Cora! Cora! Cora!

Artistic director Cora Cardona's style--passionate, arrogant, riveting, domineering--makes Teatro Dallas special and her enemies livid

The small crowd huddled inside and around a tent pitched on a vacant lot on Good Latimer near Swiss. The weather hit below-freezing temperatures, and the TV news broadcasters stirred panic over a coming ice storm that never came. But the citizens and city employees who collected here had waited too long for the groundbreaking ceremony of the new Latino Cultural Arts Center--roughly 15 years, to be precise--to let the coldest day of the new winter keep them away. For those lucky enough to be seated inside or standing at the front of the unsheltered rows peering through the tent's opening, a host of luminaries took their turn to herald this still-to-be-built institution for the city's Latino population. One problem: Most of these crowing roosters--Mayor Ron Kirk, City Councilman John Loza, City Manager Ted Benavides, a priest who led a prayer to the Virgen de Guadalupe--had contributed little substance either to the Latino Arts Center specifically or Dallas' Latino arts in general.

Their presentations made one absentee from the podium roster all the more conspicuous. She was at the ceremony, seated inside the tent, noticeably and uncharacteristically quiet--a small, striking woman with straight black hair. Cora Cardona, artistic director and co-founder of Teatro Dallas, serves on the artistic advisory board of the Latino Cultural Arts Center, but unlike the ceremonial heralds who trumpeted this moment in Dallas history, she was helping to make that history happen way back in the early '80s, when people convened weeknights at her theater to discuss the embryo of an idea for such a center.

She was, of course, a natural choice to conduct such conversations. She'd arrived here from Austin in 1984, and almost instantly became creator of some of the city's bloodiest, sexiest, most sophisticated theater, often commissioning new work or translating existing Latino scripts from Mexico and Spain and Portugal into English world premieres. For her annual International Theater Festival, she imports cabaret singers and puppeteers and dancers who've often played nowhere else in the United States. She also has been an outspoken, opinionated advocate for increased arts funding, lobbying (some say pestering) city council members and budget heads and cultural center planners. Often, it's her art she's scrambling to get financed, because maintaining an artistic standard as steely and provocative as Cardona's requires perpetual stumping. "I am not good at PR," Cardona confesses in her rich, unabridged Mexican accent. "I am not a good bullshitter. It is not in my nature."

A Teatro trio, from the top: Scott Latham and Cardona in Profane Games; The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Eréndira and Her Soulless Grandmother, with Bryan Matthews and Susanna Guzman as lovers who plot to murder her tyrannical grandmother in the world premiere of Cora Cardona’s translation; and Susanna Guzman, Francis Munoz, and Frank Mendez in Teatro’s serenely eerie Day of the Dead show, Howling at the Moon.
Teatro Dallas
A Teatro trio, from the top: Scott Latham and Cardona in Profane Games; The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Eréndira and Her Soulless Grandmother, with Bryan Matthews and Susanna Guzman as lovers who plot to murder her tyrannical grandmother in the world premiere of Cora Cardona’s translation; and Susanna Guzman, Francis Munoz, and Frank Mendez in Teatro’s serenely eerie Day of the Dead show, Howling at the Moon.
Marisela Barrera, who has worked with Cora Cardona, now runs Cara Mia Theatre. She calls Cardona's style "pan-Latino."
Teatro Dallas
Marisela Barrera, who has worked with Cora Cardona, now runs Cara Mia Theatre. She calls Cardona's style "pan-Latino."
As a stage director, Cardona is forceful, visionary, mythic--and sometimes intimidating and frustrating to actors.
Mark Graham
As a stage director, Cardona is forceful, visionary, mythic--and sometimes intimidating and frustrating to actors.

