If locusts, frogs and lice don’t descend on the Mission in the coming week, the Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers will reach an impressive milestone. Since Liz Duran Boubion founded FLACC in 2014, it has come through plague, deluge and downturns, surviving to attain double digits with its most ambitious program yet.
The 10th annual festival, running Oct. 23 to 27 at Dance Mission Theater, includes master classes, talks and two distinct programs presenting choreographers and dancers from across Latin America and the Caribbean. Rather than trimming her sails, Boubion has expanded the scope of her scrappy festival, shining a bright spotlight on a disparate array of artists, most of whom would otherwise be absent from Bay Area stages.
“Our goal every year is to have at least one visiting artist, but this year they’re the majority,” she said. “Things have been so difficult throughout the pandemic. Performances went online or outside, and then back inside when it poured. But we’re going big this year, with two separate programs presented twice so the artists have full opportunities to present their work since they’re coming from so far away.”
This year’s FLACC theme is Cuatro Vientos (Four Winds), which speaks to the way the featured artists “respond to the winds of change, honor the legacy of those who’ve paved the way while envisioning the journey ahead,” Boubion said.
No artist better captures the festival’s vision and mission than Christopher “Unpezverde” Núñez, a visually impaired dancer and choreographer from Costa Rica who’s been based in New York City since 2014. In his West Coast debut, he’s presenting an excerpt of his signature solo work, “Yo Obsolete,” a ritualistic exploration of how objects can evoke and contain memories and associations.
“I got into a studio with a remote-control car, and I wanted to explore what happens when you perform something, even when it becomes obsolete,” he said, joking that, at 15 years old, “Yo Obsolete” is celebrating its quinceañera at FLACC.
“Over time, the car doesn’t work anymore. It’s not moving with the same pace and quality. And every time I perform, I’m a different person. It’s an exploration of the body as a cemetery, with all the ancestors who are no longer with us, but their children are in my DNA.”
Núñez performs “Yo Obsolete” Friday, Oct. 27, (8 to 9 p.m. with Q&A) and Saturday, Oct. 28, (5:30 to 6:30 p.m.) as part of Program A, which also features the in-person world premiere ofPuerto Rican choreographer Fernando Ramos’s “Perenne,” a quartet for four Puerto Rican-based dancers, and the solo piece “Ion” by dancer and actress Gabriela Ceceña from Hermosillo, in the Mexican state of Sonora.
Nuñez’s dance journey
Núñez hails from a Nicaraguan family of fishermen with Garifuna and Miskito roots, and grew up in Costa Rica’s Caribbean province of Limón, where he started dancing in comparsas, the troupes parading in carnival processions. “It’s very Caribbean,” he said. “I was a tiny mascot, always at the front. That’s how I started dancing.”
His life took a hard left turn when a beating by his father put him in a coma “and when I woke up I was almost blind,” he said, a condition that’s persisted as stereoblindness. “It’s for me hard to determine distance and volume. A doctor suggested I take dance classes to help me learn to navigate spaces. I was already involved in African dance, but a dancer from San Jose came to Limón to do some community-based work, which introduced me to modern dance.”
He went on to study dance at the National University of Costa Rica, but most of his peers in the program avoided casting him in their productions, rather than working out how to navigate his visual impairment. He developed a solo practice and carved out a singular career in Costa Rica, though he eventually decided to reinvent himself and try his luck in New York City.
Though he was undocumented, Núñez enrolled in culinary school and started working in restaurants around New York, where he quickly found a community with other undocumented kitchen workers “who helped me with connections, banking, renting a room,” he said. “You find your way in the city through that undocumented culture.”
Working at a restaurant in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, he started catching lunchtime dance performances at the Joyce Theater, which is how he connected with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, a pioneer of postmodern dance. Chatting with a woman in the audience, he mentioned he used to be a dancer, and she strongly encouraged him to submit a tape to the inaugural edition of the INSITU Site-Specific Dance Festival in Long Island City, Queens. A New York Times section previewing the summer’s cultural offerings ended up using a photo of Núñez shot during a rehearsing on the first page, launching him before he’d even performed.
“I didn’t go to dance; dance came to me,” said Núñez, who became a U.S. citizen several months ago. “That’s how I returned.”
Attending the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s summer workshop, the last one before Brown’s death in March 2017, connected him with the New York downtown dance scene. His disability and undocumented status didn’t prevent him from forging alliances with important artists and institutions that supported his work, and found ways to make sure he received compensation. Looking back, he feels “I was the right person in the right place at the right time.”
“It was a moment when there was a big disability justice movement,” Núñez said. “Artists were getting more opportunities. It hasn’t been a bed of roses. Dance and New York are very tough and competitive. But, for some reason, the work that I do was settling very well. I presented in world-class venues, supported by world-class institutions, which pushed me to give my best. I had to prove something. Coming to the U.S. at 34, you’re not a kid. I came here as a grown person and artist.”
Núñez, who’s serving as an arts fellow at Princeton University until 2024, will give a workshop Oct. 24 at Dance Mission as part of FLACC’s master class series, introducing a methodology he calls Vortex. A practice-in-progress, it’s a spiritually informed approach that grew out of his “need to learn how to move through space safely,” he said.
“I studied the different planes, and how to deal with motion and curvature, how to navigate the space in circular motion. It’s the core of my practice. When I dance, I get into a trance. It’s not representing an experience. It is an experience. It connects people to their DNA memory. When people start dancing with my methodology, they start dancing with ancestors. The muscles, joints and bones hold memories.”
In “Yo Obsolete,” Núñez provides his own simultaneous description of the piece, with voice-over narration that shares his thoughts and feelings as he performs. His appearance coincides with FLACC’s increasing commitment to accessibility. Dance Mission Theater recently installed a wheelchair lift, making the venue ADA compliant. FLAAC will provide live audio description in English, a haptic access tour, and bilingual ASL Oct. 27 and Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. (Gravity Access Services, the Bay Area’s primary provider of accessibility services, didn’t have staff available for the other performances, Boubion said).
Program B with Fana Fraser and others
FLACC’s Program B runs Oct. 28 (8 to 9 p.m. with Q&A) and Oct. 29 (5:30 to 6:30 p.m.), and includes a solo performance by Fana Fraser. Originally from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, she’s tentatively titled her work “the sweet victory of honeycombed skies,” and explores themes of eroticism, power and compassion.
Two FLACC’s alumni from Southern California, Joey Navarrete-Medina and Primera Generación co-founder Rosa Rodriguez-Frazier, join her in Program B, restaging their 2016 FLACC performance “Lost in Translation,” a theatrical bilingual dance piece deploying humor and a refined sense of craft to work collaboratively. And, rounding out the triple bill is a new collaboration between two local dance artists, Colombian-Ecuadoran Karla Quintero and Singaporean Belinda H., who present a playful piece on the theme of listening.
In collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley’s Latinx Research Center, FLACC also co-presents an art talk with dancer, choreographer and Cornell University Assistant Professor Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz, “Choreographies of Divergence: Latinx Contemporary Dance in the Americas,” on Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 4 p.m. at the Latinx Research Center.
If there’s a takeaway from FLACC entering its second decade, it’s that the pandemic transformed the landscape for the festival, which has grown from a Bay Area showcase into an international event. “When we went virtual in 2020, with nine weeks of artists showing their work, it expanded our audience, and that was a turning point,” Boubion said, while noting that FLAAC has also been intensely local. “The last two years really focused on the Mission and indigenous peoples, treaty rights and healing. We’ve created an amazing foundation to build on, right here, and with artists from across Latin America and the Caribbean.”