe. “People see my work and they think that I do drugs, and I don’t. Honestly, I’ve been asked. They say, ‘You must do something?’ And I say, ‘No, I don’t need to. My work is my drug.’”
Through upbeat dance scenes — unicorns swimming in a sea — to stark imagery, such as a man walking along a road with suitcases in his hands as a reaper dances around him, the show represents the yin and yang of life.
“We will talk about death in a poetic way. Luz, the title is bringing to life and bringing to light, like someone having a baby,” said Mariscal, who made an imprint on the art world when he founded the international dance festival Un Desierto Para La Danza, which means “a desert for dance.”
Luz, his first show in over a decade, is filled with scenes that sprang from his subconscious.
“It’s not to be understood, but to be felt,” said Mariscal, who tells his audience not to tax their brains by trying to follow a tightly-knit plot. Each scene is its own world. “I put people to work in their minds.”
It’s best to experience Luz, as you would an abstract expressionist painting in a museum, he says.
“Don’t think of it as a problem that is going to get resolved,” he said, but rather something that you “will finish in your heads.”
And that’s how he wants his dancers to be. His directing style is organic and collaborative.
“This is the first time I’ve asked people to work more on their own and then insert their work in the piece. They get my guidance. I move them in the direction I want them to go to,” said Mariscal.
That approach appeals to first-time dancers such as Ken Kohl. The local carpenter heard Mariscal on the radio talking about the show and ran down to Casco Bay Movers to get involved. Next thing he knew, he had a key part.
The lanky tradesman had done some yoga, but was far from a professional dancer. He plays the “red character” in the show.
“It’s pushing me to the max. I get to use my left and right brain. The whole idea frees me to go through this process,” said Kohl. “It’s been amazing.”
Some scenes and characters in Luz, like Kohl’s frenetic “red character,” have been tucked in Mariscal’s subconscious since 2007.
“It’s images that I’ve been collecting over the years, some of which have been performed in different versions,” he said.
The colors in his show go from black to white, with touches of red. Characters appear and disappear as if in a dream. Lighting, done by Merrill Auditorium’s technical director Gregg Carville, creates mystery and intrigue.
Luz is not heavy on dialog, but fiery images pervade.
The music in Luz, from the deceased Lewiston composer Caleb Sampson, and the Alloy Orchestra, is ethereal, but “can have a hint of humor in it. I’m always trying to do that with my own work.”
No subject in this sea of poetry, lighting, music and dance, is taboo.
And Luz is not meant to be an exclusive experience.
To make it accessible, he’s only charging $10 and has given tickets away to underprivileged children in Portland.
“I want everyone to see what it’s is like to go to the theater,” he said.
The family-friendly show dips into darkness but ends on a dance-party note. It doesn’t fit neatly into preconceived notions of dance theater.
“Like life, I don’t think my work needs to be explained,” he said. “Why should I try to explain, when life can’t be explained? I intentionally go for the absurd, the unexpected.” he says. “An image is greater than a thousand moves.”
Luz runs at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 5 p.m. Saturday at Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland. Tickets are $10.