The Story Of A Kansas City Performance That Took Two Years And Trips Around The Earth

Dec 2, 2016

When musician Amado Espinoza and theater artist Karen Lisondra moved to Kansas City from Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2014, Espinoza noticed that many people here were disconnected from their own roots, from each other and from the earth. He'd come from a place where indigenous culture is present in everyday life.

Arelis Flores (left), Dario Rugerio and Lisondra rehearse for their upcoming performance at The Arts Asylum.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

As they looked to develop a creative network and collaborate with other artists, Espinoza and Lisondra also started thinking of a project that would bring different people with indigenous backgrounds together.

Through musical connections and the Kansas City Indian Center, they met Maura Garcia, a dancer and choreographer originally from North Carolina, who is Cherokee and Mattamuskeet.

Co-Creative Director and Composer Amado Espinoza and his wife Karen Lisondra spent time collecting songs, stories and music to create this new performance.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

And they quickly got to know Arelis Flores and Andres Ramirez of Danza Mexica Calpulli Iskali, a local group dedicated to studying and practicing indigenous traditions of Mexico.

Ramirez grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, where his grandmother was the last member of the family to speak Nahuatl fluently. But Ramirez learned it as a child, and in recent years has decided to use it.

Espinoza (left) and violinist Amory Bottorff try to get a song down before a dress rehearsal.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Flores, too, has gone through a process of reclaiming her indigenous roots.

Originally, all of the artists thought their project would focus on indigenous cultures of the Americas, but Lisondra eventually decided to include her own roots from the Philippines. She was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, and moved to Kansas City, Kansas, as a child. As an adult, she spent more than a decade in South America and toured the world with a Bolivian theatre troupe.

Lisondra straps on a pair of ankle cuffs adorned with coyoleras seeds for a harvest dance.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

These are the kind of stories this group of artists shared as they began getting to know each other, sharing meals and learning about each other’s cultures.

During the two years they’ve been working on this project, they each took trips back to their homelands, and were able to conduct research, gather instruments and costume elements they would eventually use for the performance piece that started to take shape in a downtown office-space-turned-dance-studio run by the Charlotte Street Foundation (Espinoza and Lisondra also received a grant from ArtsKC.)

Espinoza (left) and Ramirez keep the beat as they play panflutes.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

They structured the piece around four main sections, each representing one of the four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. A half dozen more artists, including dancer Cat Mahari and singers Erika Noguera and Mark William Garcia have joined in, but the original group of collaborators each took an element as inspiration for an original piece, involving dance, music and story-telling.

Rugerio (left) and Ramirez wait for their cue.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Though the work was rooted in indigenous culture, Maura Garcia says audiences shouldn’t expect to see folkloric or traditional performances. These are contemporary, original works.

Lisondra steps carefully as she performs a work based on a Philippine folk dance while her fellow dancers beat, tap, and slide bamboo poles.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

“Oftentimes, modern dance or ballet or other dance is not labeled as being ethnic dance but it is of course ethnic dance,” Garcia says. “And if you’re doing anything that has any connection to a culture, it’s automatically labeled as folkloric traditional dance.”

Lisondra brandishes a Filipino sword as she dances between bamboo poles.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

We are the Landscape is a theater performance composed of modern meditations on what it means to live in relationship to the landscape.

“We are the landscape of our experience. At the same time, we are the landscape not just internally, but of the people we surround ourselves with,” Lisondra says. “That is a kind of landscape.”

From left: Ramirez, Flores, Lisondra and Rugerio run through a few notes after the rehearsal.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

And ultimately, Espinoza hopes to remind people we are part of the earth.

After all, he notes, “If we hurt the earth, we hurt ourselves.”

The play "We are the Landscape" debuts December 9, 10, and 11 at the Arts Asylum, 1000 E. 9th Street. Find more information here.

Sylvia Maria Gross is a reporter and editor at KCUR, and senior producer of the show Central Standard. You can reach her at sylvia@kcur.org and @pubradiosly.