I Dismember Mama

The Latina Dance Project takes on a violent Aztec story

When Eva Tessler was a young woman living in Mexico City, archaeologists made an intriguing find.

In the Templo Mayor right in the center of town, they dug up a stone carved with the image of the dismembered moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui. With the emergence of the stone, the old Aztec story of the goddess came back into circulation, said Tessler, a dancer and choreographer with the Latina Dance Project, which this weekend presents a dance-drama reinterpreting the myth.

According to the old story, "Coyolxauhqui's mother gets pregnant by an unknown force," Tessler explains. "She goes to the stars to ask for a vision and the stars reveal that the pregnancy is evil. Coyolxauhqui loves her mother but she kills her to deliver the evil. Then the god of war springs forth and kills Coyolxauhqui and throws her body into the night sky, where she becomes the faces of the moon."

At the Aztec temple, Tessler adds, the moon goddess stone was at the base of the pyramid where humans were sacrificed. The priests would throw the dead bodies down onto her carved image.

"That's a metaphor for what women are in the culture," she says. "It's disturbing. That started the process of creating this work. I've been thinking about it for a long time."

The odd story of the mutilated moon goddess is perfect for the Latina Dance Project. Hailing originally from Mexico, Brazil and the U.S., the four women organized the troupe to do Latin-inspired work with a contemporary edge and a feminist sensibility. Though they write the scripts, act, sing and dance, all four are primarily dance artists. The show incorporates Brazilian and ancient Aztec movement, and aerial and modern dance.

Longtime Tucsonan Tessler teaches dance at Tucson High and choreographs with assorted local groups, while Licia Perea is a choreographer and Pilates teacher in Los Angeles. The quartet's two academics have doctorates, and teach college-level modern dance--Eluza Santos at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Juanita Suarez at SUNY Brockport. Despite the geographic distance separating them, the company is now on its second work; they performed the first, Embodying Borders, in Tucson and elsewhere around the country two years ago.

The troupe recast the Aztec story in modern terms, calling it Coyolxauhqui ReMembers. They debuted the work in Albuquerque, N.M., to good reviews in January. Interestingly, though, a couple of male patrons wrote angry e-mails after the show, challenging the women's right to re-interpret the old myth.

"They said we were defaming the Aztecs," Tessler says. And they criticized the women for embracing their mixed Latina heritage, saying, "You are indigenous women."

"But we are of mixed race," Tessler says. "That's our culture."

Presented here at Pima College by Borderlands Theater, Coyolxauhqui ReMembers is a collaborative work in four parts, each lasting 15 or 20 minutes. Using dance, spoken word, music and narrative, the four project members explore the murders of women in Juarez, Mexico, the condemnation of outspoken women and the standards of beauty that lead women to the cosmetic surgeon's knife. The final section remakes the old story into something positive, praising Coyolxauhqui's courage.

Director José Garcia Davis opens the evening with a video prologue, sampling the old archaeological footage to introduce the tale. The first performance piece, "New Moon Over Juarez," is about two Mexican sisters; one lives in Iowa but travels to Juarez to find her lost sister. It's adapted from a script by Victor Hugo Rascón Banda, who wrote The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, a play staged by Borderlands earlier this season.

"He let me borrow a scene from a play about the women of Juarez," Tessler says. "I used some text he wrote, and some I wrote. I added movement to it."

Perea portrays the murdered sister, and both she and Tessler will dance on the stage and in the air on a round trapeze called a lyra. "The movement is mostly modern dance, but it's also acrobatic."

Santos created the second piece, "Invocada," which translates as "assertive woman."

"It's about professional women who have achieved a certain level of success and education but are still battling about being outspoken," Tessler says. "That's not 'feminine' in our culture. But sometimes the censorship comes from oneself."

For this work, all four women play themselves, using spoken word and modern dance, capoeira--from Santos' native Brazil--and paso, an Aztec marching dance.

"Sacrifice," Suarez's work, is a humorous piece about an immigrant woman who arrives in the U.S. only to find that she doesn't meet the expectation that all women be "tall, thin, blonde, with big boobs and butt," Tessler says. So she gets implants and a wig, but weighted down by all her paraphernalia, "She can't move, she can't dance."

The four performers all sing in this one, including a rap number. Santos plays the hapless surgical victim; Perea and Tessler are Barbie-style Latina dolls, and Suarez is a Marilyn Monroe "gangsta rapper."

The finale, "Dismembered Moon," sets the old Aztec myth in a contemporary dysfunctional family. Perea is the angry teen moon goddess, all decked out in Goth; Suarez is her mom, the earth goddess; Santos plays the oracular star.

Tessler is the angry god of war who dismembers Coyolxauhqui, but she plays him as a punk in a pachuco zoot suit.

"In the tradition, Coyolxauhqui deserved her fate because she's a traitor," Tessler says. "We chose to reinterpret it, and have her be a woman of vision and courage. She raised a hand against war, and had to pay the price."

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