Jose Alvillar is preserving ancient dance traditions in paint

Jose Alvillar is a Minneapolis-based dancer and painter, but rarely have those two parts of his life his met. Now, as a 2018-2019 Springboard for the Arts 20/20 Fellow, he plans to make those artistic worlds intersect in ways he hasn’t done previously.

Alvillar has been practicing traditional Aztec dance as soon as he could start dancing at age four. His father was part of an Aztec dance group in Puebla, Mexico, which instilled a love in him at a young age. He didn’t expect to find anything like that after his family moved to Minnesota, and in fact it would be several years before he even heard of such groups in the area. Then a friend offhandedly mentioned something about it, and that was how Alvillar discovered the indigenous Mexica dance group Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue.

Jose Alvillar in his regalia with fellow members of Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue.

“It was a big surprise!” he laughs. “Here in Minneapolis we have a lot of Aztec groups.” He explains that there was a big movement in Minneapolis in the ’90s because there were a lot of people from Puebla and other areas in Mexico where that style of indigenous Mexica folk dance was still frequently practiced, and that was why many of the older Aztec groups in the area were formed.

“They felt a need to have that connection to their culture and community,” Alvillar explains. “It already existed when I moved here, but I didn’t find out about it until many years later. It’s a very small world though; after I joined I found out that the chief had known my dad.”

Alvillar knows how to dance about 15 dances, but, he explains, “In our culture we believe that in order for someone to know a dance they have to know its history and the connection between the steps and the philosophy. By that definition, technically I only know one,” he jokes.

The group performs for a number of different community and school events—Cindo de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day are very popular, as are Día de Los Muertos and Hispanic Heritage Month. They also perform for schools, parades, marches, and rallies, in addition to collaborating with regional indigenous communities during annual powwows.

Since joining Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue nine years ago Alvillar has expanded beyond dancing to drumming as well as taking on more of a leadership role, teaching the dance and helping people to make the intricate, vibrant regalia made from feathers, leather, and other fabrics worn during performances.

The group has a mentorship program with rehearsals every Wednesday and Friday so that today’s leaders can teach tomorrow’s.

“We’re preserving our leadership so that future generations are able to teach future generations,” says Alvillar. “We basically get partnered with little kids and teach them all that we know that we are able teach them.”

Students learn how to make regalia and strum instruments like the mandolin, which, Alvillar says, was one way their ancestors used to preserve their dances and pass them on.

“We try to teach them how to use both the drums and the mandolins to make sure these traditions get passed down from generation to generation,” he says. “When we get invited to do a performance at a school or an event we also often teach the basics of the dance to engage the little ones. We want them to come and dance with us.”

Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue’s performance of “Danza del Venado” (“Dance of the Deer”).

He explains that such indigenous Mexica groups such as Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue dance to preserve their culture, but also to connect with nature. Many of the dances resemble or “mimic” nature itself, such as dances that honor wind or fire, and also dances that honor animals such as deer or rabbit.

“Our ancestors used to connect with nature in that way, honoring it and preserving it in a way that also allowed them to connect with each other,” Alvillar explains. “They wouldn’t hunt for sport but for need. They wouldn’t kill a mother or pregnant deer. It was always about preserving nature and coexisting.”

While Alvillar has been practicing dance for most of his life, his painting practice is much more recent. He was always fond of the arts, he says, but he never put a lot of thought into painting; he was more focused on drawing. But while attending art school at Augsburg College in Minneapolis he worked with acrylic paints and discovered he loved it, and especially painting portraits with lots of color—which he discovered entirely by accident when one night in school he stayed very late to finish a project and all the lights were turned off, so the only way he could see what he was painting was by using bright colored paint.

“The next morning I looked at it and said, ‘Oh, I guess I like portraits!'” he laughs.

Conocimiento,” by Jose Alvillar, part of a series of seven paintings representing a grief process. This painting represents the seventh stage of the grief process: The stage of acceptance, hope, and awareness.

