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Austin Chronicle Riders on the Storm

In Their First Joint Project, Lourdes Pérez and José Luis Bustamante Dance the Whirlwind

By Robert Faires

MAY 8, 2000:  Winds know no borders. They blow where they please -- over rivers, past fences, across the boundaries of states and nations. And just as they move from place to place, land to land, without regard for human notions of property, sovereignty, home, so winds often move things with them, sweeping objects up from the place where they belong and dropping them in some place distant and strange. Leaves may be carried far from the tree upon which they grew and left to rest upon foreign soil.

Lourdes Pérez and José Luis Bustamante know what it is to be such leaves. Both began life far from Austin -- Bustamante in Mexico, Pérez in Puerto Rico -- and both found themselves carried from the home and culture they knew to this city by the winds of circumstance. Now, as foreign soil goes, Austin isn't so awful; both Pérez, a singer and songwriter, and Bustamante, a choreographer, have attained a measure of creative fulfillment and professional success here. Still, neither of them can ever call this place their true home. Its culture is not the culture that either was born to. Its language is not the language that either first spoke. Both are, by nature, outsiders here. And while they may build in this place their todays and tomorrows, they are forever tied to other places by their yesterdays.

This emigrant existence and the tension it fosters between past and present, presence and absence, longing and belonging, have been explored by Bustamante and Pérez individually in past creative endeavors. Now, they are also the source for these artists' first joint project, which premieres this week as the final production of Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks' 1999-2000 season. Using La Hojarsca, the first novella by Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez as an inspiration and jumping-off point, Bustamante and Pérez are creating The Leaf Storm, a mixture of song, dance, drama, sound collage, and visual art that contemplates "the whirlwind of change," as Pérez puts it, and pays special tribute to those blown by this wind into a life of exile outside their native land.

They say that
With just one brushstroke
You drew yourself an exit
And that the abyss became a blue coast
That you have painted your life.
-- "Leafblower Tango," by Lourdes Pérez

In the novella, García Márquez uses the "leaf storm" as a metaphor for the dramatic forces of change brought to bear on the village of Macondo by a large banana company. The technological developments and commercial pressures introduced by this massive corporate enterprise transform the character of the village as profoundly as a cataclysm of nature.

For their Leaf Storm, Bustamante and Pérez are broadening the symbol to encompass other social and environmental factors that contribute to cultural transformation: language, aesthetics, politics, economic need, pop culture, stereotypes, the desire to assimilate. From their own lives, these artists have seen and felt the ways these diverse influences shape an emigrant's identity in, as they call it, "a country not our own." Your skin is brown, all kinds of people instantly assume they know what you can and cannot do just on that basis. You don't know English, your prospects for work are severely limited. You have no history in this place, who will trust you?

Pérez articulates much of the exile's challenges in the song "Leafblower's Tango," which she sings in The Leaf Storm. The title character is an emigrant who has escaped a painful existence in his homeland but at the price all exiles pay: loneliness from the loss of the familiar and disorientation from the alien environment he now inhabits. The song's narrator, a fellow emigrant, finds this person doing menial labor, of a kind that symbolizes the absurdity of this foreign place: blowing leaves around with a mechanical contraption. After expressing her empathy for his situation, the narrator goes on to urge the leafblower to keep at his job because it allows him at least for a moment to "control the elements" in this strange land. "Blow the leaf," she sings, "because the world is upside down."

"Leafblower's Tango" was drawn in part from the difficult truth that the history of most emigrants turns invisible in their land of exile and thus they are subject to the projected ideas and stereotypes of the strangers they encounter. "You know, you'll see this person on the street blowing leaves," says Pérez, "and often it's a Latino person, and you may think you know what kind of person that is, but you don't know. That person could also be a painter, a doctor, a teacher. In other words, what you see may not really be what you see. So often, we make assumptions about people of a certain culture based on what we know about that culture."

With no visible history to help an emigrant establish the identity from his homeland in this new place, the emigrant is forced to forge a new identity for himself. "When we leave one reality, we turn to inventing a new one," says Pérez. "It's not organic to you, so you reinvent yourself. This is who you become, this is how people see you, this is what you have to work with." It isn't an easy act, she knows. After all, "how do you make who you are? How do you arrive at a definition of yourself that has some weight, that is real -- as real as you can make it in this new place?" But it is, she insists, a creative act: "All emigrants are artists because they have to reinvent themselves."

