Can the movement, energy, and attitude of Salsa be used to tell a narrative? This is the question contra-tiempo, a fresh-faced, talented dance company from Los Angeles, seems to ask with their self-titled entry in FringeNYC. contra-tiempo's director/choreographer, lead dancer, and artistic director is Ana Maria Alvarez, a gifted woman with a vision, who is seemingly the heart and soul of the company. While Alvarez's concept is indeed ambitious, the company's ability to realize her vision sometimes falls short.
contra-tiempo's narrative involves the spreading gang epidemic that's plagued Los Angeles's Latino community for the past two decades, but unfortunately, as performed, it often plays as a hokey rip-off of West Side Story. Here the troupe, particularly the men, reveals to us that a great salsa dancer does not a trained dancer make. Alvarez's vision to create a gritty urban ballet, or even a Broadway style landscape on stage, does disservice to her otherwise capable dancers. When asked to "act," her talented company, dancing salsa with wild enthusiasm just moments before, suddenly looks as comfortable as wedding guests coaxed to the floor to do the "Y-M-C-A."
That's not to say the dramatic narrative never works, as some terrific moments do happen. One such episode is when the company is lined against the back wall, presumably in an undeserved act of racial profiling, and each dancer produces his or her photo ID, proving that they are indeed citizens and legal residents. It's a powerfully harrowing, all-too-real segment, and what follows is the cast dancing out their anger until their frustration transforms into a jubilant celebration of being Latino. Moments like this are where the company does their impressive best—simply dancing enthusiastically to a lively, fast-paced salsa beat, and thankfully these moments are plentiful.
One of the highlights of the show is a politically-charged dance piece inspired by a poem written by a sixth grader responding to the recent immigration dialogue happening in our country. Young poet Melissa Ortiz articulately riffs on Langston Hughes's "A Dream Deferred" in "I Dream America." Alvarez again choreographs to music composed by her equally talented brother, César Alvarez.
César Alvarez wrote all of the original music—weaving some classic Afro-Cuban and Salsa music into his score—and he keeps the dancers, and his audience too, moving the whole time.
There are no sets to speak of, although the performance begins with a delightful animated sequence by Omar Rodriguez Diaz. Damon Krometis does a good job with the lights—which is no small feat in a Fringe show. No one is credited for costumes, as there appears to be a serious lack of funds in that department. Although the men are decked out in snappy white Guayabera shirts, the company as a whole is dressed like a high school choir in ill-fitting black and white street clothes.
Despite some moments of awkward storytelling, and the poor costumes, fantastic dancing abounds in this piece. The talented company consists of Cristian Armas, Jeffred Armas, Sarah Culberson, Rigo Garcia, César Garfiaz, Mika Lemoine, Tittus Mendez, Yeni Osorio, Omar Rodriguez, Lisa Solar, and Maya Zelleman.
Seeing contra-tiempo's work, one is left feeling that, yes, Salsa could probably be used to tell a story effectively, and perhaps Alvarez will someday corner that market. And while this show is definitely worth seeing for its good dancing and music, it doesn't quite reach the high goals it sets for itself. Just shy of an hour, this show is a quick energy blast of fun that will last longer than a café con leche buzz.