If you are looking to escape reality, CONTRA-TIEMPO Urban Latin Dance Theater‘s AGUA FURIOSA will not allow you that relief. If, however, you want to see Ana Maria Alvarez’s artistic interpretation of today’s realities then you should definitely go see this sometimes uncomfortable, but powerful work. I was reminded of performances that I attended in New York of The Living Theatre, founded by Judith Malina and Julian Beck, or those of the improvisational dance group The Grand Union which grew out of The Yvonne Rainer Dance Company. These companies were part of the 1960s and 1970s art scene that forced us to take a look at ourselves by going beyond the accepted norms of the mainstream artists of that time. Their work sometimes bordered on appearing unorganized. It was messy and people literally stormed out of these performances. Others, however, stood up and cheered. These artists offended, challenged and yes, even bored many audience members, but in time they opened our minds to the inequalities and injustices of that era.

Pyeng Threadgill as Ella in AGUA FURIOSA - Photo:
Pyeng Threadgill as Ella in AGUA FURIOSA – Photo: Alfonso Gomez

Presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, CONTRA-TIEMPO is experiencing a rare Los Angeles dance opportunity. Opening on January 14th, the company is having an eight night run of AGUA FURIOSA in the Glorya Kaufman Hall located in the Department of World Arts Culture/Dance building. Taking her inspiration from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Oya, the Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms, Alvarez’s AGUA FURIOSA is a ninety minute work with text and lyrics by Pyeng Threadgill in collaboration with d. Sabela grimes, Ana Maria Alvarez and ancestral wordsmiths/collaborators Chief Si’ahl, Audre Lorde, Sojourner Truth and William Shakespeare. Alvarez’s vision is greatly enhanced with the beautiful Lighting and Set Design by Masha Tsimring, the very appropriate Costume Design by Rosalida Medina, and by the beautiful and statuesque Pyeng Threadgill whose powerful voice and role of Ella brings continuity to the work’s five acts.

Ella calls forth the different forms of Caliban, who is one of the main antagonists in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He is the subhuman son of the malevolent witch, Sycorax and he serves to illustrate ideas about the social hierarchy and socially rigid politics of the Renaissance world.

In AGUA FURIOSA the different facets of Caliban’s persona are performed wonderfully by four dancers; Christopher Cuenza, Isis Avalon, Francisco Javier Herrejon Zuñiga and Samad Guerra. Ella breathes life into each incarnation of Caliban and we are given a look at the different acts of injustice that humans force upon so-called “others” or placing inappropriate labels such as “minorities”.

Cast of AGUA FURIOSA - Photo:
Cast of AGUA FURIOSA – Photo: Alfonso Gomez

The five acts of AGUA FURIOSA point to how we set boundaries or borders in order to separate and keep out those we deem inferior and/or less-than. We build walls to help divide nations and are quick to go to war to horde rather than share the great resources of this planet. Here Alvarez forces us to take a look at how we treat our fellow human beings and how we make fun of people different than ourselves; different in looks, beliefs, lifestyles or race. She, rightly so, demonstrates how we are running out of water to drink and clean air to breathe. Alvarez does, however, leave us with hope at the end of each act by resolving some of the issues separating everyone involved.

AGUA FURIOSA is an ambitious undertaking for Alvarez. She worked on it for over a year, performing parts of it in open spaces near water and involving people from communities throughout the LA area. She invited others to experience performing her work and to share their personal stories in order to develop this piece. AGUA FURIOSA translates as raging waters. In her program notes Alvarez writes “Water, the great equalizer, is crucial for our survival yet can be deadly. We as human beings think we have the capacity to control nature, as we think we can control or dominate one another, again arrogance is at the root of this idea. Human arrogance has us live in a world under the false construct of race, breaking down our human to human connection.”

AGUA FURIOSA - Photo:
AGUA FURIOSA – Photo: Alfonso Gomez

There were times when Alvarez realized these thoughts. Other times, I felt that she was beating a dead horse when a couple of the acts took too long to play out. AGUA FURIOSA is Dance Theater. It is a blend of Alvarez’s strong, sometimes fierce, African-Cuban style of dance, hints of Hip Hop and even Break Dancing. Never, however, are the latter two styles abused or over used. Alvarez understates and incorporates them beautifully. Sadly, one wishes that the work included more of this amazing dancing as seen in two incredible unison sections and in one or two duets. The company is strong and the movement dynamic but AGUA FURIOSA suffers from a strong dependency on props, and it is weakened when dancers over-emote or not articulating clearly. Dancers who are not trained actors need to be taught to project and articulate while they move. It is not easy and should be given equal importance in rehearsal or used more sparingly.

This was the premiere of AGUA FURIOSA and the performers will to grow and mature in their roles and the work will evolve. All the ingredients of a fine work are there and I trust that Alvarez will make it happen.

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