January 16, 2016 by Teresa Heiland
14 January 2016 — LOS ANGELES, CA —A soulful, water goddess song invites us into another world, wind blows fabric at sunset, and the deity Oya dances with a rhythmic, undulating spine. We enter a magical unknown place filled with mystery that is luscious, tempting, tropical, liquid, intoxicating. Scream, crash, broken plastic, breathe; how can I breathe? A child’s voice tells us to breathe one more time, if we can. Are we dying? Rhythmic patters, accented ephebic spines, and stepping patterns from Afro-Cuban dances are intermixed with urban body attitudes revealing a juxtaposition of nature and nurture, of the natural and of destruction. Agua Furiosa, directed and choreographed by Ana Maria Alvarez, is a dance theatre production by Contra-Tiempo Urban Latin Dance Theater in five acts inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Oya, the Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms. The dance theatre production challenges audiences to confront the harsh realities of race and water and locate themselves inside a complex and transformative conversation.
The opening night of the 90-minute dance theater piece presented at the Gloria Kaufman Dance Theatre merged live vocals, dance, themes of freedom and water, and hope for a more just and compassionate future for us all. Agua Furiosa is a counter narrative to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, taking on many of the themes of the original play, including magic, the soul, and justice, but contrasts by using a unmistakable feminist and contemporary perspective. Two characters, drawn from The Tempest, the slave Caliban and his mother Sycorax are adapted for Agua Furiosa. Sycorax, known here as Ella/Oya, narrate the struggles of four distinct Caliban’s. Four additional players support, challenge, and deliver messages about struggles with overcoming environmental and racial injustice. Pyeng Threadgill masterfully performs Ella, and the eight players, performed by Isis Avalos, Christopher Cuenza, Jannet Galdamez, Bianca Golden, Samad Guerra, Francisco Javier Herrejon Zuñiga, Bianca Medina, and Diana Toledo, perform with clear intent and strong emotions.
Ella, an Afro-Cuban deity, which Alvarez links to Sycorax, channels wind, air, lightning, fertility, and magic by bringing the change, transition, and chaos in order to gain liberty or to break silence. Threadgill’s commanding soulful delivery provides a powerful context and narrative thread that steers Agua Furiosa, driving it by pinpointing focus and casting a spell of determination through the space. Her spirited voice is captivating and her embodiment of Elle suspends time and place. Her voice demands rapt attention.
This evening-length work gelled and was fully realized because the message had sensitivity and clarity, the performers were fully committed, and the production choices were integrated into a unified whole that spoke deeply about issues related to colonialism, slavery, and environmental destruction. Dance was the main medium of delivery of the message, using a blend of contemporary theatrical dance, Afro-Cuban dance, Latin social dance, and capoeira, among others. Live singing and a rich soundscape of urban rhythms with layered text, by d. Sabela grimes, served to weave the story together and to explicitly deliver messages. The production choices, including a painted fabric drop that was gently waving in the wind made by hidden fans, scrim panels, back and front lighting, and plastic buckets and bottles, by Masha Tsimring, magically created an idyllic environment abused by trash and disregard. The bold, proud, colorful, lush, costumes for Ella, by Rosalida Medina, were fabulous, each showcasing her powerful character.
The development of the story through scenes, narrative, and dance provided clear messages that were a painful reminder of global issues related to unequal human rights and the uncertain health of our planet. Contra-Tiempo has asked many personal, local, and global questions in order to develop this work. Metaphors were used often, such as holding a pole behind one’s neck, marching with high knees, and being caught in a net, all symbols of capture and loss of liberty. Buckets were handed down the line arriving empty at the last person, a symbol of inequality, mismanagement, civil disregard, and corruption.
A woman being objectified on a pedestal reminds us of slaves being inspected at a slave auction or terrorists, gangs, or even cliques laughing at their victims, while onlookers party all night with complete disregard for anyone’s needs or feelings. These images are powerful and used to great effect in this production. A simple game of musical chairs, which we all hated as children, is used to portray a common disregard for others; meanwhile an embarrassing relief overcomes those lucky enough to have what they need to survive. The narrator asks in jest, “Did you win?”
The choices of movement styles in Contra-Tiempo are rooted in the culture of all the company members, including Africanist aesthetics; Afro-Cuban dance; folk and ritual dance; and urban contemporary dance forms, which are bridged with Alvarez’ modernist choreographic intentions toward meaning-making, story-telling, and connecting with the audience through art making. This rich blend of intentions, along with Contra-Tiempo’s imaginative collaboration between music, song, sound, set, and costume, create a culturally inclusive theatrical medium representing a worldview that transcends boundaries of this post-post modern city of Los Angeles. The result is both personal and global.
A need for development hinges on uncomfortable shifts between movement genres, when dancers transition from a traditional Afro-Cuban movement into a contemporary dance movement into a pedestrian movement. It is in those shifts that my disbelief is no longer suspended, and I become conscious of the styles of dance switching. If one does not know dance styles and forms, then this might not bother, but if one does recognize the styles and origins, one gets pulled temporarily out of the dance and into noticing transitional shifts between cultural styles. By being generative with transitions, theme and variations, and choreographic devices, the shifts between dance styles will not be shifts but, rather, conversations among cultures.
Strength in ensemble work occurs when a trio of women performs in unison, signaling a common struggle that leads to an effusion of relief. The ending of the dance was powerful, when Caliban 4, danced by Samad Guerra, demonstrates a gripping portrayal of a life of torment from being silenced, and yet he does speak through movement and then voice. Caliban’s speech, from The Tempest, seemed superfluous, as I already knew from his dance what he was saying. Caliban 4 had been beaten enough, and he could take no more.
While Contra-Tiempo works with Latin American themes using Africanist aesthetics, Agua Furiosa transcends boundaries of race, culture, and time. Agua Furiosa reminds us that we must honor human rights and, earth’s most precious resource, water. Was Shakespeare raising a concern about colonialism when he wrote The Tempest in 1613? No one is sure, but we can be sure that we know better today. Updating Shakespeare’s metaphor of a tempest, Contra Tiempo draws an interesting parallel, a simile, showcasing the power and the fragility of the human voice and our earth, both which we abuse as often as we honor.
Agua Furiosa can be seen at the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theatre from January 14-17 and 21-24, 2016.