When choreographer Yvonne Montoya was working on a master's in Mexican-American studies at the UA, professor Lydia Otero hired her to compile oral histories in the community.
Otero was researching the destruction of Tucson's oldest Mexican-American barrio in the urban-renewal projects of the 1960s, and Montoya interviewed an elderly woman who vividly described the home and neighborhood she had lost.
"She talked about what the barrio looked like when the riverbed had water," Montoya recalled. "She described it so beautifully—the flowers, the plants growing in walkways by the river, the different colors—I thought it should be a dance. I knew it would be beautiful if it was put to choreography."
In 2010, Otero's well-received book on the topic, La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City, was published by the University of Arizona Press, and now Montoya is debuting a dance on the same subject.
"Alva's Story: Recuerdos de Barrio Viejo" ("Memories of the Old Barrio") will be the opener in Silent Stories, a Safos Dance Theatre concert this Saturday night at ZUZI's Theater.
Set to three songs by Lalo Guerrero—a native of the barrio who went on to a high-flying career in Latin music—and one song by Tucson's Linda Ronstadt ("El Sol Que tu Eres," or "You Are the Sun"), the dance captures the "perspective of someone remembering," said Montoya, artistic director and founder of Safos.
"It starts with memories of what the barrio was like, with its mercados and Chinese stores, and serenades at night. It was a beautiful, lively place." The piece ends, unavoidably, with the bulldozing of the barrio's old adobes.
Historian Otero consulted with the troupe on the piece, and her vintage photos will be presented as a slide show above the dancers. Spoken-word narration, drawn from the collected oral histories, will recount the memories of displaced residents.
The four dancers—Montoya, Caroline Gaujour, Grace Rhyne and Lyna Ward de Leyva—are dressed in skirts and leotards, colored in earth brown, sky blue and sea-foam green to evoke the old barrio's hidden gardens and backyard orchards.
"Alva's Story" is Safos' contribution to Arizona's centennial, Montoya said, memorializing in art a tragic episode in the state's Mexican-American history. But like the other three dances on the program, it also tells one woman's story. Ward de Levya plays Alva Torres, a real-life barrio resident who fought city hall and won some small battles.
Safos specializes in contemporary dance, but it's also dedicated to exploring the cultures of the borderlands, so the dances sometimes mix different styles. In the choreography she created for the 20-minute "Alva's Story," Montoya relied on modern dance as well as popular and Latin idioms.
For Guerrero's "Tin Marin de do Pingue," she used 1940s swing and jitterbug. She set his instrumental work "La Cosa" to salsa, folklórico and everyday movement. For the final song, Guerrero's "Barrio Viejo," a lament for the lost neighborhood, she used pure modern dance.
"We went for the emotional and the visual," she said.
Montoya created three of the program's four dances.
"It's the most choreography I've ever done," she said. Thom Lewis, a well-known local dancer and choreographer, came to rehearsals to lend his eye, just as he did with the company's second concert last year.
"Thom was super-helpful in giving us direction and feedback," Montoya said.
For the dance "Caroline's Story: Le Plus Beau Jour De ma Vie" ("The Most Beautiful Day of My Life"), Montoya fused modern and ballet to accommodate the skills of the dancer, Caroline Gaujour, a Frenchwoman living in Tucson. A trained ballerina, Gaujour dances the 30-minute work solo.
"Caroline's Story" is set to original music by Jordane Lafitte, another French Tucsonan.
"The dance is about a woman's journey through postpartum depression," Montoya added, noting that both she and Gaujour suffered from the syndrome after the birth of their children. Mixed in with the new music by Lafitte is a "traditional Mexican nursery rhyme about an ugly doll. I thought it was a good metaphor for the feelings of postpartum depression."
The multitalented Gaujour sings while she dances, and her visual art will be hanging in a lobby show during the concert.
Montoya gave her own name to her third piece, "Yvonne's Story: Zul." The made-up word "zul" is luz (light) spelled backward, she said, a fitting title for a work about the ways people backstab others, even their own friends.
"It's about things that happen that people don't talk about in public," she said. "We get to slowly see the dancers show their true colors."
Actress Carla Turco portrays the Yvonne character. Montoya, Rhyne, Ward de Leyva and Arianna Ruiz are the dancers. The 10-minute piece is danced to instrumental versions of music by Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.
New company dancer Ward de Leyva choreographed the fourth work, "Lyna's Story: La Cueva y la Luz" ("The Cave and the Light"). Fittingly enough, given the concert's themes, the dance is about forgiveness.
"It's a personal story, about finding clarity," Montoya said.
Ward de Leyva, Montoya and Rhyne dance the short work to taped flamenco-inspired music by Yaqui classical guitarist Gabriel Ayala, acoustic-guitarist Antoine Dufour, and guitar-driven fusion band El Tesoro.
Despite an economy that has been ruinous to many small arts groups, 3-year-old Safos is not only surviving, but growing, Montoya said. She hopes next year to expand the annual concert from one night to two. That show will be a collaboration with visiting poet Bobby LeFebre, and will integrate visual artists and actresses.
Montoya and other company choreographers have created all-new work for each of the three annual concerts so far, but she's hoping to keep "Alva's Story" and "Their Souls Swallowed by the Sun," an earlier dance about border deaths, in the permanent repertory.
"We're still toddlers," Montoya said with a laugh. "But things are going well."