The BlakTinx Dance Festival, in association with The Bootleg Theater have triumphantly celebrated their 10th year in production. This past Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Leimert Park in Los Angeles, artists from all over California gathered to share with each other their truths, their pain, their triumphs and their experiences through the most universal language on earth – Dance.
Over the last decade, the BlakTinx team has been dedicated to providing a safe space for artists to experiment and explore their own unique voices. They not only overcome but forge ahead with new ideas and new ways to nurture and elevate the artists from this and the coming generations.
As the festival has grown, so too have the participating artists and together they have created a standard of what it means to take this stage. As a spectator, this year, it was very clear to see that the narrative of dance is quickly changing. The narrators of dance are changing into artists with new stories to tell and histories to celebrate.
The 10th BlakTinx program was filled with a diverse range of artists including J’Nelle & Luckie from Old School Skinny Studio, Diana Toledo, Aisha Shauntel Bardge & Stephen Tanner, Edgar Aguirre, Angel Castro, Mari Maria, Ysaye Alma, G’bari ‘GQ’ Gilliam & Shantel Urena, Victoria Villamil ‘Tori Cristi,’ Nadia Calmet, and DaanseKou Cultural Arts Collective. Each of these dance makers and doers contributed to making this tenth anniversary a true benchmark for artists of all dance styles and cultural backgrounds.
The concert didn’t begin with dance this year, but instead with a “Welcome and Call of Energies” from DaanseKou Cultural Arts Collective. Babacar Top, Mbaye Diouf and Will Gordon brought our focus to the stage into what became almost like the overture for the rest of the concert. This performance was deeply rooted in culture and it was a wonderful celebration of self and each other. After a playful call and response between the drummers on and backstage, they engaged the audience by having us clap in time while the musicians continued to playfully converse with their instruments. Just before the performance concluded, a single dancer performed a beautifully improvised West African style dance infused with B-Boy tricks and vocal calls back and forth to the drummers. This performance was definitely a fun and engaging way to kick off the show.
“Toro Mata,” choreographed by Nadia Calmet was a tense and powerful trio performed by the choreographer along with dancers Evelyn Karahalios and Eliy Arrunategui. As described by Nadia, “this piece is inspired by the Toro Mata, which is an Afro-Peruvian dance to protest against colonization.” The dancers very clearly expressed a tension and a strength mixing styles from West African and Gaga to Blocco and the Bomba. It was Calmet’s intention to highlight the cultural resistance through her choreography. Her personal connection to this history and these dance styles certainly allowed the dancers to achieve that goal. At the conclusion of the piece there was a beautiful image that seemed to depict the dancers rowing through water and the elements that come with an outdoor venue enhanced the effectiveness of that moment quite nicely. Well done.
Choreographer and dancer Victoria Villamil aka Tori Christi, softened the energy on stage as she performed her solo “Te Dejo Ir.” Though I am not fluent, Spanish was spoken all around me growing up and is such a stunningly romantic language; it’s also very easy to recognize when the artist is telling a story of heartache. This dancer exuded so much strength and vulnerability and without language took us through this arch of overcoming pain and loss. Section two was done to spoken word written by Tori Christi and voiced by Eva Portillo, entitled “Motherly Voice.” She is sitting in a chair for a fair amount of time during this poem and with the restriction of sitting managed to effectively express the emotions behind this work with very passionate and engaging movement. Just before she stands, her fingertips gently touch the ground and she rises with a feeling of empowerment that leads us into section three which felt very triumphant and calm through to the end.
One of the most engaging pieces for me, this year, was “Divine Balance.” Choreographed and danced by G’bari ‘GQ’ Gilliam and Shantel Ureña, this duet took us through a vast range of emotions. The frustration and the anguish were so tangible but there was such a beautiful release of tension through their movement. I was specifically very impressed by the way G’bari depicted certain moments with more of an alpha quality and then seamlessly switched into a powerfully androgynous dancer. Both of these artists have such a clear mastery over this style of hip-hop and a clear chemistry between the two of them. Whenever they were dancing apart, their solos were still very connected and purposeful. Together they complimented each other’s movement and shared the space with such a creatively controlled chaotic energy. The way this work came together in the end with the sounds of trickling water was just so peaceful and contented. It expressed an acceptance and a love for what you are and what you have and the final image of them entangled and leaning over onto each other was such a soft landing for this aggressive and emotionally driven work.
“Mami Wata” by Ysay Almea is a graceful and artistic response to the negative and ignorant backlash to the casting of Halle Bailey in the “Little Mermaid” live-action remake. This solo took a very modern and creative approach to Tahitian choreography. The music included traditional percussion instruments mixed with hints of Beyonce and clips from the original cartoon film. This work strived to educate and celebrate the African spirits of the water and the legends of the black and brown mermaids who protected our oceans long before Ariel ever found a “thingamabob.” Ysaye displayed so much confidence and pride during this piece and it was a joy to watch.
