5 Questions With Wilfredo Rivera About America, Americans and Cerqua Rivera’s 20th
… they’ve done it by inventing new ways of performing, and new ways of approaching their audience. At the same time, they’ve committed deeply to an intensely intricate way of creating new dance.
Change doesn’t happen all at once, but that’s usually the way people notice it — all of a sudden. This may be especially true in the arts, and it’s certainly true in concert dance. Every art changes of course — new faces appear, new voices attract attention, new scenes emerge. It always happens gradually, way below the radar, but there often comes a moment when it seems as if everybody notices something. There’s something new, a new way of doing what everybody was trying to do all along. Then all of a sudden, or so it seems, everybody sees something that changes the way they see everything else.
Naturally, people love to be there when that happens. and even when they’re not, a lot of people like to remember that they were. Usually the only people who are there, there for that moment that everybody talks about later, are the ones who are close enough to what has been building all along to already know it’s something special. But not always, and if you like the idea of being part of one of those moments, you might want to find some tickets for Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre’s 20th Anniversary Concert Series.
There’s an art to being a dance company, and for twenty years, Cerqua Rivera has been reimagining the parameters of that art. From the beginning, cofounders Joe Cerqua and Wilfredo Rivera imagined a fundamentally different relationship between music and dance in concert, and over the company’s first two decades, they’ve steadily expanded their exploration of what that can be. But over the past few years, there’s been an increasing momentum to how all of that imagining gets put together. Their current company of dancers is extraordinary, and the Cerqua Rivera musicians have continuously expanded the horizons of what they can bring to an audience.
Most importantly though, the Company has relentlessly explored a dramatic new approach to two old arts — engagement and collaboration. Over the past few years, they’ve developed a season that runs from June through October, and they’ve done it by inventing new ways of performing, and new ways of approaching their audience. At the same time, they’ve committed deeply to an intensely intricate way of creating new dance.
The Cerqua Rivera season begins each year with a series of intimate concerts they call Inside/Out, and this year the series featured each of the three works that make up their fall concerts, which they call America / Americans #CRDT20th Concert Series. All of this builds to what is in effect the company’s fall tour — a tour that brings their latest series of concerts to venues across their home city of Chicago.
They begin this year at Studio 5, the forward looking venue in Chicago’s northern Evanston community, with a two night program. The first evening, on September 27th, features the three year culmination of Wilfredo Rivera and Joe Cerqua’s American Catracho, a full evening work that Rivera has honed with exceptional care and an extraordinary level of collaboration. On Saturday, Septermber 28th, choreographer Monique Haley, also working with composer Joe Cerqua, presents ROOT: mwanzo wa mwili ni roho, Haley’s exploration of a modern African American experience through traditional African modes. Also that night, choreographer Shannon Alvis and composer Clarice Assad present Place Between Earth and Sky, inspired by ideas Alvis learns from her Native American heritage.
That’s only the beginning. On October 4th, the company reprises American Catracho in a concert at The Auditorium Theatre in downtown Chicago with Ensemble Español, and does so again on October 18th at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center on the city’s west side. Finally, on October 27th, they perform ROOT: mwanzo wa mwili ni roho and Place Between Earth and Sky at the Reva & David Logan Center for the Arts on the city’s south side.
We asked cofounder and Artistic Director Wilfredo Rivera about how all of this came together, and here’s what he told us:
This research approach has created a deeper sense of compassion, empathy and understanding within the ensemble. Every year this story has grown more relevant.
Johnny Nevin: In 2016 you began the three year process of creating American Catracho, the full-evening work in which you explore the experiences of immigrants and refugees. You have lived your own set of experiences as someone moving to the United States from Honduras — can you tell us about some of those experiences, and how they inspired and informed your vision for American Catracho?
