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Unmasking lucha libre

Sport meets dance in Aztlan's new show

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Holly Wissman in Aztlan Dance Company's 'Aztlan Contra Danza.'

Make no mistake: Aztlan Dance Company's new show 'Aztlan Contra Danza' is most certainly a dance performance.

It's just that it might at times also resemble lucha libre, the colorful, theatrical style of professional wrestling found throughout the Spanish-speaking Americas.

'Our intent is to subvert - and also invert - the whole framework of dance and culture,' says Roén Salinas, Aztlan Dance artistic director. 'In a sense this show is a spectacle about spectacle.'

That makes sense. Perhaps nothing is more of a theatrical spectacle than lucha libre. Appearing as masked characters with dramatic or comical nicknames, luchadores - lucha libre wrestlers - perform more than they actually compete. And as it unfolds as a rapid sequence of throws and holds, lucha libre is not so much about any real tactical wrestling maneuvers as it is about putting on a show. Luchadores - typically classified as either good guys or bad guys - develop loyal fan followings. And matches are wild affairs with the audiences encouraged to be boisterous.

Aztlan Dance Company started in 1974, one of the first of its kind in Austin to offer training in and performance of Mexican folkloric dance. Salinas veritably grew up in the company, inheriting the mantle of artistic director after his mother, company founder Maria Salinas, retired.

In the more than decade that he's helmed the East Austin nonprofit, Salinas has kept his mother's community-based mission, but expanded the artistic vocabulary by blending traditional ballet folklorico with jazz and modern dance styles.

And now, with 'Aztlan Contra Danza' ('Aztlan against dance'), Salinas is experimenting by taking that blend one step further and blending it with the lucha libre performance genre.

'We're sort of asking where the line is between,' Salinas says.

Salinas assembled 14 dancers each of whom take on specific luchadoro character, many of which bear satirical, or culturally pointed, names. There's La Tormenta Guera ('The Anglo Storm,') El Macho Beast and El Coyote, a reference to the guides, called coyotes, that lead undocumented immigrants into the United States.

Salinas had his dancers watch hours of footage of lucha libre matches (there are few opportunities to see it live in Austin). He also asked his dancers to build their characters and come up with an internal narrative of their luchador.

Is there story line to 'Aztlan Contra Dance'? Not so much. 'We decided that the narrative of the piece is the spectacle (of a lucha libre) event itself,' Salinas says.

At the Santa Cruz Cultural Center, the audience will flank three sides of the action with the stage fixed up to look like lucha libre ring. Beat-heavy cumbia music will play. Mask-wearing is encouraged. So is cheering on the luchadores. And expect a cameo appearance by a tired lounge singer (another typical element of lucha libre shows).

'This has been a chance for us to step back a bit from the familiarity of what we do (as dancers) and portray a different kind of performer. It's a way of conceptually exploring a mode of performance with an actual performance.

'Plus, we're just having a whole lot of crazy fun making this show.'

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Aztlan contra Danza: La Gran Lucha Libre'

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Santa Cruz Cultural Center, 1801 E. Seventh St.

Cost: $10-$13

Info:www.aztlandance.com