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PuSh Festival: Diana Lopez Soto investigates water rituals, land connections, and displacement in nine-year Nomada odyssey

Diana Lopez Soto by Greg Wong
Diana Lopez Soto performs aerial and contemporary Indigenous dance in Nomada. Photo by Greg Wong.

Multidisciplinary artist Diana Lopez Soto started wondering about the human body’s potential while she was enrolled at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. The Mexican-born creator was studying visual arts but became inspired to get back into dance. She started by training in contemporary butoh. Then, she felt compelled to audition with Firebelly Productions for a circus show.

“I was so sure I was not going to be accepted because I had no experience, but I was so excited,” Lopez Soto tells Pancouver over Zoom. “The audition went amazing and I connected with the artistic director, Kira [Schaffer]. She offered me the position under a mentorship, which gave me such a great opportunity to train, to learn, and to understand the practice.”

As Lopez Soto entered her final year of school, she was already performing for circus and dance companies. This was in addition to painting and participating in a art collective called Norma.

“I just started blending everything together,” Lopez Soto recalls. “That’s what my career is now.”

That multidisciplinary approach will come to fruition in a grand way in Nomada at this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Described as “a journey of the Creator through three worlds”, it incorporates aerial and contemporary Indigenous dance, installation art, ceramics, and hand-crafted regalia.

Nine years in the making, Lopez Soto’s Nomada is inspired by connections to the land, rituals of water, and stories that she collected in the highlands of Michoacán state in Mexico.

She devised the rigging system with a goal of “deconstructing the body in space”. A mid-air “counterbalance system” distributes her body’s weight onto six vessels.

“They’re all connected to me,” Lopez Soto says. “All of these vessels carry corn, soil, beans, and water.”

Diana Lopez Soto by Greg Wong
Diana Lopez Soto spent nine years developing Nomada. Photo by Greg Wong.

Lopez Soto reclaims Indigenous heritage

She began this project under the name of Agua y Barro, which means Water and Mud, because she wanted to focus on clay. Ancestral Indigenous communities in Mexico relied on this sticky, fine-grained earthen material to make utensils for cooking and carrying water. According to Lopez Soto, clay vessels were used in pre-hispanic times to transport loved ones who had passed.

However, when Lopez Soto delved into her research, she learned about her family’s stories of displacement, so she changed the title to Nomada. Her personal story and artistic practice have also been nomadic. Lopez Soto immigrated to Canada by herself at the age of 17. Moreover, she periodically travels from her organic family farm in Uxbridge, Ontario, to Mexico and South America to be with family and collaborate with artists.

Her father has Purépecha heritage. Though his father had been adopted, they both lived within or on the outskirts of Purépecha territory. Her dad, an agricultural worker and land caretaker, exposed her to pirekua music, food and cultural celebrations of Purépecha people.

“The Purépecha community was not nomadic, per se,” Lopez Soto states. “Their nation was very strongly rooted in the lands of Michoacán.”

Lopez Soto’s mother has Otomi Indigenous heritage, though there was a lot of denial about this in her family.

Lopez Soto’s uncle Aurelio, for example, told her that they were not Otomi. He said this even though his mother, his grandparents, and his great-grandparents all spoke the language and lived in the Otomi community.

“Through our investigations, my mother and I found other community members and relatives who shared that growing up in the community as an Otomi was not easy; many mothers would not teach their language to their kids or teach them about the culture,” Lopez Soto relates. “This was their way to protect their children and find survival.”

Now, Lopez Soto is peeling back this denial so that she and her children can reclaim their Otomi culture.

“We’re going back and actually owning that as an honour,” Lopez Soto says.

Watch the trailer for Nomada.

Nomada is a team effort

Lopez Soto points out that Otomi communities endured massive displacement, unlike Purépechan people. Nomada includes pirekua music by Purépecha composer Eandi Cuiriz Ramos, as well as compositions by Hamilton-based Edgardo Moreno.

Even though it’s a one-woman show, it’s certainly not a one-person production. Set designer Andy Moro helped Lopez Soto figure out where to place screens that appear and disappear around the rigging system.

Meanwhile, Peruvian Indigenous artist Samay Arcentales Cajas identified symbols that could be projected to support the narrative.

Textiles are also a key component under the direction of Toronto-based costume designer Adriana Fulop. Lopez Soto wears a specially designed rebozo in the show. And Nomada’s knowledge keeper, Leonardo Martin Vargas Carrion, co-designed regalia that she dons in the final act.

“Actually, it is being woven by hand,” Lopez Soto says. “It’s pretty impressive.”

Nomada takes place in Sky World, Underworld, and Earth. The PuSh festival website describes the show as “the physical and spiritual act of renewal, affirmation, and restoration”.

Nomada Lopez Soto
Diana Lopez Soto worked with ceramic artists Gustav Bernal and Cynthia Cupples. Photo by Greg Wong.

Ceramic artists helped design cantaros

In 2019, Lopez Soto spent three weeks fine-tuning aerial work and furthering her research at the Guapamacátaro Center for Art and Ecology. The Canada Council for the Arts supported this residency.

She feels fortunate to have worked with ceramic artist Gustavo Bernal, who lives in the nearby town of Tlalpujahua. She told Bernal that she needed a ceramic vessel that could carry her weight and also be suspended by a rope.

“We designed it together,” Lopez Soto says.

They also discussed the design of cantaros, which are circular-shaped pots. In addition, Lopez Soto collaborated on cantaros with another ceramic artist, Cynthia Cupples, who lives in Uxbridge. In this part of the show, vessels needed to be strong enough to carry Lopez Soto’s full weight as she stood on them.

Her long journey has deeply enhanced her appreciation of Indigenous family history.

“I feel the nine years have given me so much feedback—not just on my heritage and my ancestry,” Lopez Soto continues, “but also in my body, in how to work with material, and how to collaborate with artists who perhaps have not worked in this way.”

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Nomada at the Annex from February 1 to 3. For tickets and more information, visit the PuSh festival website.

Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.