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Celebrating the ‘quinceañera’ with Luna Negra

BY HANNAH KRAMER | APRIL 15, 2010 7:30 AM

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Veronica Guadalupe accompanied a friend to an audition for the Luna Negra Dance Theater in 2002. In the midst of a six months’ recovery from a leg injury, she thought the audition was simply a way to recapture her passion for dance, have a little fun, and if nothing else, take a free class.

“It was sheer luck that everything in the audition was on the opposite leg,” she said and chuckled.

She was able to turn, leap, and control movement predominantly using her uninjured leg. Eduardo Vilaro, the founder of Luna Negra, offered her a position in the company.

Eight years later, Guadalupe still dances with Luna Negra. The troupe will perform at 7:30 Friday in the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., presented by Hancher Auditorium. Admission is $10 for students, and $10 to $40 for the general public.

The company, based in Chicago, strives to present Latino contemporary dance through a diverse group of artists of Latino and Chinese dancers, among others. Luna Negra breaks the stereotypes of Latino folk dance by moving into modern expressions of ballet and contemporary dance with an infusion of Latin and Afro-Caribbean movement.

Dancers dedicate hours to rehearsals, tours, and community outreach to keep the varying cultures in the Latino community alive.

Guadalupe said she is most excited to perform the piece titled “Quinceañera.” It explores the tradition of a girl becoming a woman on her 15th birthday in the Latino culture.

“The piece investigates that big-party aspect and also the tumultuous right of passage and coming of age,” artistic director Michelle Manzanales said. “It is exciting, but there is also a responsibility and change that is happening within yourself.”

“Quinceañera” was one of the company’s first pieces to receive recognition.

Hamilton Nieh, a dancer with the company since 2008, said he saw Luna Negra perform “Quinceañera” before he ever considered dancing with the company.

“I was surprised with how dark it was,” he said. “It showed the anxiety and conflicting emotions that go with this tradition.”

“Quinceañera” opens with what Nieh described as the most abstract image of the piece, showing a group of women dancing behind cutouts of dresses. To him, the image portrays the women trying to fit into the dresses and, more broadly, their roles as women in Latino culture.

As the piece continues, the audience sees the birthday girl dealing with the anxiety on the day of her Quinceañera. She receives her first pair of high heels as well as her last toy doll. The end of the piece culminates the day with a bright party full of Latin music and movement.

Friday will be the first time since 2005 that dancers will come together to perform “Quinceañera” in its entirety with the full group of 12 dancers.

Cuban-born Vilaro choreographed the piece for Luna Negra. He moved from the Bronx to Chicago in the late-90s to study fine arts, and he felt that there was a void in the Latino dance community.

With the troupe coming into its 11th year, the dancers said they are thrilled to be sharing culture through dance across the country.

Luna Negra looks to Latino dancers of the past as inspiration, using such classics as “There is a Time.”

This piece, choreographed by José Limón, was first performed in 1956 at the Juilliard School of Music. It remains an influential creation for contemporary dancers today.

“Limón is known as a modern-dance icon but less frequently recognized as a man who comes from the Mexican community,” Nieh said. “So it is special that he fits into who we are as a company.”

Dancers in the company flow in and out of circular forms to represent the meaning of the piece — the passage of time. Limón incorporates allusions to Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes that represent the human experience. To complement these themes, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning score by Norman Dello Joio, “Meditations on Ecclesiastes,” provides the musical background.

To maintain the intention and integrity of the piece, Sarah Stackhouse of the José Limón Foundation, who danced with Limón at Juilliard in the ’50s, now teaches the piece to companies all over the world. Nieh, who said working with her was one of the best parts of putting the “There is a Time” together, noted that her age does not interfere with her ability to demonstrate movement vibrantly. He is excited to present the classic piece from a new generation’s perspective.

“When you dream of becoming a dancer, it is because of things you have seen in the past,” he said.

In between rehearsing and touring, Luna Negra dancers give to the community offstage. Manzanales said the company has educational outreach in which artists teach classes at public school, and it also presents interactive performances in schools and dance workshops.

Outreach is important for kids in the community, because many haven’t been exposed to this genre of dance, she said.

Dedication such as Luna Negra’s to the Latin community resonates in Iowa City. Luisa Orticelli, the director of the Latin Native American Cultural Center, said the performance was an opportunity to show members of the center a representation of their heritage.

“It makes me extremely happy that outside groups are expressing the culture and giving back to the community,” she said.

As the director of the center, she coordinates events to open people’s minds and increase awareness of her culture. She is glad that the Luna Negra dancers, such as Niel and Guadalupe, use their art as a way to share Latino pride.

Guadalupe said she thinks using her talent as a platform of expressing diversity has great benefits.

“It is wonderful when we have communities that can be supportive of what we are doing and that it means more to them than the average person,” she said.

Nieh agrees that the company’s goal is to provide a platform for Latino arts.

“After working with the company, it really surprised me how much I loved it, and I don’t know if I could go back to a different kind of company,” he said.


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