Agua Dulce Dance Theater’s “Deep Listening” Maps Puerto Rican History @ The Pregones Theater

Photo by Tania Fernández. Alicia Diaz and Hector Barez perform Deep Listening.

Alicia Diaz and Matthew Thornton of Agua Dulce Dance Theater presented an evening of works on Saturday night, including the three pieces algún día… some day, one head has many hats, and the evening’s namesake, Deep Listening. I had read a bit about the artists and their histories and was compelled by the relationship between cultural heritage and contemporary dance forms. I had the chance to speak with Alicia about her approach to a deep exploration of the rapport between Puerto Rican history and contemporary dance in Deep Listening. Here’s what she had to say.

Where and when did your interest in the relationship between Puerto Rican dance and contemporary dance begin?

My early training was with Alvin Ailey American Dance as a scholarship student. I was trained technically and conceptually to work with identity and culture as a really important resource for dance making, both as a choreographer and dancer. That was a really big lesson for me in my early years, to connect dance to who I am and where I come from. I did that kind of work as a dancer with two companies that were part of the Ailey network in my early years.

Then there was a sort of breaking with that kind of training when I started to become really interested in improvisation as a practice in itself, as performance, moving from the inside out, somatic practices, sort of postmodern dance. It was a very big shift. In the beginning of that process, I didn’t address identity. I was very interested in physicality.

I feel that the piece I performed on Saturday, Deep Listening, is a sort of integration of those two worlds for me. So the piece is improvised but highly structured. I deal with identity and make very specific references to Puerto Rican music and dance forms, which I haven’t done before. And I feel that I’m integrating these two forms that have been pretty separate for me for a while.

How did Deep Listening begin to come about?

So, I have a strong interest in my own cultural heritage and family history. My parents and I immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico when I was twelve. When I came here at such a young age, everything about me was questioned – “Who are you? Where are you from?” Racial politics came up a lot. And though I came when I was twelve and have lived other places since, I still feel very much Puerto Rican. If someone asks me where I’m from, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m Puerto Rican.

When I started to work on Deep Listening I did some writing about my migration story and family stories that were involved with politics in Puerto Rico. My grandfather was the founder of the Independence Party in Puerto Rico. My father is a Puerto Rican intellectual. My mother is a very recognized dancer herself. I have these stories in my history. These are the things that have made me. And even though the piece doesn’t deal with that story at all, all of that is where I come from.

I also did a lot of movement research. I listened to a lot of music. I studied a Puerto Rican dance form called Bomba, which is a very old tradition, and I make references to it in Deep Listening.

Sometimes I think of the piece as a sort of personal origin myth. The ocean and sea became very important to the piece, the subconscious, a collective memory in a way, the feeling of the subconscious in improvisation, going under – also the sense of nostalgia that I have for Puerto Rico.

I’d love to hear more about the partnership between you and the musician you work with in Deep ListeningHector Barez. How did you begin working together? Why is music an important part of your approach to your exploration of identity?

I guess, to start with, with the types of dance I learned and practiced during the research and creative process – Bomba and Salsa – it’s very difficult to separate music and dance and it’s very difficult to differentiate one from the other. Hector is a Bomba percussionist. He’s very much involved in Puerto Rico. I didn’t know that when we worked together for the first time; our first project, we only had three rehearsals to prepare for a performance, but I quickly noticed the very special relationship that the dancer has to the musician when we worked together. So when we did the improvisation, I began asking him, “what are you thinking when you’re playing?” He started talking about Bomba and explained that there are many different rhythms with multiple drums, that there’s one drum that moves out of the basic rhythm and improvises to match the physical movement of the dancer. So, in a way, the dancer becomes a musician. Over the basic rhythms are these accents that are initiated by the dancer and the musician’s job is to be able to anticipate what the dancer is going to do and match it in what he plays. So I thought, well here I am, I’m improvising, and here’s this cultural form – Bomba – from my heritage that improvises. And though I didn’t know how to dance it, it felt very familiar. That’s when I asked Hector if he could teach me Bomba. So he did, and from there, I became more interested and I went to Puerto Rico last June and studied with one of the Bomba masters there through a basic level intensive with her. I came back with detail and specificity and with tools I could use to make references, deconstruct, or insert movement that Hector could recognize easily. I could transform the Bomba language and move it in a way that wouldn’t be Bomba at all, but that Hector could follow. So that deepened our understanding of each other. The relationship that we’ve built is on this kind of dialogue. And that dialogue can often be broken. Sometimes he’s following me, and sometimes I’m following him. So all these questions – what does it mean to move in this way? In this rhythm? What are the cultural lessons that are being taught? What does it mean about gender and gender relations? When there’s a follower and a leader? But there’s always a leader and a follower – so what does it mean to follow? All of these things are very interesting to me. What is that knowledge that is not verbal, but is physical? What does it trigger inside us?

In making Deep Listening, were you thinking a lot about the audience you hoped to perform it for? Who did you hope for or anticipate your audience to be?

 I feel like I have different audiences that I would want to share the work with. I think that for the first time at the performance at Pregones, there were people who are familiar with the dance forms that I referenced. So I was very excited about that. The audience was diverse. There were Latino/as there, Puerto Ricans, dancers, scholars… There were people there who were curious about ideas around culture and the body, and those who were fascinated by improvisation but may not know anything about these cultural dance forms. It’s important for me to share with that group too because in the improvisation space, everything’s about energy and how that moves and changes, regardless of the cultural ideas I have. Also, I’m always excited to work in ways that are felt at a visceral level, that can connect with my audience at a human level, an emotional level. And I try to be honest and present enough for that to happen.

 Do you see yourself engaging in an existing dialogue surrounding cultural heritage in contemporary dance?

One distinction that is important to me is that I wouldn’t want people to think that I am creating a physical technique that integrates these different dance forms and that could be codified and repeated in some way. I think that I’m a contemporary dancer, and I’m now very consciously bringing into the conversation these ideas and allowing knowledge about different dance forms to appear the same way that I would allow Horton to appear because it’s simply part of my training and my body.

In terms of the existing dialogue, there are definitely a few people I’ve thought about a lot in making Deep ListeningMerián Soto, for example, who used to live in Puerto Rico but who now lives in Philly and teaches at Temple University and has done an enormous amount of work about Puerto Rican culture in dance. There was one work in particular that she did that deals with Salsa, and the knowledge that we learn from the form.

There’s also a woman here in New York that I don’t work with directly but I know of – Sita Frederick, a Dominican woman – who also does really interesting work that is more in the vein of integrating physical forms, namely Afro-Caribbean and modern dance forms. Her dance company is called Areytos. Or, for example, Akram Khan, who integrates very specific Indian classical forms with contemporary dance vocabulary.

I listen to a lot of interviews with artists who are doing this kind of work and I’m finding a lot of similarities in the artists’ journeys, in crossing boundaries and cultures and navigating those borders that become very blurred and very distinct.

Any other thoughts?

At the core of the whole evening of performance is the idea of being present, of listening. Which is really difficult. To be really able and willing to engage in conversation with others. I feel that that is something I’m trying to do in my work, and I see that as a proposal of how to be in the world. An approach to close listening, to what’s happening around you, the world, and what needs to come out. I see that as a metaphor for my work and how to live in the world. But it’s difficult!

Photo by Hiroyuki Ito.

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