A great example of dance for the love of dance is “Wolf and Sheep’s Rolling” by Mari Maria. All of the dancers have different styles, different abilities, and all have incredible stage presence. I could not help but smile the entire time I watched this piece. It told a story with all these fun characters that came together in the end to execute a very sharp and clean unison section with creative levels and layers. The “narrator” of these stories was perfectly cast with a dancer in a poncho and sunglasses who had the energy of the audience in the palm of their hand. Well executed and entertaining from start to finish.
“AbandonMEANT” from Angel Castro was danced with stunning precision by Jada Lea and Jahari White. The choreography was innovative and executed with so much trust between these dancers that I felt very taken care of as an audience member. It is so wonderful to be able to sink into a piece and allow the artists to carry you through it with such ease. With minimal sound to work with, Angel managed to capture a refreshing musicality and tone. There was a stoic nature to Jada and Jahari’s approach to the performance that allowed for multiple interpretations of the movement. The two of them certainly did not abandon each other. Throughout the entire piece they shared an intense focus on one another and the creative and intricate partner work had seamless transitions in and out. Castro’s eye for detail and use of subtly really elevated this piece from being a linear story into the ebb and flow of a very dynamic work. Even though the elements of this piece create an uncomfortable atmosphere, its one that is so well done you stay for the end and want just a little more. Very nicely done.
Edgar Aguirre performed a very personal and endearing solo entitled “3 Tz’ikin.” Tz’ikin is the intermediary between God and mankind. It is a guardian bird of the land and represents freedom. A well placed metaphor for this particular dancer, who has certainly spread his wings. Edgar has very clearly dedicated his life to not only learning all that he can from dance but has dived deeper into self-discovery and found what he can gift back to this art form. Performed with excellent technique, with rhythm and style that is unique, Aguirre captivated the audience as he allowed us to witness a very personal experience and expression of manifesting abundance and protection from the Mayan Spirits that are guiding his artistry. This is just one example of a BlakTinx dancer turned creator and it has been a pleasure to watch this artist’s evolution.
“Becoming the Future With You” was nicely performed by Aisha Shauntel Bardge and Stephen Tanner. The duet was structured through improvised hip hop and told a playful and relatable love story between two people who care for each other deeply. These dancers were engaging and had some very intricate and creative partnering work. There were just a few moments when the dancers were apart from each other that I did not feel a strong cohesiveness in their movement but that perhaps further enhanced the moments where they came together and displayed a very clear and powerful connection. Mixing styles of hip hop, locking, and some modern partner work, the piece was well received by the audience and very enjoyable to watch.
The final choreographed work in the concert this year was created by choreographer Diana Toledo. “W(hole)” is performed by five very well trained and experienced dancers. Starting in the audience to the sounds of heavy breathing and expressive anger the dancers immediately pulled my focus in. As they made their way to the stage the panicked nature of the piece hones in on a clear single intention from the whole group. Each dancer has a solo that amplifies the tone of regaining a sense of self and of one’s own power. The choreography was stylistically very dynamic with heavy hip hop influences that complimented the contemporary and modern movement that drove the work. As each dancer found their own footing, they then offered support to one another through a series of lifts and weight sharing. It was evident that they each drew strength from one another that in turn empowered the group as a whole. As the dancers took their bows I caught Diana behind me celebrating an excellent performance, rightfully so.
The concert came to a close with one last dance including the entire audience, led by the artists from Old School Skinny Studio. J’Nelle and Luckie got the crowd on their feet to follow along with the choreography they taught on the spot, reminding us that there is “No Parking on the Dance Floor!” One last shout out to the creators, choreographers, dancers, and of course the supporters of BlakTinx and the entire dance community.
It has been my experience that Licia Perea and the entire team, create an atmosphere that is enforced with an uplifting spirit that celebrates the artists of this community.
March 25th was a bright and sunny day in the midst of some strange Southern California weather. There was a cool intense breeze mixed with the heat of the sun and there was a very warm and focused energy coming from all directions in the audience, towards the stage.
Licia and Alicia Adams, true to form, led us into the concert after a few kind words between each other and to their team. Then, as if almost perfectly timed, the wind died down and the sounds of the city came to a quick halt before Licia shouted off-mic, “Let’s just shut up and DANCE!”
And then… BlakTinx 2023. A beautifully executed ten year celebration of art from the next generation of voices who are keeping the conversation alive.
For more information about the BlakTinx Dance Festival, please visit their website.
Dance, for me, is more than a craft or an art form. Through dance I have forged long lasting personal and professional relationships. It has provided me a foundation to grow upon and shelter to find sanctuary in. I have been lucky enough to find love, friendships, and a genuine sense of self through every personal or artistic evolution. It has become a mission of mine to uplift and unite the artists of this community, to encourage self and choreographic exploration, to provide stages for an open dialogue, and to create new spaces for artists to find their own paths through dance. Because of dance, I see the world through the eyes of the creators and doers of an art that transcends color, religion, orientation or gender. I am so grateful to all of the artists who continue to share their stories. I learn from you, I am inspired by you, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for contributing to the evolving beauty life continues to offer and that dance never fails to uphold. – M.
Written by Melesio Anthony Aceves for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: BlakTinx Dance Festival 2023 – “AbandonMEANT” by Angel Castro – Dancers: Jada Lea and Jahari White – Photo by Bill Prudich