The tiny Eleutherodactylus coqui, the Puerto Rican tree frog, sings from dusk to dawn, and its music -- somewhere between a whistle and a chant -- permeates the island, reports Lolita Villanua, founder and director of the five-year-old Andanza Contemporary Dance Company.
When her colleague, Brazilian-based choreographer Matias Santiago, visited Andanza in San Juan, he couldn't get that sound and that frog out of his mind. So he created a dance -- the solo "Eleuther" -- paying tribute to the petite creature with the splayed toes. On Wednesday and Thursday, Washington dance audiences will be introduced to the coqui through Santiago's choreography when Andanza dancer Roberto Lopez performs as an amphibian with his rubbery legs, expansive flexibility and a primordial stare.
Villanua takes pride in presenting her Puerto Rican heritage to audiences both at home in San Juan and abroad. "If you come to Puerto Rico one day, you will hear at night the sound of the coqui," she says. "It's very beautiful." Andanza makes its Kennedy Center debut joining nearly a dozen other music, theater and performing groups in the three-week-long AmericArtes festival, which this year focuses on the Espiritu de Puerto Rico. Villanua proudly points out that hers is the youngest company in the invitation-only festival.
When Villanua founded her nine-dancer troupe in 1999, her career had already taken her from the toe shoes and tutus of Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico to the National Academy of Arts in Champaign, Ill., to Brazil's contemporary Grupo Corpo. Back home in Puerto Rico, she returned to a dearth of modern dance opportunities. Andanza, created with like-minded colleagues ready to move on from Ballet Concierto, was meant to provide an outlet for dancers and audiences who wanted something beyond the island's two classical companies.
Villanua, 34, choreographs, dances, teaches and directs the company with an eye to maintaining a connection to the dancers' roots in Puerto Rican soil. "I definitely have a way of moving that is very Puerto Rican," she says. "I'm a salsa lover, so I love hips and movements that are not at all classical." The nine dancers perform with an athletic vigor and intensity that rivals some of the best contemporary troupes in the Americas.
"Fuimonos," one of Villanua's earliest works for Andanza, has a distinctly Puerto Rican flair. " 'Fuimonos' is a very popular idiom to say, 'We're gone, we're outta here,' " she explains. "It's like an icon to us. Everywhere we say it."
The San Juan setting of the work features the city's prevalent iron security bars on doors and windows, which Villanua sees as a metaphor for a variety of barriers in life. "In Puerto Rico we have a very high level of criminality," she says. "The security doors are like a prison lockdown just to get in your house. But at the same time in Puerto Rico, there are beautiful parts of the city. . . . We give the dancers musical instruments and turn it into something positive and dance."
ANDANZA CONTEMPORARY DANCE COMPANY -- Performs Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. 202-467-4600.