Conversation with Lizt Alfonso: Dancer, Company Founder, Director, Choreographer Extraordinaire
By Patricia Bell-Newson
According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Cuban dancer and choreographer Lizt Alfonso is among the world’s 100 most influential women of 2018. Alfonso, director of an internationally celebrated dance company, was included in the list due to her essential role as ambassador of the Cuban culture which she has represented in different shows performed in hundreds of cities around the world. Renowned for its novel fusion style, Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba comes to Flato Markham Theatre on Friday, March 1, 2019. Alfonso took a quick break from rehearsals for the upcoming show, to share a few thoughts about life beyond the limelight.
You’ve been quoted as saying you had a dream to form your own dance company and to take it to the world stage from the time you were young. Where did this dream originate?
It was there almost from the beginning. I was at the university and I said to them, always, that I wanted to have my own company. And they said, “you are crazy, it is not possible.” But I know very well what I want. I focus on that. It is true that it is crazy, it is a lot of work, but it is what I decided to do.
Your first travel away from Cuba, where did you go and how did this experience impact your sense of dance?
My very first fly was in 1983. I won a scholarship to Spain. I danced in a school, the Royal Academy of Dance. It was a very good experience. In Cuba we had classical dance, modern and contemporary dance, traditional and folklore dance, and now we have the influence from other parts of the world. Because of that trip I decided to change what I had been doing all my life and not to do just one style of dance but to mix them all together.
This is your third visit to Markham. Your company appears to have a strong, devoted Canadian following. Why is that?
I think it is good, yes? People know the company, they’ve been following the company since 2008 and they can see the development of the company and the changes. We were small, now we have a huge school. At the beginning we were just a female company. Now we have men too. And it is very interesting. It is a different point of view. Audiences know the fusion, all the mix of different styles. We’ve been changing, and we have a lot of things to share. We feel when we go to Canada that it is a second home. We are very comfortable in Canada, and we are happy to be there, even in winter.
Having toured the world, how would you describe Canadian audiences?
It is a very good thing. We go to Montreal or to Toronto or to Whitehorse and the reaction on these outings is the same. Everyone claps and says bravo – well – in Whitehorse they make a sound like a wolf. Everywhere it is all so loud and I think that people enjoy the energy of the company and the way that we dance. We have a lot of passion and happiness. We are very unique. We have very difficult choreography. It is a kind of energy that we share with the people. They go back home and they want to move, they want to dance. They want to be happy. We see it in other, different countries like China or Bahrain or Qatar; people enjoy the show. And they want the company back again and again.
You were named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador due to your work with children, providing an education rich in human values. You were also recipient of the White House National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award for similar reasons. Why is dance for children and adolescents so important to you?
The study of dance can change your life forever. It tells you a lot of things about not only how to move your body, but how to move your brain. You need to work in a team and at the same time you are an individual. It takes adolescents off the streets, they’re learning something interesting for themselves, something they can share with their families, their friends, their neighbors. It is good for the whole society.
I’m proud of all my students. Some are now doctors or engineers, they have professional careers. Others are in the company starring as prima ballerinas or soloists, or in other dance companies around the world.
Your dance company explores fusion unlike anything seen before. Where do you find your inspiration as a choreographer?
Inspiration is everywhere. I say always that I receive more information and inspiration to do more shows than time allows. Life is not enough for all the scenes I want to do. In the morning you can see ladies go down into the old town, it could be the movement of the water on the beach, a poem you read, or music you hear. It is everywhere waiting for you. You only need the sensibility to receive the message. You also have the influence of good choreographers, actors, painters, everything. Culture is around you and embraces you.
What are you most proud of – what do you consider your greatest achievement?
What I think about my achievements? Wow. I think that I do a lot of scenes in my life, a lot of scenes, and I think that everything is for good. I am very proud of my life up to now – and I try to keep strong enough to continue. Sometimes I feel I am not very conscious about what I do in my life outside of the company….
When you’re not teaching, rehearsing or touring, how do you like to spend your time?
(Laughs) I am working in the company all the time. But I read a book, I see a good movie, I go to lunch with friends. But really, really, really, it is all about the company. We are all the time working because we like what we do. I want to do it. All the time. It is our life.
In Conversation with “Drum Poet” Pazcual Villaronga
PAZCUAL VILLARONGA was born and raised in Spanish Harlem, New York. He attended Haaren High School and New York City Community College and graduated from Hunter College, earning a degree in Communications and a Master’s Degree in Bilingual Education.
