Saturday, January 18, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Celebrating the 'In-Between'" (on Contra-Tiempo's Urban Latin Dance Theater production of the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts


celebrating the “in-between”
by Douglas Messerli

Ana Maria Alvarez (and cast members) choreography, Contra-Tiempo Urban Latin Dance Theater, joyUS just US / the production I saw was on January 17, 2020 at the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

Last evening I saw the dance performance choregraphed by Ana Maria Alvarez, along with company members, of a series of Latin dances titled joyUS just US, a company as the work’s title suggests, is about their US identity, despite the disparate backgrounds of their dancers—Isis Avalos, Charlie Dando, Jannet Galdamez, Bianca Medina, Alan Perez, Jasmine Stanley, Diana Toledo, and Dalphe Morantus—who proudly proclaim their citizenships despite our current President’s and other political leader’s abilities inability to comprehend the “in between” nature of our own cultural heritages,
     Through a mix of Salsa dancing and other Latin dance traditions, these figures, spin, twirl, twist and turn, and generally perform in a highly physical manner that, at times, is literally gravity-defying as they proclaim their cultural affinities, and their right to be here, in Los Angeles, to be performing in one of the most wealthy spaces in the larger LA community in the middle of Beverly Hills.
    Together they bring song (mostly through Toledo’s soprano renditions) music from the band Las Cafeteras, fusing Afro-Cuban and contemporary dance styles that utterly transform what we generally perceive as modern dance.
     This troupe, displaying dazzlingly colorful tapestries, perform with part of the audience onstage, divided into the two sides of the performance space, as if to include those of us in the audience in their remarkable athletics, and, at one moment encouraging the on-stage audience to participate in their actions.

    Yes, this is a political dance theater, clearly emphasizing their often statemental views about what is happening in contemporary culture; but their simple pleasure in their balletic movements, and their almost impossible-to-be-believed somersaults and sexual interactions can only make us gasp, and help to engage the audience with the sometimes wild and truly joyful actions on the stage. I think even the elderly Wallis opening night audience was truly willing, if they might have been able to, join them on the stage with memories of their rock-and-roll days.
     If this might not be described as the most elegant of dance concerts, then you wouldn’t enjoy, as I did, this exuberant company. The Contra-Tiempo group is entirely about expressing the excitement of their physical abilities and their bodies, dresses whirling like Turkish dervishes, and male asses displayed as true sexual enticements. Sex, in these dances, is nearly everything. This company does not at all hide what they have to offer, and the audience clearly enjoyed their displays of what dance, open, joyous, proffers.
     Dance, after all, is a sexual act. I once recall a kind of stodgy friend mocking his wife for attending dance concerts: “She just likes to see all those thin male crotches!” I wanted to reply, well don’t we all? The male and female bodies of dance are, in part, what it is all about. How can beautiful bodies move so effortlessly, so beautifully through space? That is the true excitement of dance, isn’t it?
     When I met the great choreographer Paul Taylor at a gay bar in Madison, Wisconsin, I expressed my interest in being a dancer, despite the fact that I had previously had no training. He looked me over, observing that I was, in those days, a cute and thin male figure.  “It’s never too late,” he pontificated. “I began very late myself. You should dance.”
     And I did, taking nightly classes at the Joffrey Ballet Company in New York. I was not a natural. But I so enjoyed those difficult hours at the barre. And, in one wonderful moment, when asked to pirouette, I accomplished it, and was praised—something that rarely happened in such daily exercises.
     The Contra-Tiempo company is a rather wild group, a sort of off-shoot of modern balletic dance; yet their beauty and energy are something that no one who loves the movement of the body might resist.

Los Angeles, January 18, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 2020).


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