Latins: A Moving Force

June 20, 2007

At nearly 14 percent of the population, Hispanics make up the largest minority in the United States. They may be recent immigrants or their families may have lived here for generations; they may be of European, African, Asian, or Native American lineage, often in varying mix. While California, Texas, and Florida contain the greatest density of Hispanics, this demographic presence is spreading.

But, how does being Latino, which cuts across racial lines, constitute a distinct identity in the dance world?

“We are a fusion of races, and this gives our art complexity,” says Eduardo Vilaro, choreographer and founding artistic director of Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater. Cuban-born of Chinese, African, and Spanish ancestry, Vilaro was raised in New York. There he became a principal with Ballet Hispanico, where for 35 years artistic director Tina Ramirez has promoted styles, dancers, and—rare in American troupes—choreographers from the Latino community. “Our work can embrace all the characteristics inherent in our cultures,” Vilaro says. This brings vigor to Luna Negra’s repertoire, which draws from flamenco, tango, and salsa to portray contemporary themes ranging from immigration to telenovelas [soap operas].

Many Latinos also feel the constant presence of a vital, other place. San Diego’s Patricia Rincon Dance Collective has addressed this pull through its Blurred Borders Festival and works such as Nothing to Declare. For choreographer/artistic director Rincon, the matter couldn’t be more personal. “Going to live with my father’s family in Mexico completely changed me,” she says about her experience as a girl. “I came back focused. Emotionally and physically, I found out who I was and what that meant.” Since then her choreography has evolved to treat iconic Mexican images in innovative ways. “I want to jolt all those pictures, with their riches and their depths,” she says.

Examining the role ethnicity has played in their careers, other Latino dance artists give voice to similar feelings, albeit in the registers of a complex chorus.

Meet Neri Torres, dancer, choreographer, and artistic director of the Afro-Cuban fusion troupe Ifé-Ilé and Baila USA, an African roots Caribbean festival she initiated in 1998. She choreographed Andy Garcia’s upcoming film The Lost City, featuring San Francisco Ballet’s Lorena Feijoo. (See “Lorena in One Take,” DM, December, 2004.)

Meet Helena Thevenot, a Nicaraguan-born choreographer/performer who, after a long career in modern dance, now works in butoh.

Meet Octavio Campos, creator of dance-theater pieces reflecting Latino issues in postmodernist modes culled from training and performing in the U.S. and Europe. In September his Luna del Pingüino will be presented by the Latino New Works Festival in Los Angeles.

And meet Isanusi Garcia Rodriguez, Miami City Ballet principal, whose classical base (from Ballet Nacional de Cuba) and neoclassical enrichment has made him a powerhouse in ballets from Giselle to Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

“In this multiethnic society, our struggles at times seem more difficult—due to differences in culture, language, temperament,” observes Torres, looking back on her career since arriving in the U.S. in 1991. “But our differences are positive,” she considers. “We must keep these idiosyncracies. They’re what define and make us unique.”

Dealing with those defining aspects influences how Latinos take stock of who they are as artists and how they contribute to dance. To a great extent, what audiences most readily appreciate in Latino dancers is also what the dancers are proudest to claim.

“We have a more unself-conscious way of moving,” Torres maintains. “There’s a certain easy voluptuousness that enlivens every style we try.” This is obvious in response to the Afro-Cuban rhythms she works with, but Torres insists it can even ignite ballet “in the feeling with which one attacks a variation, for example.”

Garcia Rodriguez concurs. “We know how to turn up the heat and put in the sugar,” he says. “I wake up with music and it follows me throughout the day.” In an early choreographic effort in Italy, this devoté of 19th century ballets ended up using Dominican Juan Luis Guerra’s merengue to meld modern with salsa moves.

Even for U.S.-born Latinos, this intimate response to music may harken back to family parties where dancing pulls in even the most Americanized kids to try out steps from their parents’—if not their grandparents’—generation.

