Most people only get one quince, the traditional Hispanic coming-of-age/coming-out party for 15-year-old girls.
At 45, Octavio Campos is way beyond a traditional celebration — and as a boy, he never got a party anyway. And so the flamboyant Cuban-American performer, teacher and choreographer-director-producer is compensating by throwing himself not one but three quinces in a single performance.
But TRPL Quince, which has its first showing Wednesday at Miami Light Project’s Wynwood performance space, looks nothing like the usual elaborately costumed party. Instead, Campos addresses a roiling mass of issues: his Cuban family’s refusal to accept his homosexuality and his desire to be an artist; the sometimes-troubled history of the men in his family; his reasons for making art; the looming challenges of middle age and mortality.
“This is my quince, my walkabout, my bar mitzvah,” Campos says. “My eclectic mash-up rite of passage.”
Its strongest and most immediate inspiration was an adolescent experience Campos says was common among Latino boys. His father marked his passage to manhood by taking him to the Saturn Motel on Biscayne Boulevard and leaving him with a prostitute.
“My father picked me up and said, ‘I have his birthday present,’ ” Campos says. Although he had girlfriends, he suspected he was gay. “I freaked. … I was embarrassed, confused, disgusted. I was scared gay. It really [screwed] me up.” He fled and called his older sister from a pay phone.
The experience was a turning point in an already conflicted relationship with his family over his emerging sexuality and his determination to be a dancer.
“My mother always said, ‘How did you come out like this? It’s like I got you out of the garbage can.’ ”
When he was accepted to the renowned dance school at the State University of New York at Purchase, his parents tried to have him put in a mental institution. Luckily for Campos, it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the legal holiday meant they were unable to get a judge’s signature for an involuntary commitment before Campos left for New York.
“That’s why I feel I need to do this piece — I don’t want any other Latino kids to run away from home because of who they are,” he says. “That’s the bigger message — don’t waste your time hiding.”
Quince is also Campos’ attempt to mark other stages in his life. There was the freedom and fulfillment he found in his 20s and 30s, when he enjoyed a successful career performing with contemporary dance-theater and opera companies in Germany. More recently, he had to face up to middle age and mortality after a bout with colon cancer in 2009.
The experience was made more frightening by the fact that Campos’ father and grandfather both died in their early 50s.
“I’ve lived and played hard, I push myself and my body,” says Campos, whose multifaceted career includes performing, choreographing, producing, teaching at New World School of the Arts and serving as artist-in-residence at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores.
“[ Quince] is a look at the clock and how fast time is moving, and how long the to-do list is before I go.”
He is also using Quince to look back at his father and grandfather’s lives. He was alienated from his father, who brought the family to Miami from Cuba in the early 1960s, walked out just before Campos was born in 1967, and reappeared 13 years later, at one point stealing Campos’ Social Security number. On the other hand, he finds inspiration in the story of his pugnacious, adventurous grandfather, who at 17 left Spain for Cuba, where he became a boxer and accordion player.
“He was a performer, a mover, a risk-taker — that’s where I got it!” Campos says. “He was a real fighter.”
He has been wrestling with these dense, emotion-laden themes for a year, and Quince is still a work in progress. It’s the first show commissioned by the Synapse Performance Project, which was created by choreographer Letty Bassart, artistic programs director at YoungArts, with the aim of bringing Miami dance makers together with collaborators from outside the city.
“The idea is to get people to see Miami as a place where things are made,” says Bassart, who received a $50,000 Knight Challenge grant for Synapse. “To position this as a hub for that creative moment.”
Quince has received plenty of support. Campos worked on it in May during a three-week residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, which will premiere the finished work in January. New York photographer Robert Flynt and videographer and filmmaker David Fishel are working with family photos and other visual material. And dance artist Leslie Neal, whom Campos worked with as a teenager, is serving as director and dramaturge.
“I’ve been helping him find a storyline that we all connect to,” Neal says. “Trying to get him out into that larger realm.”
Campos hopes Quince will help him figure out his own larger story, step by 15-year step. “I’m trying to find peace and be thankful for how lucky I’ve been,” he says. “I’m 45. So I have to do this now.”