Toe Shoes in the Bronx / Outside the city's cultural heart, a troupe dances to its rhythms
IT TAKES bona fide Bronx moxie to celebrate modern dance in
a borough best known for its break-dancers. The South Bronx-the birthplace of
hip-hop-may never be a red-hot destination for ballet buffs. But that's not
what choreographer Arthur Aviles had in mind anyway.
"I felt that we could fill a cultural niche here," said Aviles, artistic
director of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance and a Bessie Award-winning
modern dancer. "Basically, there's not much going on here as far as performance
is concerned. Not that there's nothing going on around here. Right around the
block, there's like a salsa or merengue group, and they practice in the
Artistic pretension is notably lacking at this central Hunts Point cultural
center. Occupying a converted section of the historic American Bank Note
warehouse on Barretto Street, the grassroots venture-complete with a stray cat
lurking in the office and a razor-wire fence standing guard outside-makes good
on the single resource it has in endless supply: attitude. Its acronym, BAAD!,
is no small coincidence, said Aviles, 38, pointing out the negative turned
positive. "That's a very Bronx thing to do."
As in his dance productions, Aviles-simply by being here-is making a
statement without saying a word. "He was determined to go back to the Bronx, a
place that he felt a connection to as a Puerto Rican man, and bring his sense
of art, his sense of beauty, his sense of politics right back home," said Bill
T. Jones, 49, the modern dance legend whose Manhattan-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie
Zane Dance Company counted Aviles among its ranks from 1987 through 1995. "I
applaud him for it. It's not easy....He wants [a downtown audience] on his own
terms, not their terms."
Tonight, the Arthur Aviles Typical Theatre will take a rare step outside
the neighborhood, opening the Central Park SummerStage festival, with two
repertory works and the specially commissioned "La Mezcla" (The Mix). The
latter documents dance evolution through the lens of a "New York-Rican"-a term
Aviles created to describe himself, a New York-born Puerto Rican who, unlike
the more culturally attuned "Nuyorican," cannot speak Spanish (a matter he's
mildly embarrassed to admit).
"La Mezcla" traces traditional Taino dance and music through its
permutations in salsa, modern and break-dance forms. "It's almost like an
anthropological study," Aviles said. Or a historical one, added Roger
Atihuibancex Hernandez, 43, a Taino Indian, who lives in East Harlem and will
perform in the production. "Most of our stories were passed on orally, through
music and dance," Hernandez said of the Areito style practiced by indigenous
groups of the Caribbean.
Fittingly, "La Mezcla" concludes with that most mutable of the four forms,
break dance. "Every couple of years, you get new moves," said performer Luis
"Mach3" Dalmasy, 17, of Washington Heights. "Aerial moves, backflips-it's a
crazy thing, you know, it's always changing."
SummerStage executive producer Erica Ruben cites the production as a model
for the festival's goals of introducing fresh-often ethnic-perspectives to a
broad audience. "We tend to be attracted to artists who are exploring these
themes," she said. "It's very much a New York City concept."
Aviles' parents, Daisy and Lucas, are from Puerto Rico. He was born in
Jamaica, Queens, and lived there until he was 10. The family spent three years
in Brentwood, Long Island, then resettled in the Bronx during Aviles' teen
years, eventually growing to 13 members. It was the 1970s, and hip-hop culture
was taking hold of the streets. "I had a distance from it, because I didn't
find my place in it," Aviles said. "It was difficult to be in that atmosphere
because it was incredibly macho. It's not that I had a problem with the form. I
had a problem with the social atmosphere."
It's difficult to fathom the alienation Aviles experienced growing up poor,
Puerto Rican and gay, but this-and his conflicted relationship with
hip-hop-clearly informs his work. Still, you get the sense he'd be dancing to a
different drummer even without such circumstances to draw upon. No less a
supporter than Jones calls his works "inspired and weird" and recalls a
conversation with the late Arnie Zane after the short and stocky Aviles
auditioned for a spot with the company: "We both looked at each other and said,
'Well, he's so strange, we should take him-probably nobody else will.'"
Life on the margins has shaped an idiosyncratic world view, and Aviles
makes little effort to dilute his art for the comfort of others. He, in fact,
takes particular joy twisting around American classics to meet his own
standards. "I love Hollywood for its fantasy. But Hollywood has, in a sense, no
relationship to my culture," he said. "What I do is I make Hollywood get me by
putting my culture into it." Hence, works like "El Pato Feo," which Aviles
described as "a Latino transgender retelling of 'The Ugly Duckling,'" or the
equally appropriating "Arturella." "I was Arturella, of course. It was a Puerto
Rican gay retelling of 'Cinderella.' It was in Spanish and in Spanglish and in
English. It was like a mixture of all those things."
There are original works, too, and Aviles reaches out to a wider audience
with the recurring character Ma�va. Inspired by his mother and an Argentinian
female friend, Ma�va is half caricature, half heroine, and always ready to vent
cultural-identity truisms, air woes or trumpet triumphs with defiant flair.
"The ghetto matriarch can speak in a universal voice," Aviles said of the
character. "We did it in Paris and we had Italians and Parisians come up to us
and say, 'That's just like my mother...she doesn't take [lip] from her kids.'"
Aviles knows something of resilience. In his neighborhood, it hangs in the
air like humidity. Along Garrison Avenue near Aviles' office, there is a string
of auto-glass and taillight repair shops, a neighborhood niche that seems too
obscure, too specialized, too clustered, to support itself. But it does,
against the odds.
"They find that many people who go by need their windows fixed. Isn't that
incredible?" Aviles said, admiring the craftsmen's devotion to their trade.
Then, he paused to pick up on a parallel, "Or maybe they don't make that much
money or something, but this is what they do. Just like theater, right? Same