Dances of the Moment

Works about the refugee and migrant crises color Journeys concert by ZUZI and guests

Mark Cuestas dancing in Mirela Roza’s “Tell the Wolf I’m Home” in Journeys concert this weekend

Hundreds of refugees—women, men, infants, small children and teens—have turned up in Nogales, Sonora, in the last few weeks, seeking asylum in the United States.

Fleeing violence and corruption in their homelands in Central America or Mexico, they wait in line outdoors for as many as six days to speak to a Customs and Border Patrol agent. Meantime, they live in a makeshift refugee camp piled high with donated bedding, food and bottled water. A roof gives them shade from the sun, but they're outdoors, spending their days and nights on a tile floor, weathering daytime temperatures of 100 degrees.

On May 29, the day I visited, I counted 48 people, half of them children, the other half, mothers and fathers. Four women had the swollen belly of pregnancy, and one nursing mother sat on the hard floor while she held her baby boy to her breast. Toddlers napped on quilts on the ground, and little children ran and played.

A weeping rape victim from Oaxaca, age 17, begged for help. A mother told me Mafiosi tried to kidnap her child from school. A Guatemalan man who'd just arrived with his son was in tears. The long trip was hard, he said, and he and the boy were famished.

As ZUZI Dance Company artistic director Nanette Robinson says, "Nogales has turned into a refugee city."

ZUZI had already been working on a dance concert called "Journeys: A Summer Solstice Celebration," when the de facto refugee camp materialized in Nogales.

A collaborative concert featuring four dance companies, 11 modern and aerial works, spoken poetry and some live music, Journeys was intended in part to shed light on the millions of refugees fleeing homelands around the world, escaping "war, persecution, environmental disaster and poverty."

"I wanted to bring attention to what's going on right now," Robinson says. "People are forced to leave their homes. It's a matter of life and death."

Now, she hopes the concert will bring awareness not only to the worldwide flight of refugees, but to the humanitarian crisis at our own border and to the new Trump administration policy of seizing the children of parents who have crossed the border without papers.

Many of the choreographers allude to migrant odysseys but they also explore "inner journeys," Robinson says.

Some do both.

Choreographer Karenne H. Koo, director of the Tucson troupe Dancesequences, says that her dance, "Out of Line," was "inspired by the image of the lines of refugees." From there, the dance spun out into a critique of conformity.

"We expanded the concept of being in a line, kept in the line, what it takes to break out of the line," Koo says. "It's kind of a structured abstraction."

The six-minute work has five dancers, including Koo and Michelle Buscemi, who performs in her wheelchair. There's no music, only spoken word and the sounds of the dancers' breath.

Choreographer Mirela Roza, a former ZUZI dancer who now teaches dance at Pima College, has an immigration story that's more fairy tale than tragedy. A native of Brazil, she danced for Municipal Ballet Theatre of Rio de Janeiro, working under former stars of the Paris Opera Ballet and the Ballet Russe. But she gave up this high-flying ballet career to run away to the circus, and for five years danced with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in the United States. She married a circus musician, and she and her husband came to Tucson to raise their son.

Roza earned a BFA and an MFA in dance at the UA, and now runs the pick-up company Mirela Roza and Dancers.

Even so, her Journeys dance, "Tell the Wolves I'm Home," a solo for former Pima student Mark Cuestas, takes a somber tack.

In the work, "Mark and I are contemplating going through life between joy and fear," she says, "fears about not being 'enough,' about making the right decisions. It can relate" to the refugee theme, "but for me it's about a personal journey to be the best I can be."

The five-minute work, set to recorded voiceover and music, has "very modern movement, very stripped down."

Robinson's 12-minute "Separation Without Choice" is the concert finale.

"It's aligned with the refugee issues," she says. "The recent family separations inspired this, but it's also about anyone being separated from family."

One of the seven dancers, Lorena Carrion Alfonso, is a Cuban native living in the U.S., separated from her mother back home in Cuba. Another dancer, Beatriz Urrea, is facing her son's departure for college this fall.

Interestingly, that son, Misha Olarrea, a recent grad of University High School who plans to study music in college, will play sax for the dance. He'll be joined by José Ramos, a UA music student, on horn, and Alfredo Q. Villegas and drums. Sally Withers will handle vocals and narration of the Carlos Santana lyrics for "Today Is Goodbye."

The fourth troupe in the show, MAC & Company, is not new to Tucson. The Phoenix-based group, led by ASU dance grads Micaela Church and Li Pei Khoo, danced in the ZUZI summer solstice show two years ago. Seven MAC dancers, including the two founders, return to dance in four modern works, "Paint by Number" and "La Croix," choreographed by Church and dancers; "Art Walk," by Church and Khoo; and "Interactions," by Church.

Two more ZUZI affiliates have also contributed works. Madeleine Brown, a longtime ZUZI student who just graduated from Salpointe, created "It's Just Medicine," a solo for herself about leaving home, and "Rise Above," a duet with Leila Dadhal, that's half aerial dance in the air and half modern on the floor.

ZUZI member Aja Squires collaborated with the company's teen dancers on "The Dreamers," a fully aerial work for six, set to music from the movie The Eagle Huntress. The title can't escape association with the DACA young people brought to the U.S. as children whose fate is now uncertain. But, says Robinson, "it's a beautiful work."

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