with a Conscienceis article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the December 11, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Dance with a Conscience
In the aftermath of September 11, Americans everywhere were drenched in a sense of great loss -- a sense that was as unfamiliar to most of us as it was disabling. Yet for some American immigrants whose lives originated in countries and cultures where crippling violence was all too familiar, the reaction was palpably different. These individuals seemed to draw strength from learned habits of endurance and resolve, strength that gave them hope for the future.
One such immigrant, Liliana Attar, artistic director of the Princeton-based Connections Dance Theater, turned her grief into communal creativity. The result is "Moving Forward," a multi-media dance drama that will be presented Friday, December 13, at Princeton University's Hamilton Murray Theater.
Presented earlier in the year under the title "September 12," the work brings together the collaborative talents of choreographer Liliana Attar, playwright Sonya Aronowitz, and mask-maker Laura Tabakman. The dance drama's new title more accurately describes its focus on the demonstrated resilience of the human spirit and on the ways individuals and society unite, rebuild, and renew in the face of loss.
Modern dance, tango, drama, poetry, music, video, and masks are brought to serve the multi-media work that runs about 80 minutes without intermission. An additional collaborative dimension comes from the company of strong young dancers, many of them trained in Argentina, and many of whom contribute their own choreography. These include the three lead men: Jose Luis Basualdo, Gabriel Contreras, and Dardo Galleto. Additional tango choreography is contributed by Galleto's fine partner Karina Romero, with dancer Silvana Brizuela Weigel.
Despite its upbeat message, Attar's expressionistic dance theater asks quite a bit of its viewers. Its theme of recovery demands as much. The program opens with dark glimpses of the September 11 disaster, and goes on to explore some of the smaller but no less devastating domestic disasters that stalk families at all times.
Two scripts by Aronowitz represent the domestic side of things. Her "Anonymous Gift or Peter's Box" is a vivid chronicle of a solitary character's descent into depression and despair followed by an arduous but purposeful recovery.
The story, which is read on tape, begins with the words: "And so it happened... I lost my place in the world... One morning happiness just lodged in my throat. It wouldn't come out and my lips refused to give it shape." Accompanying this compelling text is a terrific solo by Gabriel Contrera, which opens on a slow and meditative note as the bare-chested dancer focuses minutely on the lines of arm, shoulder, and backbone. As protagonist Peter rises out of depression, Contrera is joined by other performers who dance out the quintessential romantic attraction and sensuality that keeps the world turning.
The second dance drama, "The Make Over," written by Aronowitz and performed by Liliana Attar with daughter Nicole Attar's voice on tape, is an oblique telling of a story of domestic violence in which a mother rationalizes but cannot disguise the facts of family life to her young and inquisitive daughter. Movement is mostly mimed here and but for the possibility that the pair will flee their menacing household, this is the more frightening of the show's two scripts.
Also featured is Pablo Neruda's "Saddest Poem" -- testament to other troubles at other times -- which accompanies the young company's ensemble dance. The poem is recited on tape both in Spanish and in English translation.
The "Moving Forward" finale is titled "Hold the Door for Others." It is inspired by Robert Fazio, a young man who lost his father on September 11, and went on to found the Hold the Door organization in his father's honor. Performed by five figures in plain dark unitards, embellished with fantastical and compelling masks suspended from their costumes like the disembodied faces of suffering souls, it closes the show on an apocalyptic note.
As a whole, the Connections company presents sustained elegance, fierce concentration, and some technical fireworks in terms of athleticism and isolation and articulation of limbs and spine. The October performance I attended was presented on the small stage of the Sophie Fahs Theater of the Unitarian Church, where the dynamic dancers showed great resourcefulness in their determination to perform "all the jumps that fit."
This fall Attar, who trained at the National School of Dance in Buenos Aires, launched Connections Dance Theater Center for the Performing Arts; education director is Cory Ann Alperstein. Designed for people of all ages, the center offers a student curriculum, guest artist performances, and Saturday morning workshop series.
"Through the interactions and collaborations of students, staff and professional artists, CDT hopes to build a dynamic community engaged in the delightful process of communication, creative expression, and entertainment," writes Attar in her mission statement. Offerings include theater arts for children as young as four through high school and world drumming classes for grades three and up.
Attar's creativity and ability to gather an art community have made her a positive force in our dance area. As she writes in her program notes to "Moving On," "we strongly believe that the country, and the world, needs to talk about the future instead of the past in order to deal with loss."