Wilfredo Rivera: My actual migrating experience as a 12-year-old child was not as traumatic as others in my close circle of family and acquaintances. However, the process of assimilation and re-settling here was very challenging and is ever ongoing. Our family has had to deal with a broken legal system regarding status for over 30 years. Outside the comfort of my artistic family, we often face the prejudice and harassment that many Latinos do – being told to “go back” among other phrases and disapproving looks..
The experiences of close family and friends, and the increasing tension for people of color and others who are — or look — “foreign” inspired this piece. My own immigrant and Latino experiences rooted the piece, but I had so many emotional connections and first-hand experiences to draw on as well. I wanted to tell the wrenching and complex story of immigrants and refugees with the complex art form of Cerqua Rivera. We dove into the excruciating physical and mental strains that immigrants experience, personifying the headlines with real life accounts and the reasonings behind an individual’s exodus. This research approach has created a deeper sense of compassion, empathy and understanding within the ensemble. Every year this story has grown more relevant. I wish that weren’t true, but it’s definitely helped drive us forward over three years.
I brought along a set of collaborators in various fields of immigrant and refugee expertise such as law, psychology, social work and theater.
Johnny: It’s not often that choreographers and companies get the chance to develop a work over a multi-year process, as you have with Catracho. Can you tell us more about your approach to researching and developing American Catracho, and how that impacted the completed work that audiences will see?
Wilfredo: The multi-year process enabled us to work with a big group of collaborators, and to continue developing the piece with each year building on the year before. I thought deeply about how to expand my individual narrative with stories I knew, as well as how to add the knowledge of others to really make something special. With a multi-year timeline, we were able to stretch our budget, navigate schedule conflicts and revise the work among other logistics.
Although I am personally very familiar with migrant stories, I’ve had to figure out how to make them personal and urgent to the ensemble for us to create the work. At Cerqua Rivera we don’t just tell our performers which steps to take or notes to play. It’s ensemble driven. We create and bring a work of art to life together. So I brought along a set of collaborators in various fields of immigrant and refugee expertise such as law, psychology, social work and theater. They were all part of a continued thread of professional, real life advice and experiences throughout the piece’s creation.
The choreographers and movement collaborators that we brought on board added an intoxicating mix of intellect, empathy and choreographic innovation.
Johnny: We at DancerMusic have been fortunate to see this three year process, and one of the most striking features of it has been the way you expanded your own vision to include so many other artists. This has included artists like Cerqua Rivera cofounder Joe Cerqua who composed the score, but even more remarkably, you’ve included a number of other choreographers in the process each year. Can you tell us about this very unique aspect of your creativity — your drive to include the creativity of others?
Wilfredo: Part of our mission here at Cerqua Rivera is to provide early and mid-career choreographers a platform in which to stretch and grow. Again, the multi-year process for creating this work enabled us to build a big group of collaborators. This also enabled me to involve different voices for different components of the story – younger voices than mine, men and women, as well as a variety of movement styles. All of this helped us shape a complicated story.
I searched for and formed relationships with choreographers invested in expanding their artistic voice in a multi-art environment. In addition, I was interested in individuals at the crossroads of personal life changes mixed with social justice inclinations. The choreographers and movement collaborators that we brought on board added an intoxicating mix of intellect, empathy and choreographic innovation. It’s been so inspiring to work with them.
We had reached a newcomer to dance, we had shared our art in a way that connected with her …
Johnny: Cerqua Rivera will perform across the greater Chicago area in a month-long series of concerts, but that is only a part of the company’s outreach. You’ve been both determined and quite imaginative about the way you share what you’re doing with audiences and communities — can you tell us more about this important part of your work?
Absolutely! Five years ago we decided to completely rethink how we operated. We started from scratch:
How could we spend our money to create the best art possible and share it with a wide audience?
How are we unusual as a company and what opportunities does that open for us?
Could we vary our programs to reach more people in a way that interests and engages them?
And from these brainstorming sessions Cerqua Rivera’s Inside/Out preview series came to be.