Known as the “Drum Poet,” Pazcual recites poetry while accompanying himself on the congas (often joined by other musicians), creating an innovative fusion of poetry and discussion that takes his verses to a new level.
Pazcual is the recipient of the Golden and Silver Poet Awards in California and placed third in La Canción Bilingüe – The Bilingual Song Competition in Washington, D.C. He has read poetry at Columbia University, Teachers College, Hunter College, Hostos Community College, Manhattan Community College, and Connecticut’s Housatonic Community College.
His published works include the highly successful “Caracol” (Poems For The Children), “By The Music Inspired,” “Poet,” “Fire From Hell,” “Compendium,” and “Stereotypes and Cycles.” His most recent collection of poems and CD is titled “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens To Fall.” Pazcual’s work has also appeared in “Around the Mulberry Bush – An Anthology,” “Windfall – An Anthology,” and “Fahari.”
Now retired after over three decades of teaching, Pazcual is preparing several collections of poetry and a children’s book and performs with The Lehman College Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Victor Rendón.
TOMÁS PEÑA: Welcome, Pazcual! Tell me about the project.
PAZCUAL VILLARONGA: “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” is my salute to the musicians and their creative souls. Also, to the percussive rhythms and melodies, they share with us each and every time they perform. Also, it is my way of sharing with the world, through poetry, how they inspire me and the power and beauty of their musical creations.
TP: Thank you for sharing an advance copy of the book and CD with me and for taking me on a fascinating bilingual literary and aural journey. Before we delve into the project, I’m curious to know what drew you to poetry and the spoken word.
PV: Growing up, I was shy and introverted. Poetry was my way of expressing myself. When I was in high school, my friend Jose showed my writings to a teacher (Dr. Richstone) and the teacher replied, “There are better things you could do with your time.” Undaunted, my friend showed my writings to another teacher (Mary Lamboss), and she said, “You are the Poet Laureate of Harren High School!” Later, I formed the “Drum Poets” and began reciting poetry with percussion and music.
TP: How did the project come about, and why did you choose this title?
PV: It began with Víctor Rendón’s “Fiesta Percusiva” (2008), where I recited the poems “Soy Chicano” and “In the Pocket.” Shortly after, Victor appeared on José “Joe” Massó’s “Con Salsa!,” who played selections from the album on the air. He encouraged me to “make more music like this.” Shortly after, Víctor asked if I was interested in pursuing the project, and I immediately said, “Yes!” Victor Rendón agreed to produce the record with the following conditions: Trust him implicitly and don’t breathe a word about it to anyone until the project is completed. The rest is history!
The title, “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall,” is inspired by trumpeter John Walsh, who composed the song “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall” (the tune appears on Chris Washburne and the Syotos Band’s “Paradise in Trouble”) and whose philosophy is, “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall, musicians must answer the call and give their all.” Walsh’s philosophy resonates with me because it applies to poets and creative souls who must be in the moment when the muse appears.
TP: The recording contains a collection of your poems set to music: Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, Jazz, and Latin Jazz and features an impressive lineup: Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, Louis Bauzo, Yasuya Kimura, Mike Viñas, Amy Quint Millan and José Luis Armengot. Additional guests include Andrea Brachfeld, Henry Brun, Ariel De La Portilla, and Roman Diaz (see below for specifics). Tell me about the poem, “Right Pocket/Left Pocket.”
PV: My mother was concerned about my dad, who drank excessively and played pool at a local social club. She asked me to check on him and bring him home. When I arrived, my father was intoxicated and staggering. Shortly after, a neighborhood hustler and “aprovechao” (exploiter) named Chano challenged my father to a game of pool. My father immediately asked me, “How much money do you have?” And demanded I give it to him. Then, miraculously, he took a breath and straightened up. After that, it was “right pocket, left pocket!” Long story short, my father and I left the social club fifty dollars richer! When Victor and I arranged the tune, he had just acquired a set of “timbalitos” (9-1/4 and 10-and 1/4 timbales), which have a very distinct sound. If you listen closely, you will hear Victor mimic the sound of the cue ball striking the billiards.
TP: Your words conjure up images. I felt like a fly on the wall! I also enjoyed the poem, “El Chembito,” where percussionist Wilson “Chembo” Corniel masterfully accompanies you.
