Honoring the Masters

Arthur Aviles’ dance troupe memorializes Celia Cruz and Tito Puente

As night falls, the row of windows looking out over the Bruckner Expressway forms the backdrop in the wide performance space of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Design during Arthur Aviles’ dance performance of “Mi Tito! Mi Celia!” The April 23 performance was a choreographed view into the BAAD world and into Aviles choreographic style.

Scenes of the neighborhood and video clips are projected onto one of three screens situated throughout the space in a former warehouse. One narrow screen, mounted on a central column, shows clips of Latin dancers from the 1940s. Another screen brings images of Tito Puente and his band from “Live in Montreal.”

In “Swift Flow Warm-up,” Aviles leads a group of six in movement that seems to generate from their waving arms. The dancers come from many different kinds of training; the rippling arms refer to the sea surrounding the Caribbean islands in the memories of Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and Arthur Aviles.

In selected TV clips that play between the remaining live dances, Aviles tells us what to expect. He dances on a stoop, demonstrating the way his mother and then his father danced, from whom Aviles admits he borrows his style. In the neighborhood he dances into a basketball game-in-progress, waving his arms. Someone yells “faggot.” But in the final video clip, Aviles is leading the teens in the arm-waving dance.

Aviles’ tribute to two of Latin America’s greatest musicians is affirming. Its heroism creeps up on you, built into the rhythms created by the community of moving bodies on stage.

In “Ahi Na Ma,” the dancers wear simple pastel folkloric skirts that swirl across the stage as they twirl to Celia Cruz’s music. In “Oyeme Aggayu” they are in formal dress in a circle-dance around the column. They move as a unit ending in a loose formation with arms waving.

A clip of Aviles talking about the possibilities for love between various people precedes “Floor Dance (Four Beat Cha Cha)” to Tito Puente’s music. This is the most ambitious of the choreographies, but left me confused. Its direct sexuality is challenging territory. Aviles and Alberto Denis are the two naked gentlemen and they move freely and confidently. Their bodies are similarly muscular and light-skinned.

Monica Figueroa, Masako Koga, Althea Pace and Jule Jo Ramirez are women in black Lycra costumes that bind their flesh, including their faces. The dancers look like vulnerable insects as they lie back on the floor, heads toward us. The men mount them suggestively, leaning in toward the audience for show. The patterns of movement are riveting indeed. The faceless women dance energetically; the men pose for love.

In “Cuban Nightmare,” the company dances in a circle; they dip their arms into the center, echoing the spiraling reeds that spread out from their wide-brimmed straw hats. The title bears a persisting thread of irony as Aviles admits on screen he is “Nuyorican”—estranged from his parents’ country of origin—and that they described life there as “somewhat barbaric.” In “Donde Estabas Tu?” (“Where were you?”) Denis looks into the distance, shielding the sun with a hand at his brow. The nautical pose evokes the journey. They jump and stamp, line up and run together—metaphorically arriving at BAAD’s Barreto Street location.

There’s a homegrown integrity about the Arthur Aviles Typical Theatre that is very inviting. Aviles takes the reins but in “Floor dance,” both men are superb. The women’s roles are disturbing, but their dancing is undaunted. The equanimity of the group, working together at least three years, is notable throughout. The simple, evocative costume and set and the movement’s island-inspired patois convey powerful ideals.

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