A bit of bullshit, however, can make the wheels of private and public donations turn a little faster, especially for an artistic entity like Teatro Dallas, which does not fit the friendly socket of "multiculturalism" as defined by civic and cultural visionaries. In the purest sense of the word, Cardona's work is more "multicultural" than what people usually mean--Mexican-American or African-American or American Indian--when they say the word. She showcases Cuban performers and tinkers with Aztec ritual and symbolism and strives to demonstrate the African link to Latino culture. Once or twice a year, Cardona and her troupe represent the United States in festivals around the world. But she is more interested in art, or at the very least a suspenseful story, than "affirming ethnicity or celebrating diversity." Although she's certainly addressed them, the assimilation experiences and immigrant tales are not her primary interest; her influences are likely to be as foreign to a Dallasite of Mexican descent as to an Anglo resident. In a city where the Chicano voice grows ever more confident in elected and appointed offices and with institutions like the Latino Cultural Arts Center, she's a bit of a loner even among her fellow Latinos. To some degree, though, she's proud of her independence, her unclassifiability.

But on the last night of their 1998 Dia de Los Muertos performance, Teatro Dallas' rented space at Commerce and Central burned to a crisp hollow, with expensive equipment lost. Cardona and her artistic associates have been valiantly producing in temporary homes--including, at one point this year, holding shows in a tent at Samuell-Grand Park. But the quality of the work has been hobbled by their itinerant status; the audience they'd spent 13 years nurturing has begun to disperse, weary of following them to so many places.

Cardona has got to wonder, Will Teatro's audience stay with them if they can't find a permanent space? And will the single-minded passion that has often alienated Dallas' cultural, political, and theatrical community hamper her attempts to get that space? During the years that led up to Teatro's displacement, many leaders in the Hispanic community either didn't know Cardona existed or dismissed her because she does not make proud artistic statements about being a minority in America--even though she's trained a generation of young Mexican-American actors with little or no previous theatrical knowledge. Ironic, because in many ways Cardona is Latino theater in Dallas, or at least the wellspring from which most of it has come.

Still, anyone who has seen the best of its work and truly understands what the phrase "world class" means knows that Dallas needs Teatro as much as Teatro needs a home. And if Dallas needs Teatro, it needs Cardona, the heart of the troupe--not only because the city is lacking in quality Hispanic theater in proportion to its exploding Latino population, but because we cannot lose another theater of fervor and risk. The company is not without allies--Margie Reese, director of the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, is trying to help Teatro land its own space through the city's facility reimbursement till--but there has not been a community call from Latinos and other stage artists for assistance to match its importance to the city. In a time of need, Cora Cardona stands apart now as she always has.

Sitting across from Cora Cardona in the dimly lit Library at The Melrose, I was treated to a command performance from a woman whose intense, florid manner makes chatting about newspaper headlines sound like a reading of Lorca. Born in Mexico City 50 years ago to a prosperous family, Cardona's father was a nationally known poet, journalist, and radical; her mother died when she was only 12. She studied theater at the prestigious National Institute for Fine Arts in Mexico and has trained and workshopped all over the globe. She combines a mime's fervor for gesture--she motions, she flags, she points--with knowledge of how cultures overlap and intertwine. Never baptized in the Catholic Church, she converted to Judaism when she married Jeff Hurst, has a houseful of books about Jewish law and philosophy, yet insists that the idea of the state of Israel--that is, any state whose foundation is religious--is wrong. She says she can understand the powerful allure behind la Virgen de Guadalupe, the so-called "Patroness of the Americas," but declares that la Virgen was little more than a political device created by imperialist Spain to keep the Mexican Indians down. And what's her idea of a great name for an arts center or a space of her own?

"Cesar Chavez," she says, dramatically emphasizing all four syllables of the organizer of American migrant workers. "A farmer and a revolutionary leader whose people bled in the fields for him. He waved a flag that said, 'There are no countries. The world is our country.' Can you imagine anything greater than coming to the Cesar Chavez Theater to see Japanese Noh?"

An outlook divergent, perhaps, from the commercial capital of Dallas, where planners of the Latino Cultural Arts Center briefly but seriously flirted with the name "Jose Cuervo Center" if it meant getting a fat corporate gift in return. Cardona admits she had to adjust to this city after she'd lived in more bohemian cities like San Francisco and then Austin, where she met her husband in 1978. Cardona and Hurst, a cameraman and film/TV lighting tech, came here because there was so much production work available. Eventually, she says, she began to look at Dallas' relative newness and reputation for entrepreneurial encouragement as offering possibilities unavailable in other places. But Cardona's initial attempts at trying to get city support were rebuffed, she says.

