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LA-based dance company uses water to spark conversation about race

Samad Guerra performs a scene-in-development from Agua Furiosa, during a choreographic lab at Grand Park in August 2015. Labs gave the public a chance to experience and engage in the work before its completion.
Samad Guerra performs a scene-in-development from Agua Furiosa, during a choreographic lab at Grand Park in August 2015. Labs gave the public a chance to experience and engage in the work before its completion.
Alfonso Gomez

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In the midst of a state-wide drought, the dance-theater company, Contra-Tiempo, is using water as a muse for its newest work, “Agua Furiosa.”

Inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Oya, the Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms, “Agua Furiosa” displays the harsh realities of race in the U.S., mingled with themes of the power of water and the chaos it can cause.

The project began last May with a series of site-specific performances — or “labs” — at various locations across California. The objective of the series was to engage audiences in each performance by encouraging dialogue, dance and self-expression surrounding the narrative for “Agua Furiosa.” Sites for the labs included Monterey Playa Verde in Monterey Bay and the L.A. River.

Bianca Golden flies in one Contra-Tiempo's previous productions,
Bianca Golden flies in one Contra-Tiempo's previous productions, "Full Still Hungry."
Steve Wylie

The world premiere of “Agua Furiosa” at UCLA’s Glorya Kaufman Theater will reflect results of the experimental process from previous performance labs.

“Agua Furiosa” is in keeping with Contra-Tiempo’s mission to evoke discussions about race using Salsa and Afro-Cuban movement, as well as its dancers' own cultural experiences.

But the company's Cuban-American artistic director, Ana María Alvarez, has been pushing the boundaries of multicultural narrative since before she co-founded L.A.-based company with her brother, César Alvarez, in 2005.

As a teen, after her ballet teacher said she was too shapely for dance, Alvarez moved on to other genres such as salsa, Afro-Cuban and modern. Her studies took her to Cuba, New York and eventually, Los Angeles.

While earning her Master’s in Fine Arts in Choreography at UCLA, Contra-Tiempo (Against Time) was born as the subject of Alvarez’s thesis on salsa and dance’s expression of conflict involving Latinos and U.S. immigration issues. The urban-Latin dance company of the same name soon followed.

Today, Alvarez, 37, has produced numerous shows with her company and has even developed a youth workshop, Futuro, which uses dance to coordinate leadership skills and community involvement for low-income youth; all as part of Contra-Tiempo’s continuing work to express the intricacies of racial struggle for Latinos and communities of color.

Alvarez spoke with The Frame during a rehearsal at UCLA.

Interview Highlights

What prompted you to start Contra-Tiempo?

ALVAREZ: The impetus was my thesis work at UCLA. I was getting my Master’s in choreography. And it was right during the Bush era, during all of the stuff that was happening around anti-immigration. So it started making me think about movement as this metaphor for life. . . but I specifically started thinking about it in a context of a piece I was creating about how salsa could really express this idea of resistance and push-back . . . . I wound up creating a piece actually called "Contra-Tiempo." It was a piece in English translated to "Against Time" or "Against the Times," about that push-back and that engagement and that resistance being something that was positive and important and functional in society, instead of something that was viewed as negative.

Describe the shift you made from classical ballet to other genres of dance.

ALVAREZ: I learned very early on that I wasn’t going to be a ballet dancer because of the shape of my body, but also because of the kinds of movement I really love to do and felt inspired by. . . So I started doing modern dance and studying Katherine Dunham and learning Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian and Ghanaian dance. I was so inspired by dance as this form of expression for life and for culture and for what’s happening in the world.

What is “Agua Furiosa”?

ALVAREZ: “Agua Furiosa" is a brand new work. It’s really about human connection and our ability to live in the world together powerfully and positively. I’m taking on "The Tempest," which is Shakespeare’s play about a shipwreck, but I’m actually not doing an interpretation-adaptation. I’m creating almost a counter-narrative for "The Tempest". . . It’s a piece that’s a lot about our humanity; our treatment of one another, human-to-human, but it’s also a about our treatment to Mother Earth and our environment, and our relationship with our environment.

What message do you want “Agua Furiosa” to leave with your audience?

ALVAREZ: My goal as an artist is to create a work [where] we see our human struggle as each other’s struggle, and we start taking ownership as human beings for our ability to impact and affect each other. But also, have an actual experience that someone else is having, and actually have that impact and affect the way that we think, the way that we live and the decisions and choices that we make.

“Agua Furiosa” is being perfomed at UCLA’s Glorya Kaufman Theater through Jan. 24. 

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