Under the guidance of producer/curator Barbara Mueller-Wittmann and associate artistic director Beth Hogan, Dance at the Odyssey is now in its 5th year of providing Los Angeles based companies an affordable venue to present their work. On June 17 – 19, 2022, Primera Generación Dance Collective will premiere their evening-length work Nepantla, created and performed by dance artists Alfonso Cervera, Rosa Rodriguez-Frazier, Irvin Manuel Gonzalez, and Patricia “Patty” Huerta. Primera Generación Dance Collective is unique in many ways, but as the title describes, all four artists are first generation Mexican Americans who are using their talents as a way to share their culture and their experiences of living hybridized lives. Tickets are on sale now.
Taking time out of their busy rehearsal schedule the four artists met me on Zoom for an interview. I have seen the Collective’s work, both live and online, but this was my first opportunity to meet them “live” and I will state upfront that it was a highly enjoyable and informative experience. I immediately raised the question of how I should refer to the Latino/a/x community and after discussing Latino vs. Latinx (a more recent term that can be pulverizing within different age groups and communities), we decided that I would use the more middle-ground term Latine.
These young artists first met while pursuing their degrees in the University of California, Riverside Department of Dance. Gonzalez was working on his Ph.D. and the others were earning their Master of Fine Arts degrees. In addition to being four first generation Mexican Americans, what drew them together was a shared desire to see more Latine culture in the landscape of Los Angeles concert and contemporary dance.
The Collective was a result of discovering that they were deeply related to each other’s work and how their creative research was in alignment. “It was a moment of bringing us together,” Cervera said. “We wanted to see what can happen if you bring four first generation, inversion thinkers into the space. It brought us together into a different place.” This of course sparked new and different ideas. “We questioned ourselves ‘What was this? Can it be sustainable and do we want to continue working together,’” he continued. “It was a moment of joy and a spark of newness for us to encounter what does this mean to work non-hierarchically and as a collective.” It meant finding and creating a family. Creating from their collective heart and community focused on centering Latinidad.
The group appears live and on video and their choreographic themes are primarily geared toward social activism. There are proud that their creative process is truly communal from the choices of music, costumes, to the marketing – all the way up to the choreography. “As opposed to a company,” Huerta explained, “our process does take longer because there are so many ideas, so many strong voices in the Collective. But there is also a lot of richness in that because we get to discover a lot! We really value the process of what it means to be within one theme for a long period of time and what happens after that.” She added that the process takes patience, listening and caring, and sometimes they butted heads in disagreement. The fact that the Collective has been together for close to seven years, says everything.
“We really do consider ourselves to be the family we always wanted in terms of can we communicate and tell each other how it is and still feel like we love each another, that we’re still there and can move forward?” Huerta said. She believes that it is truthfully what the group has established emotionally, creatively and artistically over time.
The members of the Collective live in various cities (LA, Riverside, Tallahassee, and Seattle) and rehearse in several studios that include institutions where they graduated from or work at that have been generous enough to offer them free studio time. These include A.B. Miller High School, UC Riverside, Riverside City College where they were for this interview, and Harvard-Westlake High School. If working in LA, they have to pay for rehearsal space.
“Because of the fact that we’re in so many different spaces in terms of rehearsals,” Cervera said. “definitely stays true to the communal aspect that we’ve built our Collective on, which is working with our communities and people in power to see how to avoid certain costs, or perhaps trade a workshop for space.” This process not only helps them financially but aids in staying closely connected to and include their community.
Bringing dance to their Latine communities is only part of the Collective’s original goal. They shared that as four first generation Mexican American individuals, they did not grow up with access to dance studios or knowing that a professional career in dance was even viable. These young artists are using the Collective to inspire those pathways for first generation students that come from Latine households. They grew up experiencing Latin American social dance forms such as Cumbia, Salsa, Quebradita, Merengue, Banda/Norteño, and Ballet Folklórico, and their choreography reflects these and the modern, ballet, jazz and other dance styles they studied in college.
“The fact that our largest following is the Latine community is purposeful, and I think that we have definitely hit that goal,” Gonzalez stated.
Because of the social and political activism qualities of their work, Primera Generación Dance Collective reaches beyond the Latine community to a wider, more diverse audience. Their work is rooted in Latine themes but is also used to have audiences reflect on how other cultures also suffer from the effects of racism, bigotry and environmental injustices. One of their missions is for marginalized communities to ask themselves what their role in activism is, how do they experience love and loss in many different layers and ways, and perhaps most importantly, how do they work together to move forward.
