Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre celebrates 25 Years by focusing on the immigrant experience


Running and maintaining a professional dance company is no easy feat. Many come and many go. That’s why we celebrate those companies who, through quality of work, dedication and business savvy, have managed to stay in operation against economic hardships, global Pandemics and shifting politics— companies like Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre.

CRDT celebrates their 25th anniversary with a concert in May at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, a program inspired by the lived experiences of incoming refugees and migrants, Chicago residents who have been displaced through gentrification, and the life story of Co-founder and Artistic Director Wilfredo Rivera, a Honduran native with firsthand knowledge of the tribulations of navigating the U.S.’s immigration system.

Rivera wants to use their upcoming milestone to reinforce CRDT’s mission of helping their local communities while educating audiences about pressing social issues. Every piece in CRDT’s 25th anniversary concert is a re-staging of repertory that focus on the lives, journeys and hardships faced by immigrants, an issue near and dear to Rivera’s heart.

“I had just become a U.S. citizen last year, my coming to the other side of the immigration system coinciding with our 25th season,” said Rivera. After personally going through the arduous process of gaining citizenship and after witnessing Chicago’s recent influx of new migrants and refugees, Rivera knows that the time is right to raise awareness of the immigrant experience. “It makes sense to revisit these issues through the perspective of what’s going on right now. The extreme circumstances are even more alarming now, the stakes have never been higher.”

Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre presents "American Contracho"; Photo by William Frederking


CRDT’s 25th anniversary concert begins with “American Contracho” (2019), a semi-autobiographical work based on Rivera’s own story as an immigrant moving to the U.S. The work was composed and choreographed by a collective of choreographers, social workers and poets with a focus on the intersectionality of displacement, trauma, assimilation, resilience and hope. Rivera says that “The intention behind [American Contracho] is to bring folks into the conversation, broaden their perspective and demystify the big headlines around who these people are and how we as humans are interconnected.”

Rivera acted as choreographer, director and curator of the work, with additional choreographic and narrative contributions by Noelle Kayser, Christian Denice, Taylor Mitchell and Shawn Lent. The work takes you through a journey of a band of immigrants journeying through terrain, swimming through rivers, floating through water, ripping through fences and walking barefoot through the dessert. The overall impression is to relay the journey faced by immigrants on their way to the U.S. and other countries.

The work is set to an original composition by CRDT’s other Co-Founder, Joe Cerqua, based on Pan-Latin music and rhythms with the majority of music based on the choreography and dancers’ movements, contrasting with the traditional formula of music first, dance second.

The second act features pieces previously presented during CRDT’s series, “Stories from The West Side” (2022-2023). Each piece is the product of workshops and interviews conducted in the Humbolt Park neighborhood, where residents related their stories of hardship and displacement due to Chicago’s changing economic demographic.

Two works are by Katlin Bourgeois, a student of Alonzo King and current head of the Joffrey Ballet’s Contemporary Ballet Trainee Program. “From Here To Home” (2022) draws inspiration from the death of Levon L. Wilson, a Humboldt Park resident who was evicted from their home and later found frozen to death while living in their car. In the duet “Tether” (2023), inspiration comes from an interview with a Puerto Rican teacher remembering their student who passed away in a tragic and unexpected way and symbolizes the mentor/mentee relationship through the braiding of body parts and coordination of limbs and trunks as two dancers try to find the right grip, space, or spot so as to move together as one unit.

“I like the idea of being able to tell somebody else’s story,” says Bourgeois, “finding the connective tissue between what they are experiencing and what I have experienced in my life.”

Other works from “Stories from the West Side” include “The Sea” (2023) by Shannon Alvis about the journey of students from Mexico and Central America making their way to Chicago. She juxtaposes this with memories of her grandfather and the love letters he would send home during his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and “The Island” (2022) by Michelle Manzanales, based on the life experience of Marisa de Arce and her sister, whose troubled home life caused them to retreat to a small patch of public land in Humboldt Park.” The work is being given a fresh reinvention by Manzanales, and this new version is a Spring 2024 premiere.

These excerpts from “Stories from the West Side” feature original compositions by longtime CRDT collaborator, James Sanders, each being built off a singular theme—melody, chord progressions, a repeating ostinato and Cuban timba music.
The concert closes with "Lágrimas Negras" (Black Tears), using a new arrangement by Sanders of a 1931 traditional bolero-son by Miguel Matamoros. Rivera based the piece on his experience growing up in New Orleans around a big Cuban population, a kid surrounded by parties, dancing, eating and celebrating, a joyful ending that explores the Latin diaspora.

Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre presents "American Contracho"; Photo by William Frederking


Prior the anniversary concert are two opportunities to experience some of these works a la carte through CRDT’s “Inside/Out” series. Rivera/Cerqua’s “American Contracho” will be performed on February 22 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and Bourgeois/Sanders’ “Tether” on March 29 at Dovetail Studios. These shows provide audiences with a less formal and more intimate experience with the works, an opportunity to whet their whistle before the anniversary concert in May.

After twenty-five years, Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre is stronger than ever, and Rivera is proud of the achievement, but says that the company plans for even more growth in the upcoming years. “As we evolve and continue to mature, the question of ‘how can we be better’ is always upfront in our conversations—how to improve our operations, how to pay our artist more and elevate our emerging choreographers and dancers. It’s rewarding to see it continue to take shape and gain momentum, especially now that we are trying to burst onto the national scene.”

Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre presents “Inside/Out with American Contracho” on Feb. 22 at The Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, “Inside/Out with Tether” on March 29 at Dovetail Studios, 2853 N. Montrose. The “25th Anniversary Concert Series” is presented on May 17-19 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. For tickets and showtimes, visit CerquaRivera.org or click on the event links below.