I invented myself in verse
And I am your sister
And I recognized you by your roots
By your broken voice of an exile
And by your scars.
-- "Leafblower Tango," by Lourdes Pérez

Still, no matter what new identity an emigrant may invent in this foreign land, no matter what beautiful new leaves the exile may put on, the emigrant will always be recognized for what he or she is by the roots. It is the exile's lot to be ever bound to the past, to the place of nativity, and that aspect of this existence figures prominently in The Leaf Storm. The work is rich with images and impressions of Latin America: projected images of paintings by Chilean artist Liliana Wilson Grez; field recordings made by Pérez of Puerto Ricans, including a 101-year-old resident of Vieques, and recordings of Bustamante and Pérez from their younger days (synthesized into an aural collage by sound designer Bill Meadows); traditional Mexican costumes and masks created at the Instituto Tecnologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey. These sights and sounds not only provide for us the sense of home and memory so prevalent in the exile experience, they also lay a foundation for the sense of longing that so often accompanies them.

The wind of The Leaf Storm is frequently a wind of yearning. In the production's theme, written by Pérez and performed by Pérez on guitar, Margaret Coltman-Smith on cello, and Kay Sparks on piano, the instruments develop a blustery pace through a series of accelerating percussive exchanges, but then they give way to a melancholy breeze, Coltman-Smith's cello winding its way through melodic passages with an almost palpable ache for something left behind. And as this music is being performed, the dancers in the production embody the same wistful feeling in gracefully languid gestures and turns. Standing together in a group, the dancers lift their arms over their heads and a meadow of human limbs waves gently and hauntingly. They pair off into twisting, turning couples, falling into each other in brief, desperate embraces, some of them punctuated with arms that rise slowly and elegantly up and across a partner's back, like climbing vines. These movements come and go quickly, but they infuse the piece with that achingly beautiful forlornness of heart that comes from missing home and tradition, especially in a time and place where change is all one knows.

When the situation calls for you to cry
You burst into laughter out of sync
I could care less if you place
In a military file, your sentiments.
-- "Leafblower Tango," by Lourdes Pérez

Despite the gusts of sorrow and longing that blow so vividly through The Leaf Storm, the work is not unrelentingly grave. "There's a big element of humor," insists Pérez -- which seems only natural given both its creators' propensity for playfulness and good cheer. The subject alone brings laughter bubbling up from Pérez. "We have to [laugh]," she says, "otherwise we would be tormented little creatures."

She chuckles as she describes the "tiny little duel me and José are going to have." It's a verbal duel, actually, a controversia. This Latin American spoken-word poetic competition calls for its participants to conduct an argument in alternating espinelas -- 10-line verses of octosyllabic lines with a rhyme scheme of abbaaccddc -- with each poet beginning his new poem with the last line of the opponent's. "The closest thing to it here is a poetry slam," Pérez offers, but there's a sparring quality to the controversia that, at least to Pérez, promises a distinctive element of fun.

And there is more fun sparring that follows, in the play Bustamante has incorporated into this storm. Excerpted from Un Hogar Solido (A Solid Home), by Mexican playwright Elena Garroas, the piece takes us underground to meet a family whose members have expired. Performed by members of the Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks company with special guest Melba Martinez, this section of The Leaf Storm reveals a post-mortal existence as fraught with intra-familial rivalries and squabbling as life before death. With only flashlights illuminating their faces, the performers bicker over events from years, even decades earlier, with Martinez continuing to rail over the fact that her character was buried in her nightgown. It might be a never-ending version of one of those friction-filled family reunions we all know, but for the occasional reminders that these figures have been laid to earth and become, quite literally, one with it. In death, they have experienced the ultimate in cultural transformation: They are part of everything. As one character notes, "I am the wind that lifts the skirts of beautiful unknown women."

Blow the leaf before the wind blows it
The pavement ought to shine like your skin
For a moment you control the elements
Blow the leaf because this world is upside down.
-- "Leafblower Tango," by Lourdes Pérez

In creating this work, Bustamante and Pérez have taken a cue from the deceased figure in Un Hogar Solido and the "Leafblower Tango" narrator: They have become the wind, blowing past the boundaries between art forms to share their vision in collaboration, taking elements of their lives and experiences with cultural transformation and spinning them into an artistic cyclone. "We will gather the leaves and create the storm," they vowed in the artists' statement the two wrote before embarking on the project, and so they have. And in exposing ourselves to their storm, we are lifted by their "whirlwind of change," we spin in the whirlwind of lives they describe and honor, and afterward are left somewhere other than where we started. It puts us in the place from which the exiles came, the country where they are natives, we see the world they knew, and it becomes part of us, as this country has become part of the artists in exile. The cultural transformation about which these artists have spoken is extended to us.

As the characters in Un Hogar Solido know, leaves ultimately decay and their elements mix with the ground where they fall. The leaves are changed and the ground is changed. With The Leaf Storm, Bustamante and Pérez are bringing us all to this place of unity. "It's like the point of access to all things," Pérez posits, "the point where a string of events becomes a circle. You are what you were and what you're becoming."

And the wind blows.


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