Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, founded by composer Joe Cerqua, choreographer Wilfredo Rivera, and the late visual artist Matt Lamb, celebrates its 20th anniversary with two programs of new works devoted to American identity, including works by choreographers Shannon Alvis and Monique Haley that explore Native American and African American heritage, as well as the premiere of Rivera’s evening-length work devoted to the immigrant experience, American Catracho. Drawing from his own story and those of his loved ones, Rivera says, “I wanted to share the traumatic components of migrating from another country and the story of working men and women who are looking for a new hope, a new land, a new opportunity.”
Born in Honduras, Rivera arrived in the United States at the age of 12. “My parents are musicians,” he says. “They saw something artistic in me that we don’t have the opportunity to explore and to relish in my country. They wanted to take me to a place where I could study this art form.”
Rivera graduated valedictorian from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a tuition-free arts conservatory that counts Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. among its alumni. Though offered scholarships to college, Rivera could not attend. “There were many things out of reach because I did not have a green card,” he says. “A lot of my professional choices were made because of what I could do with the resources I had, which was my talent. I auditioned for Gus Giordano and Hubbard Street, and I was lucky enough to receive apprenticeships with both of them.” At Hubbard Street, Rivera met choreographer Sherry Zunker, who hired him as a founding member of River North Dance Company, where he danced for several years. Yet as he began to choreograph for musical theater in the city, Rivera realized he wanted to found his own company.
“Since I grew up with musicians, live music was the missing element. That was the initiation for starting Cerqua Rivera. Once you put live bodies behind those notes, it’s going to feel different all the time. Coming from a jazz and Latin background, the effervescent and joyful and spontaneous reaction and counterreaction is inspiring, thrilling,” he says. The company would also prove to be Rivera’s claim to permanent residency. “I became legal because of my work in the community and my company. I was creating work, presenting it, and employing musicians, dancers, and composers. I was teaching for schools as well, bringing dance and arts to [areas of] need. I was able to present all of this as my immigration case.”
“I feel American,” says Rivera. “This is where my life is, this is where I have invested so much energy and talent and artistic language and work.” v