"I called the Office of Cultural Affairs [then known as the Division of Cultural Affairs], and they said, 'We have nothing for you,'" she remembers. "And Jeff said, 'Call them back; they're set up to help artists.' So I called more times. I think they thought I was a crazy woman. Then a woman named Vicki Meek answered. And I thought I was in heaven. It was the complete opposite. She listened to me. She said, 'Let's set up a meeting.'"

Meek steered Cardona to an alliance of middle- and upper-class Mexicans who loved the arts--"it was a social scene with a cultural touch," says Cardona--and they served as an umbrella organization under which Cardona produced her first Dallas play at the Bath House Cultural Center, a tale of a Puerto Rican woman and her Americanized granddaughter in New York City called Maggie Margarita. Every night was sold out, Cardona's name began to circulate among arts funders and public officials, and she decided that this was the city where she wanted to do theater full time. She and Jeff got their nonprofit status, assembled a board of directors, appointed Vicki Meek as the president, and switched on the Teatro Dallas marquee. As Cardona's imagination expanded and grew wilder--more sex, more blood, political satires that looked skeptically at gender roles, absurdist theater, tragedies about vampires, comedies about children living with dead, decaying parents--she encountered mixed reactions from all sides. Scott Latham, a Dallas actor who's worked with Cardona on many occasions, half facetiously sums up Teatro's shows as always containing some combination of three elements--he points to his heart (love and hate), his crotch (sex), and then the sky (spirituality, transcendence from death). The quality of Teatro's performances, her direction and her performances, and her eerie, smoky theatrical atmospherics were often hailed, but some critics in the city consistently found different work than what they expected.

"Some Anglo critics said, 'You're not Mexican enough, you're doing avant-garde, which is European," she says. "And I was like, 'This is avant-garde Latin American theater, about our experiences as Indians and blacks and Spanish.'" As for the Mexican-American population, Cardona says, "I was really hit hard with how segregated the city is. In Mexico City, I wasn't questioning my identity, so I could watch Mexicans perform German and British plays and not be bothered. I didn't have to worry about, 'Is it enough like me?' But I think the audience we grew for Teatro Dallas began to realize, 'This is not the '60s anymore. This is not all about us. We're part of a family that includes Central Americans and South Americans and the Spanish and Cubans.'"

Vicki Meek is now director of the South Dallas Cultural Center, but during her stint helping Teatro build a base of supporters, she recalls some frustration at a tangle of agendas, misunderstandings, and conflicts that she claims continue today.

"Teatro Dallas has never been treated with the respect it deserves," Meek says. "What they do is difficult, challenging, and it's not going to get broad public support. There is not a lot of support in Dallas' Latino community for what she does. Part of it has to do with a historical rift between Mexicans and Chicanos. Some of it has to do with a lack of appreciation. Cora is not a narrow thinker, she likes to experiment with styles, and it's tough for some people to get behind her."

She declines to name individuals and businesses in the Mexican-American community that she pursued for funds, because they remain potential sources for the theater. But she notes that many either had no idea what Teatro was (and weren't terribly interested in finding out) or gave small, temporary amounts that were never equal to what they funneled into, say, Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, a traditional, some might say conservative dance troupe.

Clara Hinojosa, director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, who is a Mexican national, an admirer, and a friend of Cardona's, says, "It's a touchy thing to say, but Mexican-Americans can be a difficult group to please. They still struggle with their identities. They're either too much or too little of one thing; they get criticism from Mexicans and Americans. But I think Cora has catered to them, certainly more than any Mexican director of an arts group that I know. She has done Mexican-American, Chicano theater. But she has also kept her integrity. If a theater piece is bad, no matter who it's about, she will say it's bad, and she won't do it. She won't bend and do lighter work."

Some sentiment lingers in the theater scene that because Cardona believes that she often is the smartest person in any room she enters (and she often is), her attitude is one of impatience and even condescension. One performer, a native Hispanic Dallasite who studied theater in college and several years ago acted in a show that Cardona directed, said anonymously of her work with Cardona: "She overwhelmed me. I felt stupid and small." When asked if Cardona had made her feel stupid and small, or if she was just intimidated, the reply was: "I don't know. She's a very demanding director, and a lot of us were unfamiliar with the techniques she uses. When you add that to the whole minority thing, constantly questioning your value in the larger society, it doesn't make you feel very good about yourself."

