Slices from the Minneapple interviews CONTRA-TIEMPO’s Ana Maria Alvarez
Slices from the Minneapple 2/5/16
I’m looking forward to Saturday’s performance of Contra Tiempo at the Ordway. Contra Tiempo is an L.A.-based dance company that fuses Latin, Hip-Hop, Salsa, Afro-Cuban, Urban and Contemporary dance styles. Their newest piece, “Full Still Hungry,” is a commentary on food, race, privilege and consumption and features a six-piece band. The dance premiered in L.A. at the Ford Amphitheatre in 2011.
I’d like to welcome Ana Maria Alvarez, Artist Director of Contra Tiempo to the Minneapple to share her slice of life.
Q: Please tell me about the name of your company, how you decided on the name, and what Contra-Tiempo means to you.
AMA: CONTRA-TIEMPO directly translated means “against times.” I think of it also as dancing, moving, creating against THE times. It also means “the offbeat” and refers to a specific rhythm that is typically found in Cuban music and movement. It’s about the space in between, which is very much what my work is about – this idea of moving and existing in the in between; those spaces that are not here or there but where there is the possibility of something different, new and revolutionary. It’s about new ways of thinking and being and about a world filled with more justice and compassion. These spaces of in between are where we explore and create within this new genre of Urban Latin Dance Theater.
Q: Salsa, Afro-Cuban, hip-hop, urban and contemporary – that covers a broad range of dance styles. What are some challenges you find in fusing these different styles? What are some unexpected surprises or “joys” in what you’ve done?
AMA: I love the collision between social dancing – dancing that is culturally rooted in many of our backgrounds and experiences – and marrying that with concert dance and a strong theatrical sensibility. There is a sense of groundedness and connection between dancers and people colliding with this idea of telling stories and social commentary all onstage that I love! I love to also bring these forms from people’s living rooms and the street and have those voices and ideas be heard and enjoyed in beautiful concert spaces like The Ordway. Sometimes folks who are from these specific dance forms don’t get to enjoy seeing themselves and their cultural realities reflected back at them in spaces like the Ordway. Being here feels so validating and like a true expression of respect and love for these forms!
The improvisation needed for live performance is what I love most and what I think makes the forms that we bring to the concert stage a natural fit. No matter how planned out you think you are, live performance will hopefully always bring through something new or unexpected. In my opinion, Salseros, b-boys, house dancers and other social dancers are the BEST improvisers. The dancers that are in my company who came in as more concert dancers have become better improvisers in the work; and those coming from more improvisational and social forms have become really amazing at executing the choreography. I guess what I love most about the Urban and Contemporary collision happening in my work is the opportunity for the unexpected deliciousness! For example, we had some shows where the song cut out because a technical snafu, but we kept dancing and started vocalizing and completely turned the piece into a fierce choreographed descarga (get down). I don’t know if that would have happened if we were just a regular contemporary or Latin dance company.
Q: Tell me about “Full Still Hungry,” your piece about food, race, privilege and consumption. How did you decide that you wanted to do a piece about these themes?
AMA: Food is a very personal issue for me. Several years ago, after having several miscarriages, I began seeing a nutritionist and started learning about how much food impacts my health. Since then I have been in a long and continuous journey to shift my relationship with food, and along the way I have continued to learn so much about where my food comes from, how connected it is to things I deeply believe in, and how the decisions I make about it are directly connected to creating the kind of world I want to live in and want my children to inherit. Like all of my artistic work, it starts from a place that is personal. But I quickly discover that it is an issue or idea that is so much bigger than me and my very specific experience. It moves me to begin a conversation with the company – our dancers and collaborators – and with people and communities all over. We use story circles and writing exercises during the creative process to find the connections between all of us. The stories about hunger, poverty, consumption and privilege that emerged are all directly from the dancers and their experiences and voices.
Q: Just looking at your picture gallery, I’ve enjoyed the colors and flowing appearance of some of your costumes. Please share how your costume choices might inform the themes of your dances.
AMA: The colors are referencing the bright and saturated colors of fruit, but also earthy and connected to la tierra. The dresses are full with movement and flow. At the end, the cummerbunds for “Revolution will not be Pasteurized” were made from old Union T-shirts from my parents’ days of organizing and my days growing up on picket lines, so that is kind of special. There are ‘traditional’ references like with the Carmen head piece. We also use abstract later on like when we create a Carmen head piece made of all trash. I think of the costuming as earthy and rooted meets contemporary, kind of like us!
Q: In your Artistic Statement you mention that you are committed to creating a clear and distinct voice for those who are not traditionally listened to (or heard) on stage or in our culture. Could you give two or three examples of different groups you’ve worked with or specific projects where you’ve accomplished this?
AMA: The voices we are committed to represent are our own. They are the voices of the communities we come from – Latino, African American, immigrant, first-generation North American, Women. Our stories and shared realities are the seeds of our work, but we like to think and hope that by sharing these personal experiences and bringing out daily realities of our communities to the concert stage that all people can find something that they can connect and relate to. We hope that these ‘voices’ allow the audience to build more compassion and see themselves in these experiences and stories. We all can learn and understand more about our own humanity through this kind of sharing.
Q: In your work as an Artist in the Schools, can you share one of your more recent memorable experiences?
AMA: We recently worked with several communities in Guadalupe, CA. We performed and worked with children there who were going to Saturday school to learn English. Many the children were from migrant farm workers who worked in large commercial farming. We shared our work about immigration as well as parts of “Full Still Hungry,” and the response of the students was unforgettable. They were beyond appreciative and shared with us their energy, excitement and willingness to ask questions and move and dance with us. Our work takes us to places beyond what I could imagine. It takes us to spaces that SHOULD have access to this work and dance as a form of self-expression and validation of one’s experience/reality.
Another example is a poem that was written by twelve-year-old student during one of our Artist in School residencies where we were connecting the poetry of Langston Hughes to our work. During one of our lessons we gave students the opportunity to do some free writing and this young woman created a poem inspired by Hughes’ poem “Let America Be.” It was written in the voice of her mother crossing the border from Guatemala through Mexico, and it created this incredible juxtaposition of the African American and Latino experiences. I wound up choreographing a piece based on the poem, and this same twelve-year-old student performed with the company during the piece’s premiere in Los Angeles. She later went on to be the first person in her family to go to college. She changed our lives as artists and I know we transformed hers as well!
Q: After five years, you are back at the Ordway. Tell me about all that you’ll be doing while you’re here in the Twin Cities.
AMA: We are so excited to be back! We’ve spent a year building up to this exiting final performance on Feb. 7th! Two of our artists came out this summer to work with various communities in the Twin Cities teaching Stepping and Salsa. I came back in November and taught a few classes and performed with Nachito Herrera at the Ordway. And now we are back for a week of performances for young people where we will reach almost 12,000 middle and high school students from all over the Twin Cities. Our time will culminate with a final public performance on Saturday, Feb 7th, which will include our live band of superstar musicians from both LA and NYC! Being at the Ordway is like a dream – the kind of respect and love we feel from the Twin Cities is tremendous and we hope to be back again soon!
Q: Are there any little known facts in your personal life that you’d like to share? Any pets or favorite activities or things you do with your family or close friends?
AMA: I have a son and a husband back in LA – the two loves of my life. There is a piece about my son in the show! All the rest of my immediate family is back in New York. I love to cook and eat. Love going out Salsa dancing and doing yoga. I am happiest at the beach!
Ana Maria, many thanks for sharing your life and your work with us and the rest of the Twin Cities.
Hey folks! Don’t miss Contra Tiempo – one night only at the Ordway!