Dancing personal and cultural histories with works-in-progress at Links

Five dancers form a clump on the floor of the rehearsal space, their bodies woven together, breathing together. An external voice cuts through the air: “Whose story is told and who tells it?” it asks. One at a time, the dancers find their way out of the clump, moving through athletic solos and embodying characters from old Mexican legends. Their stories are told through an original spoken word poem and contemporary choreography, mapping out a history and culture that is just as relevant in Chicago today as it was in Mexico when it first took place.

On Feb. 20, Silvita Diaz Brown and Meida Teresa McNeal present movement, research and a look into their creative processes for the Co-MISSION Works-In-Progress Series, as a part of a sixth-month fellowship running Jan. through June. Driven by the politically-charged energy of the nation today, the two projects delve into cultural histories and personal memories to reveal truths about society—but from two unique perspectives.

Diaz Brown’s project “Legendas y Realidades” uses Mexican myths—primarily the story of La Milinche, a multilingual and multicultural woman who acted as translator and mediator for Hernan Cortez and the Aztec and Mayan empires—to investigate gender, female strength and duality of self in both her Mexican heritage and current life as a U.S. citizen. Diaz Brown asks her dancers to depict the characters of the legends in an interdisciplinary work that incorporates live music and spoken word.

McNeal’s “Fifth City revisited/Imaginal Politics embodied” gives voice to the historic Fifth City Human Development Project through solo movement generated from old documents, reports, interviews and childhood memories of the inaugural project on Chicago’s West side. The Fifth City Project was an urban redevelopment initiative that began in West Garfield Park in the ‘60s which focused on local leadership and participation in grassroots efforts to restructure urban communities.

McNeal is also working with an urban planner to develop an installation outlining Fifth City’s history, which will act as an entrance into the space when she performs the full work.

The Works-In-Progress Series acts as an initial opportunity for the choreographers to present their work in Links Hall’s space, with a goal to receive information and feedback on how to structure their pieces going forward. The final performance will be in June.

Both artists rely on personal memory as a catalyst for building their works. For McNeal, this comes from her memories of her parents, who were heavily involved in the early development of the Fifth City Project, and her experience attending the Fifth City preschool, the only part of the initial project still standing.

“I grew up, I went to the preschool, I remember there were a number of community-developed buildings and businesses. They were in this little area, and I have a certain recollection of that as a young person,” McNeal said. “It’s shaped my values and the way I make things, typically in groups and looking for group consensus. Very democratic and deeper dialogue forms in creative processes is really important to me, and I feel there is alignment between that and what the Fifth City movement was doing.”

Diaz Brown honors both her Mexican heritage and the 10 years that she’s lived in the states through “Legendas y Realidades.” She remembers the familial influences she had growing up in Mexico, including the juxtaposition of her culture’s expectations to conform to traditional female roles and her unconventional father who raised her to be independent and hardworking. She also remembers the freedom she found in the United States to be an artist and share her artistic voice.

While many versions of the La Milinche myth portray her as a betrayer to her indigenous people for helping the Spanish conquistadors, Diaz Brown portrays a story of an imprisoned woman who uses her communication skills to help make negotiating between international powers less violent.

“I feel like her character represents a female voice. She becomes a very important part in the conquest, and not enough credit is given to her. She is considered a traitor, which is easy to do because she is a woman,” Diaz Brown said. “She was considered a slut even though she was trying to be a mediator, so that’s why I picked this myth.”

Both artists aim to connect the historical influences of their works with present-day significance. McNeal relates the communal, grassroots foundation of Fifth City with the recent resurgence of collective responses to today’s social and political issues, rooted in creating together.  

Diaz Brown connects the blending of her cultures to Chicago, “with all of the Spanish people and the white people coming together,” she said. She also intends to honor her Mexican heritage after recently becoming a U.S. citizen, a decision she made so that she can have a voice and vote in the coming elections.

In reflecting on her personal history as well as the history of her Mexican heritage, Diaz Brown is able to further understand her current self. La Malinche had a son with Cortez, and that son was one of the first mestizos, someone born of European and indigenous American heritage.

Mestizos would come to play a significant role in building contemporary-Mexican culture, and from working with Mexican myths, Diaz Brown has found an even deeper connection with mestizos and the mixed identities she carries from living in the United States.

“Going to the past lives of these characters and how they evolve, it makes me understand better who I am now. Okay, I am a mestiza, and okay, now I’m an American mestiza,” Diaz Brown said.

McNeal is also expanding knowledge of self and her current physical facility. Just as the members of the Fifth City movement worked with limited resources to create social change, McNeal is working within the framework of her body to tell the story of her community.

“How do I—within my body that doesn’t train in the same way it used to train, that is also an administrator’s body that is sitting at a desk a lot of the time, or in a car, or in meetings—come back into the studio and get into this body and mind and vocabulary and a certain sense of strength,” McNeal said.

The Works-In-Progress showing will be an informal presentation for the artists and their current stage in the choreographic process. For Diaz Brown, this means showing sections of choreography with live music and spoken word, but the sections won’t necessarily be structured in the same capacity as they will for the final performance. McNeal will present the stories and information she’s developing from interviews, urban planning focus groups and old documents, along with some movement scores.

The choreographers invite all interested to attend the showing and engage in their creative processes.

“Come and see the work, learn about the culture and give us insight,” Diaz Brown said. “Even though [the piece] is about my Mexican heritage, we very much want to connect it to our contemporary lives”


The Co-MISSION Works-In-Progress Series will be Wednesday, Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave.. Tickets are $5-$40. Click the link below for tickets and more information.