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THE BIG MIX : Dance : Latin Groups: Holding the Line Against Pop Culture

February 05, 1989|DOUGLAS SADOWNICK

The Latino dance community has dozens of companies whose movement idioms are so wildly diverse that a pre-Columbian marriage dance from Peru can seem as strange to a Mexican-American as it can to an Anglo from West Hollywood.

In fact, the only value that many L.A.-based Latino dance companies seem to have in common is their concerted battle against what Prof. Juan Rios of the UCLA Dance Program calls the "cultural genocide of our dance traditions by American popular culture."

"The key word here is authenticity, the preservation of our various heritages against Madonna and Rambo," explains Gema Sandoval, artistic director of Floricanto Mexican Dance Theater, one of L.A.'s most widely recognized Mexican folk dance companies. (It receives federal and state funds).

According to Lola Montes, veteran torch bearer of Spanish-influenced dance in L.A. since the mid-'50s, "it's important to keep in mind that each region in Latin America--whether it's Veracruz, Jalisco or Guerrero (in Mexico), Nicaragua or Honduras--boasts completely distinct dance traditions."

The following is an overview of the L.A. Latino dance community--a scene so diverse that L.A. can be seen as a microcosm of the Latino world. (This survey is by no means complete, omitting, for instance, the myriad community-based groups from Mexico and Central America that perform in churches, high schools and community centers throughout L.A.)

Who are these companies and what do they do? For the most part, they are composed of Latino-American folkorists who feel an obsession to resist creatively what they consider to be the continual cultural colonization of the U.S.

For example, Ballet Folklorico Ollin and the Los Angeles County Ballet Folklorico in the San Fernando Valley, Floricanto Dance Theater based in East L.A.'s Plaza de La Raza, Ballet Mexicapan in East L.A and Grupo Folklorico of West Los Angeles are all known for dances from the Jalisco area of Mexico, where full-skirt dances and Zapateado --fancy foot work--characterize a regional style known for its showy flourishes.

But Zapateado isn't the be-all and end-all of Folklorico. Dances performed by Fiesta Mexicana in West L.A., the Xipe Totec Dance Company and Relampago del Cielo in Santa Ana--groups known for their Conchero and Huasteco Aztec suites from various Central American regions--feature more lyrical modes of dancing.

But Alfredo Calderon, general director of Cuica Calli Dance Company, could do without what he calls "overblown gestures of cultural attachment." He feels that too many companies sacrifice "dance purity" for "American-influenced production values."

He says that his company has "consistently placed edification over entertainment" ever since the 32-member company was founded in 1974 by a group of culturally sensitive Chicano students from Cal State Northridge.

His instincts seem to be finally paying off. After 14 years of relative obscurity, and with the assistance of Prof. Emilio Rivas as master choreographer, Cuica Calli is gaining much respect and popularity within the Latino dance community.

Cuica Calli has toured throughout California, the U.S. and Europe and has presented concerts at the Latin American Arts Festival at Southwest Museum and the Olympic Arts Festival. The company also participated in the closing ceremonies at Dodger Stadium for the Pope's visit to Los Angeles.

Calderon makes frequent trips to rural Mexican villages to discover "rare and even ancient traditional dance and costumes" that offer "much insight into how the indigenous peoples of Mexico celebrated life."

Do non-Mexican dance companies feel the same desire for such "scholarly purity"?

Lula Almeida and Linda Yudin, who recently formed a Brazilian dance company called Grupo Afro-Bahia, say they want to give audiences a more "accurately Brazilian alternative to 'Oba Oba'." The company, which is based in Hollywood, has been well received.

Moreover, Herald Morales and Juan Rodriguez of the Orisha Afro-Danse company in Hollywood present Cuban dances (from the Santeria religion) that they say come from "genuine religious feeling," not just easy showmanship.

In addition, Laura Bracamante's Peruvian Dance Company, Inca (based in the San Fernando Valley), features work that she says digs so deeply into ancient sources that her dancers sometimes go into religious trances.

While all these artists seem to reject Western traditions (unlike Latino choreographers Rudy Perez and Rene Olivas Gubernick, who distill and abstract traditional Latino values within contemporary idioms), Calderon insists "all these cultural expressions are worlds apart from one another."

This special issue was edited by David Fox, Sunday Calendar assistant editor.

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