Artist Profile: Les Rivera

by Nick Gilewicz for Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe

A diving scholarship brought Les Rivera to Philadelphia. But once he came to the city, he started to hit the clubs where, as a hip hop dancer, he’d battle other people on the floor. One night he met a guy, who told him about this other guy he worked with, who was doing hip hop dance work in a studio. The first guy was James “Cricket” Colter. The guy with the studio? Rennie Harris.

“For a hip hop dancer going to the club to battle people, the idea of having a studio with mirrors, so you can watch yourself popping and seeing what moves you’re doing to kill people on the dance floor – that’s the dream. The majority of us were there because of the nice floor for head spins, and the mirrors. We didn’t know what it was gonna become.”

“All of us thought that the zenith of our dance experience would be being a backup dancer for some rapper. I think we were all proud that we never had to dance behind anybody.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Les went to middle school and high school in Westchester County in New York State. LaSalle University brought him onto their diving team, but after his first year, Les broke his coach’s heart.
Read on for what happens next!
“I remember at a meet at Notre Dame, I came in one-hundredth of a point short of qualifying for NCAAs. Everybody was like, ‘Who’s this freshman who almost made it?’ I think he’s still mad at me,” Les said. He transferred to Temple University to study dance.

But the chance to do what he loved, as a career, was too compelling, and he left Temple to join Rennie Harris Puremovement as one of the original members in 1992. Les cites one particular show, where Puremovement was booked as the opener for the legendary “Baba” Chuck Davis at the Painted Bride, as one of the turning points for Puremovement.

“I think we did the best show to date that night, and Davis came back stage to talk, told us he loved what we were doing. He brought us to BAM for the DanceAfrica festival, where we played to like 3,500 people. It changed our lives.”

After seeing a good portion of the world with Puremovement, Les left the group in 2005, and spent some time mulling over his career. Much of the past few years he has worked as a videographer, recording performances for Temple University, and started working on Kill Me Now with Melanie Stewart a couple years ago. But lately he’s felt reinvigorated.

“Art-making these days is just fun. I had these dance friends who asked me to be a part of Clowns Without Borders. Last October we went to Cairo. I’d been all over the world, but not in this way. When you’re traveling as a performer, you work in nice theaters, stay in nice hotels. In Cairo, we were walking in streets where it seemed like the trash hadn’t been picked up in years.”

“It opened my eyes to how lucky I was, and how trivial most of the stuff here I worry about really was. Anything I do here is a blessing. [The trip] kind of resurrected me personally. I had forgotten that dance was fun! It’s strenuous, but it’s more fun than sitting around. It’s more fun for me to be on stage for Kill Me Now than on the couch watching MSNBC.”

With Melanie Stewart at the helm the cast started off creating characters and doing improv and games to develop them.
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“I don’t know what the show will be like, but Melanie can stick us in any situation and the characters will respond – like Borat and Bruno. I think Melanie has a powder-keg on her hands with this one. It’s a crowd pleaser, but the intellectual/artistic crowds will still enjoy it. It’s an entertainment with decent things to say. It’s really good to be in this kind of work.”

The past few months have been like a Renaissance for him, Les said. “My motto now is, why not? I’m singing in Spanish, I’m dancing again – I hadn’t danced since leaving Puremovement, and was like twenty pounds overweight – and I had stopped my film work. You know, when it’s what you do for your job, sometimes it’s hard to find the energy to do the same thing when you get home.”

Right now he’s also working on his first animation – taking images from the Web and assembling film. One of his characters has the head of a lion, the face of a clown, a human body with a robotic arm, and a kilt.As El Malito, Les does indeed sing in Spanish, with his band el mailto y sus Caballeros.

“It took me a while to find my own voice. Megan [Mazarick, his girlfriend, co-performer in Kill Me Now and a competitor in The A.W.A.R.D. Show 2009! Philadelphia] encouraged me to sing in Spanish, and I was like, ‘This is America, nobody wants to hear that.’ But people are responding to it. They may not know what I’m saying, but there’s an honesty and truth to it that I immediately have singing in Spanish.”

Les has been getting more deeply involved in dance again as well. He just appeared in the Leah Stein choreographed Battle Hymns at the Armory as part of Hidden City Philadelphia. He’s applying to work with a local dance history project organized by Terry Fox that will reconstruct work performed from around 1980. And he’s also started work on his own dance pieces.

“Rennie would tell us that people are waiting to see what the core members of Puremovement have to say – that grants are out there for our work,” Les said. He plans on finding out, and right now he’s working with Shavon Norris on a one-man show called Platypus. “I’m Puerto Rican, but people look at me and think I’m black, but I’m a hip hop dancer. It’s like I’m little pieces of everything.”

***Photos by Alan Kolc

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