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Water Dancer: Ana María Alvarez

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Full Still Hungry | Photo: Steve Wylie

While California is in the midst of a major drought, Ana María Alvarez, choreographer and founder of CONTRA-TIEMPO Urban Latin Dance Theater, is making works that either deal with water or that actually take place in and around the wet stuff. One such number is "Wade en el Agua," was presented recently at the pond at the Mark Taper Forum as part of the Music Center's "Moves After Dark." (In addition to Alvarez's choreography, three other troupes -- BodyTraffic, ate9 and Lula Washington Dance Theatre -- are performing at various spaces around the Center.)

The Taper piece, however, is part of a larger, evening-length work, "Agua Furiosa," that premieres in January at CAP UCLA's Glorya Kaufman Theater for eight performances. Inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and Oya, the Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms, the work will challenge audiences to confront the harsh realities of race and water in the States. It has, said Alvarez, been percolating for the last two years.

Explained the Cuban-American, who founded her seven-member, bilingual troupe in 2005: "I had seen a version of "The Tempest" in Central Park in 2013 that involved 100 community members. I got really excited about what would be possible to do an urban Latin "Tempest," and thought about how related and connected it was to the tumultuousness and chaos of the world, as well as dealing with race and colonization."

Through conversations and choreographic laboratories with community members all over Los Angeles, including artists and non-artists, Alvarez has begun to uncover the contradictions and connections between these seemingly disparate topics. The dancemaker, an activist whose 2007, eight-part "I Dream America" was described by the Los Angeles Times as representing "the kind of socially aware contemporary work that only a few dance artists such as Bill T. Jones reliably provide," said that her movement language is fast, big and sweeping, with a lot of footwork, and that being an instrument of change is in her DNA.

Explained Alvarez, 37, who was born in Greensboro, North Carolina to an American mother and Cuban father: "My parents are union organizers and they were involved in the civil rights movement and organizing for the textile industry. By the time I was 12, I had been to 11 different schools. That meant that everywhere I went, I would go to a different place for dance."

Alvarez, who has one brother, a Drama Desk-nominated composer and founding member of CONTRA-TIEMPO, began studying ballet when she was five. But as a teen, she realized that her shapely Cuban body was not ideal for ballet.

"Besides my body and the energy I was communicating, one of my dance teachers looked at my butt and said, 'You'll never be a dancer.' I went home and told my mom, 'I want to keep dancing but I don't want to do this anymore.'"

At 15, Alvarez became an apprentice with an African-American dance company based at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University, led by dance professor Dr. Eleanor Gwynn.

"I was the only non African-American," said Alvarez, "and Eleanor kind of loved me and [eventually] let me join the company. She was probably the equivalent of [dancer/choreographer/anthropologist Katherine] Dunham. There was something about being there that made me feel this was the way my body was supposed to be moving. I found my home and danced with them for three years."

In preparation for "Agua Furiosa." | Photo: Tyrone Domingo.
In preparation for "Agua Furiosa." | Photo: Tyrone Domingo.

Being Latina, Alvarez also danced salsa, at first with family, particularly her Cuban grandfather, then at Oberlin College, where she majored in politics and dance, including studying modern, post-modern and contact release genres.

"I helped to form a student dance troupe that was using hip-hop, tap and more urban forms. I was using my own background with other folks pioneering new ways of dancing and moving. I was creating my own work and trying to figure out how all these things inside my body worked together."

In addition, Alvarez traveled to Cuba to study Afro-folkloric and contemporary dance (to date she has made nine trips), finally landing in New York afterward for four years. There she performed with tango and Afro-Haitian ensembles, as well as having interned with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's Urban Bush Women, the company founded in 1984 that uses dance as a way to engage with communities and to channel social activism.

An unstoppable, choreographi-holic, Type-A personality, Alvarez, while still in New York, also did social work with teenagers and attended UBW's first summer leadership program, all of which instilled in her the notion that she could be a "change-maker." The apple, obviously, doesn't fall far from her parents' activist tree, with these activities, combined with her love of dance, giving Alvarez her distinct voice.

"I choreographed 12 pieces a year on students in Brooklyn," Alvarez recounted. "Through all those experiences I found dance has a transformational power that allows us to touch and engage with our own humanity like nothing else does. It's not," she added, "just about dancing and kicking my leg high, but doing incredible work that is actually shifting society."

This, she said, is what drew her to UCLA, where she earned a Master's in Fine Arts in Choreography from the Department of World Arts and Cultures. Her thesis work, which explored the abstraction of Latin dance, specifically salsa, as a way to express social resistance within the U.S. immigration battle, grew into a piece called CONTRA-TIEMPO/Against the Times, which became the impetus for founding -- and naming -- her dance troupe.

Alvarez said that CONTRA-TIEMPO can also be a reference to salsa's musical conversation between the downbeat and the off beat, as well as a metaphor for "pushing against something that's happening in the world," with going salsa dancing at clubs part of the troupe's training routine.

