By Brian Sonia-Wallace
“What does it mean for a person to become real?” Jose Vences muses.
Vences, who directs folklorico dance company Grandeza Mexicana, struggled to put into words his relationship with the famous, self-described “ranchera and jazz singer” Lila Downs.
Grandeza is set to perform with Downs in August for the second time this year. Vences met the singer just last November for a Dia de los Muertos collaboration. For Vences, who had been choreographing to Downs’ music for years, that first meeting was nerve-racking. But all that anxiety was quickly swept away: on first meeting the famous singer, Vences said, “finally!” and they both laughed.
While her music is based in styles of her native Oaxaca, Downs is famous for mixing in musical styles, such as jazz and rap, and using indigenous languages from Mexico and English. Though rooted in tradition, her music is anything but traditional.
Vences typically choreographs to traditional folklorico music. Upon first hearing her music, he thought, “that’s not what I’m looking for.” But, he says, she made his taste in music evolve. “She made me see things in a new way,” Vences says, and from that moment on, he was hooked. In fact, the music changed his choreography, inspiring him to mix in contemporary, ballet and modern forms with folklorico and breaking expectations to express in movement the sentiments found in the music. He was especially drawn to her activism and the way she buries it in her songs, not hitting her audience over the head but inviting them to find the message. “Her voice is through music. She doesn’t tell you everything, your job is to think. The art is the journey, not the destination.”
Vences loves his admiration of Downs from a distance – “the fan relationship continues regardless of the [evolving] personal relationship,” he explains. He describes her as an artistic mentor across disciplines, teaching through example how to reflect on and value work.
He and Downs are both well into their successful artistic careers, both already ‘real’ in their own communities. Even their collaboration has a built-in quality of distance, as they prep for the Ford show hundreds of miles apart. Vences couldn’t name a specific inspiration for the dances that Grandeza will be performing to Downs’ music but said that they have been swirling around his head for the last decade. The distance between these artists, then, is one that can be mitigated just a few times in the lifetime of each, by flurries of collaboration and shared artistry.
This time, they have a week together – a week to prepare the work they have been planning, separately, for years, in the same room. A week to become real for one another again.
Then, it’s showtime!
Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Lila Downs makes her Ford Theatres debut August 12 and 13, performing with Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company as part of the Ford Signature Series. Tickets are on sale now.
The Ford Signature Series pairs world renowned performers with LA County artists for one-of-a-kind experiences. The series is made possible through the generous support of LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. Original program created with support from former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Proceeds benefit the Ford Theatre Foundation.