It wasn't without a little anxiety that choreographer Eduardo Vilaro undertook a solo project examining and celebrating gay personhood, homosexual embodiment and cross-dressing in notoriously antiqueer Latin culture. "This is going to put me 'out,'" Vilaro says. "It's difficult to be so vulnerable and exposed." After all, he's most known for heading up an ambitious dance troupe that seeks to correct the gringocentrism of modern dance, and a respectably conservative-yet-cultured (read: straight) image gives his venture stability.
But you can't keep heartbreaking fabulosity under wraps forever. Reading some of the exquisite writing of notable gay Latin authors, such as fellow Cuban Reinaldo Arenas, helped Vilaro in the serious task of developing The El in Ella—a 40-minute performance that slinks between the complex layers of gay Latino identity. It's set to premiere at Links Hall this weekend. "Every time I see the Links Hall announcement [for the performance], I shrink a little," Vilaro says. "But that's just internalized homophobia. In our culture, you're supposed to be such a butch macho man."
Other inspirations were the life story of author Federico Garcea Lorca ("He hid his homosexuality," Vilaro says), and the writings of playwright, activist and performance artist Luis Alfaro, whose work especially helped Vilaro conceive the monologues for Ella: "I've never seen him perform, but I am really into his writing and prose." Tanya Saracho, cofounder of Teatro Luna, Chicago's all-Latina theater company, also helped Vilaro develop the text for his piece. "She prompted me, made me write a lot," he says. "The piece is a lot about stereotypes: how I've 'typed' myself and how other people have 'typed' me.
"When I started working on this piece, I thought I could put my finger on what a 'gay Latino' is, but oh, my God!" Vilaro says. "Identity is a kaleidoscope—it's always changing." His performance in Ella will constantly change, too; he explains that a lot of it is structured improv. Like a jazz composer who writes certain themes for the musicians to extemporize from and return to, Vilaro composed choreographic phrases that he can dip into during the performance. "I took ideas—identities like 'chino,' 'Latino' and 'negro'—and set movement for them. Then, if I'm feeling one of them [during the performance], I have material I can reference."
Before coming to Chicago, Vilaro danced in New York with Ballet Hispanico. However, he's been in an administrative mode for the past few years, wearing a suit to work and raising money to build his dance company, Luna Negra Dance Theater. Working on this solo project has put him back in touch with his body. "I literally had to come back to my physical practice," he says. "It brought me back to another time that I thought was over. I lost ten pounds!"
An admitted "balletkatrina," Vilaro's been doing a ballet barre every morning as well as yoga and Pilates, and he's been taking different kinds of dance classes to prepare for the piece. But "mainly, it's been a lot of moving around in the studio," he says. He has access to the studios at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, and he's been doing the bulk of his work there late at night when all is quiet and he has the privacy to mine his imagination for material.
The El in Ella was supported in large part by the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, a grant program funded by the Chicago Community Trust and administered by a consortium formed by Links Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Dance Center of Columbia College. A stipulation of the grant is that the artist is to work on his own creative and artistic development, and not put the money into his dance company, if he has one. The opportunity to focus on himself as a creative artist and performer, to explore his own identity politics and face issues like internalized homophobia, has been reinvigorating for Vilaro. "I'm allowing myself so much more breath; I'm allowing mistakes to be part of the work, allowing flow to happen," he says. "I'm on cloud nine. This is my year. I turned 40—and I'm coming out as a gay single!"
The El in Ella will be at Links Hall Friday 27 and Saturday 28.