While completely understanding the reasons, I raised the question of dance festivals that present only Latine or Black artists and if they thought that this might appear to some as too exclusive. “For us, we don’t see it that way. We often see the dance world exclude folks of color and so it remains important for us to have these shared, safe spaces to connect through art,” Huerta said. “So for us to have something like that feels generous. It grateful. It feels full of love.” Huerta went on to say that her community is also inspired by the performances of other cultures and believes that these festivals are a platform for people of color to see themselves in the work and in art.
The evening-long piece that Primera Generación Dance Collective is performing at The Odyssey is titled Nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning “middle” that has its roots in a group of peoples native to southern Mexico and Central America, including the Aztecs. According to their press release, the term Nepantla has been “conceptualized by many Chicano/a/x and Latinx artists as a term to denote a space of in-between-ness.” It was Gonzalez who proposed the title after the Collective was invited to do a residency at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater and decided to present a showing of different movement sections that they had created. This turned out to be movement something that they thought should be further developed.
In 2018 the Collective was invited to perform at the Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco and took the now 30 minutes long work, added music and costumes to present it there. The work was scheduled to be performed at Meg Wolfe’s studio in LA, We Live In Space, but the pandemic forced Wolfe to forever close the doors of her space.
The Collective had also been invited to be part of the NOW Festival at REDCAT and rather than give up on the work, they collaborated with videographer/editor Leo Rivas to turn it into a dance film while continuing their plans to perform it live as a full-evening work. Though some sections have been seen on film, these have been further developed and never before seen live.
“The title Nepantla feels appropriate for the work because it is a mix of images, stories, ideas and iconic sounds,” Rodriguez-Frazier stated. “and bringing of all these elements together is what makes it Nepantla.
According to Gonzalez, Nepantla helped the Collective understand more deeply exactly what type of work they were making. The heart of the Collective’s work is making sense of their in-betweenness, being first generation Mexican Americans who are US citizens, but also having families with strong connections to México. Nepantla became a work that highlighted both the positive and negative moments of their in-betweenness and they referenced Chicana feminist theorist, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, who “framed the term as a “space between two worlds” where transformational experiences take place.”
“For us,” Gonzalez said, “it felt like we were creating this landscape bringing ourselves into what Nepantla can visually and effectively look like our movements and make sense of our experiences. How it moves and breathes like.” He proposed the title to the members of the Collective and they also felt it was a way of textualizing the work – “highlighting the messiness, the beautiful moments, the awkward moments that we all experience. Inviting the audience into our version of Nepantla.”
Nepantla speaks to Latine and non-Latine audiences asking them to question what their own in-betweenness looks like. The group understands that every group of people experiences its own form of this, whether or not it comes with certain privileges. They want the audience to view Nepantla as a vessel of self-reflection. Because it presents multiple ideas and images, audience members might consider asking themselves how they align with the work rather than simply wondering what its meaning is. If the recent events in this country and around the world have proved anything it is that everyone grapples with their own conscience and unconscious prejudices.
It is also important to the Collective that they share with the rest of the world the richness of the Latine dance forms mentioned above and their importance to the art of dance. These were the dance forms that drew the Collective members into this profession. They want their family members, friends and others to see themselves in the work, to understand that they do not have to simply assimilate into society but that they can bring themselves forward and create from this place. They want young artists to see that they have the opportunity to use the dance forms that they learned while growing up as the seeds of their artform and allow them to blossom.
Over the years Primera Generación Dance Collective has continuously developed community outreach programs while using their personal finances. Over the course of the pandemic, however, they have become the four directors of Show Box LA which has centralized and helped with continuing their community outreach agenda.
The Collective is the recipient of a 2020-2021 National Endowment for the Arts grant that has funded in-part the creation of a new work titled “¡CHALE VALE!” and with the aid of another grant, bring back “(de) Color-Es Festival” inviting minoritarian artists, from non-professional to professional, to share workshops and perform. In addition, the grant will allow them to pay the artists and to offer classes and workshops.
WHAT: Primera Generación Dance Collective premieres NEPANTLA at Dance at the Odyssey.
WHEN: June 17 – 19, 2022
WHERE: The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble – 2055 S Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025
TICKETS: $25 – To purchase tickets, please click HERE.
At present the Collective operated through social media outlets:
To contact them directly, please use this Email: email@example.com
To learn more about The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Dance at the Odyssey, please visit their website.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Primera Generación Dance Collective – (L-R) Irvin Manuel Gonzalez, Patricia “Patty” Huerta, Alfonso Cervera, Rosa Rodriguez-Frazier – Photo by Bobby Gordon