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Dancing with cause

A two-night festival seeks to address social issues affecting Latinas

February 06, 2009|Victoria Looseleaf

"Being a Latina in Los Angeles is a very positive thing. I love being immersed in this cosmopolitan city -- especially as a person of color," says dancer and choreographer Licia Perea. "And with the recent election and inauguration of Obama, I feel energized about being a person of color -- an artist of color."

That energy should be on view this weekend at the downtown-adjacent Bootleg Theater (formerly the Evidence Room), where Perea and flamenco artist Briseyda Zarate will join forces to present the first Festival de Latinas Bailando (Festival of Latinas Dancing). In two evenings, the pair promise a kaleidoscopic view of what it means to be a Latino woman in today's society, touching on such issues as isolation, ageism and illegal immigration.

Born in Albuquerque, Perea is of Spanish, Mexican and Native American descent and earned a master's in choreography and performance from the University of New Mexico. She moved to L.A. in 1994 and in 2002 joined a four-member collective known as the Latina Dance Project.

Her work, rooted in contemporary dance, will be part of the festival's first concert, "Embodying Borders," made up of solos performed by the members of the collective. All have backgrounds in dance education. All are in their 50s. The other three -- Juanita Suarez, Eva Tessler and Eluza Santos -- live in upstate New York, Arizona and Brazil, respectively. It was Suarez who brought them together. Their first performance took place in 2002 at the University of North Carolina.

"We noticed a similarity in our work," Perea explains, "and got along fantastic, so we decided to continue doing our thing together."

That "thing" resulted in successful concerts and residencies throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. In 2007, their group piece "Coyolxauhqui ReMembers" was a hit in L.A., where a Times critic cited their collaboration as "evidence that a generation of choreographers is at last emerging to make this art more politically aware."

At the Bootleg, Perea will perform several solos to live original music by guitarist Lysa Flores and her trio. Flores, named by Newsweek as one of 20 young Latinos to watch in the new millennium, will also play a set of her own.

Zarate, who met Perea eight years ago in a flamenco class, is mounting the second program, Sunday's "Flamenca." It will showcase Compania Alma y Corazon Flamenco, a troupe of five dancers and six musicians she founded here in 2005.

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Hooked on flamenco

" 'Flamenca' is how a female flamenco dancer is referred to," says Zarate, 33, a fixture of the Fountain Theatre's long-running series "Forever Flamenco" who grew up with Mexican parents in Delano, Calif. "She is someone who is passionate about life and follows her heart. She shows her vulnerability as a woman yet at the same time has strength and beauty."

For Zarate, whose parents were farmworkers, attending dance classes -- tap, jazz and ballet -- "was a big deal" when she was a girl "and a financial sacrifice." Not until she went to UCLA, however, with the help of grants and affirmative action, did she see flamenco -- and become hooked.

She started dancing at local clubs but after graduating with degrees in history and Chicano studies chose to teach elementary school for two years. At 23, though, she resolved to become a professional artist. She took the retirement money she had saved and moved to Spain to soak up all things flamenco.

"I was already a natural performer," she says, "and I learned onstage the structure and how to improvise. I'm also a musician with my feet, so I have to be musical as well as interpretive, emotive and everything else dance requires. Flamenco has all that in the rhythms -- sadness, happiness, anger, passion -- and these things come together in that word 'flamenco' for me."

And although flamenco was not part of her childhood, there was always social dancing. "Our culture is lively," she says. "We like to celebrate with our dancing, our music. It's a huge part of how we relate to one another."

Zarate did experience racism growing up, she believes -- "a hovering, unspoken kind of thing" -- and she feels it still exists. "Generally, when the culture thinks of a Latino, they think of the person who cleans their home or makes their food -- some service type of job. They don't necessarily think Latina, artistic director, choreographer. In that respect, I am breaking a mold of what a Latina does and what's possible."

Perea's family, who were ranchers, also danced at their many gatherings, but her parents were opposed to her pursuing a career in dance. They preferred she study science, be a doctor. "No one in our family had been artists before -- no writers, no painters and definitely no performing artists," she says. "Now we're 20, 30 years later, and my parents totally get it."

Before relocating to L.A., Perea taught at the University of New Mexico. There, she says, she saw other Latinos breaking out of traditional backgrounds by pursuing an education in the performing arts.

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