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fly, gentle warrior: the aerial poetry of Dzul Danceby Jay Blotcher

Some dances suggest timid souls yoked to a societally approved routine. Consider the bloodless waltz, the exacting minuet. Other dances remind us that a gyrating human body is a chaotic marvel, preparing for war, celebration, or sexual congress. Combining love, art, battle and enlightenment in his work is the signature of Javier Dzul, whose Dzul Dance troupe plays Millbrook High School Theater on April 2.

Javier Dzul’s primal approach to dance is not mere contrivance; he is no classically-trained aesthete straining for the atavistic. The choreographer grew up as a Mayan ritual dancer in the jungles of Yucatan Peninsula, arriving in the modern world at age 16 for a professional career. (English is his third language, preceded by Mayan and Spanish.) He worked with Ballet Naciónal de Mexico and Ballet Folklórico de Mexico, eventually earning a scholarship to the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in 1995. Dzul, now 42, has also performed with Pearl Lang Dance Theater, Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble and American Indian Dance Theater.

When he first threaded Mayan dance into his contemporary works, Dzul met with resistance from artistic colleagues. So he planned to expunge these influences, not out of shame but instead from a conviction that scornful Western audiences “didn’t have a right to see it.” Yet he eventually reconsidered. “You have to teach them, you have to make them appreciate that,” Dzul said. “It became important for me to be that person who can bring that culture back to everybody who can be open to see it.”

Aerial dance was soon incorporated as a leitmotif in Dzul Dance, theatrically illustrating a core principle of Mayan metaphysics: the ability to exist on this plane of reality while having the power to open the doors onto a parallel universe. “We can go to the other world, we can go to heaven, we can go to the past or the future on this moment.” The aerials and acrobatics of Dzul Dance free its dancers—and, by extension, its audience—from the limitations of earthly life. “I try to push [my company] to be stronger than what they think they are, and do things they never imagined they would be able to do.”

At the Millbrook show, Dzul Dance will perform Rosas y Espinas (Roses and Thorns), an exploration of the twinned joys and heartache of love. Composed of pieces created between 2005 and 2009, Espinas utilizes Mexican love songs, big band and salsa while weaving together the stories of icons Emiliano Zapata, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera—the latter pair knowing something about tempestuous, ruining passions. Also on the program will be selections from Dzul’s latest work, Forest of Kings, a reflection on the choreographer’s childhood in southern Mexico and the Mayan code of respecting the environment as its steward.

Joining Dzul for the Millbrook show are company members Ivanova Aguilar, Kyla Ernst Alper, Chellamar Bernard, Cornelius Brown, Melissa Corning, wife Robin Taylor Dzul, Nicole Lichau, and Matthew Sparks. Their previous affiliations include Cirque du Soleil, Eliot Feld Ballet, Korean National Ballet and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet Company. In addition to crafting the routines and selecting the music, Javier Dzul contributes costume design, which accentuates both the lithe beauty and muscular turmoil of the dancers’ bodies.

Most Dzul pieces are grounded in Mayan and Mexican myth, culture, philosophy and history, such as repertory pieces Reincarnations, El Beso del Diablo and Archeology of Memory and Desire. While understanding this world is not mandatory to allow an audience to unlock its pleasures, Dzul insists that his dancers understand the source material. “In the beginning, I just tried to be as much simple and primitive as I can be. Little by little, I start talking about legends and way of thinking and way of feeling. It takes time for a dancer to become a Dzul dancer, to really understand what I’m talking about. But once they get it, it is easier for me to communicate.”

Dzul cites the recent Forest of Kings piece as a new benchmark in terms of melding his culture with a personal perspective. “On the last piece, I think about ‘me’ more, and I think more about my culture openly. Maybe because I feel my company is getting ready to do that.” Forest of Kings is an unflinching look at the year 2012, predicted in the Mayan calendar as a time of great upheaval and change, interpreted by many as an apocalyptic transition. Having lived in New York City for many years, Dzul found he had pushed aside his connection to native customs. Crafting the new production, he said, was an effort to re-consecrate himself to those ancient values.

“The only way I could understand my Mayan ideas was to go back to my life and remembering all the things that make me be what I am right now,” Dzul said. “All the things that I learned in the jungle, all the things that my father and my mother taught me to be what I am, all the things that I have from nature, myself. I think that Forest of Kings is: to go back to the forest and the place where the kings are, going back to your ancestors.”

A recent performance was mounted for at-risk teens living in East New York, New Jersey. Initially, the troupe was met with surliness from students. “They didn’t really want to know anything,” Dzul said. But when gravity-defying feats were demonstrated, the attitude evaporated and students clamored to be taught acrobatic moves. By day’s end, Dzul said, the students had absorbed a better appreciation of dance as a means of self-expression and a spur to achieving greater personal goals. The learning was ultimately two-sided: Dzul and his dancers were humbled by the everyday courage of their audience. “There was a change in both the company and the young adults.”

Boldly sensual, unflinching in its depiction of human bodies taken to extreme limits, the works of Javier Dzul vividly acknowledge the struggles of life. But these dances, performed here and abroad, also radiate hope: the leaping and swirling company members illustrate our capacity to surmount challenges by bidding the body and mind to fly—both literally and figuratively. In his artistic worldview, dark as it may sometimes appear, Dzul will always err on the side of optimism.

“I think [my dance pieces] are about … where you go to a bad place and you come out of it, standing and jumping.”

Dzul Dance performs at 7:30 PM, Saturday April 2 at the Millbrook High School Theater, 70 Church Street, Millbrook. Free to Millbrook high, middle and elementary students. Presented by Millbrook Arts Group. More information at www.dzuldance.com or www.millbrookartsgroup.org



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