South Bronx Artist Dances the Body, Identity
by Julie Johnson

"Somebody think they can dance like a Puerto Rican?": Aviles doesn't dance for shock-value, he said, and truths in performance come out by taking risks. (photo by Tom Shortliffe)

“ I dance in the nude if I fucking want to! It don’t mean nothing,” said dancer Arthur Aviles, self-proclaimed “faggot Puerto Rican from the South Bronx,” during his Monday night performance. Aviles is another of a line of guest artists brought to Oberlin as part of the Emerging Arts program’s “Maverick Artists/Visionary Educators” class.

The performance began innocently enough: a gay man in a bright red velvety dress swirling to classical music. Yet, as his twirls gained momentum, the skirts flew higher and, sure enough, Aviles was dancing commando. The dress quickly came off and Aviles performed the rest of the dance in his birthday suit.

Is dancing in the nude art or shock-value? “I don’t think that audiences get enough of it,” Aviles said. “And I feel it is an important thing to do, particularly non-sexual dancing. I think it’s difficult for audiences to watch the body nude without thinking about sex. The question is, ‘Why do it?’ and I think, ‘Why not?’”
Many in attendance were familiar with the risks involved in representatios of the body, an innate element of dance, and were able to move beyond the sexual connotations of nudity to the broader picture. “I feel our dance department and our community are more open and accepting,” said senior Julie Handelman.

Others found Aviles’ nudity distracting and uncomfortable. “I think people were a little bit surprised. There was a little bit of laughter,” sophomore Meagan Dunphy-Dally said.
Undoubtedly, Aviles went out on a limb to present the truth of his roles as an artist, a dancer, a homosexual, a Puerto Rican, a New Yorker, and a body.
“Just as long as it’s a communicating relationship, that’s what’s important to me. Whether we disagree or not is not so important just as long as neither of us is hurting the other,” Aviles said.

“I felt an affinity [to Aviles] because I’m also a Puerto Rican faggot dancer. It was great to see someone be — ‘This is what I am!’ It was very visceral for me,” sophomore Bacilio Mendez said.
The piece contained multiple layers of rhythm from a sound system, his breath and spoken word. His words and movements seemed to shift between mirrors of the audience and expressions of himself. When Aviles began telling anecdotes from his life story, it became clear that he was dancing his identity.
“A lot of the things he said reflected what the audience might have been thinking or what people in his history had said to him. Some of these things are insulting, but that’s effective because it helps the audience understand his experience,” senior Loren Groenendaal said.
Aviles shouted fragmented phrases of insults, curses and personal statements. Mixed with rigorous perpetual movement, both comical and serious, these elements built upon a complexity of messages. While parts of the piece flowed through variations in pace and emphasis, overall the piece felt perforated by plateaus in rhythm and mood.
“The structure was to introduce yourself, push the ‘on’ button, dance in a dress to three pieces of music, take the dress off, dance nude in silence (which didn’t work because I started to speak) and then speak, just tap into the thing you’re immediately thinking about, tell a story about your life and then talk to the audience. It’s improvised to fill that up. You have to be willing to say the wrong thing,” said Aviles.
And to some audience members, Aviles did say the wrong things. “Some people were offended by his swearing, but I was not offended at all,” Groenendaal said, “I thought it was a little bit shocking, but not shock for shock-value’s sake.”
Aviles’ present dance company, the Arthur Aviles Typical Theatre (AATT), is in the South Bronx. Aviles said he intentionally chose to move back to his community in order to get back in touch with his culture. “Having this kind of diverse dance company in the South Bronx is very different than Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company having a diverse group in Manhattan,” Aviles said. “There’s no community in Manhattan, that’s not what it’s about. You’ve got a dance company, they go out there and they produce works with diverse people inside and then they go on whereas mine is creating a very diverse dance community in a particular community.”
In a largely conservative and “macho” community, Aviles’ dance company has faced a few obstacles.
“There was one time our landlady came over and she was making sure that we knew that in the community board meeting they were talking about us in ways that were very difficult for us to take. They know who we are. They know we are gay, that we are progressive. When they’re in the meetings from the underground it’s trying to igure out how do we deal with this scary little problem, which is what we are to them, of course we are, we’re trying to change the world, basically,” Aviles said. “And that could be scary. We had to connect with the board meetings and state who we are and what we do and that we’re not going to go away.”
But having his dance company in the South Bronx hasn’t created only opposition. “The conservative ones don’t come, and the ones who find it strange come. The ones who are enlightened by it come,” Aviles said.
“The ones who are excited by it come, and those two categories not necessarily meaning that they like it. But there’s interest, which is good enough for me because I’m learning a lot.”
“I love the body. I like moving, twisting and muscle and fat, ’cause I got it, I got it all and I think it’s just a beautiful thing.”

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