by Andrew Davis
Eduardo Vilaro has been involved in dance for almost his entire life. At the age of five, he would stage dance performances for his family and friends in Cuba. He then moved to New York the following year; as a high schooler there, he witnessed the underground club scene and he also started performing and experimenting with choreography. At the tender age of 17, Vilaro was accepted on scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and also studied at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance from Adelphi University and went directly to Ballet Hispanico of New York, where he was the prinicpal dancer for almost a decade.
Eventually, Vilaro landed in Chicago ( in 1996 ) . He starting presenting his works at such venues as Chicago's NEXT Dance Festival and the Chicago Cultural Center. In 1999, he founded the Luna Negra Dance Theater. According to the organization's Web site, the theater 'comes from [ Vilaro's ] vision to create a springboard for Latino artists wanting to work in a more contemporary context. His mission is to educate and foster a greater understanding of the rich diversity within Latino cultures through dance.'
The talented and passionate Vilaro, 40, recently talked with Windy City Times/Identity about growing up in the Big Apple, his company and his vision of dance.
Windy City Times: Do you remember anything about Cuba?
Eduardo Vilaro: My only memories in Cuba involve my household. My grandparents had a farm—and I remember that the most. We would have dinner outside and my chair was the pig crate—and I was terrified of the pig.
WCT: And what do you remember about growing up in New York City?
EV: Oh my gosh. I remember the multilayered social experiences one can have there. You can go from the Bronx ( where we lived ) to the middle of high-powered Manhattan—and sometimes these experiences clash together in all different sorts of ways. It's the most incredible aspect of growing up in New York. You can [ interact with ] different levels of society—and it's almost expected. Even if you're in the higher echelon, you'll still come and hang out in the park.
It's such an in-your-face city because people live next to each other. I remember when I lived in the Upper East Side ( which is pretty comparable to Chicago's Gold Coast ) and you know what? Down the street you had Section 8 buildings. It was just back to back.
WCT: Chicago is like that—except people here don't really interact.
EV: They don't. That's what I find interesting about Chicago. It's a city of neighborhoods—and those neighborhoods are very separated and distinct.
WCT: Tell me about the underground dance scene in New York City.
EV: When we went dancing, we'd go to the minority clubs. We didn't go to Studio 54. Why? That wasn't the music that made us pump, first of all. We followed certain DJ's. There were the [ clubs ] Paradise Garage and Better Days; there, it was about the music and about dance.
WCT: Were you around during the 'club kid' phase with Michael Alig?
EV: I was there before then, when voguing was not even heard of. ( Madonna took it later. ) We used to hustle and vogue on the pier at Christopher Street just to challenge each other. Underground nowadays is about goth. Then, it was really a separation of race and class.
WCT: What's the biggest difference between the Chicago and New York dance scenes?
EV: Let me say that I went from the club to the concert dance scene. In New York, there is the remarkable main dance community of distinction where you have the Alvin Ailey American Dance School and where you had ( in my time ) the Martha Graham School; there were these iconic figures and you could go learn from them.
When I was training, Martha Graham was still alive and Mr. Ailey walked into classes—so there was this incredible experience of having mentors around and seeing these people who created something from nothing. It gave you this energy and it made you want more—which is one of the things I really don't find in Chicago. There aren't mentors here to make people say 'Oh, they [ represent ] the Chicago dance world' and flock to class. Of course, we're also talking about the golden age of dance—but I'm not going to give dates. [ Laughs ]
Training for concert dance, there was a sense of growth and challenge [ in New York City ] whereas here I didn't find a very vibrant dance community when I arrived. In fact, I found a very segregated dance community. Now I think the dance community here is [ experiencing ] a huge spurt and is going through a dance renaissance—but no one is saying it yet!
WCT: Are more men signing up?
EV: I think more men are staying. Usually, Chicago is a transient city so someone would start at Hubbard Street and then you'd go there. But with the onset of the Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street becoming more internationally known [ as well as ] the medium-sized companies, you have the whole of a dance community. I think we're becoming a more educated dance community because we want to educate our audiences.
WCT: When I interviewed Joel Hall, he talked about a gulf concerning opportunities for white and Black dancers. Regarding minority dancers, have you also seen this gap?
EV: Well, that's the premise of why I wanted to start a Latino organization. For me when I grew up, there was a gulf between white and Latino dancers. We were stereotyped; we could be in West Side Story but we couldn't be in a Balanchine ballet unless you looked white. So, [ Latino dancers ] couldn't grow as artists.
