Originally from Mexico City, but now based in Los Angeles, Xipe Totec is a company that performs excerpts from Aztec rituals dating back 500 years or more--before the Spanish language and Catholic religion were imposed on Mexicans with brutal force.
That would be eye-opening enough, but it's only the beginning. On the plaza of the Southwest Museum on Saturday, the 19 dancers, musicians and narrators of Xipe Totec defined an integrated world view: a sense of union with processes of nature and with the landscape that they share with their neighbors.
Virginia Carmelo spoke of solidarity with other native American peoples and, indeed, the program served less as a depiction of historic Mexico than an affirmation of links to Indian cultures of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States.
Think of this bitterly contested region not in terms of national borders but as a network of tribal centers--places where neither English nor Spanish is the official language--and you can glimpse the revolutionary unity-in-diversity that Xipe Totec quietly evokes.
Elaborately feathered, beaded, sequined and embroidered, the costumes bore images of nature-deities. Made by the dancers who wore them, some proved more successful than others in expressing Aztec love of splendor without suggesting contemporary show-biz glitz. Company leader Lazaro Arvizu lightly defended the modern materials.
"We just cannot use gold," he said. "Most of the gold the Spanish took."
A fortuitous breakdown of the amplification system made it possible to appreciate at proper scale the musical instruments made from seashells, gourds, seed-pods, hollow logs and stalks of bamboo--some pierced for flutes, others filled with small stones and sealed.
With their formal reiterations of steps to the four points of the compass, the dances had the structural weight of ancient Meso-American temples, but also the speed and dynamism of more recent Latino folk celebrations. The complex, accelerating twisting/dodging steps, with unison kicks and spins on one foot in the men's group dance "Tezcatlipuca" earned Arvizu's description "Aztec aerobics."
More intimate though equally forceful: guest Moises Gonzalez's solo, with its strong, smooth oppositions (kicks to the inside versus hops to the outside), and the duet for Hugo and Raoul Ruiz, with its sizzling flurry of high-velocity kicks executed face-to-face at close range.
However, Arvizu is the soul of Xipe Totec and, clearly, one of the major artists of the L.A. dance community. As both the White Eagle in "Iztacuauhtli" (opposite Sergio Ruiz) and the fire-dancer of "Xiucoatl," he matched superb physical skills with a spiritual authority that renewed the sacerdotal essence of these exciting dance-relics and drew you deeply into their mysteries.