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Nouveau Sud Traces Migrants’ Route to a New Life in ‘La Bestia’

Runaway train

A rendering of ‘La Bestia’ in action. (Artwork by Houston Odum)

In a cloud of smoke, the train will fly through the air above the stage as aerialists and acrobats depicting the train’s passengers and moving parts defy gravity. It could represent a ghost train streaking across the sky, or an unholy vision, but for Charlotte circus arts ensemble Nouveau Sud the train is La Bestia — or “The Beast,” which can offer an avenue toward a new life or kill you.

“Our train is going to be swinging and flying at different heights,” CarlosAlexis Cruz confirms.

The 40-year-old founder and producing artistic director of Nouveau Sud Circus Arts Project is discussing the central metaphor that gives the troupe’s latest production its name, La Bestia.

It is Nouveau Sud’s fifth production to date, and in a timeline that include Septem’s illustration of oppression and the seven deadly sins, Sur’s plea to preserve the safety of the city’s people of color and REVÓL’s examination of the divisive nature of the Confederate flag, La Bestia may be the troupe’s most comprehensive and hard-hitting vision.

Through physical theater, the troupe’s aerialists, acrobats, dancers and jugglers will trace the torturous and often deadly route Central American migrants take to reach the U.S. border.

“The migration route changes because it continues to reinvent itself,” Cruz says, explaining that the main path during the 2010s was a freight train that went from southern to northern Mexico. To cut their trek short, migrants boarded the top of the train and hung on.

Onstage, “The Train” is an apparatus, built for Nouveau Sud by Montreal-based Circus Concepts. It’s also the basis of a striking and magical aerial act, designed to draw the audience’s focus to the risks and dangers the migrants encounter on the crossing.

“The train, La Bestia, is the emblematic figure of the journey,” Cruz says. “They called it ‘The Train of Death,’ El tren de la muerte and ‘The Beast’.”

It was a dangerous passage where death came in many ways — dehydration, exposure, mechanical accidents and people succumbing to sleep before falling to the rocky ground below.

A work-in-progress “soft” opening of La Bestia goes up at Booth Playhouse at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center from July 15–17. An audience Q&A session follows each performance, and the troupe will use this feedback to refine their story for an official “hard” opening from Oct. 27-31, which will then be followed by a national tour in the 2022-23 theatrical season.

The Nouveau Sud Journey

I first encounter the magic of “The Beast” on Juneteenth. I pass the crowds celebrating the first national iteration of the holiday and go to the stage door entrance of the Blumenthal Center, where I’m met by Houston Odum. Odum, a 21-year-old student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts at Winston-Salem, is also Nouveau Sud’s artistic director of creation. For La Bestia, he is co-director to Cruz’s director.

Odum leads me down winding passages that come out backstage onto the circus, where I see troupe members practicing. Recent University of North Carolina-Charlotte graduate Krysta Rogden swings from a trapeze. Off to the side, Peter Ramon juggles. Aerialist Nicole “Strix” Sparks pivots and holds poses inside a heart-shaped hoop suspended from the ceiling. The hoop is a human Milagro, Odum tells me. In Mexico, a Milagro is a tin, often heart-shaped, votive or folk charm, traditionally used for healing.

The Nouveau Sud troupe during a recent ‘La Bestia’ rehearsal. (Photo by Houston Odum)

“Milagro means ‘little miracle’,” Odum offers. Instead of making one big Milagro prop for their show, Cruz and Odum decided to replace the center of it, often colored red, with a human being dressed in red. The suspended folk charm, Odum says, plays a key part in one of the show’s acts, entitled “The Heart of the Jungle,” in which a migrant becomes the Milagro.

Seated in the front row, Cruz has been watching the rehearsal intently. We leave the theater to talk in the lobby. Born in Puerto Rico, Cruz moved from Portland, Oregon, to Charlotte in July 2013 with a mission to develop circus arts in Charlotte while creating a space where underrepresented communities could be empowered to tell their stories.

“That’s where the dream started,” Cruz says. The dream became the basis for Nouveau Sud. “Nouveau Sud, which is ‘New South,’ was a play on words between the term that is used for contemporary circus, which is Nouveau Cirque, and what everybody talked about when I moved to Charlotte: the ‘New South’,” Cruz says.

Nouveau Sud during a past performance. (Photo courtesy of Nouveau Sud)

In 2014, an Arts and Science Council grant initiated the formation of the troupe. In April 2016, Nouveau Sud’s inaugural show formally launched the company. That show was simply called Nouveau Sud.

“It’s like when a band starts and the first album is the name of the band,” Cruz says with a chuckle. He sees the current show as a culmination of the troupe’s recurring themes and mission.

“With the Suds, this is not primarily a Latinx cast,” Cruz says. “We are Black, brown, white and Asian.”