While he was in school he mostly painted portraits of people he didn’t know. Now, with help from this 20/20 Fellowship, he plans to paint more portraits of people in the Aztec dance community and create more connections between his two artistic practices.

“In college I painted strangers, people I didn’t know,” he says. “Now I’m painting people I know, people from my community, people who look like me and resemble me, who share my culture and my beliefs. I’m working on a series that encompasses everyone in my Aztec dance company, including my chief, my dad, the little ones who have been dancing since they were four, also the elders.”

He continues, “With the 20/20 Fellowship, the biggest thing I’d like to do since I’m both a dancer and a painter is think of ways to embrace both of those aspects to coexist together, or be more intentional in how I can use both mediums, whether painting movement or dancing with paint. I’m trying to figure out how to have them live together. When we make our own regalia we do paint them but it doesn’t feel like an intentional way of using both, so I’m working on figuring out ways to incorporate both.”

In addition to creating more points of intersection between his dance and his painting, he also wants this to be another method of preserving his culture and passing it down to future generations.

“The work we have done before is so meaningful to me, and so I ask myself what will future generations have and how we can preserve that knowledge and those traditions in a way that can be seen? The portraits I’m creating are very storytelling-based in a way, and a lot of what we know and what is passed down is done through storytelling. So perhaps I can leave some images as another way for people to remember.”

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
A simple answer that comes to mind is community. A lot of the things we do in Aztec dance are about the community. We have gathering or moments where we all come together called tekios, which means community work. We get together to work on our own things and sometimes collective things, but it’s more so about being in a space together so we can help each other if we stumble on something. We gather together to support each other and spend time together. We also always eat; there’s a lot of food, and who doesn’t love food?

(2) How do you a start a project?
I often start a project by just stretching a canvas, priming it, then looking at an empty blank canvas for a good while before realizing what I want to paint. Often times I don’t know what I want to paint, I just like stretching and priming canvas because they’re nice and neat, then I just look at it. In doing so that allows me to see what image would fit there. Some portraits look better on a smaller canvas than a larger one, and that’s why I stare at a blank canvas—to figure out which one belongs where.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
When I look at the world the way I discuss my values is more so through what I paint. Right now I’m currently painting my people—painting portraits of people who look like me in my community. Not only do I value them, but with how things are right now with immigration policies and police shootings, a lot of times we forget to see the beauty in ourselves and in one another. Also valuing life and the existence of other people and the resilience of our people: We have somehow in some way been able to survive everything that has happened to us, and our indigenous brothers and sisters, for 500 years, and now everything that is happening to our Black and brown relatives. Finally, I am remembering the people who are often forgotten so that we may not forget to continue to coexist with one another, because a lot of times there are more things that unite us than separate us.

(4) How do you define success?
I don’t think a lot about success. Perhaps it’s something I should be thinking about. I would define success as, for example, working at a performance. Aside from finishing our 30-minute or hour presentation, at the end of every performance we do a circle and in that circle we talk about our experience of the day—things we’re grateful for that went well, things that didn’t go well in that moment. I would define success as, whether good or bad, we finished what we needed to do for the community and we did it together. That’s the beauty of working in community is that we help one another. That’s how I would define success: Through our circle talks and when, good or bad, we finished what we needed to nonetheless.

(5) How do you fund your work?
Right now funding my dance work is much easier than funding my paint work. I separate them a lot because with dance there’s a group, where painting is me by myself or me painting dancers or me working with friends who are also painters. I would say 50 percent of the time I’m painting by myself, where dance is 100 percent of the time in community. We’re able to get grants through performances, and with every dance practice or rehearsal we have a community savings box where we each put in $1 or so to go towards the final annual celebration, which funds the food more than anything, but also regalia making. We get paid for performances and that money goes to us collectively as a group to buy materials together and make regalia and ankle bracelets. It all feels more in community and not just me by myself, so at least that’s easier. Painting is definitely much harder. The only other means though which I’m able to survive on my paint is from selling them, but it also takes a lot of time to create them. I haven’t been selling a lot of paintings but when I do they go for a relatively high price, which keeps me afloat for while.