Cora Cardona recalls a moment when, soon after Teatro Dallas began producing, a former stage critic for The Dallas Morning News asked her why she used so few Latino actors. Because, Cardona insisted, there were so few Latino actors available. It's true that, over the years, Teatro shows have often featured men and women who are considerably younger than the characters they play, prompting some ticket buyers to wonder if the troupe should be renamed Cora's College. She does not shrink from her role in rigorously shaping young performers who have limited theatrical experience: "I had to do a lot of my teaching in the month of rehearsals [before the show]. Sometimes I'd go on for six hours, although I don't now. I will always take chances with Latino actors, because it is my responsibility. I haven't bothered as much with Anglo performers. My attitude has been, 'You better be good.' I don't mean that to sound like discrimination, but it was a social reality I was dealing with."

Marisela Barrera, currently artistic director of Dallas' only other Latino theater troupe, Cara Mia, was directed by Cardona once years ago and acknowledges that it was a "very different experience" from what she learned getting a theater degree at Southern Methodist University. She calls Cardona's style "expressionistic" and, somewhat more academically, "pan-Latino"--it encompasses a multi-headed cultural expression of Mexican and Chilean and Spanish and Portuguese and Cuban whose links across the planet are myth, symbol, and history. Barrera chalks up some of the difference between them as merely institutional--the National Fine Arts Institute of Mexico and SMU, like any colleges with renowned performing arts departments, are cultures within themselves whose techniques and methods are rigorously upheld. But when pressed to be more specific about how the Teatro rehearsals differed from her past training, she had to really think about the question.

"She's Mexican," Barrera declares finally, simply. "I'm Mexican-American."

A misconception that has plagued Teatro Dallas since its inception is that the shows they present are in Spanish. There have been the occasional Spanish-language events, mostly from imported productions of their annual International Theater Festival, but Cardona works in the tongue of her adopted homeland. Vicki Meek remembers that one woman, a first-time attendant, declared after a production that she was surprised she understood most of it. Meek asked her, "Why? The whole thing was in English."

This perception is ironic, since the company within the Dallas stage community that most resembles Teatro Dallas isn't another Latino theatrical entity, but the Undermain Theatre. Besides some obvious parallels concerning history and programming--both began in the mid-'80s, have women as artistic directors, have worked with the same tight circle of actors, and have commissioned or premiered works by national and internationally known playwrights--these troupes share an anarchic sensibility that includes a tendency to laugh at death, challenge official versions of spirituality, remind us about the consequences of economic divisions, and flaunt fair doses of sex and violence (like the Undermain, Teatro Dallas has lost corporate funding because of the content of one of its shows, when a white actress simulated fellatio on a black actor). The leftist elements in both their productions are often subsumed beneath a lush visual aesthetic, which in Teatro's case comes courtesy of Cardona's husband, Jeff Hurst, a lighting designer who creates mystical glows, flickering walls, and spilled pools of light over and across smoky stages.

Although not generally interested in topical controversies, Cardona did revive a tragedy in 1993 that had been a political catalyst for the Mexican-American community here two decades earlier; nearly every house was sold out when she directed Santos, which recounted the 1973 "Russian roulette"-style murder of a Chicano youth by a Dallas police officer that almost incited a West Dallas race riot. Normally, her social tragedies are expressed in a more global, mythic manner--the blood red ribbon-festooned The Holy Inquiry (1997) concerns a young Brazilian woman in 1750 who is tortured and killed by the Roman Catholic Church after a sexually repressed priest is sent into a pious tailspin when her mouth-to-mouth rescues him from drowning. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Eréndira and Her Soulless Grandmother (1998) saw a witchy matriarch in a grotesquely wrinkled mask who pimps her granddaughter to a desert camp of soldiers after the girl accidentally sets their house on fire. The girl eventually gets her revenge, but audiences sat breathless as she lay weeping and obscured in the back of a wagon while a line of hooting, chortling men stroke their own giant, prosthetic phalluses, lined up as shadow projections behind a screen.

