Any smoker can relate to the feeling of release they get from a cigarette, the satisfying blend of calm relief and buzzy energy. When artist Marcela Torres started smoking cigars about seven years ago, they were struck by the respite it offered. So began a relationship with tobacco, which has stretched to include its historical connection to colonization and Latin America, its cultivation, and use in ritual, all of which manifest in Torres’s new choreographic work, Iyapokatzin; the venerable tobacco smoke.
“Sometimes an ancestor will call to you, and by ancestor I mean a plant, or an object, or a spirit,” Torres says. “Then when I researched more, I realized how tied it was to political movements or to colonization or to culture or like all these different parts of Latinidad that I just thought were really interesting. So I began to dive in further and further. In different voodoo or other spiritual beliefs, when you find an ancestor spirit, it’s a call to get to know that entity in all these different ways. It’s research but also getting to know the thing itself through other folks or other histories or other communities.”
The Chicago premiere of Iyapokatzin, which is Nahuatl for “venerable tobacco smoke,” will take place at El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen on October 1, with a second presentation the following day at Malinalli Garden in Little Village. (An earlier performance was staged in September at Minnesota’s Franconia Sculpture Park.) The 45-minute piece is less a dance than a ceremony or offering “both to ancestors but also to the public,” Torres says.
Iyapokatzin is the culmination of three years of research into not only tobacco itself, but also into how to properly tell its story, and how to integrate its history into movement and community and Latine diaspora. Its completion, in the ways the artist envisioned, was made possible through the support of Chicago DanceMakers Forum, where Torres is a 2022 Lab Artist.
Torres typically works slowly, learning all they can about a subject, and physically practicing it. Over that research period, Torres grew tobacco at El Paseo and built an adobe monument meant for burning the harvested plant and communally releasing grief. They also learned two different types of historical dances: Azteca-Chichimeca, from Chicago native Izayo Mazehualli, and Folklórico, from Texas-based Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia. Mazehualli will also be performing in Iyapokatzin.
“It’s really important to have a community base,” Torres says. Their collaborators also include La Spacer, a local DJ, producer, and composer who created a score for the performance that incorporates both techno beats and Son jarocho, a style of folk music from Veracruz, Mexico.
“They were important to me, to have somebody who wasn’t going to judge me for being queer in a way, because often these dances can be very binary and controlled,” Torres says. “I’m more comfortable in feeling nonbinary, like not wanting to fulfill certain masculine or feminine roles.”
Torres’s desire to translate these dances in a nonbinary way also comes through in their attire, a flowing black assemblage that pays homage to their goth, clubby teenage years and to the ranchero style of Folklórico dress. “A lot of the Folklórico outfits haven’t changed in a long time, but I wanted to make something that felt more related to my life,” Torres says. “A lot of aesthetics are related to both honoring the pantheon of Aztec gods and also thinking about how the Folklórico outfit can actually make sense to me now.”
Being able to work with people who understood Torres’s diasporic story was crucial—it helped them feel more comfortable in taking traditional movements and making them more contemporary, more relevant to Torres’s life.
“Some forms of Mexican dance can feel really static, both accessible and yet not accessible,” Torres says. “A lot of dance forms are controlled, partially for real reasons—they want to keep them preserved. But when we think about Folklórico, a lot of those dances aren’t that old.” After the Mexican Revolution, which ended in 1920, Torres explains, there was a period of cultural reform, where the bourgeoisie made decisions regarding what cultural practices would be chosen to represent what Mexico was. “They decided the dances and they decided all the costuming,” Torres says. “It wasn’t necessarily the people themselves. The goal was to unify what Mexico was after the war. So it’s interesting that there can be such rigidity on what it’s considered when it was really just a decision of a few people and often not Indigenous people. My goal is for people to see these dance forms as contemporary options for play in the descriptions of our current lives.”
In some ancient stories, tobacco was seen as a healer, a spiritual protector. This idea of protection is one that resonates with Torres, who has trained in martial arts. That training is evident in the performance, in moments where the artist bobs and weaves, or thrusts out an arm or a leg as if in combat. “A lot of the things I’ve been interested in in my practice have to do with personal journeys or knowing self or finding strength,” they say. “This work is not so much a departure, it’s actually really similar.”
Torres says a lot of the movements of Muay Thai, Azteca-Chichimeca, and Folklórico are similar, with a lot of time spent on one’s toes. “You can do everything you want to feel strength, but if you don’t know where home is or your ancestry or your relations, it might not ever feel like safety,” Torres says. “I have the physical strength, but as far as feeling some wholeness with an idea of the spiritual self—that was what I think was missing.” Deepening their relationship with tobacco, and learning its history and connection to Latinidad, has helped bridge that gap.
Though Torres also works in sculpture, ceramics, and other mediums, performance remains their preferred art form. “Through performance, we have a relationship with the body and we have a relationship with a location and other people. Through that, there’s always the quest to figure out what space or objects or movement interact to create this physical, emotional experience,” they say.
“Sometimes I don’t totally understand why I’m making . . . but I feel like they’re all connected to this desire to know the earth or know oneself through the earth.”