“Men Who Dance,” has become an annual staple in the South Florida performing arts circuit and shows that dance in its many forms is a vehicle that can change perceptions and redefine preconceived concepts.
Now, in its fourth year, with performances on Saturday, Nov. 25 and Sunday, Nov. 26 at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater, MWD promises to be more encompassing than ever.
Audiences are treated to tried and true local favorites such as Arts Ballet Theater, Dance NOW!Miami, Cuban Classical Ballet, Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami, RTW Dance, Tango Out, and Florida Grand Opera with newer voices including Syncopate Collective. This year, New Canon Chamber Collective is once again teaming with "Men Who Dance" after its musical debut last year.
Choreographer, Ariel Rose from Miami City Ballet is creating a new work especially for MWD and Swedish choreographer, video maker, and dancer, Pontus Lidberg, returns with the America premiere of “On the Nature of Rabbits” presented at the 2023 La Biennale di Venezia.
While the ability and range of dance presented is a feast for the eyes, there is also an underlying message. MWD solidifies the thought that it is possible for the male dancer to be successful, to be a fantastic artist, to inspire audiences and to dance and perform in a great many styles of dance.
Rafi Maldonado-Lopez founded “Men Who Dance” in response to preconceived ideas and perceptions that he had experienced as a male growing up in the dance community. The seed was planted years ago to present dance performed by men.
Maldonado-Lopez says, “There were really three things that motivated me to start MWD. I started out in classical ballet, which at that time, was the most gender defining of all the dance forms. There was very little leeway to go outside the rails. My director once told me ‘ She’s the picture (meaning the ballerina) and you’re the frame.”
That was a ‘Wow’ moment for Maldonado-Lopez. It was the first time that gender was in his art saying, as a male, this is what you do, you don’t do this.
“The second incident was meeting Edward Villella at Miami City Ballet,” he continued. “I was introduced to a film made in the 60s that was about Villella called “Man Who Dances.” It was at the height of his career. His father never really accepted him as a young dancer, so Villella would leave the house wearing his baseball uniform before going to dance lessons at the School of American Ballet. He went into a merchant marine college and got his degree and even won a boxing championship. Villella gave that to his father and said, ‘Here is what you want, I’m going back to dance.’”
Listening to Villella’s story made Maldonado-Lopez think of possibilities for an all-male program. At that, it time more specifically related to Villella’s life story. The performance didn’t then manifest itself, however, the idea of an all-male program was alive, but dormant.
It was in the fall of 2019, that Laura Spenser, one of the hosts of ABC's "Good Morning America," made a negative comment about Prince George taking ballet class as part of his school curriculum. In response, Spenser was bombarded with comments from viewers and especially male dancers condemning her remarks.
Maldonado-Lopez says, “I couldn’t keep the idea anymore, it was time to create this program. As MWD has grown, every time we perform, we realize that there is a whole other set of stereotypes that are being built daily.”
It is truly about the conversation that must be had. New cultures and voices bring out new stereotypes.
“All of the things that we were fighting for are resurfacing again. It is constant,” Maldonado-Lopez says.
Diego Salterini, co-director of Dance NOW! Miami with Hannah Baumgarten says, “MWD perhaps helps to change the culture and makes it OK for men to be dancers. Hopefully, families will come to see the show and realize just how good a dance career for men can be. Plus, it’s just a great event.”
Baumgarten adds, “It is so valuable to come together as organizations, and it’s so valuable for our artists to come together in classes and on the stage. I also know that while MWD was not created to serve a political agenda, somehow, it does end up being part of the conversation.”
One of the choreographers for MWD, whose work tends to push the envelope for LGBTQ voices is RTWDance founded by Randolph Ward.
Ward is re-staging a piece from his “Vogue Extravaganza” that premiered in Germany in 2017.
“I wanted to do something celebratory,” says Ward. “The piece pays tribute to the ballroom and voguing dance culture in 80s New York.”
Ward has gathered a group of Miami "voguers" and ballroom artists who study dance.
This is not your typical ballroom, but a highly organized competition subculture that has been in place throughout the world for over 30 years.
“I love the energy of the Miami ballroom scene,” says Ward. “It is an energetic community that uses ballrooms to express, to learn and to grow.”
Ward feels that his piece is going to be very different from other pieces on the program. The idea of Vogue Dance allows men to be feminine and women to be masculine; the roles are mixed.
“There will be a commentator who is speaking while the dancers ‘compete.’ The show is non-political so this will be seen as a total dance piece,” says Ward. “The dancers are wearing cut-off at the knee jean shorts, white button up shirts and suspenders. Sort of the male uniform in life. But they’re all in heels dancing.”
Ariel Rose, soloist with Miami City Ballet, is choreographing “Sacre Coeur,” a piece with a very different flavor. The vocal music is by a group called Vocd8 arranged by Ola Gjeilo. “Sacre Coeur” is a piece for five men.
“For me, this piece is a bit like a crusade for love. There is a medieval, cathedral feel to it.” says Rose. “Both of my parents were architects and we visited many cathedrals in Europe, so I grew up listening to this type of music. It definitely makes me feel spiritual.”
The music is all vocal.
“There is something about just the human voice that is so beautiful. It’s the first instrument we have. It’s amazing to me that we took the human voice, and took it to this level of beauty,” he says.
While there is no narrative, Rose says that the piece is representative of five strangers, perhaps a community, who can lean on each other as they go through similar challenges - whether it be sexuality, religious choices or who they love.
“I feel here in Florida, there is so much dance, but men in dance is not so mainstream. I wanted to do something beautiful. I think it’s important to show, maybe the last piece of the pie. that there is beauty, and that men can be sensitive and also so masculine” says Rose.
This year, Maldonado-Lopez is choreographing the finale piece for MWD. He is basing it loosely on the idea of the gangster.
“Today we call it a ‘bromance’ but the original “bromances’ were with the gangs and the Mafia,” explains Maldonado-Lopez. “They had each other’s back, sometimes at the expense of their own families. Those male relationships have been happening since Roman times when soldiers had their backs in war. We think it’s new, but it’s not.”
To make this year even more unique, there is a documentary being done on the creation and delivery of “Men Who Dance.”
While in Chili and Argentina in 2022, Maldonado-Lopez’s niece, who was the spokesperson for Green Peace, facilitated an introduction to the Green Peace documentary team. Green Peace is an organization that works with communities on a global basis who are on the frontlines to protect the environments they call home.
“They were interested in MWD because they felt that there was really nothing on an artistic level that deals with a socio-political dilemma in an artistic way. Through art, we get to push the conversation a little bit further.” Maldonado-Lopez says.
The documentary is being made by local company, Savage Content with founder, Kent Savage and directed by Abbas Ahmadi Motlagh, of Y Knot Productions. Born in Tehran Motlagh has a history of creating documentaries dealing with deep topics: censorship, anti-war, the pandemic, and history. His choice to undertake MWD validates the significance of the gender conversation and of MWD in general.
“We don’t push an agenda,” says Maldonado-Lopez. “We just push towards creating a conversation and to question things - to explore and to discover.”
Rose put it quite elegantly. “At the end of the day, beauty wins.”
The Fourth Annual “Men Who Dance” Festival. 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 25 and 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 26. $25, $35, $45. The Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. 954-462-0222 or browardcenter.org.