Toni Leago Valle Takes On Body Image, Media and Women’s Rights in “CRACKED”

Photo by Lynn Lane

Photo by Lynn Lane

On July 18, 2013, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law House Bill 2, significantly limiting women’s access to abortion services. It’s 2016, and women are still fighting in the federal courts for absolute control of their bodies, but it’s a battle that seems to be overshadowed by popular culture, consumerism, and the cult of the self perpetuated by social media. This unawareness of what’s happening in the political sector is part of the reason why Houston choreographer Toni Leago Valle is bringing back CRACKED, a show that originally premiered a decade ago, on May 19 – 21 at the University of Houston-Central’s Quintero Lab Theatre.

“Women’s rights are being taken away, and what I’ve come to find out is that a lot of the college women that I teach are not aware of what’s going on politically,” explains Valle. “They don’t understand how hard women have had to fight for rights we now take for granted, and now we have this whole new arena of social media sublimely influencing how they should feel and what they should do.”

Photo by Lynn Lane

Photo by Lynn Lane

For Valle, the subversive messages the media feeds to women are problematic because they have the power to shape the trajectory of women’s lives. “Since before I can remember, I have been taught how a pretty woman looks and what she acts like,” she says. “A pretty woman is quiet and submissive, but I’ve always been loud and opinionated. I liked to play with the boys, and was a rough tomboy. But that’s not considered feminine, and that’s not what a woman does.” Valle cites this disconnect between what a woman is supposed to be and who she truly is as the cause of a gap in her life that she spent many years trying to fill with substances. She started smoking at ten, drinking at twelve, and got sober at twenty-one. “I attribute that to being raised in a culture that said ‘you’re not OK as you are.’”

CRACKED is a composition of characters and stories mined from Valle’s own experiences, each vignette told through a different medium. There’s a reason behind Valle’s interdisciplinary approach. “I started out acting first,” she explains. “I was an actress from the time I was fourteen, and then I came to college at twenty-four and started dancing. When I approach any work, I approach it as a storyteller first.”

The show is more than a general treatise on contemporary women’s issues; rather, it’s very much an autobiographical work centered on Valle as woman and artist. Because of the specificity of the subject matter, CRACKED can be uncomfortable to experience, not to mention create. “The first time I did this show, it was extremely hard,” says Valle. “I was very in-your-face and made it clear that this happened to me. I lived with this many men. I did drugs. It was all I could do to get the work onstage and not think about the audience.”

Photo by Lynn Lane

Photo by Lynn Lane

She remembers that there was much in the show that the audience, including family, friends, and colleagues, didn’t know about her. Returning to the show ten years later, the struggle is still emotional because Valle plans to include secrets that she didn’t put in the first time. She insists that these topics need to be discussed, and not kept in the closet. “I’m a little more removed from the creation process, so this time the show is more of an artistic statement rather than therapy onstage.”

CRACKED is once again being produced through Valle’s company, fittingly named 6 Degrees. The company takes its name from the theory that everyone is connected to one another by less than six degrees of separation. “I like finding the relationships between people, and psychology and sociology are fascinating to me,” she says.

Much of the original cast is no longer dancing, for the exception of Becky Valls, who is also performing in this revival of CRACKED. Valls is joined by Teresa Chapman, another of Valle’s colleagues from the University of Houston’s dance faculty, along with relative newcomers Gabriela Luna, Tyler Scarberry, and Bianca Torres-Aponte. The multigenerational cast inhabits different aspects of Valle’s persona, and brings to life each vignette, sometimes told with pathos and other times with comedic flare.

The show is about women, but it’s also for men. One of the best responses she had from the original run was from a male audience member. “He said, ‘I had no idea this is how my mother feels, how my sisters feel. I had no idea this is how you feel, but I can fill this hole with love and acceptance,’” recalls Valle.

And the message for women is still loud and clear. “I want them to walk away with two ideas: one, you’re perfect just the way you are; and two, bad things happen to all people. If I can get one woman to understand that they’re not alone, then I’ve done my job.”

CRACKED
May 19-21, 2016  8pm
Quintero Lab Theatre, UH Central Campus, Entrance #16
3351 Cullen,  Houston, TX  77204
info:  713/409-2838 or www.6degreesdance.org

Adam Castaneda is a dancer, writer, and arts administrator. He is the Executive Director of FrenetiCore, and performs with Suchu Dance, Holding Space Dance Collective, Heather VonReichbauer, and Intuitive African Dance and Drum Culture.

 

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