As their press release states: ‘Through ¡azúcar! we explore ancestral wisdoms about a plant that once aided in our healing, used as a way to sweeten medicinal concoctions, now extracted, refined, and used as weaponized poison’.

On Friday night at The Ford Theater CONTRA-TIEMPO’s exploration of sugar and its complex history was certainly exuberant and spiritual. It was a perfect evening for this particular ritualized performance as the air was crystal clear at sunset and the mountain backdrop of The Ford Theater perfectly matched the nature of the subject matter. Indeed, as the show began, we witnessed a lone figure, a female deity, enter the space holding a sugar cane stalk (fabricated by Steve Tolin) and set the tone for the sacred channeling about to begin. Her walk, solemn; her regard, regal.

CONTRA-TIEMPO - Kati Hernandez in "¡azúcar!" - Photo by Robert Davezac, Projections by Meena Murugesan

CONTRA-TIEMPO – Kati Hernandez in “¡azúcar!” – Photo by Robert Davezac, Projections by Meena Murugesan

Unfortunately, this spell was marred by the company dancers entering the audience space and cavorting on and throughout the seats and aisles, their attitude playful and mischievous. Truly, one of the dancers next to me jumped down from a seat into the aisle and tripped, falling over onto her stomach. I was concerned that she had hurt herself and moved to help her up, but she recovered and ran away to some other gymnastic endeavor. This of course took me right out of the spiritually ritualistic and somber air of the spell trying to be woven onstage. This opening sequence wanted to be two different things – a somber, ritualized introduction to a serious subject matter that has greatly affected millions of people through its cultivation throughout the slave trade, and at the same time, a casual, joyous coming together of community celebrating the healing rituals of which sugar was once a part. This weakened both. Added to this was the constant flow of late-comers to the theater and focus was difficult to maintain. Although CONTRA-TIEMPO made a valiant effort to do so.

CONTRA TIEMPO - L-R Kati Hernandez, Jannet Galdamez, Jasmine Stanley, Alek Lopez, Edgar Aguirrein in "¡azúcar!" - Photo by Robert Davezac

CONTRA TIEMPO – L-R Kati Hernandez, Jannet Galdamez, Jasmine Stanley, Alek Lopez, Edgar Aguirrein in “¡azúcar!” – Photo by Robert Davezac

There were a few standouts during the evening. Kati Hernandez as celeoshun instigated much of the movement and consequently the healing. Hernandez is a powerhouse of Afro-Cuban dance and holds the stage beautifully as she orchestrates the different sections of the piece. She manipulates her costume made by Halei Parker and incorporates it into her emotional states leaving the audience in no question of her intentions. Another was Jannet Galdamez as cielo who entered the space making an offering to the Gods and ancestors and shown throughout the evening in her powerful movement.

CONTRA-TIEMPO's and Community Cast in "¡azúcar!" - photo by Robert Davezac

CONTRA-TIEMPO’s and Community Cast in “¡azúcar!” – photo by Robert Davezac

There were many gorgeous moments and lovely tableaux, none more so than the opening section where the company of dancers onstage were all doing an intricate dance with the sugar canes and then sporadically splitting off into solos while more performers all in white were interspersed above the stage throughout the foliage like workers in the sugar cane fields. I only wish there had been a program naming all who contributed onstage. The dancers were very well rehearsed and moved meticulously and powerfully in unison. They also held their own as soloists. The historical section of the piece began with celeoshun delivering an enormous blue tarp to the community onstage which they then began to unwrap and secure. Soon bags of sugar were poured out onto it and the story of the use of sugar began in earnest.

A duet between Jasmine Stanley-Haskins and Maria I. Garcia began the relationship with sugar as they danced and swirled around it, testing it, tasting it, and reveling in it. Then the dancers used sugar in cooking in a humorous mime sequence. Also utilized to great effect was a series of projections helped by a hazing machine and developed by Meena Murugesan. These worked beautifully against the natural vegetation backdrop of the Ford and added a poignant  dimension to the action onstage. Modern times displayed a huge Pinata onstage which was savagely torn apart, part ritual of children’s birthday parties and part sly offense at the ‘poisonous’ candy hidden within and the damage it can do.

CONTRA-TIEMPO - Jannet Galdamez and Jose Jose Arrieta Cuesta in "¡azúcar!" - Photo by Robert Davezac

CONTRA-TIEMPO – Jannet Galdamez and Jose Jose Arrieta Cuesta in “¡azúcar!” – Photo by Robert Davezac

All throughout the show the company displayed great joy at sharing their view of the complicated history of sugar and its affect on their ancestors and consequently, themselves. By focusing on the healing, celebratory nature of the dances throughout the evening, Alvarez deftly manages to avoid the more unsavory aspects of the sugar cane industry and its reliance on slave labor in past centuries. The gruesome toll on slave laborers within this industry, their pain and suffering was mostly absent from the stage.

The lighting for the evening, by Tuce Yasak was exquisite and worked wonderfully with the all-white costumes by David Israel Reynoso. The music was well chosen and brought us all along on CONTRA-TIEMPO’s joyful journey, so much so that the evening ended with the dancers coming into the audience and, with little provocation, got everyone up to dance in a communal gestalt. This in great part thanks to Rashaan Carter and Anaïs Maivel as composer/musicians.

According to Ana Maria Alvarez’s Artistic Director note: “Every person on stage that you witness tonight has been invited to show up as their fullest selves.” All of these individuals not only ‘showed up’ as their fullest selves but were unstinting in sharing who they are and where they have come from with the audience. I apologize if I have misidentified anyone onstage for this performance of Azúcar! The performers: Kati Hernandez, Jannet Galdamez, Jasmine Stanley-Haskins, Ruby Morales, Maria I. Garcia, Alék G. Lopéz, Edgar Aguirre, Jose Jose Arrieta Cuesta, and Felicia ‘Onyi’ Richards as healer/priestess.

To learn more about CONTRA-TIEMPO, please visit their website.

For more information about The Ford, please visit their website.

Written by Brian Fretté for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: CONTRA-TIEMPO – Ruby Morales in “¡azúcar!” – Photo by Robert Davezac