But what shapes Latino movement quality is not necessarily so light-hearted. The body can also yield to the weight of racial memory. “Whether you’re conscious of it or not, the blood that runs through you calls to you,” says Thevenot. “Look at the history of native people in Nicaragua. They were massacred, violated. To this day that hasn’t been rectified,” declares the artist, whose father was French and mother has Indian ancestry. “We can be proud of our heritage but also repudiate it. In my hometown, jincha (a word for Indian) can be used for praise or insult. Add to that reality—as in my case—war and natural disaster, and you get a person out of Latin America with layered post traumatic syndrome.”

Torres, too, has dealt with historical prejudices in her mission to authenticate Afro-Cuban traditions. “My art is that of a minority within a minority,” she says. “I have to work tirelessly to disseminate my kind of dance. It can still raise the eyebrows of those afflicted with colonialist taboos.”

Thevenot gravitated toward the non-linear, charged imagery of butoh; she has trained in Japan and under Mexican butoh master Diego Piñon. A work such as her Xochitl (“the rose piece” in the Nahuatl language), an exploration of beauty that turns poisonous, exemplifies a connection to nature that runs to Thevenot’s roots.

Octavio Campos recognized a different kind of kinship in his piece Patch M at the Florida Dance Festival three years ago. As he assumed a meditative stance in the solo, his Cuban grandmother came up to the stage, bringing him ethnic remedies for a troubled soul: pastries and soup. He had just returned to Miami from a stay in Germany, where he had established a respectable career. But he longed “to feel the Latino thing again—the calor, that warmth and realness of touch, of family.”

Ironically, Campos had to flee from parental constraints at the start of his arts education. “They were in complete Latino denial,” he says, revealing the family’s rejection of his commitment to art and—a significant parallel—of his sexual preference. “Now that I’ve paid my dues, my family has totally taken in all this locura [madness].” His mother even helped him with the Spanish text for Blue LIVE, his piece based on a Derek Jarman film about AIDS.

How family reservations can turn to an embrace also rings true for young Latinos in the 2005 BFA graduating class at Miami’s New World School of the Arts. Louis Marin, a Mexican-American who grew up in San Jose, California, found little support while making his way to dance. “Coming here,” he admits, “was like running away from home.” At the college, however, he got to delve into José Limón’s choreography. “I made my mom come watch me in There Is a Time. Being a religious person she could really relate to it, which was for me a very emotional experience,” Marin recounts.

He and his classmates candidly acknowledge how ethnic realities affect them. They, too, identify with a special musicality and sharply inflected expression, but—without a trace of defeatism—recognize barriers. As Diana Diaz, a blond Costa Rican-American of Cuban parents, confesses about a summer intensive she took near Boston, “I felt out of it because of body type.” She started out early in flamenco and faced the demands of ballet much later—though this required working against what she jokingly calls “the big butt” challenge.

Born in Queens to a Puerto Rican family, Miguel Quiñones concedes, “I’d love to perform in Don Quixote or Le Corsaire but I’d have difficulty getting a job in ballet companies looking for tall Caucasian males.” He believes contemporary dance is more open to both his special lyricism and the celebration of racial mix his parents instilled in him. “Being Latino drives the emotion in my work,” he enthuses.

Diplomas in hand, these young people can still learn from ballet luminary Evelyn Cisneros-Legate, who had a long and remarkable career at San Francisco Ballet (and has been an advice columnist for DM). “Sometimes it was difficult as a child growing up as the only dark-skinned person around, so I became a little withdrawn,” she remembers. “I may have been slighted, but I felt more discrimination later when I became aware of people’s preferences for other types in ballet. There was Alicia [Alonso], of course, but I actually identified with Maria Tallchief [who is Native American] because I look more like her.”

However, she’s quick to add, “Being Latina actually made me want to keep working harder, to prove my talent. I became known as very professional, always going the extra mile to maintain my integrity.” Now as Ballet Education Coordinator at SFB, she finds fulfillment in partnering with the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Franscisco’s Mission district. “I’m glad I can serve as a role model,” she reflects. “I want to instill in young people a sense of self and tell them how once I was just this very shy Mexican girl—but look what can happen!”

Havana-born and Miami-raised, Guillermo Perez writes about dance for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel and is a frequent contributor to DM.