Las Gallas take Philly arts to Havana

(From left) Magda Martínez, Michelle Ortíz, and Julia López in rehearsal.
(From left) Magda Martínez, Michelle Ortíz, and Julia López in rehearsal. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 25, 2014

If it's Sunday, it must be Havana.

The three members of the Philly artist collective named Las Gallas - something like "she-roosters" in Spanish - may well be saying that right now.

On Saturday, Las Gallas jetted off to all-but-post-Castro Cuba for a week of workshopping with hip-hop artists, presenting their performance piece Ghetto Bolero, and doing tourist stuff ("We want to go dancing, of course," says Julia López of Las Gallas, "and have an authentic mojito").

Formed in 2002, Las Gallas are López, Michelle Ortíz, and Magda Martínez. Havana is where they are scheduled to be Sunday morning. The three Latinas were invited to the 17th annual International Festival of Poetry in Havana, which starts Sunday and runs through Saturday.

The festival, which has events in every provincial capital in Cuba, puts heavy stress on international, featuring, as the promotional material puts it, "poets from every continent." There will be seminars, readings, performances, writing labs, and visual arts exhibits. The fest asks an advisory council of writers around the world to recommend artists to invite. A friend of Ortíz's just happens to be on that council, and she recommended Las Gallas.

Ever since, the trio have been performing and fund-raising. They had a gala night at the First Person Arts Festival in November, along with writers such as Ana Castillo, Angela Davis, and Sonia Sanchez. They've done other readings - even throwing a rumba night - and put out the word on their Facebook page. When last heard from, they were in what Ortíz described as "high pre-trip panic mode."

"It's amazing, the support that enabled us to make it," said López, a few days before leaving. "We got an anonymous matching grant right at the end, which will actually carry us a little past our goal."

The highpoint will be Wednesday night, when Las Gallas present Ghetto Bolero, five years in the making, part spoken-word, part dance, part drama, at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Old Havana. The trio were doing a final full rehearsal a couple of days before departure.

"It's going to be fascinating," says Martínez, "to see how the Cuban audience reacts. To say the least."

Las Gallas operate in a very original fashion. "I self-identify as a writer and vocalist," says Martínez, "Michelle as a visual artist, and Julia as a performance artist and dramatist. But the whole idea of Las Gallas has been not just to 'work together' but also hold workshops for each other in our various arts. It's not 'Julia will perform, Magda will write, and Michelle will do the costumes.' We challenge each other to enter the various art forms."

Las Gallas came to be in a crazy way. López and Martínez attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and met during a year abroad in Madrid. Both were New York-centered until they gravitated to Philadelphia. At a 2002 conference, they met Ortíz, who is Philly all the way. "I still live across the street from where I grew up," she says, "right next to the Italian Market." She got her bachelor's in art at Moore College of Art and Design and has a studio in Philly.

Ghetto Bolero is an attempt to let the female voice into the male-dominated genre of the bolero, the slow, passionate dance music with rhythms, lyrics, and stories that have permeated Spanish-speaking culture throughout the world.

"We are looking at the bolero of the 1940s and 1950s," López says, "which is overwhelmingly male, with lyrics and stories that are male-centered, very macho, intense, even violent. So the thought was: What kinds of stories would we see in a bolero written primarily for and by women?"

"It's so strange," says Martínez, "because this music is so intrinsic to our upbringing, our culture, but also it has a point of view that's so different from ours, and that's what we wanted to explore."

Using poetry, drama, costume, dance, and painting, Las Gallas created three characters - a dreamer who believes in romantic love but is treated badly by men; a rebel who becomes a mother worried about her daughter; and a woman, played by Ortíz, who is seven months pregnant. "I have to get drunk to be open enough to tell my story," Ortíz said. "In the male bolero, that's a frequent thing - but when you see this with a pregnant woman, that is a shock right there."

Working on the piece for "at least five years on and off," said López, Las Gallas decided to revive it at the First Person festival. For the Havana performance, they have translated the entire piece into Spanish and are working with director Claudio Mir.

All three are U.S.-born but are dedicated to their Latina roots. "That's who we are as Las Gallas," says López. Martínez is Ecuadoran on her father's side and Puerto Rican on her mother's, Ortíz is from Puerto Rican and Colombian parents, and López is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents.

"We came together," Martínez said, "out of our shared belief in using art in the community, creating public spaces that celebrate the people who live there, and encouraging them to express themselves through the arts. Las Gallas just keeps that going for each other." Their work with Cuban hip-hop poets will be a community-arts workshop.

Las Gallas will keep copious journals and take lots of pictures. When they return, they will be guest columnists/photographers for the Spanish-language newspaper Al Día, reporting on their adventures. "And," says López, "we expect to have many."

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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