The world according to Nicky: “now my hand is ready for my heart” at La MaMa

Vicky Shick and Nicky Paraiso Photo by Theo Cote

Who doesn’t know Nicky Paraiso? He’s everywhere. For the past couple of decades, he has been THE ubiquitous presence at dance and theater venues throughout the city. As Director of Programming at The Club at La MaMa and curator and co-founder (with Mia Yoo) of La MaMa Moves!, knowing Nicky, or rather, his knowing you can sometimes feel like a barometer of it-ness. Like Brian Rogers mentions in his Chocolate Factory newsletter:  

Do you love Nicky Paraiso? Short answer: YES, you do (and if you don’t, well…let’s talk about what’s wrong with you!). Assuming you have positioned yourself correctly on the Nicky-Paraiso-affinity-spectrum (and by extension, the right side of history), you will want to see Nicky’s new show at La Mama.

But who actually knows Nicky Paraiso? Despite a significant Theater Communications Group Fox Fellowship for his Distinguished Achievement of over 20 years of professional work, his reputation as an artist slid behind the wider reaching recognition of his curational dexterity. He has become a thoughtful champion for many emerging theater, music and dance makers over the years. It was Nicky who brought me back to my “home” with a couple invitations to show work, curate and organize discussions for La MaMa Moves! Nicky and I had been La MaMa family for many years, I as a member of Great Jones Repertory Co since 1997 and he performing with Meredith Monk, Jeff Weiss, Yoshiko Chuma and in his own work, but most of my choreographic/creative life had been built elsewhere until he really welcomed me in. I brought him to teach at a brand new MA program at Hunter College and when we both served on the New York Dance and Performance (the Bessies) Awards Committee together, Nicky was guaranteed to be the most generous, gushing advocate for other artists in the room. So, I think I have found myself positioned correctly on the Nicky-Paraiso-affinity-spectrum and havingheard some tales and songs at various Nickyland holiday reviews, thought I knew him pretty well. But, of course, as his recent show at La MaMa revealed there’s always more to the story and to the teller.

After over a decade hiatus in making work, with “now my hand is ready for my heart” he regales us with an abundance of stories. Gushing forth while looking back on several lived lives in Nickyworld, he pushes and pulls at the labor of remembering a plethora of historic New York City moments and people he was witness to. He jokes a few times about how much he is talking and how much La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart abhorred such “talky talky plays.” There is an orbiting collection of downtown dance superstars who gently waft around the energetic entertainer in various states of po-mo aloofness. Jon Kinzel, Vicky Shick, Irene Hultman and Paz Tanjuaquio offer some bits of dialogue, but the piece settles on you like an enhanced monologue. With one absolutely riveting re-enactment of a previous role, only a few songs, and some projection, Nicky, under the direction of John Jesurun, seems almost unwillingly enlisted into telling over showing, so that when he finally gets to joins the dancers at the end, it is a charmingly warm resolution to the tension he builds over the course of the show. You can practically feel the accumulating text build up to an escape velocity out of one world and into another.

Vicky Shick, Jon Kinzel, Paz Tanjuaquio, Nicky Paraiso & Irene Hultman

The Ellen Stewart theater is occasionally split, bi-fabricated if you will, by a white gauzy projection screen that is repeatedly closed and opened throughout the show, primarily to return to an image of the house Nicky grew up in Flushing, Queens. He delivers stories about his early schooling, the 7 train, the study of Eurythmics in such an abundantly energetic presentation, that when Jon Kinzel’s low toned, dry “And what was that supposed to do for you,” arrives, the audience delights in the proxy the drifting dancers offer. They serve up a mild meta commentary that questions and pokes at the regularly rising narrative and compositional questions. Paz asks why he was so enamored with the minstrel show of “The King and I” or Vicky wonders why they are sharing the stage: “But, Nicky, why are we here with you?” And each prompt moves a moment forward or backward in time while also asking from the inside what those on the outside might be pondering. A witty device that carries the show’s Nicky-ism into full existence with even Nicky himself asking “Why do I have to keep talking about myself. I want to watch them dance.”

Vicky Shick, Jon Kinzel & Nicky Paraiso Photo by Theo Cote

The show touches upon evolving race relations with recollections of Rice Queens, interracial love and Ellen Stewart’s disgust at him performing in blackface. A video sequence with renowned Filipina author Jessica Hagedorn and ass kicking actress Ching Valdez (members of what Nicky calls his “flip therapy”) points towards the brown elephant in the room. There are tales of an unrecognized, likely gay, Pilipino composer who mentored him as a child, his mother’s homesick return to the Philippines and his visits there, but it is made clear that these women worry Nicky is treated like a white community’s pet from his days playing Fuji, the oriental bath attendant, to the making of this very show. However, when he conjures his imperious Dictator from Meredith Monk’s second movement of her masterwork “Quarry,” the entire space is transformed. Perhaps quite tinged in exotica if you think back to the casting choices of the 70s, but decades later all one can experience is sheer awe at Nicky’s vocal and physical capacity. You can feel the power of a seasoned performer summoning mastery of vocal intonations and an authoritative presence that captures and engrosses a contemporary viewer. In this all-to-brief moment Nicky transmutes from a personality into a force of nature. His formidable manifestation of sound, body and energy honor the original practices and ideologies of La MaMa’s past and remind all of us how much action still stirs the soul in a “talky talk” world.

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