Bat dance, monkey dance, dance of the little horsemen. Small flutes called pitos and a giant gourd marimba. For the past decade, Grupo Cultural Uk'ux Pop Wuj ("the heart of the writings of the ancestors"), a community of Quiché Maya Indians from Chichicastenango, Guatemala, has actively sought to excavate its culture's traditional dance, which dates back as far as seven centuries. No easy task. Explains executive director of Pan American Musical Arts Research Jan Hanvik, who facilitates Pop Wuj's engagements: "When the army stopped the war, when [Guatemalan human-rights activist] Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize [in 1992], they were allowed to go to other villages and go into the mountains and ask about old rituals and customs. They had not been allowed to travel freely before."
The Latin-American-studies and Fulbright dance scholar will join Pop Wuj at the Florida Dance Festivalthis week. Hanvik cautions that although one piece in Sunday's show involves firecrackers, audiences shouldn't expect "dance-technique pyrotechnics" or even "exciting musical rhythms." "But they are going to get a feeling of total authenticity and sweetness and connectedness," he adds. "The same way bartering and buying and selling and handicrafts and raising cattle are integrated into their lives, the dance and music are integrated." So integrated that members of Pop Wuj may be atop Pascual Abaj right now, burning incense and paying a priest to conduct a ceremony to allow them to perform in Miami. "They have to go up to the mountain and ask permission to make the trip," notes Hanvik. "And God will say, “Yes,' because we bought the plane tickets."
On the flip side, the key for New York choreographer Stephen Petronio is "something new that smells kind of contemporary." The former New Jersey suburbanite, who ditched plans to pursue medicine for an artsier but equally serious study of the human body, joined the now-legendary Trisha Brown Company in 1979, founding Stephen Petronio Company in 1984. His career of artistic investigation has resulted in international acclaim and collaborations with numerous experimental artists, like Yoko Ono and the British band Wire.
Petronio and crew debut in Miami, closing the festival, with Strange Attractors. "A strange attractor is really a kind of moving magnetic point in a chaotic field," explains the 45-year-old Petronio. Inspired by a book about chaos theory, Petronio's newest dance envisions subatomic particles (eight flawless dancers) that are sexier and more stylish than Calvin Klein underwear models and considerably more complex of motion, mood, and timing. With music by composer Michael Nyman (The Piano) and bands Placebo and UNKLE, the odd triptych features a black-clad prelude, a first act Petronio calls luxurious, and a futuristic conclusion haunted by sculptor Anish Kapoor's metallic orbs. Chaos, order, attraction, and repulsion aside, Petronio says "people shouldn't try to understand it too intellectually; just come and see it and enjoy it."