-- Nicole Plett
Moving Forward, Princeton University, Hamilton Murray Theater,
Good connections help Argentine troupe
Friday, December 13, 2002
BY ROBERT JOHNSON
NEW YORK -- Rehearsal studios in this town run the gamut from the coldly utilitarian to the seedy, with splintery floors. But Liliana Attar, who directs the Connections Dance Theater in Princeton, found a gem.
Attar and her dancers are all immigrants from Argentina, so they had the privilege of rehearsing at the Argentine Consulate, a grand old mansion where the atmosphere recalls Buenos Aires' reputation for Parisian-style elegance. Their concert, titled "Moving Forward," will take place Friday evening at the Theater Intime on the campus of Princeton University.
"It's a good feeling, that our country opened the doors for us," says Attar, 42, who earlier this week ushered visitors past the concierge and up a staircase with an ornately carved balustrade. Empty salons open off the landing, reflecting one another like the labyrinths of a Borges novel.
The rehearsal space is a miniature ballroom, with black-and-white photographs of tango dancers adorning the walls. The members of Connections also perform the tango. In a number called "The Saddest Poem," Dardo Galleto and Karina Romero slide across the floor, scuffing the parquetry, and twist into positions with their legs entwined. Their expressions are serious and intense. When they separate, their loneliness appears visceral, as though they had been torn apart leaving patches of raw flesh.
The tango, however, is only part of what Connections does. "What I'm really doing is mirroring the society that we live in," Attar says. "So I'm heavily into dance theater. I work at telling stories." She does this, she says, by combining the tango with modern dance and multi-media.
The current program, which involved collaborations with designer Laura Tabakman and playwright Sonya Aronowitz, addresses feelings of loss in six vignettes, each with a different theme. In "Maybe I Can," Jose Luis Basualdo crouches and covers his ears, then falls, as a requiem gives way to sounds of violence. Later, he discovers a jar of clear water, as a voice whispers to him that he is free.
"The Gift" recounts a story of a man tormented by internal demons. "Make-over," which includes a video, describes the effects of spousal abuse through a conversation between a little girl and her mother. All these characters seem like recovering victims.
Sometimes Attar's work suggests a situation or a feeling rather than illustrating it. "I really didn't want it to be literal, to allow people to reflect and bring it inside," Attar says. "We all experience different losses, at different times in our lives. This piece is about dealing with it, and trying to survive."
The choreographer, who founded her company five years ago out of her Princeton school, the Connections Dance Theater Center for the Performing Arts, trained as a dance educator in Buenos Aires. Most of her company members studied contemporary dance at the city's Teatro San Martin. Attar came to the United States 13 years ago with her husband and two small children, and they now live in Lawrenceville. Her dancers are more recent refugees from Argentina's economic crisis.
In general, Attar says she wants her company to represent the beauty and range of Argentina's culture. But she felt an urgency to create "Moving Forward" after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. She says people bombarded by images in the media may have lost a sense of perspective. It's important, Attar believes, to move ahead and to address social problems.
"I needed to do a work that was about the future and not the past," she says. "I feel that we need to look at what we can do to make a better society, and not just think about what happened."
Connections Dance Theater
Where: Theater Intime, Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University, Princeton
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Friday, December 13, 2002
By ANNE LEVIN THE TIMES
Like many creative people, Liliana Attar was deeply affected by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and felt a need to express her emotions with her art.
But the Argentine-born choreographer, who lives in Lawrenceville, had a hard time deciding just how to go about it. Then one day, a radio report put everything into place.
"It was a (survivor's) family member, and she was saying, `The country is really not helping us to keep going, because my kids keep seeing the towers falling over and over again. I think we need a Sept. 12.' And I thought, that's great! It really put into words what I wanted to do."
"Moving Forward" is about just that - survival and the future. The work, which was presented earlier this fall, will be performed again tonight at Princeton University's Hamilton Murray Theater at 8 p.m. It is a collaboration of Attar's Connections Dance Theater, playwright Sonia Aronowitz, and plastic artist Laura Tabakman.
"I really felt I needed to do a work that was actually not about Sept. 11, but about the future; not about the towers falling but about what happened to the people who survived," says Attar.
"Moving Forward" is a combination of modern dance, theater, tango and text. Though Attar is from Argentina and has used tango prominently in previous dances, the indigenous art form is just one of several in this production.
