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Naked Ambition

Dressed in hot pink ruffles and five-inch heels, a tiara perched on his shaved head, Arthur Aviles entered the stage as Maéva, a “Latino ghetto matriarch,” who launched into rapid fire Spanglish as a welcome to the Abrons Art Center audience for “Naked Vanguard: Works.” Aviles has long used nudity and drag to provoke as well as to entertain. “Being naked in any piece is about revealing the self, literally. This is who I am,” he was quoted in a 1998 interview.

Performance

“Naked Vanguard: Works” by Arthur Aviles

Place

Out-FRONT! Fest 2024, presented by Pioneers Go East Collective, Abrons Art Center, New York City, January 17, 2024

 

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Arthur Aviles's “Naked Vanguard: Works.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

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In 2024, the 60 year old choreographer/director is still baring all, but for “Naked Vanguard” the statement, “This is who I am,” resonated not only with the physique of a beautiful brown man, but also with themes from the rich 35-year body of his work. The program featured four works—all of them spun from the silk of Aviles’s past successes.

As Aviles removed and carefully folded the Maéva costume into a pile on the floor, he revealed his warm and appealing choreographer/dance teacher self, fully clad for now in denim and white shirt, and began to share the tenets of his Slow/Flow movement technique, complete with vocabulary slides projected on the rear wall. Together with the two other performers for the evening, Hunter Sturgis and Nikolai McKenzie Ben Rema, he demonstrated four exercises and four phases that create the fluid spiral effect of the Aviles style—he described it as a tornado funnel, or the swirl of a hurricane. I could see this foundation in all the work that followed—and the way it put the three performers on common ground.

Aviles, who began his stage career as a member of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance, formed his own company in 1996 and later co-founded The Bronx Academy of Art & Dance as a place for artists to freely create, specifically championing women, people of color, and the LBGTQ community. 

Hunter Sturgis with Arthur Aviles (onscreen) in “Naked Vanguard.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

“Morning Dance” was created in 2001, when Richard Shpuntoff photographed Aviles as he was improvising naked in the studio. For “Naked Vanguard,” Sturgis performed the exact same movement sequence live in front of the film projection as a duet. In near unison, the two men moved their limbs in a meditative, inward directed, spiral twisting way. The contrast between grainy black and white film and the golden tones of Sturgis’s skin was striking. Also the oversized projected image created a distortion—the two men are of similar size, yet Sturgis appeared dwarfed by Aviles.  At times the film cropped in on Aviles, creating the illusion that Sturgis was dancing with only a section of Aviles’s back, or with a cutaway of a flexed knee. Artful and completely captivating. Performed in silence, we could hear Aviles’s breath and the creaking of the floor in the film. 

Aviles returned to the stage, again as Maéva, to introduce “Untitled #5A After Ted Shawn AKA Dansé Mexicaine & Jamaïquaine Américaine”—this time wearing a voluminous fuscia satin pouf with his tiara. The impetus for this world premiere, he explained, came from a period when he made work in homage to the modern dance greats who influenced him. A duet for Sturgis and McKenzie, the movement for “Untitled #5A” departed from the flowy spiral wave motion into a precise and articulated-to-the-point-of-exaggeration pantomime of athletic activities—the kind often depicted by Ted Shawn with his company, Men Dancers. Sturgis and McKenzie were dressed in derby hats, and suits that enhanced their well-defined muscles. Their exuberance called up the spirit of Charlie Chaplin as they threw dice and played baseball, delivering a pitch with a seductive wiggle of the hips. This hyper-masculine pair would end up going home together. The sporting activity led to dancing a waltz, cheek to cheek, and exiting the stage arm in arm.  

Nikolai McKenzie Ben Rema and Hunter Sturgis in “Untitled #5A After Ted Shawn AKA Dansé Mexicaine & Jamaïquaine Américaine.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

“Let’s Begin” (2021) was a tribute to Aviles’ first dance teacher, Jean Churchill. Aviles, performing solo, became the character of a naif, animal-like figure that he played with gentle humor. The piece opened with Aviles wrapped in a tartan plaid length of cloth that we understood represented a trip to the Edinburgh Film Festival. Standing with feet and arms spread in a wide V, he delivered a speech with only his hands: holding up five digits spread apart, and stabbing his opposite index finger to point, as if saying, “you, and you, and you.” Sometimes he was a robot making mechanical motions with funny vocal sounds. Other times, he was monkey-like, exploring the space. Noticing that his boots squeaked on the floor, he grinned at the audience and then exaggerated the sound, while whirling his shirt tails. When he stepped out of the squeaky boots with great show, and then his socks, I realized he was doing a striptease. Again, the nudity. But for a reason—he had come to swim in a body of water. Addressing a black object on the stage as a rock he was climbing, “gently, gently,” he stepped fully onto it and balanced in a luscious swan dive just as the lights went out. 

The final work was Aviles’s original “A Puerto Rican Faggot From America” (1996) which, performed by McKenzie in 2021, became the Bessie Award winning  “A Jamaican Batty Bwoy.” Beginning in silence, McKenzie gave us the full Slow/Flow treatment, moving like taffy, sinuous and loopy, in constant circular motion. As McKenzie spun around their vertical axis, the spiral shape was as if wringing out a washcloth. A couple of times, their arms encircled their head, reminding me of a cat grooming by licking a paw to rub her face. Halfway through, cellist Mel Greenwich took up his place at a music stand onstage and began plucking strings. Delicate and tentative, he tapped the strings with his bow as well as strumming and vocalizing. Minimal, jazzy, sensitive. Another duet, this time between the cello and dancer—a beautiful finish to an evening of duets with artists, past and present, in conversation.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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