You might assume from these descriptions that subtlety isn't one of Cardona's concerns, and it's true that generally she pushes her performers to eschew psychological realism for a more operatic pitch. But if Freud and Jung robbed mythology and fairy tales to build the Euro-Western frame of mind, Cardona specifically and Latino artists in general merely reach back further and return to those "fabulous" common roots--fable, myth, storybook, epic poem. Rationalism and naturalism are beside the point.

Cardona herself readily admits that her troupe's style can be called "melodramatic" or "flamboyant," but doesn't think about those adjectives in a pejorative sense. When Mexicans are in love, she says, they can't sleep and will serenade each other outside the bedroom window at 3 a.m. She embraces this cultural refusal to suppress passion--be it anger, fear, love, hate, or lust--as a distinguishing characteristic, not a flaw, a mark that's unique and revealing rather than a scar that disfigures. She goes on to give an anecdote about one of her visits to Peru that illustrates nicely how perceptions can get crossed.

"We went to the Museum of Gold, which contained all gold pre-Hispanic pieces," she recalls. "They were thousands of years old, and most of them were celebrating sexual acts. They were doing it in every possible way--penises and breasts and vaginas everywhere. An American couple was standing there and they said, 'My God, the Incans were animals.' And I walked over to them and said, 'You are looking at it from your Christian European perspective. It's not pornography; it's celebrating sexuality and creation and applauding our wonderful body. It's an homage to life.' The woman came back to me later and said, 'You're right. This isn't pornography. There's not that sense of morbidity or aggression or hostility.'"

Her style of directing actors to raise the most intimate fears and yearnings to that celebratory pitch stems from her own years taking lead roles at Teatro Dallas. She has since retired as an actor, feeling that she's run the gamut of roles that intrigue her. "I don't want to sound like a diva," she chuckles, "but there are only two or three directors in America right now I'm interested in working with, and they're not in Dallas." Her onstage work was simultaneously flamboyant and disciplined; she walked a treacherous line of wild-eyed spontaneity and classical refinement and almost always kept her balance. She rarely stole focus from her fellow performers, but there is a sense that Cardona was so very much alive and alert onstage that her co-stars couldn't resist but take her lead. Two of her last and best roles were in two-character plays, both directed by Mexican theater artist Eduardo Ruiz Savinon. Profane Games (1993) featured her and Scott Latham as a brother and sister who carried on an incestuous love affair in the same house with their parents' corpses. The children had killed them and, one Christmas Eve, took their decaying skeletons out to re-enact the night Dad discovered their forbidden love and had to be eliminated along with Mom. That same year, she was a gnomish and temperamental Indian woman in The Tree, plaguing a wealthy, arrogant Spanish widow with supernatural visions involving Satan, an abusive husband, and the tree outside their house. Less ignorant than mischievous, Cardona was an evil little child whose dogged superstition fired a tiny class upheaval in one household.

Regardless of her onstage triumphs, "I prefer directing," Cardona says. "I love working out the timing with the actors, trying to achieve what the playwright wants but at the same time finding imagery that may not be in the text. Sometimes they see a show I've directed and ask, Is that my play?"

Adelina Anthony was an apprentice of Cardona's for two "intense" years in the mid-'90s, during which she traveled to festivals in Ecuador and Peru. She founded Cara Mia and afterward moved to New York and then Los Angeles to attend UCLA on a full scholarship. Anthony now heads up La Macha, L.A.'s only lesbian Latina troupe. She credits her experiences at Teatro Dallas with helping her develop a sophistication that cuts through some of the bureaucratic and provincial bullshit at universities and in hermetically sealed theater scenes like New York City's. She calls Cardona "the pachanga queen," using a Spanish word that means "hard partying." It refers both to Cardona's ability to have a good time offstage--apparently, her Sangria recipe has a legend of its own--and to her passionate need to depict the extremes of living onstage.

