The Los Angeles based Contra-Tiempo: Urban Latin Dance Theater brought high-powered entertainment, reminders of darker moments in our nation’s history and political activism to the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach on Saturday, November 10, 2018. The dancing was superb, the music outstanding and the message was potent, timely and positive. Conceived and Directed by Artistic Director Ana Maria Alvarez, JoyUS JustUS had a resounding declaration of unity, humanity, diversity, and acceptance stated beautifully in its opening message, “You and I become US”.

Choreographed by Alvarez and her company members Iris Avalos, Christopher Cuenza, Jannet Galdamez, Samad Raheem Guerra, Bianca Medina, Jasmine Stanley, Diana Toledo, and Shantel Ureña, the title JoyUS JustUS aptly denotes the work’s ingredients and message. It was joyful throughout the piece, but openly sought to define what exactly is the true definition of “justice”. Is justice meant for all of us or is it currently meant for only some of us? Is justice directed primarily toward white men or does it include women and people of color? JoyUS JustUS is in response to those questions and it demonstrates to us that we are of one family, and just like the earth, come in a multitude of colors.

The house curtain was up when we entered the theater. A small number of people were seated on either side of the stage and five beautiful multi-colored Altar Quilts by Emily Orling hung upstage as a backdrop throughout the evening. As the house lights faded, a beautiful pregnant woman, Iris Avalos, dressed in a vibrant green and flowered headband, walked through the house and up onto the stage where she delivered an inspiring message of unity by evoking the earth’s four elements: water, earth, wind and fire. It was here that we heard and were asked to repeat “You and I become US”.

The mood shifted dramatically as the lighting snapped to bright red and several dancers filled the stage with wonderful energetic movement. The beautiful Lighting Design by Tuce Yasak was at work here as the red imperceptibly melted back to normal. Throughout the work, Yasak created many environments and moods to enhance Alvarez’s vision that shifted at a moment’s notice and without warning. Joy was interrupted by anger, which just as quickly transformed back into the brighter and more positive side of Alvarez’s inclusive message.

The opening group section involving 6 dancers, expressed unity via a tasteful fusion of styles. Latin samba incorporated hints of contemporary dance, hip hop and Afro-Dance. Alvarez stayed true to her heritage but acknowledged her and her company members’ entire history of dance training. In this section, we got a glimpse of each dancer’s movement styles and strengths during wonderfully performed, high energy solos, before they rejoined in unison movement phrases that were primarily Latin based.

The scene changed to a ritualistic feel with four women moving slowly in a circle of half-light while one dancer’s voice was heard describing her family history of migrating to the USA. The tale focused on her mother and this woman’s strength as she raised her two children to become strong individuals. The scene and mood changed again as we heard Alvarez describing the first time she and her husband met their day-old adopted son while the amazing Jannet Galdamez performed a riveting solo with a samba feel, body isolations and whirling dervish-style spins.

Alter Quilts by Emily Orling Christopher CuenzaContraTiempo_resized contratiempo_170126_1304resized contratiempo_170126_1521resized contratiempo2_resized Isis Avalos_contratiempo3 resized Shantel Urena_contratiempo_resized
Pre-performance of Contra-Tiempo: Urban Latin Dance Theater at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Long Beach- Alter Quilts by Emily Orling - Photo: LA Dance Chronicle

Alvarez incorporated a community cast made up of California State University students. They became a moving wave of bodies supporting a company dancer during a powerful song about pride and how water “will teach” and guide us through life if we just pay attention and learn. Later, they joined company members to create an approaching crowd that then receded into the distance.

With another dramatic light shift to reveal a grid-like pattern on the stage floor, dancers began walking geometrically, almost robotic-like, before the scene transformed into a protest. This peaceful protest became a riot with gun shots heard via a powerful, yet haunting music score. Through necessity, a daily routine of fitting in or remaining invisible suddenly morphed into survival mode through resistance, injury and death.

Through song, musician and vocalist Hector Flores took us down the awful road of American’s racial sins from slavery to the present. A trio of women performed to another haunting song with lyrics that included words heard far too often to describe people migrating to this country: Alien, illegal, refugee, permanent resident. But, Alvarez did not allow us to sit and simmer in this emotion for long. Hope was her message and she took us there again.

One of the cast members that stood out throughout the evening as a dancer, singer, percussionist and vocal sound making marvel, was the multi-talented Samad Raheem Guerra. He wowed us with his raspy voice singing, his vocal percussion, his dancing prowess and his humor as his vocal percussion became the words “Who let the dogs out” or the theme song to The Pink Panther. He used his vocal talents to accompany a duet with himself and Christopher Cuenza who responded to Guerra’s rhythms and sounds with great spontaneity.

The message of JoyUS JustUS continued with a section celebrating the colors of our skins; as different as the colors in nature and ended on a high note with the 1940 Arlo Guthrie song This Land is Your Land that then evolved into the entire audience standing and joining in on the celebration of our diversity and oneness. A piece of interesting information, Nick Spitzer wrote in his book The Story of Arlo Guthrie: “When Guthrie was tired of hearing Kate Smith sing “God Bless America” on the radio in the late 1930s, he sarcastically wrote “God Blessed America for Me” before renaming it “This Land Is Your Land.” Guthrie edited the lyrics to God Bless America to create his more all-encompassing message.

The wonderfully talented cast of dancers were Isis Avalos, Christopher Cuenza, Nathieli Diaz-Bishop, Jannet Galdamez, Samad Raheem Guerra, Bianca Medina, Jasmin Stanley, and Diana Toledo. The high spirited and gifted band members included Jose Cano, drums, Cajon; Denise Carlos MSW, vocals, jarana, zapateado; Leah Rose Gallegos, vocal, percussion; Hector Flores, vocals, jarana, zapateado; Daniel French, vocals, jarana, keys; Xocoyotzin Moraza, requinto, vocals; and Jorge Mijangos, bass, vocals.

The dynamic, mood enhancing and original music was by d. Sabela grimes, Las Cafeteras, Samad Raheem Guerra, Kahlil Cummings, and Joshua Thomas. The artist whose work so beautifully wove the evening’s music together was d. Sabela grimes. The wonderful and apropos costumes were designed by Charlese Antinoette, and the Dramaturgy and Theatrical support was provided by Daniel Penilla.

The Community Cast of dancers were Temria Airmet, Da’Shauna Anderson, Megan AuYeung, Imani Bias, Queala Clancy, Jewell Curtiss, Manuel “Manny” Macias, and Nancy Rivera.

JoyUS JustUS is a beautiful and inspiring work by Los Angeles based Contra-Tiempo: Urban Latin Dance Theater. I highly recommend that you go see them.

For more information about Contra-Tiempo: Urban Latin Dance Theater, click here.

Featured image: Shantel Ureña – JoyUS JustUS – Contra: Tiempo: Urban Latin Dance Theater – Photo: Eric Wolfe