Arts & Culture

New Houston Dance Festival Celebrates Latinx Choreographers – And Surviving The Pandemic

Organizers say it’s a needed opportunity for an artist community that has been underrepresented and particularly impacted by COVID-19.

“Mezclada” by choreographer Joel Aguilera

While there have been efforts to increase representation for dancers of color, Houston choreographer Adam Castañeda said choreographers of color still lack support in the industry.

That's why he founded the Texas Latino/a/x Contemporary Dance Festival, a new initiative of his Pilot Dance Project, which launched virtually on April 1 and runs through April 10.

"If you look at the landscape of dancers – modern dancers, contemporary dancers in Houston – there are very visible Latinx faces in the cast," said Castañeda. "But when we talk about artists of color, especially dance artists of color, a lot of times the driving force is not to be a participant in someone else's work."

Castañeda said that dancers who feel the need to say something with their bodies and their lived experiences are the ones who go on to become choreographers. But without support, they might not make it – or even have the chance.

“Atado” by Kristina Prats

"I feel like it's very important for the dance artists in the Latinx community, if they want to have that opportunity, to step out of the rehearsal space with their own autonomous voice as a creator," he said.

The idea for the festival began four years ago, when he first noticed a growing number of young, Latinx dancer-choreographers coming out of the University of Houston's Dance Program.

His plan was to provide a platform for those artists to create and to learn how to produce their own works – specifically within the genre of contemporary dance, where he said emphasis on Western concert dance aesthetic can dilute a choreographer's culturally-driven vision.

The Texas Latino/a/x Contemporary Dance Festival centers Latinx identities and perspectives through a program of 11 works by Houston-based Latinx choreographers.

One of the pieces, "Mezclada" by Joel Aguilera, references Aguilera's early dance experiences in breakdancing and B-boy culture – street dance styles that have had close ties with Latinx communities for decades. He layered those influences with the movement vocabulary of his dance training from the University of Houston, Castañeda said.

"It's really stunning to watch him intermingle these two worlds," he said. "And in a lot of ways, it is representative of the Latinx experience because there are so many traditions that form that homogenous umbrella."

The idea of two worlds is also echoed in the new work "In Between" by Brazilian-born choreographer Roberta Cortes, the co-founder and co-director of Group Acorde.

"The emotion behind it is really around how it is for me to be between two worlds," Cortes said. The two worlds refer to two countries, two languages and two styles of movement, she said – one in which she's more comfortable and expressive, and the other in which she's holding back the "curvy movements" of her body in order to fit in.

"Entre luces y pensamientos" by Dorianna Castillo

Performances were recorded specifically for the festival, and then produced into a 60-minute digital dance concert. Tickets to stream the festival are available from the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston website.

There will be one in-person event: a screening of the festival, followed by a Q&A with artists, on April 9 at the P.E.T. Outdoor Theater, limited to 25 people.

At a time when arts funding and employment have been profoundly impacted, Casteñeda sees the festival – which is a paid opportunity for choreographers – as a way to counter some of the pandemic's financial and emotional stress on local Latinx artists.

In his other role as an adjunct English professor at Houston Community College, he said he's seen his young, Latinx students struggle with the fear of spreading COVID-19 to family members due to the intergenerational structure of many Latinx households.

"You know, this is trauma,” he said. “Our elders are sort of figureheads in our households and communities, and the very idea of losing them could be traumatic."

For choreographer Roberta Cortes, it’s been more than two years of separation from her family in Brazil – she was about to take her annual trip home last April when pandemic restrictions took effect – and she said it's been heartbreaking to see her native country become the epicenter of the pandemic, with the highest number of daily deaths in the world.

"Right now, this is what I usually say: I am watching my home burn," Cortes said. "I am watching, and I can't do anything about it."

In addition to her piece “In Between,” choreographer Roberta Cortes also presents “Fear: A Work in Progress” with Group Acorde.

Castañeda said that challenges have multiplied during the pandemic for Latinx dance artists, who are coping with loss of income on top of COVID-19 health disparities.

According to data from the Houston Arts Alliance, one in four artists in the region have lost 100% of their income. HAA’s COVID-19 Needs Assessment also showed that artists feel "isolated, scared, and without direction" and "many artists have confirmed that these feelings result in less art making, which leads to even lower revenue."

That lines up with what Castañeda has witnessed in the local dance community – and it all becomes very personal.

"I'll be honest, so much of what I'm doing is driven by anger, it's driven by resentment, it's driven by the fact that, yeah, there's so many inequities when it comes to Latinx people, dancers in general, choreographers in general," he said. "My whole world is, you know, under attack."

Castañeda said that because project-to-project dance funding was already difficult to come by, he's seen dancers work for free just to have opportunities to perform. But even those opportunities have been basically non-existent during the pandemic.

"The pure joy of dancing and being in your body is taken away,” he said. “That has created huge mental health problems within our community.”

Houston dancer-choreographer, Adam Castaneda

For Castañeda, the festival became something he felt he had to do — a rallying cry for the Houston Latinx and dance communities — although the event itself almost didn't happen.

It was set to debut a year ago until the pandemic forced Castañeda to cancel two weeks before opening night. He reimagined and reworked the festival into its current virtual format, with the hope that next year's iteration will be the big, celebratory "shindig" he originally intended.

"Really, this festival has been a part of my year-long practice of trying to survive and bring as many people on board with me," he said. "I know that sounds, you know, a little bit cheesy. But that's the truth. That’s the honest-to-God truth. And that's why I'm doing it."

Listen to the complete interview with Adam Castañeda below:

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Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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