Clear 43° Good Afternoon
Clear 43° Good Afternoon

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


More Lifestyle

Sorry to interrupt...

Your first 5 are free

Access to Newsday is free for Optimum customers.

Please enjoy 5 complimentary views to articles, photos, and videos during the next 30 days.