Forrópera Experiência, Community Arts Collaboration at Its Peak

by Isabella Mojares for The Dance Journal 

Premiered via livestream on May 7th, Forrópera Experiência was created out of a partnership between the Esperanza Arts Center (EAC), located in Philadelphia’s Hunting Park neighborhood, and alumni of the Astral Artists program, a music mentoring program based out of Center City. An event that showcased community arts collaboration at its most successful, a review of Forrópera would not be complete without first highlighting the work of the organizations behind the production.

Founded as a hub for Philly’s Latino and Caribbean arts and culture, EAC is driven by a mission to use the arts as a means of fostering and strengthening their community. In addition to hosting a myriad of cultural programs and providing various resources, EAC also has a charter school affiliate, the Esperanza Academy. The brunt of the cast of Forrópera consists of students from the Academy — they are the dancers, speakers, and musicians of the evening. Shifting from filmed stage performance to recordings of Zoom calls, the cast of students shines in every aspect. Throughout Forrópera, there is an ongoing dialogue between the students and Chrystal E. Williams, of the Astral Artists program.

An intensive mentorship for early career musicians, after completing the program these distinguished musicians earn the title of Astral Laureate. Williams, who was a member of the 2014 cohort, is a Laureate in the Mezzo-Soprano category. Forrópera is actually the name of a music duo project made up of Williams and accordionist, Felipe Hostins. Combining their respective musical talents, and Hostins’s Brasilian roots, Forrópera is dedicated to the musical genre, style, dance, and rhythm called Forró. A musical style centered on the trio of an accordion, a triangle, and a zabumba, Forrópera is soundtracked by Hostins’s musical accompaniment and Williams’s piercing voice. The duo were also joined by musicians Gabe Hall-Rodriguez and Davi Vieira.

The strength of the program is most evident in the back-and-forth between the Forrópera team and the students of Esperanza Academy. Tania Y. Ramos Oton, the director of the Esperanza Arts Academy Dance Ensemble and the chair of the school’s arts department, played a major role in the development of this project, which served as the culmination of a semester-long residency. Overall, the show is a collage of moments that show off both the students and the artists’ talents, punctuated with moments of them in dialogue. Prompted by Williams, the students discuss their ideals of community, their hopes and wants for the future. As their voices echo in the background, we are treated with the privilege of getting to see these young adults as performers: taking to the stage, dancing their hearts out. During this time where in-person schooling and performance has been so rare, it is touching to see this young company dancing as one.

At times, the filters and edits overlaid onto the clips got a bit distracting; ranging from vibrant swirls to coloring reminiscent of a thermal-camera, there were moments where the jarring shift took you a bit out of the performance. That being said, the choice to utilize filters and different editing tactics can also be seen as an effort to mimic the vibrancy and funk of Brasilian Forró on the virtual stage.

Watching the show, there was no way to miss the sense of community that was built during the process. To hear students share so candidly, to see them perform so fearlessly, is incredibly inspiring. At one point during the livestream, as I watched a young man dance a beautiful solo section on my screen, I turned my eyes to the chat sidebar. Right as I looked, the young man, Justin Cruz, very proudly announced in the chat: That’s me!!! Love and congratulations immediately poured in the chat. You could feel the pride – not just from teachers and friends watching – but from Cruz himself. What is the job of community organizations but to uplift people? To watch Forrópera Experiência was to see that work in action.

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