The challenge is to present a story about migration that doesn’t look like appropriation. The solution, at least in part, is to look at migration as a whole. Despite media focus on the southern border of the U.S., migration is a worldwide phenomenon that is not specific to Latin America, he says. As the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis – the largest displacement crisis in the world, with 5.6 million registered refugees — illustrates, a migrant may look like anyone.

“How can we be more compassionate with each other?” Cruz asks. “Every time we see somebody from another country, we should take a moment. Instead of judging immediately we take a deep breath and say hold on. This person has gone through a lot to get to this point. Just maybe give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Coyotes, jaguars and journalists

Given the diversity of their troupe, Cruz and Odum decided to take an unconventional yet intuitive approach to casting La Bestia.

“We’ve been looking a lot at these artists we’re working with. Who are the people of Nouveau Sud?” Odum says.

Instead of the directors telling the performers what character they will play, they let the performers dictate their character. Odum points to troupe member Brandon Lomax as an example. As Cruz and Odum observed Lomax rehearsing, they realized his movement and style reflected a story. They decided Lomax would be the perfect fit for the part of The Coyote. Other characters also emerged organically by working with the artists one-on-one.

Nouveau Sud
Kirsten Taylor keeps her balance during rehearsal. (Photo by Houston Odum)

“There is an ensemble of migrants following a lead migrant, as well as a character that references the power of the ancestors,” Cruz says. Influence from our ancestors live in all of us, he continues, pointing to the past that inspires and animates the Juneteenth celebrations going on outside the theater.

“I feel my Taino heritage. We cannot ignore that. When I do acrobatics, I feel now not only [myself], it’s all the people that did something similar before me — all the shoulders we’re standing on.”

For the purposes of La Bestia, the ancestral arises from the mestizo influence that undergirds Central American culture.

It’s the legacy of the Mayans, enhanced by the show’s production design, which draws on magical realism, the literary genre pioneered by Latinx authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and Jorge Luis Borges, that combines naturalistic narrative with surreal elements of dream or fantasy.

The ancestral and magical realism combine when the migrants cross paths with the character of The Jaguar, which appears in “The Heart of the Jungle.”

The jaguar figure, which is prevalent in Mayan culture, represents knowledge, courage and the journey between light and darkness, Cruz says. To reflect the past with the present, the ancestral with the now, the costume for the jaguar figure mixes the organic and the metallic, Odum says.

Nouveau Sud
A rendering of the jaguar puppet. (Artwork by Houston Odum)

“You’ll see a lot of angles and sharp lines in our jaguar,” he says. “Yet, the actual material looks very natural.”

With an understanding of the heritage of magical realism, the troupe creates urban-related theater, explains Cruz.

“We’re starting to call what we do magical urbanism,” he says. “We put a twist on the word ‘urban’ because it is often used to diminish the underrepresented communities in metropolitan regions. We … own the word and go deeper. We are all the diverse communities in the metropolitan urban regions in all that we bring.”

The character of The Reporter ties the production’s urban realism with current events. Cruz points out that many reporters have been killed while covering the migrant experience, yet reportage is a double-edged sword. Bias cannot be ignored.

“We have to ask, who is reporting? From what angle? And who is the reporter serving?”

Even with bias factored in, and racist propaganda discounted, we can’t forget the ephemeral nature of facts in our instant information age, Cruz posits.

“We are a click culture now when we hit likes on any social issue, and that’s where the action stops for a lot of people,” Cruz says. He points to the heartbreaking image of a drowned father and daughter on the banks of the Rio Grande that went viral in June 2019. “Two days later, it was gone.”

The curtain rises

When the curtain rises on La Bestia, audiences will encounter a traditional Central American circus hosted by a stereotypical ringmaster.

In part, this is Nouveau Sud paying tribute to the rich tradition of circus arts. But then the veil is stripped away, along with nostalgic illusions.

“The past, the traditional circus, the Golden Age, is destroyed,” Cruz says. “It’s a violent act.” The circus company becomes an ensemble of migrants; characters shift and change. Only the ringmaster remains, but as the production takes audiences through the migrants’ ordeal, the ringmaster proves not to be what he seemed.

The traditional circus gives way to a scene called “The Invisibles,” or Los Invisibles, which reminds us that we seldom know the names of the people embarking on this torturous journey. Next the migrants encounter The Coyote, who promises to take them through Mexico in exchange for money. Then the migrants search for precious water.

“We have a scene called ‘Run’,” Odum says. “It’s about the need to go and to go now. It’s about danger and intensity.”

