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Performing Arts

Sharing a Stage, Dancing a Dream

Everyone learns when a folklorico group invites smaller troupes onto the bill.

August 20, 2000|JENNIFER FISHER | Jennifer Fisher is a regular contributor to Calendar

In the last few years, Gema Sandoval has discovered a lot more Latin America in L.A. than she knew existed.

During the 25 years she has directed her own Mexican folklorico troupe, Danza Floricanto / USA, she has eagerly attended many dance performances and cultural events in other ethnic communities. But when she started searching more methodically for guest companies to be in her "Latino L.A." program (Saturday night at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre), she discovered dances so intriguing, they left her thinking, "How could I never have seen this before?"

Perhaps it's because many of the groups--from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Bolivia--have sprung up over the last decade, and often perform only in ghettoized communities.

Parts of their various dance vocabularies reminded Sandoval of Mexico. "We all had the influence of the Spanish," she says. But then there were the differences--the African-tinged dances and music that grew up around the Bolivian silver mines, for instance. And the dynamic, sensual Peruvian marinera dancing, named for the seaside towns where it developed. The latter genre has become "very stylized, very precise and nuanced," Sandoval says, a result of fiercely competitive, rigorous contests that started in Peru about 100 years ago.

Before she decided to feature an evening with guest performers, Sandoval considered bringing their dance forms into her own company and expanding its range, along the lines of other eclectic folk troupes. "I think Floricanto could have done many of those dances," she says, sitting in the well-appointed living room of her Whittier home in early August.

"But our sincerity might have been lacking, because we don't come from those specific places. I'm an immigrant, but I don't know about their traditions and issues of survival. I think the right thing to do is to ask them to be their own representatives."

And so invitations went out to five groups, who will appear alongside Sandoval's Floricanto; Los Folkloristas, a music ensemble from Mexico City; and other music groups. Soon after, dancers who usually perform in parks, at community festivals or in rented halls for graduation, wedding and baptismal celebrations, started rehearsing for their first foray into the world of concert dance.

With "Latino L.A.," Sandoval says, the diversity of the Latin American dance arts that thrive in Los Angeles will be presented to a dance-going public. But that's not the only goal. She knows from experience that getting the opportunity to perform in a proper theater can be a crucial step toward professionalism for the groups, which range in experience and technical skill.

"Some are literally family operations," Sandoval says. "There's a real innocence that touches me, this need to give what they have in this way. They're going to look lovely, with a pristine kind of innocence not often seen on the professional stage."

Others, she says, are more advanced technically and choreographically. One thing they share, Sandoval says, is a certain tenaciousness. "When they go on that stage, I have no doubt that they will be transformed," she says. "Because they're just at that place where they're very strong, they believe in themselves, in their abilities and their possibilities."

*

Evenings and Saturday afternoons tend to be prime rehearsal time if your dancers all have regular daytime jobs. On this hot August Saturday at the barely air-conditioned Lynwood Youth Center, the members of Grupo Cultural Latinoamericano have not only assembled to rehearse, they have donned their heavy woven-cotton and wool costumes for the benefit of a photographer.

Ranging from 14 to middle age, the eight dancers run through their number for the Ford program (each group gets 10 minutes). It includes the bobbing steps and sways of both festive and devotional dances from a few different regions of Guatemala.

The amplification system is scratchy, but at the Ford, they'll have live music (as will all but one of the groups), provided by a marimba band.

"We started this because of my kids," says Jose Estrada, who watches from the sidelines. He is president of the group, husband of founder Santa Estrada and father of Christian, the youngest of the adult dancers. "They started asking me, "I'm not Mexican, I'm not Guatemalan, because I was born here, so who am I?' " Now, the children of the group--who will dance in a special morning performance at the Ford on Saturday--understand something about where they came from. And they are also learning how much fun it is to perform.

Estrada admits that his family never would have been dancing back in Guatemala. "When you live in the country, you don't think so much about your culture. You want to see things from outside," he says. "Now that we are outside, we're looking back."

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