The creativity to launch our Inside/Out series was driven in equal measure by our tight budget as a small nonprofit and our hunger to create meaningful art and impact people with it. We recognized our comfort with collaboration and willingness to share works early in their process as unique assets of Cerqua Rivera. Brainstorming and lots of conversations led us to create our current structure – an annual season that extends spring through fall and includes monthly Inside/Out events, partnerships and performances throughout Chicagoland, and a culminating concert series that reaches people close to home in neighborhoods across the city.
I would say that an additional thread for this transformation is our respect for all audiences. We do not distinguish between the traditional models of a “concert” audience and an “outreach” audience. Our goal is to bring equally enriching experiences to all of our audiences, no matter how an event is being funded or where it is or what time of day. We want to connect art and audiences deeply. Expanding the range of experiences we offer has brought more opportunities for that.
One quick example, after our most recent Inside/Out — a work in progress preview & discussion in a studio space — a first-time attendee rushed up to me afterward. She said, “This was so educational! I had no idea that gestures and movement could have such clear significance!” Of course, I responded with a hug. Inside, I was exhilarated. We had reached a newcomer to dance, we had shared our art in a way that connected with her, and we had created a space where she felt comfortable trying something new and really taking it in. I felt like we’d done our jobs that day.
We never rest.
Johnny: This is not only the completion of the three-year process of creating American Catracho, it’s also the twentieth anniversary season for Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre. After the multi-layered, multi-year accomplishment of American Catracho, what are you looking forward to for the Company’s next twenty years?
The company is at such a high point right now, I’m just looking forward to jumping even higher. The past few years developing Catracho has led us to this season, where we made three pieces exploring identity and the legacy of family and heritage. All of these pieces are such perfect expressions of our mission, we’re planning to continue in this vein as we start our third decade.
The next three seasons will find Cerqua Rivera in a continued investigation of identity. The more we have explored these issues, the more we find new avenues we want to go down. We want to look at how our immediate American past shaped our current culture. We are thinking about how we all shift our thinking about the ways we interact and how we accept each other. Major pieces in 2021 will explore issues of gender and sexual identity, the connecting threads of Black art and mainstream American culture, and the clash between a generation brought up in the narcissistic social media culture and the practical and emotional need for family and community.
We never rest. For our 20 year history we have been creating a new art form, and each year I am inspired and motivated by how it grows and grows richer as it is shaped by our artists and audiences. We’re not even done celebrating 20 years yet, and we’re already excited about number 21!
Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre will perform two programs as part of their America/Americans #CRDT20th Concert Series.
Wilfredo Rivera’s American Catracho (with an original score by Joe Cerqua) will be performed on Friday, September 27 at 8pm at Studio5 at Dance Center Evanston (1938 Dempster Street, Evanston, IL). Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets.
American Catracho will also be performed at The Auditorium Theatre (50 E Ida B Wells Drive, Chicago IL 60605) at 7:30pm. Tickets are available by phoning the Auditorium box office at 312.341.2310 or online from the Auditorium Theatre.
American Catracho will also be performed on Friday, October 18th at 7:30pm at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (4046 W Armitage Ave, Chicago, IL 60639). Tickets are available online from Eventbrite.
See Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre in the world premiere of Monique Haley’s ROOT: mwanzo wa mwili ni roho (with and original score by Joe Cerqua) and the world premiere of Shannon Alvis’ Place Between Earth and Sky (with an original score by Clarice Assad) on Saturday, September 28 at 8pm at Studio5 at Dance Center Evanston (1938 Dempster Street, Evanston, IL). Tickets are available online from Brown Paper Tickets.
ROOT and Place Between Earth and Sky will also be performed as part of Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre’s Benefit Performance, Saturday October 26 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts (915 E 60th St, Chicago, IL). The performance begins at 7:30pm, followed by a 9:00pm reception with the company. Tickets are available at www.eventbrite.com.
For more information on Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre’s 20th Anniversary Season and Fall Concert Series, visit www.cerquarivera.org.