In the scene entitled “The Green,” Nouveau Sud encounters the ancestral through indigenous culture. The migrants’ backpacks turn vibrant and surreal, reflecting the jungle landscape. The scene includes the Milagro in the guise of an aerial heart. A dance called “B Boy Ballet” is also featured. B-boys, or breakdancers, have been employed in past Nouveau Sud projects in lieu of clowns, Odum explains.

Nouveau Sud
Nicole Sparks rehearses with the Heart. (Photo by Houston Odum)

Fun and energetic, b-boys interact with the audience, releasing the tension that builds during the aerialists’ and acrobats’ dangerous feats.

But for “The Green”, the Nouveau Sud crew decided to do something different, something poetic with the b-boys. In “B Boy Ballet,” a b-boy artist comes front and center to share the stage with a classically trained ballet dancer.

“We’re putting them in one act without trying to change the style of dance, to show how we can be alike in many ways, but still retain our uniqueness.”

The first act concludes with the arrival of the train. Like Act One, Act Two features the troupe balancing on canes, juggling and performing on aerial straps, trapezes, hoops and more as they depict the migrants sharing food, dealing with solitude, escaping, encountering the wall and coming to their journey’s end.

“A migrant moves from point A to point B by necessity, not by wish,” Cruz says. “Nobody says, ‘I’m going to leave the comfort of my house and go on this perilous journey, and drag my children to the border.’ Their path is a drive for survival.”

The inspiration for ‘La Bestia’ 

La Bestia is a show eight years in the making,” Cruz says, the inspiration for which came from several sources.

The first and earliest is a classic novella, widely read in Latin America, called Lazarillo de Tormes. It traces the adventures of a young man, abandoned by his family, who goes from master to master, eventually learning to subvert a corrupt system in order to survive. The novella was published in 1554, during the Spanish Inquisition, by an author who wished to remain anonymous due to the work’s heretical content.

“It deals with how evil people in power, including the church, can be,” Cruz says. “Back then you could die for writing something like that.”

Elements of Lazarillo de Tormes informed Cruz’s solo piece Picaro, which he developed at the Baryshnikov Center in New York before debuting the project at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in April 2019.

Krysta Rogden hangs out at rehearsal. (Photo by Houston Odum)

In Picaro, Cruz employed acrobatics, masks and circus arts to tell the story of a lone migrant crossing Mexico for the fabled “land of the free.” He encounters friends, thieves, priests, nuns and coyotes, learning to become a trickster in order to survive his treacherous journey. The narrative is framed by a child telling the tale at a detention camp at the U.S. southern border.

“Picaro is a trickster. The trickster is somebody who takes the hits, the falls, the bruises and the bleeding [and] they stand up and go on,” Cruz says.

Though the solo show prompted Cruz to internalize the trials of the migrants’ journey, and thereby understand it better, he always felt the power of the migrants story deserved an ensemble piece, “because there are multitudes of people migrating.”

Yet the most-lasting influence for La Bestia is a trip Cruz took to Mexico in 2014. He was there trying to dream up a project with a colleague, when news broke of the discovery of mass graves of migrants in the nearby Mexican countryside. In Cruz’s mind, the horrific fates that befall migrants in the trek across Mexico was juxtaposed with the trials of the immigrant Latinx community members he knows in Charlotte.

“Everything changed for me,” Cruz says.

With four previous projects under Nouveau Sud’s belt, Cruz feels the troupe have generated enough foundational work to start sharing the ambitious story of La Bestia. The journey to this point has included personal research, visiting refugee centers and interviewing migrants who have gone through the journey.

“There is so much truth in the development of La Bestia,” Cruz says, while cautioning that the show will provide no easy answers to the ongoing plight and incarceration of the migrants.

“We leave it open, because we want people to complete the story,” he says. “If we tell you everything, its not going to land, but if you make your own conclusions, it goes deeper, and the images — and your questioning — last a little bit longer.”

The production has received several grants to help spread its message. One $25,00 grant from the Knight Foundation was originally awarded pre-COVID. The troupe has also been awarded a NEFA (New England Foundation for the Arts) grant of $105,000, which breaks out into $70,000 for creation of the piece and $35,000 for touring. In addition, there are microgrants covering costs for at least three venues outside of Charlotte to help boost the touring life for the company once it’s on the road.

“We are just taking that next step for the company of going beyond Charlotte to represent the city, tell our stories from the people from this area, gain knowledge from the tour and come back,” Cruz says.

La Bestia represents much, Cruz says. The production shines a light on the migrants’ torturous journey, extols the common humanity that we share with migrants, pulls together the themes that thread throughout all of Nouveau Sud’s work and provides visibility for underrepresented communities.

This last item was a prime motivator for Cruz to launch the troupe in the first place.

“With La Bestia we talk about the international intercultural phenomenon of migration, but we started out by thinking about how we can serve the Latinx community,” Cruz says, “right here in Charlotte.”

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