"I'm very much pioneering a new dance genre, what we call urban Latin dance theater. These dances -- Salsa, Afro-Cuban and hip hop -- are rooted in African diaspora street forms in social situations and concert dance. How these three arms intersect with the space in between is how the dances develop."

Alvarez currently has four women and three men in her troupe, with the age range from 24-31, adding, "I have a clearer vision when I'm stepping outside."

The Latina is also no stranger to working with water. In addition to the Taper number, she will be setting several site-specific pieces in and around bodies of water in Los Angeles, as a way, she said, to "discover and locate the movement language of the piece.

In preparation for "Agua Furiosa." | Photo: Tyrone Domingo.

"We've already done work in the fountain at the Santa Monica [Annenberg Community] Beach House. I was a choreographer in residence with the city of Santa Monica and that was our first lab. The labs are performances, where we participate in and are part of a movement score. Then there is the story circle - or council circle, a Native American storytelling practice. We were trained to be facilitators using stories as a mechanism for building community and engaging community in our work last year at the Ojai Foundation."

CONTRA-TIEMPO has also done a piece in the Royce Hall fountain, and on August 28, the troupe performs in a man-made water receptacle at an Orange County park. In addition, Alvarez' company is slated to do a work in L.A. Valley College's Olympic-size pool.

"The other one is in the L.A. River, where [artist] Judy Baca is. That's in collaboration with Policy Link, a progressive think tank that does work around social justice issues," explained Alvarez. "They're doing a huge summit on October 27. We received a Dance/USA grant for engaging audiences to design these labs working with communities."

While many local dance troupes aspire to tour, CONTRA-TIEMPO has been doing just that. This year alone the company has been to Minnesota, Florida, South Carolina and, most recently, Monterey, in Northern California, where the company had a residency and performances.

The troupe also scored a coup touring internationally: last year they did a one-month tour of South America (Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador), sponsored by DanceMotion USA. A cross-cultural exchange program that connects America's top-tier dance companies with international artists and communities, the organization partners with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. The tour is produced and curated by BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music).

"We had an amazing reception," the choreographer recalled. "We had excited, invested audiences. We also did 12 workshops within two days. Five hundred people came to the workshop. It was incredible," added Alvarez, "and the next day there was a full performance and the theater would be packed."

"Once we did that tour," she continued, "being in South America and realizing what an issue water is -- seeing it with my own eyes -- that really affected me. I'm glad that people have also become more vocal about it."

That Alvarez conducts the workshops in Spanish is also part of her fully engaged attitude, with her works, she explained, "bilingualized." Her fourth full-length work, "Agua Furiosa" will be no exception. Directed by Michael Garcés, it will merge call and response, a live vocalist, water themes, fierce physicality and the performers' own personal multicultural narratives.

"Full Still Hungry" performance. | Photo: Steve Wylie.

Other evening-length works also having tackled socio-political themes, include: "I Dream America," which addresses immigration and the tension between blacks and Latinos; and "Full Still Hungry," which came about from the choreographer examining her own body, a work set to an original score by her brother Cesar Alvarez.

Indeed, the choreographer has a full dance plate these days. In addition to "Agua Furiosa," Alvarez is working on "She Who: Frida, Mami and Me," choreographed by Marjani Forte, which connects the life of Frida Kahlo with the water deity Mami Wata and Alvarez. And after "Agua" premieres in January the troupe hits the road with an 11-city tour.

While Alvarez' work is rooted in Salsa and Afro-Cuban movement, the Latin social dance form has recently become exceedingly commercial, with television shows such as "Dancing With the Stars" bringing an over-the-top Vegas glitz to the genre. Alvarez, however, is one of the first choreographers to bring salsa steps into concert dance.

"There are a lot of dancers and choreographers working within the form in a traditional way," explained Alvarez. "I'm interested in breaking the rules and contemporizing the rules. How do these rules reflect my own aesthetic? The easiest example is gender rules in Salsa, where all of our men lead and women follow. We blow that up.

"If I use it that way," continued Alvarez, "I'm doing it intentionally, because I'm making a commentary of man's control over women. I'm looking at the form not as a cultural dance form to replicate, but how can the language of these forms help us to express and articulate contemporary society and contemporary culture?"

As for those audiences who prefer unadulterated dance, i.e., not overly preachy or politicized presentations, Alvarez believes her work does not tell audiences what to think.

"The difference between preaching and creating work that's not preaching is coming from your own perspective, it's sharing your own story. Our work always starts from the personal to open the audience's perspective in seeing larger issues."

"I'm not telling about others' experiences," added Alvarez, "I'm sharing something that's personal. As an artist, even if you're not trying to be political or make social commentary, the fact that you are disengaging in that is a choice and is actually making a statement."

"I love when people who think differently than me come to our shows and engage. My interest is not in preaching to the choir. It's about how do you actually facilitate dialogue and create shifting paradigms of conversations that are already happening."

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Top image: "Full Still Hungry" performance. | Photo: Steve Wylie.

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