"The work [she does] is a hundred times more provocative than what I see the Latino community doing in New York or L.A.," Anthony insists. "Places like Bilingual Foundation for the Arts will not touch the sensuality, the urgency, the confrontationalism. They're muddled in this niceness. Multiculturalism isn't supposed to be this neatly packaged dish that's going to please everyone. Cora does stuff our community doesn't want to talk about. I hate to say it, but silence is a very big part of the Latino culture. Cora is not silent. Some people dislike her, but I don't think they could exist two days in her shoes."

Of Cardona's directing style, Anthony says, "She can be brusque. She's very hands-on. She doesn't take notes; she stands and moves around the theater. Cora takes you and walks you across the stage the way she wants you to walk. That can make you feel powerless in the creative process. But when you finally hit that place, she makes you feel like the greatest actor on the planet. She'll actually tell you, 'Baby, you're the greatest actor I've ever seen.'"

About Cardona's acting chops, which Anthony initially describes as "kick-ass," the former disciple remarks more thoughtfully about an essay she'd read in a collection of theater musings by David Mamet called True and False. The playwright vividly described a time many centuries ago when the best actors so moved their audiences, the latter became scared by their own responses and feared some force within the performers had drained something from them. Occasionally, the actors were hunted down and impaled with stakes, like vampires. "When I read that, " she remembers, "I thought, 'Cora is a vampire.'"

Back in 1992, Cora Cardona and Jeff Hurst cemented their reputation as "certified rabble-rousers," according to one source, when City Councilman Domingo Garcia proposed a radical change in civic arts funding. Emboldened by voter approval of the 14-1 council structure, Garcia, with the very vocal support of Cardona, Hurst, and others, complained--as many still do--that the Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Museum of Art were elbowing the small, specifically ethnic companies away from the trough. Garcia introduced a radical plan for 50 percent "parity" that merely reflected the city's statistical makeup. It failed, but in the following years, with Cardona and Hurst making frequent appearances at City Hall, advocates were able to pressure the council into expanding the percentage of the cultural budget devoted to minority groups to 25 percent.

"The big guys felt threatened by us," Cardona remembers. "We never expected they were going to react like that. It was like we were stealing food off of their plates." As Hurst puts it, "Sometimes you have to bang your head on the door again and again so that other people can walk through it."

Two of what Cardona describes as "mainstream ethnic arts groups" initially distanced themselves from Teatro Dallas, going so far as to insist to city council people in public presentations that Teatro "doesn't speak for all of us." Cardona says she was angered and hurt by the talk, but understands that "when you've had very little, and you get a little more, you're absolutely thrilled at what they give you. You jump up and down. And when someone pushes for more, you say, 'Don't rock the boat.'"

Cardona is, needless to say, not as easily ignored by the city council or the Office of Cultural Affairs as she may arguably be within the mainstream of Dallas' Hispanic community and performing arts circles in general. After the ethnic arts funding fracas of the early '90s, she continued to attend council meetings with her friend Clara Hinojosa, especially during the many moments when progress on funding and building the Latino Cultural Arts Center stalled. She spoke as an artist about the importance of such a venue--although this was well before her own space burned. And she made impressions on some of the right people.

Despite controversy that has surrounded her tenure, Margie Reese of the Office of Cultural Affairs is widely regarded as the strongest advocate for small arts groups that's ever been appointed to a city post. She professes admiration for Cardona and regards her as a "forward-thinking woman."

"We are committed to helping Teatro Dallas find a space, based on what they bring to the community," Reese says, confirming that Teatro Dallas has applied for and received funding from the city's Facility Reimbursement program, which helps homeless companies lease private spaces for performance. "It takes time for a product of the kind Teatro Dallas offers to work its way into the cultural system of the city. We lose a lot of organizations because space is such an issue, and there is no chance for any kind of longevity for these groups."

On the question of whether Teatro Dallas could receive some kind of resident status at the proposed Latino Cultural Arts Center, Reese acknowledges that no rules exist to prevent an organization from being first in line for production slots at a cultural center. Indeed, 14 or 15 city buildings, she notes, from the Dallas Museum of Art's facility to the Meyerson, contain single entities that have contracted full seasons. Reese makes final decisions about the Latino Cultural Arts Center and will continue to do so through the Office of Cultural Affairs until she leaves for Los Angeles this August. That may include the appointment of a director who will make programming choices, but she demurs at this early stage about making any promises to any troupes.

