A Moving Force: In the Country's Biggest Minority, Latino Artists Fight Stereotypes That Blur Their Artistry and Their Diversity

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At nearly 14 percent of the population, Hispanics make up the largest minority, in the United States. They may be recent immigrants or their families may have lived here for generations; they may be of European, African, Asian, or Native American lineage, often in varying mix. While California, Texas, and Florida contain the greatest density, of Hispanics, this demographic presence is spreading.

But, how does being Latino, which cuts across racial lines, constitute a distinct identity in the dance world?

"We are a fusion of races, and this gives our art complexity," says Eduardo Vilaro, choreographer and founding artistic director of Chicago's Luna Negra Dance Theater. Cuban-born of Chinese, African, and Spanish ancestry, Vilaro was raised in New York. There he became a principal with Ballet Hispanico, where for 35 years artistic director Tina Ramirez has promoted styles, dancers, and--rare in American troupes--choreographers from the Latino community. "Our work can embrace all the characteristics inherent in our cultures," Vilaro says. This brings vigor to Luna Negra's repertoire, which draws from flamenco, tango, and salsa to portray contemporary themes ranging from immigration to telenovelas [soap operas].

Many Latinos also feel the constant presence of a vital, other place. San Diego's Patricia Rincon Dance Collective has addressed this pull through its Blurred Borders Festival and works such as Nothing to Declare. For choreographer/artistic director Rincon, the matter couldn't be more personal. "Going to live with my father's family in Mexico completely changed me," she says about her experience as a girl. "I came back focused. Emotionally and physically, I found out who I was and what that meant." Since then her choreography has evolved to treat iconic Mexican images in innovative ways. "I want to jolt all those pictures, with their riches and their depths," she says.

Examining the role ethnicity has played in their careers, other Latino dance artists give voice to similar feelings, albeit in the registers of a complex chorus.

Meet Neri Torres, dancer, choreographer, and artistic director of the Afro-Cuban fusion troupe Ife-Ile and Baila USA, an African roots Caribbean festival she initiated in 1998. She choreographed Andy Garcia's upcoming film The Lost City, featuring San Francisco Ballet's Lorena Feijoo. (See "Lorena in One Take," DM, December, 2004.)

Meet Helena Thevenot, a Nicaraguan-born choreographer/performer who, after a long career in modern dance, now works in butoh.

Meet Octavio Campos, creator of dance-theater pieces reflecting Latino issues in postmodernist modes culled from training and performing in the U.S. and Europe. In September his Luna del Pinguino will be presented by the Latino New Works Festival in Los Angeles.

And meet Isanusi Garcia Rodriguez, Miami City Ballet principal, whose classical base (from Ballet Nacional de Cuba) and neoclassical enrichment has made him a powerhouse in ballets from Giselle to Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto.

"In this multiethnic society, our struggles at times seem more difficult--due to differences in culture, language, temperament," observes Torres, looking back on her career since arriving in the U.S. in 1991. "But our differences are positive," she considers. "We must keep these idiosyncracies. They're what define and make us unique."

Dealing with those defining aspects influences how Latinos take stock of who they are as artists and how they contribute to dance. To a great extent, what audiences most readily appreciate in Latino dancers is also what the dancers are proudest to claim.

"We have a more unselfconscious way of moving," Torres maintains. "There's a certain easy voluptuousness that enlivens every style we try." This is obvious in response to the Afro-Cuban rhythms she works with, but Torres insists it can even ignite ballet "in the feeling with which one attacks a variation, for example. …