Is art inherently political, regardless of its intentions or motives? After seeing Vanguardia Dance Festival on November 12, days after Trump’s victory, I couldn’t help but watch this collection of Latin American perspectives and see a community united, a community perhaps in need of a little reassurance. Seeing all kinds of faces in the audience, I was reminded of the ability of art to bring us together.
The Vanguardia Dance Festival is presented by the Canadian-Latin American collective Vanguardia Dance Projects (VDP), founded in 2008 to promote contemporary Latin American dance. This year’s show, entitled A View on Latin America, featured six pieces, including work by VDP founders Olga Barrios and Norma Araiza.
The show began with Barrios in her own work Echo of a Hair as the audience casually traipsed to their seats. She stands dead still in the middle of the stage with about a half-dozen wires attached to her head and stretched taut, pulling from both sides, her hair loose and wild. Barrios remained that way for what must have been fifteen minutes until the lights eventually dimmed. Barrios slowly twisted and writhed to the strong, thumping rhythm by Luis Ricardo Castillo and Nancy Rumbel. Echo of a Hair was raw and gripping and set the bar high with Barrios’s precise technicality and emotional expression. She used her entire body to convey the sense of trying to free herself, curling her fingers like claws in agony of being trapped, her hair acting as an effective prop.
An excerpt of John Henry Gerena’s Black Tears came next and featured the choreographer with dancers Isabel Estrada and Falciony Patiño. It told a story about love, relationships and different kinds of passions. When Estrada danced with Patiño, it was light, playful and fun, the two mimicking each other’s movements as they salsaed and tangoed around and under each other. But when Estrada was paired with Gerena, the dance took on a sombre and sensual turn. Gerena’s work in the program is described as “research in the quality of movement and its particular aesthetic,” and his splicing-and-joining of movement in Black Tears was seamless in its ability to highlight two very different themes as sharing common roots. Whomever Estrada was dancing with at the time, the other man was present in the background, so the two styles, playful and intense, were always onstage.
In Nawa, dancer-choreographer Norma Araiza contrasted strong, striking movements with lean, lithe limbs. Her long, flowing hair and large eyes that flashed from one emotion to another gave her a very intense appearance. The solo was described as a first draft of a story about a woman unshackling herself of colonization, but the end result was very polished.
The excerpt of Lilia Leon’s Perdida was also very polished, although it lacked balance. Dressed entirely in white, Leon danced the story of a Mestizo woman finding her voice through her ancestry. The choreography was set perfectly to the music, performed live by musician Brandon Valdivia, as well as it made us of the entire stage. The integration of text showed off Leon’s expressive theatrical abilities, painting a vivid story to accompany the more technical choreography. Perdida appeared top-heavy, however, with not enough gravitas to anchor the light, flowing nature of the majority of the dance.
Alejandro Ronceria’s Amalgama did not have this problem. Barrios and Irma Villafuerte danced to the sound of their pre-recorded voices, a conversation with its own rhythms that alternated with rhythmic Latin American drumming. Amalgama is a continuation of the work Ronceria designed for the 2015 Pan American Games. Although the piece mostly uses contemporary dance technique, it also ties in the history of drum culture, with free-flowing movements contrasted with steady, on-the-beat drumming. It was an interesting push-and-pull between the past and the present. While the hypnotic drumming was a constant presence, Barrios and Villafuerte’s dancing and their voices playfully teasing each other about not having a smartphone served as a jarring yet pleasing break.
One of the most primal, explosive pieces of the night came last in Newton Moraes’s Testosterone. The quartet featured dancers Shakeil Rollock, Matthew Barnes, Emilio Colalillo and Patiño, who only briefly wore suits before stripping down to black underwear. The title and the dancers’ sculpted physiques speak of masculinity, but Testosterone actually challenges gender conceptions and what it means to be an individual within a larger community. Moraes intelligently contrasted themes of strength and softness, dominance and submission, all with a subtle hand. As I watched the four dancers try to break free of their respective moulds, the image of Barrios doing the same at the beginning of the show came to mind. It was a lovely bookend to the opening of the show.