You'd never know it around here, but there's more to dance in the Second City than Hubbard Street, which performs annually at Overture Hall. Luna Negra, a fast-rising Chicago company, focuses on works by Latina/o choreographers that push past the boundaries of 20th-century art into the brave new multicultural 21st. Despite proximity, this important young Windy City troupe, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, performs in Madison for the first time next Thursday at Overture's Capitol Theater.
Artistic director Eduardo Vilaro left Havana for New York at 6, in '69, a decade after the triumph of the Cuban revolution. Dance was how his uprooted family stayed connected to its roots and its community, Vilaro says: "My mother always grabbed me to dance with her. I learned to walk and salsa at the same time."
As a kid Vilaro played Linus in a school production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. "Linus does a solo with his blanket," Vilaro says. "I didn't just perform. I had to come up with my own dance."
Smitten by Terpsichore, he had to sneak out of the house to take dance classes. "My parents wanted me to be a good Cuban son, a doctor, a lawyer," he says. "When I got out of high school I said, 'Okay, I'm not doing this, I'm gonna be an artist, I'm gonna dance."
Vilaro trained at the Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham schools; he became a principal dancer with New York's Ballet Hispanico. But lack of opportunities to choreograph led him to Chicago. "The city had such a vibrant Latino community, devoid of a strong dance presence," he says.
Luna Negra kicked off its first season in '99. People sometimes expect tangos or cha chas, but Vilaro's angle on Latin dance is different. "When we come to the States we fuse, we change," he says. "I'm not 100% Cuban any more. In Cuba they tell me 'tu no eres cubano.' I'm like damn, who are we in this country? Can we celebrate who we're becoming? Can we still be Latino, but have other ways of showing who we are? How do I move my community from the red skirts and castanets, salsa and cheap cliché stereotypes? There's Latino texture within our work, but I want to say we're more than that. We can be avant garde without losing our Latino-ism."
Mexico-born choreographer José Limón, who left Sinaloa during the Mexican Revolution and became a major New York choreographer during the heyday of modern dance, is Vilaro's direct artistic ancestor. And first up on Thursday night's program is "There Is a Time," a reconstructed Limón work that premiered at Juilliard in 1956. "I want to take this program back to the beginning," Vilaro says.
Against Limón, Vilaro sets up "AviMar," a new work by two young choreographers with roots in Chicago's River North Dance Company, Francisco Aviña and Stephanie Martínez. Like Limón, they've decided against Latin music, Vilaro says. "But they're looking at an idea Latinos have worked with for centuries - the power struggle between man and woman."
Last on the three-dance bill is Vilaro's "Deshár Alhát," set to a Sephardic score. "It's about finding ourselves as Latinos in this Spanish-Jewish music," he says. "It's about opening dialogues."
Vilaro also aims to open dialogues in the community. Wide-ranging events are slated for a four-day residency surrounding the concert (check out www.overturecenter.com/res-lunanegra.htm). "Community outreach sows seeds," Vilaro says. "Years later people come up to me and say 'I'm a dancer now because you opened me up to a new world.' It's amazing when they tell you that."