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(Originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune, March 10, 2001)



In a quick free-association exercise, Latin dance would undoubtedly conjure a red-and-black swirl of mantillas, fishnet hose, ruffled shirts and tight high-waisted pants. We can blame the bulk of these cliched images on glittery ballroom competitions, sleek commercial hits like "Forever Tango" or any one of those 1940's maracas-shaking films with "Rio" in the title.

Now we can thank Cuban-born dancer-choreographer Eduardo Vilaro for re-shaping those flashy stereotypes into exquisite movement poems of heartfelt complexity. His lushly eclectic Luna Negra Dance Theater, which opened Thursday night at the Dance Center of Columbia College, highlights the diverse cultural traditions within Latin dance and gives them a non-confrontational contemporary edge.

Barely two years old, this Chicago troupe is consistently building a body of new work that shines a subtle, deeply reflective light on modern Latino culture. Its concert, featuring six pieces by Vilaro, moves from a gracious deconstruction of tango to luminously crafted ensemble pieces addressing immigration and dual identity.

Vilaro - whose music choices range from flamenco and tango to Afro-Cuban jazz -- evokes multilayered ideas from a pure and economical movement vocabulary. No overwrought gestures here - only a quietly resonant integration of supple bodies and understated costumes, lighting and props to achieve fluid and engrossing storytelling. The company exhibits sharp technical prowess and the ability to give visual voice to inner longings.

The concert opened with "La Llorona" ("The Weeping Woman") Vilaro's solo for Vanessa Bembridge, who crosses an undulating cloth into the defiant and seductive world of her emotions - alternating between suggestions of back-breaking labor and sassy pride. In "Ognat," his duet with the striking Maya Pingle, Vilaro both honors and humanizes the rigidly codified tango tradition. He replaces the form's severe slicing motions with soft balletic variations to emphasize the couple's genuine romance. His signature homage to four yearning women, "Amor y Dolor," remains his most empowering dance-theater work.

Two premieres - "Breath in Memory" and "Guachi Guaro" ("Soul Sauce") - mark Luna Negra's expanded dramatic-comedic scope.

A semi-satirical ensemble work (with a whisper of aching undertones), "Breath in Memory," moves from the dancers posing for vintage family photos to breaking out of the camera lens into a coy exploration of off-kilter Latin images. They include the cocky hand-clapping of flamenco to the boisterous sexuality of a Tropicana-style nightclub and an exaggerated "barrio" segment in which couples bite into sumptuous pieces of fruit. Bembridge movingly executes an anguished solo under a cascade of water.

The angular black-and-white "Guachi Guaro" - accented by Brian Bembridge's solar-system lighting - is set in a hip dance club that serves as an intricate metaphor for ethnic allegiance and misguided Latino preconceptions. •
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