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Ana María Alvarez
CONTRA-TIEMPO's “Agua Furiosa.” Photograph by Kathleen Schenck

Rain Dance

“Agua Furiosa” by Contra-Tiempo

Performance
CONTRA-TIEMPO Urban Latin Dance Theater: “Agua Furiosa”
Place
UCLA’s Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater, Los Angeles, California, January 14-17, 21-24, 2016
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Oya, the Afro-Cuban deity of, among other elements, wind, storms, fertility and magic, Ana María Alvarez’ world premiere, “Agua Furiosa,” was, in fact, frantic, frenetic and infuriating—to this reviewer. Alvarez, a Cuban-American in her late 30s, has been crafting the soggy opus for more than two years. Possessed of the DNA activist gene (her parents were both union organizers and also involved in civil rights), Alvarez founded CONTRA-TIEMPO (literally, “against the times”), in 2005.

She also directed “Agua,” and has said that the work is intended to challenge audiences to confront the harsh realities of race and water in the United States. And while California awaits the wrath of a slew of El Niño rainstorms, Alvarez’ ideas do not manage to give a new face—or feet—to this enormous ecological problem.

Indeed, her concepts don’t so much confront as confound. There was little in the five-act work that was cohesive, including the movement vocabulary that veered from writhing and crawling on the floor to full body convulsing, with dollops of abstracted salsa, Afro-Cuban and hip-hop gyrations thrown into the mix.

The seven-member, bilingual troupe also featured Pyeng Threadgill as Sycorax, here called Ella, and embodying Oya, the mother of the bastard slave Caliban (performed by three different men, company members Christopher Cuenza and Samad Guerra, and guest artist Francisco Javier Herrejon Zuñiga).

On a bare stage, save for a few filmy black panels hung from the ceiling and a similarly fluid backdrop at the rear that featured rocks and earth tones (lighting and set design by Masha Tsimring), Threadgill entered in an elaborate headdress, a Vegassy, showgirl-like gown (where is Bob Mackie when you need him?), singing, her lips blue (whether a metaphor or fashion statement, this was mostly a distraction).

The text, a combination of looped and sometimes undecipherable words, was both sung by Threadgill, who also wrote music for several of the songs, and spoken by the cast. But face it: Dancers who can act are a rare breed, with CONTRA-TIEMPO members overly emoting, i.e., looking more hammy than authentic. The jumble of words, also heard in voice-over, was made in collaboration with a host of folks, including Threadgill, d. Sabela grimes, Alvarez and phrases culled from wordsmiths such as Sojourner Truth, the black lesbian poet Audre Lorde and that go-to guy, Shakespeare.

Since there was a lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” perhaps Alvarez had been thinking of Macbeth? In any case, forwarding the lack of water motif, there was a plethora of empty plastic water bottles that afforded the dancers the means to make a racket while endlessly thrashing about. There were also large plastic buckets that served as both props and set: In one extended sequence, the performers fashioned a ziggurat-like wall at the rear of the stage; in another, Herrejon Zuñiga had the unfortunate task of wielding the buckets on his buttocks while contorting himself into Cirque du Soleil-like poses.

But dealing with plastic—in whatever form—is not new, and parts of “Agua,” brought to mind Robyn Orlin’s work, “Beauty Remained for Just a Moment Then Returned Gently to Her Starting Position,” seen by this reviewer at the 2012 Lyon Dance Biennale. In that piece, the South African choreographer had created a tutu from discarded water bottles, while voluminous skirts were made of plastic bags. Orlin’s message was one of recycling, with her audience given water bottles and asked—gasp—to do a group gargle, which, mercifully, was not part of Alvarez’ work.

Ah, but it’s tricky to make a successful dance theater piece with an overt message, as show-goers generally don’t like being preached to. On the other hand, performances of this nature need to be made and seen, and, when done right, such works as Bill T. Jones’ seminal, AIDS-related work, “Still/Here” (1994), and William Forsythe’s war-centric opus, “Three Atmospheric Studies” (2006), can and have had a lasting, profound impact on the culture.

But Alvarez’ kitchen-sink approach just doesn’t cut it, with Michael John Garcés’ dramaturgy, perhaps part of the problem. While words like ‘revolution’ were being bandied about, a kind of “Musical Chairs” was being played out on those buckets. At one point, a voice-over beseeched, “Where did you get your ideas from,” more inquisitorial than curious, which made the collective chaos seen on stage, whether unison, splayed, or, as Mark Morris might say, rooted in the arms-flailing-about school of dance—that much harder to watch. Even some technically proficient solos, including Cuenza’s balls-of-feet balancing before unleashing quasi-barrel turns, seemed unconnected, random, misplaced.

Threadgill, making three costumes changes, returned a second time sporting an Afro wig, with sounds of rain accompanying her. (Rosalida Medina is credited with all the garb, including supplying the cast with unappealing paisley and floral jeans, as well as homely, loose-fitting dresses, the overall look another haphazard through-line.)

Scenes seemed derivative, as well: The dancers, at one point wielding colorful, full-sized umbrellas to a “wade in the water” text (the use of that phrase was particularly unfortunate, calling to mind Alvin Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece, “Revelations,” in which a statuesque dancer frolics with an umbrella to the gospel tune, “Wade in the Water”), devolved into a tossing match with a bevy of unopened umbrellas.

And what would a theater work about water be . . .without, well, water? The late Pina Bausch used it to striking effect in her 2006 work, “Vollmond (Full Moon),” and Pilobolus, last seen in Los Angeles in 2009, ended their concert with “Day Two” (1981), with the dancers taking curtain calls by sliding back and forth across the stage on a surface strip suddenly filled with water.

Alas, CONTRA-TIEMPO’s interaction with the wet stuff had more of a kiddie-pool sensibility, with the cast, which also included Isis Avalos, Jannet Galdamez, Bianca Golden, Bianca Medina and Diana Toledo, splashing and kicking up a bit of H2O they had poured from a few buckets.

Where was the tsunami of dance—strong, purposeful, eminently watchable artistry in motion—that we so long for, so need? It appears that the drought—at least in terms of choreography, direction and foggy, mismatched themes—is still with us in the well-intended but misguided, “Agua Furiosa.”

Akram Khan
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