"The tango is just a statement that I use to say something, just one type of choreography here," she says. "I don't bring a tango performance. I bring the tango to say something, to make a statement."
Attar grew up studying dance in Buenos Aires, where she appeared with a modern dance company and taught dance. After moving to the Princeton area with her husband, a scientist, in 1989, Attar took time off from dance to have two children.
It was only then that she discovered tango, the dance form associated with her native country. Attar founded Connections Dance Theater in 1998, using tango combined with modern dance and other forms to tell stories and convey emotions.
"Moving Forward" looks at ways that individuals can unite, rebuild and renew, Attar says.
"We strongly believe that the country, and the world, needs to talk about the future instead of the past in order to deal with loss," she says.
Six Argentine dancers, all of whom live in New York, make up the cast, including one who was a member of Julio Bocca's Ballet Argentino.
Since dancer and teacher Liliana Attar left her home in Argentina to settle in Princeton in 1989, she has built sturdy ties to her adopted community. As a five-year volunteer for Parents Anonymous, a dance teacher for HomeFront's homeless children, for troubled teens at the Middlesex County youth shelter, for children of the Princeton Montessori Pre-School, the Jewish Community Center at Ewing, The Cranbury Arts Council,a wife and mother of three, Attar supplies enough energy to fuel her own small city.
So as she stood on the stage of Taplin Auditorium last month, before a close to full house, portraying a bereft immigrant with nothing but a battered suitcase and a passel of troublesome memories to her name, you could feel the audience's heart go out to her.
"Tango, Memories of an Immigrant," choreographed by Liliana Attar and performed by Connections Dance Theater, a dance work with poetry and music, will be reprised at the Rider University Student Center in Lawrenceville, on Sunday, June 4, in a benefit performance for Parents Anonymous.
Attar tells the immigrant's story in 18 short scenes, many of them introduced by the figure of memory who, swathed in layers of colored tulle, recites the poetry of the song that is to follow. In some scenes, vocalist Barbara Wiesner accompanies the dancers onstage with soaring improvised melody; other scenes are performed to such Argentine classics as Carlos Gardel's recording of "Mi Buenos Aires Querida," as well as the music of Astor Piazzolla, Mercedes Sosa, Al DiMeola, and even Itzhak Perlman.
Attar, who trained as both a dancer and a dance teacher at the National School of Dance of Buenos Aires, performed and studied modern dance, creative dance, and a panoply of Argentinean folk dances in the three-year degree program. Now her seven-member ensemble, Connections, features tango duo Francisco Forquera and Carolina Jaurena., vocalist Barbara Wiesner, and guest dancer Irsema Rivero.
As an immigrant who arrived in the United States without any English, dance has proved a universal language for Attar. She formed her group in Princeton in 1998, with members coming from diverse ethnic and professional backgrounds. The company gave its debut production, "Feeling Tango," last year.
During her early years here, Attar began to immerse herself in the music of 20th century composer, Astor Piazzolla, author of a new tango that fueled by jazz traditions. His music, in turn, drew her to the tango form, which she began to study, just two years ago,. The match was a natural one, for the tango was born out of the immigrant experience in turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires, the port city that became a magnet for immigrants from Italy, Spain, Germany, and Eastern Europe. The dance form, a hybrid of many national traditions, flourished in the poorest neighborhoods.
While taking the tango as an icon of Argentine culture and identity, Attar has been rewarded by her association with an extraordinary young professional dance duo, Francisco Forquera and Carolina Jaurena. In "Memories of an Immigrant" they are featured in four set tango pieces, each one a show-stopper.
Attar's husband, Ricardo Attar, on duty in the current show as lighting engineer, is both a musician and a molecular biologist working at Bristol-Myers Squibb. He and Liliana met in Buenos Aires when both were working in a children's theater production; they are now parents of three children. Liliana was recently hired to teach dance outreach programs for the New Brunswick public schools.
"Tango is not just a dance, it tells you who the people are," says Attar. "We're a melancholic people, a people who came from far away, who were missing what they had lost."
In "Tango, Memories of an Immigrant," Attar and her close-knit group of artists from around the globe continue to explore the sorrows of leaving home -- and celebrate the joys of building a new community.
-- Nicole Plett
Tango, Memories of an Immigrant, Connections Dance Theater, Rider University Student Center, 609-243-9779.
Last Tango in Princeton: Using tango, salsa and Mexican dance styles, Connections Dance Theater shares Latin culture through story in a Princeton performance July 28.
