Dead can dance

Dia de los Muertos: Una celebracion

Juliana Bledsoe and Carlos Arciniega do the dance of the star-crossed lovers while Keith Parry strums a tune.

Juliana Bledsoe and Carlos Arciniega do the dance of the star-crossed lovers while Keith Parry strums a tune.

Photo By David Robert

Inside the Studio on 4th, the Youth ArtWorks students are rehearsing Dia de los Muertos: Una celebracion. There are no U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issues here, no debates and no differences. Only the camaraderie of a gaggle of performance artists—laughing, singing, dancing, improvising—as they joyfully engage in the collective, essential need for expression. The focus here is on storytelling, unity and celebrating life, with a culturally based, conscious recognition, embrace and reckoning of its ever-present opposite: death .

There wouldn’t be one, obviously, without the other. The same is true for both Reno’s Youth ArtWorks and the Truckee Meadows youth it exists to serve and nurture. There are nine teens rehearsing for Dia de los Muertos: Una celebracion, running Nov. 1-3 at the Studio on 4th, in observance of Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday observed Nov. 1-2 by Hispanics around the world.

Featuring an original script and songs, this performance art is a perfect complement to the array of traditional and tangible symbols of Dia de los Muertos: brightly-painted masks, sugar skulls and favorite foods of the departed, presented on an altar of ofrenda [offering] that includes libations, lit candles and pan de muerto [Bread of the Dead]. Nourished by all they’ve created, these artists—some Hispanic, some not—are digging their hands, and heels, into their art.

In movements ranging from barely imperceptible and Tai Chi-like to staccato and jubilant dance, they are dramatic and mindful of the opportunity to grow, enlighten and encourage cultural tolerance. Backed by syncopated percussion and a four-piece band, Dia de los Muertos is fluid, fun and narrated by YAW fellow Robert Grant. He tells the story of an early life of toil, sacrifice and family—juxtaposed by new hope; his beloved wife, Maria, and their baby son—in agrarian San Felipe, while the active listeners sit in a circle at his feet. In this very theatrical performance art, there’s romance, estrangement, even a vivid chase scene.

“You’ll never take me alive!” the storyteller-hero exclaims as Nevada Arts Council Artists-in-Residence Mary Bennett and Joyce Vetter gently offer direction, with an emphasis on discipline.

“This is a job, and you don’t realize how precious and unique it is to take full advantage of it,” Vetter remembers counseling the students early on. “Don’t waste it.”

Drummer Carlos Arciniega, 17, is a Reno High School student and California-born Mexican who’s seized the opportunity.

“I’ve only done music stuff, so this is a brand-new experience for me,” Arciniega says. “This could make me that much better, as a performer. Since we’ve been making this show from the tops-of-our-heads, part of my creativity is coming into this. It was all of us, putting our ideas together.”

Living life to the fullest is the undeniable theme, in YAW’s exhibit and performance art, in the lives of multicultural students like Arciniega, in the spirit behind Dia de los Muertos: Una celebracion.

"[Death becomes] less personal or sad, each story less maudlin, [through] celebration and community,” Bennett says.

In full character, the artists concentrate on dialogue, delivery and death’s presence.

“But enough about me,” Grant obliges to the circle. “This day is for you!”

Accompanied by an uplifting melody, the living launch into their whirling-dervish dancing again, to honor the dearly departed, the art of living and Dia de los Muertos.