Poetry and Politics
By Katherine Orloff, Writer, Dancer, Historian
As part of the 2015 Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers (¡FLACC!), festival organizers presented a free panel discussion a week prior to the performances. Hosted by the Center for Art and Social Justice at the California Institute for Integral Studies, the panel brought together five of the seven ¡FLACC! choreographers who discussed their creative processes, dominant themes in their work, and the importance of ¡FLACC! – the only annual festival of its kind on the West Coast that celebrates contemporary choreographers of the Latino/a Diaspora. In the discussion’s closing statement, ¡FLACC! Artistic Director Liz Boubion remarked that the festival is simply about supporting Latinos and good contemporary dance work. While the festival is indeed driven by these notions of community and innovative work, ¡FLACC! inevitably runs much deeper than these motivating forces.
This depth was made evident by the thoughtful, honest, candid comments made by ¡FLACC! choreographers Liz Boubion, Juan Manuel Aldape, Catherine Marie Davalos, Eric Garcia, and David Herrera (Rogelio Lopez and Zari Le’on were not present for the panel discussion). In particular, I was struck by the common thread of duality in each of their responses to questions about their work and personal histories. For example, one choreographer remarked that growing up Latino in a small American town made him both invisible and the target of intense scrutiny. Another described his difficulty in breaking into the Latino dance community – oddly, a community to which he, in part, inherently belongs. With specific regard to their work, the artists voiced their desire to highlight specific qualities of Latino heritage, while at the same time speak to a larger cultural story, one that everyone can connect to.
These dual spaces of the seen and unseen, of belonging and exclusion, were fleshed out in ¡FLACC!’s Thursday night run at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. Exploring themes of family, identity, immigration, and tradition, ¡FLACC! presented poignant depictions of motherhood, mythology, folklore, and deportation. Juan Manuel Aldape’s well-crafted “Cinco Palmas” mixed movement, projection, and text to tell a tale of border crossing that made me aware of the complexity of such an experience – in particular the confusion, emotion, risk, and determination. Adalpe’s aggressive gestures and tone of voice, contrasted with the lyric text projected behind him, made the work both harsh and soft, allowing me to see the poetry behind the politics – something perhaps these stories are desperately in need of.
In Rogelio Lopez’s “Empty Spaces Revisited,” the use of a single, handheld lamplight projected onto dancer Tessaly Jen was particularly effective. As Jen moved through sinuous sequences of movement, she was both starkly visible and resting in the shadows, recalling comments made at the ¡FLACC! panel discussion about the experience of being simultaneously invisible and the direct target of discrimination.
Duality again appeared in Eric Garcia’s “Beckon,” a piece we are told explores the intersection of power, sexuality, and race. In a duet between Garcia and Wiley Naman Strasser, the two dancers moved about each other, rapidly expressing gestures of affection, but also those evoking distrust, anger, and overtly male stereotypes. This sequence made me think of what I might call the “flux of personhood” – that yes, we simultaneously occupy several identities, emotions, or narratives throughout our lives, but that there is also a quality of slipping in and out of those narratives from moment to moment, or day to day. “Beckon” made that flux visible for me, as well as the notion that humans are complex and multitudinous creatures, at once the culture and communities we identify with (or are identified by), but also something more universal.
I saw a similar sense of this universality in Liz Boubion’s work “Fragmentos: Piñata #14.” As noted in the program, Liz’s work revolves around “abstracting and re-appropriating the ritual of the Piñata.” A work set on four dancers, “Piñata #14” depicts a community of women – individually strong, but heavily reliant on one another – that often guide or carry each other throughout the piece. In a particularly memorable moment, a blindfolded dancer traversed the stage in a circular pattern, trailed by two more dancers feverishly tracing her footsteps with pieces of a piñata. The paper trail left behind her called to mind this country’s widely debated topic of documentation. In this single scene, Boubion conveyed the politics of immigration, but also the poetic notion of our documented selves, the paper trail that defines us all, but in reality has little to do with the essence of who we are. In a single sweeping motion, Boubion cleared the stage of this “documented self,” leaving room for all the parts of us to explored and reinvented, again and again.