"Look, we don't even have a building yet," she points out. "So when you talk about who will or won't be a 'resident company,' you're talking about an issue we won't be able to deal with right now. We have to get through construction. Then we can think about programming. I hope the demand will be great for this building, that Teatro and Anita N. Martinez and Ballet Ollimpaxqui will all be able to utilize it, that there will be so many requests it will never be empty.

"But right now," she adds, "the fact that Teatro Dallas needs a new home is the No. 1 priority, not where it will be."

At this writing, Teatro Dallas had not yet learned about the status of another option--a space on Gaston Avenue. Under the city's 2000-2001 cultural budget, they will receive money to help with the rent--the same assistance Cara Mia gets that enables them to alternate shows in the Undermain's basement space. Teatro's board of directors had sent back a version of the lease drafted by the building's owner with some requested changes; it's uncertain whether an agreement will be reached. Additionally, the people who are renovating an art deco movie theater in Fort Worth called The Marine have approached Cardona with the possibility of performing Teatro's pieces there. Many who appreciate what Cardona does think that Teatro having its own theater is the best arrangement for everyone. "Cora has a very clear artistic vision," says one city employee. "I don't think she'd be happy with the city as her boss."

While some sort of marriage between Teatro Dallas and the Latino Cultural Arts Center seems obvious on paper, they are by no means a perfect fit. In her role as artistic advisor, Cardona attempted to steer planners toward a smaller, more functional theater space; the folks at the Office of Cultural Affairs wound up choosing a traditional, proscenium-style, 300-seat architectural design that would both limit variety of staging and introduce a considerably larger house than Teatro is accustomed to filling with its often daring fare. Speaking of which--would a taxpayer-financed venue be tolerant of some of Cardona's more sexually charged productions? Cardona knows she'd have to operate under necessary city guidelines, but can't predict how that would affect her scary, erotic, international fantasias getting produced in the Latino Arts Center.

Which makes you wonder--if Teatro Dallas isn't guaranteed a few spots every year on the Center's schedule, exactly who will keep its theater space not only active, but relevant? As noted, Cara Mia has a temporary home in the Undermain basement space via the city's Facilities Reimbursement Program, with an eye toward something more permanent at the Ice House Cultural Center in Oak Cliff. Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico is dealing with severe financial troubles and has been, over the last few years, a dormant organization in terms of season performances--they concentrate mostly on classes, festivals, and school tours. There's the Ollimpaxqui Ballet Company, which covers some of the same territory as Ballet Folklorico but with an Indian flavor; they take the stage even less frequently than Anita N. Martinez. What this pair specializes in, however rooted in heritage it may be, is far from the highest art forms that the Latino culture has to offer; imagine if the Bath House dedicated its space to square dancing and quiltmaking. As one former city employee, a Latino, said of Ollimpaxqui Ballet and Anita N. Martinez, "There are only so many times you can watch that damn deer-dance."

Currently, those are pretty much the only Hispanic troupes active or semi-active in Dallas. The aforementioned ex-employee notes that Cardona has done what he thinks the city should have been doing all along for its minority artists--not just handing them money, but working with them so they can master the practical realities of their art form, so they can be more professional and ready to compete for support. Had that happened, he insists, there might now be more Latino artists to fill the Latino Arts Center. Homeless, hobbled, and exhausted from the journey though it may be, Teatro Dallas is far more indispensable to the city than a shiny new cultural center dedicated to flowermaking and folklorico ever could be.

As if 16 years of blood- and sex-soaked literary adaptations weren't enough to drain her, Cardona admits the struggle to find stability for her small, risk-taking troupe has depleted her. "I am 50," she says. "You get to an age where you look around and you crave security.

"You don't have the desire you did in your 20s to work every day and every night to support yourself and make theater." At this point in her life, Cardona explains, it's the nights that sustain her. She is a constant and vivid dreamer, and recalls all of them. When she's reading a script, and a picture or a situation from her nocturnal life pops back into her head, she has no choice but to return to the stage and connect the two.

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