PV: The poem was born while listening to Chembo’s solo on the tune “Lagos” which appears on Victor Rendon & the Bronx Conexion Latin Jazz Big Band’s “True Flight” (2016). I realized that in Chembo’s hands and in the hands of the masters, you feel and hear the connections between past and present and are privy to a glimpse of the future. Chembo has a way of taking you along for the ride as he time travels between rhythms, feelings, and emotions! His hands never falter, and his ideas are always fresh!
TP: The poem, “I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)” talks about a unique experience you shared with trumpeter José Luis Armengot onstage.
PV: Yes, Jose was standing to my right, and he was soloing on the tune “Fragile.” I turned to Jose; he was wearing dark glasses and leaning back like Miles used to, and I saw Miles! At the time, I was not aware that Jose idolized Miles. Later, I read the poem to Jose and I said, “You are Miles!”
TP: Tell me about the poem, “In the Pocket.”
PV: The poem is inspired by Omar Castaños, who said, “Some musicians express themselves and don’t say a lot. But every once in a while, you will find an artist who sits in the pocket, and everything is pushed away. I saw it happen when the masterful Luis Bauzo took a solo at “Gonzalez y Gonzalez” (NYC) in front of a packed house and stopped the room. The poem was born at that moment!
TP: The poems mentioned earlier are examples of what listeners and readers can expect. There is much more to savor! The CD and book will be released on December 1, 2022. Is there a CD Release Party or a live performance in the works?
PV: We have yet to set a specific date, but, yes, it is in the works.
TP: “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” will be available at: http://amazon.com via https://cdbaby.com, and all the major digital streaming, and download sites (iTunes, Spotify, etc.). Also, readers can listen to and download the CD on Pazcual Villaronga’s Website: http://conceptovillapaz.com.
TP: Closing thoughts?
PV: If I have touched you with one word, phrase, or poem, I have done my job as a poet!
TP: Indeed, you have! “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” recalls the writings of the Nuyorican poet and playwright Pedro Pietri, playwright Tato Laviera, activist, journalist, media personality Felipe Luciano, and Latina poet Sandra Maria Estevez, among others. Rarely has the spoken word, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, and Latin Jazz come together as organically and beautifully as it does on this exciting and innovative project. Highly recommended!
1. Drummers Prayer
2. By the Music Inspired
3. In the Pocket
4. What Do You Do?
5. El Chembito
6. How Many of Us Listen?
7. Bongo Habla Otra Vez
8. Que No Se Te Olvides
9. Right Pocket/Left Pocket
10. On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall
11. I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)
12. Alma Jibarita
13. Puerto Rican Trilogy
14. Puerto Rican Trilogy
15. Puerto Rican Trilogy
16. Speak Easy
17. Soul Riffs
18. Entendian Voz
19. Another Night in Tunisia
20. En Las Manos de Los Maestros
21. Afro, Is That You?
22. Now and Then
THE NEW DRUM POETS
Pazcual Villaronga – Executive Producer, Poetic Voz, Conga and Shekeré
Víctor Rendón – Producer, Drum Set, Timbales, Pailitas, Shekeré, Batá (Okonkolo), Coro
Wilson “Chembo” Corniel – Congas, Batá (Itótele), Guataca, Coro
Louis Bauzo – Bongos, Congas, Barril (Primo), Batá (Iyá), Bonkó Enchemiyá, Güícharo Puertorriqueño, Coro
Yasuya Kimura – Congas, Bongos, 1st and 2nd Cajón, Maraca, Coro
Michael Viñas– Bass
Amy Quint Millan – Piano, Coro
José Luis Armengot – Trumpet
- Andrea Brachfeld – Flute
- Henry Brun – Conga, Shaker
- Ariel de la Portilla Acoustic Bass
- Roman Diaz (Batá and Various Percussion)
- Diego Lopez (Batá and Various Percussion)
- Allan Molnar First Marimba
- Yumi Suehiro Second Marimba
LEFT TO RIGHT: Pazcual Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzo, Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel.
POETRY BY PAZCUAL VILLARONGA
- COMPENDIUM (1991)
- POETRY (1995)
- BY THE MUSIC INSPIRED (2002)
- FIRE FROM HELL (2004)
- CARACOL – P0EMS FOR CHILDREN (2009)
- ON WHATEVER DAY SATURDAY HAPPENS TO FALL (2022)
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