“It might be something very different from what you expect,” Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company choreographer Charlotte Boye-Christensen warned Jesus Silva and Marisela Perez when they walked into the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center rehearsal studio.
They had come one early December afternoon to see “Lost.” Since September, Boye-Christensen had worked on developing the new 18-minute contemporary dance piece for the company. In part, the choreographer drew on 21-year-old Silva’s paintings and 18-year-old Perez’s poetry as sources of inspiration. Boye-Christensen also drew heavily on her own life and that of her six dancers. “I feel it’s very primal, kind of instinctual, very forceful and angry,” she says of the nearly completed work.
However, the roots of this piece—which debuts in Salt Lake City on Dec. 13 at the Rose Wagner as part of a six-modern-dance performance called Alchemy—were quite different from the forces that finally shaped it.
In February this year, Walt Hunter had shown Boye-Christensen the art and poetry of four male Hispanic artists. Three of the four were ex-gang kids he had mentored while working at the Midvale Boys & Girls Club as a gang-prevention specialist. The three—Jesus Silva, Victor Sida and Jose Hernandez—left the club bitterly disillusioned by its management in 2004. Hunter subsequently wrote a letter to Midvale Mayor JoAnn Seghini, questioning the club’s attitude to undocumented at-risk kids. Shortly after that letter was sent, club management fired Hunter.
Hunter and Silva’s story was the subject of the March 30, 2006, City Weekly feature “Members Only.” Since then, despite serious health issues and no health insurance, Hunter has been a tireless promoter of Hispanic kids like Silva who find themselves, to use Jose Hernandez’s phrase, to be “kids without a country.” Born in Mexico but raised in the United States, such often-undocumented kids struggle to find a home in the only world they know. If deported, they face returning to a dangerous country they know nothing about.
These boys raised painful issues of identity for Boye-Christensen, who herself is foreign-born. “Who are you when you don’t have any legal rights in the country you call home?” she asks. “Are you ever really seen? What does that do to a human being, to never really be seen? There’s an incredible sadness that comes with that.”
At the Midvale Boys & Girls Club, Hunter and the much-lauded art program he ran for two years collided with local and national politics. Ironically, the more successful he became at attaining visibility for the art of his undocumented members, the bigger the target he painted on his back. And, in the creation of “Lost,” the question of how much collaboration the Hispanic artists would have in the production also arose. Hunter might well have been forgiven a moment of déj vu.
He does not deny he came to the production with an agenda. For him, these boys are family. Hernandez signs off his letters to Hunter as “Your son, Jose.” Silva named his first son after the one-time Broadway singer. He also asked Hunter to be the child’s grandfather, because Silva doesn’t speak to his father.
Hunter hoped that Hernandez’s dream of helping kids without a country find a home might be propelled forward by the dance. Such optimism was understandable given that, in July, Ririe-Woodbury wrote to potential sponsors about an outreach program to local schools based on a dance called “Kids Without a Country.” Through Hunter’s connections, Chevron Oil came up with $2,500 in sponsorship.
Those plans, though, hit a snag. By late summer, it was becoming clear that getting Boye-Christensen and the kids together was going to be difficult.
When Hunter met with the choreographer and Ririe-Woodbury development director David Pace over lunch at Lamb’s Grill to first discuss the project in March, he told them there were problems with their having access to the kids. No problem, they told him.
One of the young men, painter David Olvera, had moved to Los Angeles to become a tattoo artist. Victor Sida was incarcerated and would be deported that summer.