ŠPacket Online 2002
Argentinean dancer, educator and choreographer Liliana Attar has fashioned a dance around a folk tale she heard growing up one she told her children as well. The story involves a mouse who has been sheltered in a cave all her life. When she wanders into the world she discovers the sun, wind and clouds. Each experience contributes to a growing sense of wonder, much more interesting than her little life in the cave. But the mouse feels a sense of homesickness when she sees other mice playing, even with all this beauty surrounding her.
The story ends as the mouse reunites with her family. The lesson: always leave the door of your world open to new experiences. It's the same kind of message Ms. Attar wants to send to her adopted country.
"There's a big need for Latin American (immigrants) to learn English, and to learn about life in the United States," she says. "But there's also a need for Americans to understand what we're all about and to enjoy the culture Latinos bring to this country."
This was Ms. Attar's main catalyst when she founded and took the role of artistic director for Connections Dance Theater in 1998. CDT presents its latest work, Let's Dance Our Story, July 28 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Princeton. The newly created dance is loosely based around the mouse folk tale and incorporates salsa, tango and Mexican dance styles.
"I have a strong emotional connection to this story and wanted to draw upon it because it has absolutely beautiful images," says the 41-year-old Ms. Attar. "As far as dance performance, I saw that there's not much going on for families in this area. That's why we wanted to do the premiere of 'Let's Dance Our Story' in the summer."
Connections Dance Theater draws its six members from diverse communities and countries, part of the group's refreshing spirit. In addition to the United States and Argentina, the dancers come from Peru and Mexico.
"Two of our members Rosa Collantes and Angel Garcia are considered some of this country's finest tango dancers," Ms. Attar says. "Rosa and Angel have worked with me before and they really have a wonderful background."
Formally trained at the National School of Dance in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ms. Attar has studied modern dance, improvisation, choreography, body expression and theater for children and adults, as well as Israeli and Latin American folk dance for a total of 22 years. She came to this country 12 years ago, settling on Long Island with her scientist husband and two children.
For the first time in her life, Ms. Attar had to stop performing. Instead, she found work teaching Spanish. A few years ago, her husband took a job at Bristol-Myers Squibb and moved the family to Mercer County. Now that she feels more comfortable with the language and life in America, Ms. Attar has plunged into dance again.
"I launched Connections Dance Theater in 1998 because I wanted to give back something from my culture," she says. "I wanted to show American people the beauty of Latin American arts the music, stories, dance and poetry."
She continues to work with students learning English as a second language and also teaches language through dance. Using some of the greatest works by Latin American authors, Ms. Attar instructs her charges on how to tell stories and poetry without words. Naturally, she always incorporates the vivacious, emotional music from all four corners of Latin America Based in Princeton, Connections Dance Theater has appeared mostly in Mercer and Middlesex counties, but also has performed in Manhattan and Philadelphia, as well as numerous venues and schools in South Jersey. Recently, the group traveled to the Florida Fringe Festival in Orlando.
Last year, Ms. Attar put together an original work, titled Memories, much more solemn than the exuberant Let's Dance Our Story.
"It's all about immigrants," she says. "It's a complex story about what they feel, leaving everything they know behind to start over again. This time with the new work, I really needed to do something that was fun, full of beauty and really enjoyable something that had nothing to do with suffering."
Lets Dance Our Story was put together in about 3˝ months, faster than usual for Ms. Attar.
"It generally takes about eight months," she says. "I usually create a piece and tour with it for a full year, while I start to work on a new piece."
She wants to keep Let's Dance Our Story and Memories alive by performing them in schools, but is starting to think about a totally new piece as well. As CDT's profile grows and more financial support is feasible, Ms. Attar hopes to add several more dancers.
Her mission to highlight authentic Latin American arts and culture couldn't be better timed, considering the Latin American population explosion in the U.S.
"Sure, there's a growth of interest because the population is growing," she says. "But one of my feelings is that the real culture of Latin American people isn't being represented fairly. My main interest is to show how powerful and beautiful our culture can be.
"Like the United States, we are also very diverse. For example, there are great differences between Argentina and Mexico. But there is something that unites us, a kind of passion that flows through all Latin American countries."
Connections Dance Theater presents Let's Dance Our Story at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 50 Cherry Hill Road, Princeton, July 28, 5:30 and 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15, $9 for seniors and children. For information, call (609) 895-2981.