Monday, May 11, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Eduardo Vilaro

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody

Eduardo Vilaro

Eduardo Vilaro
(photo: Rachel Neville Photography)

Eduardo Vilaro (Artistic Director & CEO) joined Ballet Hispánico as Artistic Director in August 2009, becoming only the second person to head the company since it was founded in 1970. In 2015, Mr. Vilaro took on the additional role of Chief Executive Officer of Ballet Hispánico. He has been part of the Ballet Hispánico family since 1985 as a dancer and educator, after which he began a ten-year record of achievement as Founder and Artistic Director of Luna Negra Dance Theater in Chicago. Mr. Vilaro has infused Ballet Hispánico’s legacy with a bold and eclectic brand of contemporary dance that reflects America’s changing cultural landscape. Born in Cuba and raised in New York from the age of six, he is a frequent speaker on the merits of cultural diversity and dance education.

Mr. Vilaro’s own choreography is devoted to capturing the spiritual, sensual and historical essence of Latino cultures. He created over twenty ballets for Luna Negra and has received commissions from the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Grant Park Festival, the Lexington Ballet and the Chicago Symphony. In 2001, he was a recipient of a Ruth Page Award for choreography and, in 2003, he was honored for his choreographic work at Panama’s II International Festival of Ballet. Mr. Vilaro was also inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame in 2016 and was awarded HOMBRE Magazine’s 2017 Arts & Culture Trailblazer of the Year. In 2019, Mr. Vilaro was the recipient of the West Side Spirit’s WESTY Award, was honored by WNET for his contributions to the arts and, most recently, was the recipient of the James W. Dodge Foreign Language Advocate Award.

Ballet Hispánico in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Tiburones,
premiered November 2019 at the Apollo Theater
(photo: Paula Lobo)

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

When the pandemic began, I was working on quite a few projects, all under the umbrella of Ballet Hispanico’s 50th Anniversary. It was such an exciting time, as I was also celebrating a decade of leadership with the organization. Which meant, I was producing and curating a two-week season at the Joyce, developing a full-length work for the company, a gala, website, curating archives, and even starting on a book. The organization was on sure footing, and I was so proud of my senior team, the dancers and all the artists that are part of the BH familia.

I was looking forward to giving the organization a well-deserved celebration. After all, how many Latinx dance organizations founded by a Latina, turn 50 in America?  I was also focused on the growing conversation of equity and inclusion via the work we do on stage, in classrooms and in communities. The need for Latinx representation was and still is much needed in our field and in our country. I felt Ballet Hispanico had finally come into its own with the work we were producing.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

I was twelve and living in the Bronx. We settled there after arriving from Cuba six years earlier. The “calling” came after the arrival of a new eighth grade teacher at our parochial school on 167th street. Mr. Chuck Abbott had theater experience and decided to direct You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown for our class. I was selected as Linus, who has a dance solo with his blanket.

Mr. Abbott directed and left the choreography to me. That first performance sealed the deal. I was so taken by the magic, the connection to the audience and flow of rhythm and movement in every ounce of my being. Yes, as clichéd as it may sound, dance found me.

And as a young brown boy in the Bronx, in the early '80s, dance saved me. New York City was a very different place, and those streets, at that time, ate kids up, literally. You fell into gangs, drugs, and many were lost. I was lucky, I fell in love with dance, and it took me away.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

My practice has evolved in my 35+ years in this field. Today, I find myself practicing leadership. To be more specific, I am practicing (learning) by building relationships, mentoring others and making decisions that help bring change on a micro and macro level.

To many, running an organization is about taking risks, managing people, and making the big decisions on projects. While that is true, I am most concerned with building platforms where our youth and artists can have a stronger voice and empower other generations through this magnificent art form.

For me the practice of leadership can at times look like a new program I create, or a class that I teach, or when I make work. I am practicing leadership on the ground.

While time consuming and always arduous, I believe as artists we should lead in the boardroom, on the stage and in the field, or else we risk being silenced. I remember once being told that as an artist you have to stay in your lane. I was never ever good at coloring in lanes or lines; it is restrictive. Leadership is about going off-road, and leadership is a calling that deserves a practice.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

I most care about sharing my culture, equity, and most of all inclusion. I grew up with the belief that in this country we could find freedom from oppression. And yes, we found that as immigrants, but as I came into adulthood, I discovered that while I was allowed to pursue “the dream,” I may never be accepted as American by the very people who offered me freedom. Which is so sad to me because, I feel so American, even when I am back in Cuba!

What I discovered was the double standard, the micro-aggression, the stereotype and the racism that lingers in the very scaffoldings of our world need to be constantly challenged. The charge to myself is how to wrestle with this reality, where do I find a footing that allows me to bungy jump in through and around this conundrum.

So, I have tried to use dance as a way to expose the layers of misconception and bring about truer stories of the Latinx world, my world. Let me be clear what I mean by “truth” is the voice of individual artists and what they bring to stage.

We, Latinas(o,) are a complex mix of diasporas, history, legacies and tons of cultural baggage. We are many voices and many experiences that cannot be captured and stuffed into a monolith. Though many have tried.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

I feel my practice is more necessary now more than ever. There are not enough of us Brown and Black artists in leadership positions. In order to make change, you've got to be pushing your arm through the door and making sure you are given a place.

The vitality of a community depends on great leadership in every aspect of its ecology. Today, we are seeing how the arts are maintaining us through the pandemic. It makes us share beauty, see truth and most of all confront our emotions during a difficult time. While there are those that might feel we are not essential or can be sacrificed, dance and the arts are a lifeline to human connection.

I might not change the world, but I am part of the many who came before and those who will come after me. I am part of a legacy of change. Some young woman will see my attempts, failures and triumphs, she will witness my struggle but most of all, she will witness my strength and the small change I might leave behind. I hope that small triumph will ignite her calling.


DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.


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