I was thinking, 'I came from the Ailey School.' I saw a man who took the African-American experience and transcend stereotypes and show what he felt was his culture. I started thinking, 'Latinos need that, too.' At the time Mr. Ailey did that, the African-American community was growing politically. I think it's the Latino community's time. We need to see representation not only in politics but in the arts. Can you tell me of a Latino arts organization?
WCT: [ Pauses. ]
EV: See? Some people might say the Mexican Fine Arts Center. But I want people to say 'Luna Negra. Mexican Fine Arts Center.' [ Claps hands. ] We need to grow and [ decrease ] that gulf.
WCT: How'd you come up with the name 'Luna Negra' [ 'Black Moon' ] ?
EV: I came up with it because I am a mutt. I come from an African background mixed with Chinese mixed with western European. On my mother's side, my great-great-great grandmother was a freed African slave in Cuba who married a Chinese worker. Their daughter married a Creole man. Then their son married a Spanish woman. My father's side is all Castellón. Therefore, I'm a conglomerate.
I've walked down the street and had people ask me if I'm Moroccan, Italian [ or some other ethnicity ] . So I wanted to have a name that shows that we're so many things as Latinos. [ Points to a postcard featuring a dark-skinned dancing woman. ] What do you see when you see that young lady?
WCT: She looks like a Black woman ...
EV: She's Mexican. She's half and half; she speaks fluent Spanish. It's this beauty of richness of culture. I'm interested in the duality. So when you say 'Luna Negra,' you say 'black and white;' there's this yin and yang. Also, there's the idea that it's in phases. It's about staying away from stereotypes. People should learn about who we are and these beautiful mixtures that we have.
WCT: I want to know about how the mind of a choreographer works.
EV: Images are big for me. I see them everywhere—especially in the people walking down the street. I'm also a big nature/wildlife fanatic. In art, I find a lot of impetus and catalysts when I see other artists, like sculptors, painters and musicians.
Behind my ideas is usually this need to expose more of my culture. I came here removed from my country and I've had 40 years of trying to find out who the hell I am in this country. So in my search for it I have these ideas and then I put them on a palette.
WCT: How long do you think you'll be searching?
EV: Forever. However, I have come to some conclusions. I have concluded that my identity is like a kaleidoscope because of what made me who I am. I can walk into a room and feel comfortable around [ people of every race and class ] . It's not about fitting into a mold but about being comfortable and sharing experiences with those around me.
WCT: Who has influenced you?
EV: Regarding choreographers, Alvin Ailey has influenced me greatly. European choreographers such as Nacho Duarte continue to influence me. I absolutely love the European ones.
WCT: What's special about them?
EV: They go beyond. Over here, I'm not extremely fond of 'out there' kind of dancing. In Europe, they continue to work the technique of the body. Here, we went through a post-modern era in which anybody could dance. You want a surgeon who's gone through an internship; you don't want one who's just read a book.
WCT: But isn't art about expression?
EV: Absolutely—but my preference is to see a body ( and my dancers are all different shapes ) that's been honed. I want one that goes through the rigor every day of saying 'I'm going to be the best I can' and not just 'OK, an experience.' I don't want to see anyone putting a sponge in his mouth for 15 minutes if I've paid 50 dollars. By the way, I'm also very influenced by writers. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorites. Reinaldo Arenas ( Before Night Falls ) is another. Luis Alfaro I also like.
WCT: Tell me how books influence you.
EV: The spoken word can so easily be translated into the kinetic word. It's part of who we are and it's so beautiful to see it happens. Sometimes I incorporate text into my works.
WCT: Where do you see the future of dance?
EV: The American dance world has moved away from this idea of technique. I think it's going to come to a point where everything is going to mix together; there's going to be a little bit of ballet, a little bit of jazz and a little bit of 'this' because that's what happening now. People are coming together—just like all these beautiful mixed children who are walking around today. I think everything is going to fuse. In Europe, they're already fusing.
WCT: What does dance mean to you?
EV: What a question—I love that question. Dance, to me, is a beautiful representation of life. It is cycles; it is birth and death. It's renewal; you renew yourself.
Every day a dancer comes and puts their hand on the bar, they renew the way they think about using the body. Every time they come into a rehearsal room, they are born this role and then it's gone. [ Snaps fingers ] It's dead. It's done. It'll never be the same again once that rehearsal's done. There's a different breath or a different mistake [ next time ] .
It's such a reflection of life's cycles—and it's joyous. Hopefully, we get to the point where we are joyful about life and death ( that it's an ending and that there's more to come—an impending rebirth ) .
See www.lunanegra.org or call ( 312 ) 337-6882.