When Yvonne Montoya set the date for her dance troupe's inaugural concert, she had no way of knowing that all hell would break loose over immigration just before show time.
The mission of her brand-new Safos Dance Theatre is to perform modern dance with a Latin twist, and to address issues important in the borderlands. This Saturday night's concert, Deserted Scripts, was already going to include dances about the deaths of migrants in the desert, and the difficulties faced by undocumented college students who've grown up in the United States.
But two weeks before the concert, Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070—making it a state crime to be illegal in Arizona and directing local police to ask about people's immigration status—and protests erupted all over the nation.
Safos responded by creating a last-minute piece on the law and adding it to the show.
"It will be improv inspired by SB 1070," says the 30-year-old Montoya, director of the new company. Safos dancers Sofía Martínez, Renee Blakeley and Montoya will dance, while poet Mixelle Rascón will speak one of her poems, freshly written to address the new law.
"I think it's going to lead to a lot of racial profiling," Montoya says of SB 1070, set to go into effect in three months if it survives legal challenges.
The other dances in Deserted Scripts have been a long time in the making. "Their Souls Swallowed by the Sun," mixing video, movement and spoken word, conjures up the migrant deaths on the Tohono O'odham nation.
"It's inspired by the research by the UA's Binational Migration Institute looking at the deaths," Montoya says.
Remote and bone-dry, the Tohono O'odham nation swallows up many souls. (The piece takes its title from a fragment of Rascón's poem "The Line.") Rascón shot video out on O'odham land, where wide swaths of desert lie in between rugged mountains. Led onto the rez by coyotes, migrants either suffer the heat in the desert, or struggle on the mountain trails.
Multiple studies have found that the Baboquivari District is the deadliest of all the deadly migrant corridors in Arizona. Ironically, three days after Brewer signed SB 1070, still another migrant died there. The body of a 48-year-old Mexican man was found by the Border Patrol up in the mountains.
For the piece, video of the harsh and beautiful landscape will play in the background, while four dancers will perform Montoya's choreography. Rascón will offer spoken word, Montoya says.
A third work, "Undocumented Historias," got its start back in 2008. Pima Community College professor Ricardo Castro-Salazar commissioned Montoya to create some dances around oral histories he had collected from undocumented students brought to the United States as children and raised here. Now young adults, they were proud to have earned high school diplomas and college degrees, but without papers, they found their opportunities sharply curtailed.
"He gave me the oral histories and asked me to choreograph dances," Montoya says. Collaborating with visual artist Marisol Badilla, Montoya composed three short pieces. She enlisted some other dancers and performed it in a multimedia show that Castro produced in December 2008.
The commission brought Montoya back to dance after a hiatus, she says.
A native of northern New Mexico, Montoya did competitive dance in high school, but had only a little training in ballet and jazz. She came to the UA to study Spanish, but once she arrived, she enrolled in dance classes and took readily to modern. She began dancing in local troupes, first with FUNHOUSE and then NEW ARTiculations.
After getting a bachelor's degree in Spanish, she went on to get a master's in Mexican-American studies, and then taught in the program as an adjunct professor for three years while dancing in her free time. But she took time off from dance when she got married and had a baby—Salvador, born on the Fourth of July in 2008.
Creating a piece for Castro's concert—and dancing it—not only brought her back to dance, but gave her "momentum to start the troupe."
Financially, it's a tough time to start a company, Montoya admits, but she's optimistic. As the only modern troupe in town with a focus on Hispanic cultures, Safos has a unique niche.
"Our movement is primarily modern, with a little bit of folklórico," Montoya says. "Sofía is trained in folklórico. I did six weeks (of training) in Guadalajara, and it was one of the most difficult things I've done. What the upper body does is completely different from the lower body."
The company is small, with just three board members and five performers. (Actress Carla Turco is the fifth.)
"We just got our nonprofit status," Montoya says, "and we fundraise (and) do garage sales. We are scraping by on pennies literally. We rehearse anywhere we can find a wooden floor."
El Rio Neighborhood Center has been allowing the dancers to use its folklórico room, and Rascón has been able to get them into the exercise room in her apartment complex.
Safos also intends to find a way to reach out to kids. Blakeley is a dance teacher at Pistor Middle School, and Montoya works at the Valenzuela Youth Center in South Tucson.
"I want to nurture and provide opportunities for young artists to study the craft," Montoya says. "Dance classes cost money. I would have loved to have taken ballet as a kid, but my family couldn't afford it."
Montoya notes that ZUZI! Dance Company is also staging a dance concert this month about immigration and the border. (ZUZI!'s Crossing Boundaries, May 21-23, will include guest performances by Eva Zorrilla Tessler and the Latina Dance Project, and musician Pablo Peregrina.)
"It shows how important these issues are to our community," Montoya says. Safos didn't start out planning to address the hot-button issue of immigration in its first show, "but we got feelers from our community."
And in any case, she adds, "It's necessary that we create art like this."