At 11 years old, Janet Santoyo didn’t know what a cuatro — the national instrument of Puerto Rico — was.
Seven years later, she’s one of the lead cuatristas with the Avondale-based Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, helping to kick off Chicago Live! at Navy Pier for hundreds of attendees, in a showcase of the “best and brightest” artists from across the city.
The free event, which runs through Sunday, featured dancers, singers and musicians on three stages across the pier — only occasionally interrupted by the sounds of passing jet skis and boats.
In her third annual performance with the group at Navy Pier, Santoyo said her favorite piece was “Soñando con Puerto Rico,” a ‘60s tune written as a love letter to the island of Puerto Rico, because it enveloped what the group came to do while also serving a personal purpose for the musicians.
“I like representing that pride and joy Puerto Ricans have toward their homeland,” said Santoyo, who is of Mexican descent. “As a young person living in America, it’s very important to get in touch with my culture. Having that experience helps me connect with my identity … We can display not only our skills but also what our cultures have to offer.”
Carlos Hernandez, the founder and executive director of Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, stood and watched Santoyo and the rest of the group perform songs from Puerto Rico’s countryside, as well as culturally inspired polka music Saturday morning.
With some of the members having started playing as young as 6, Hernandez said the event was “one of the most important citywide” because it gave the kids a platform to perform while also making the downtown area feel more welcoming for those from other parts of the city.
“One of the things everyone from Chicago’s neighborhoods needs to feel is that downtown is also their neighborhood and that it’s really embracing and welcoming,” Hernandez said. “I think it’s one of the most important events we have citywide … It showcases the rich talents we have in Chicago’s neighborhoods.”
Later, on the same stage, the Chinese dance group Yin-He took over, donning cool-colored costumes for their smooth flowing dances — almost seeming like an artistic interpretation of the waves crashing behind them.
This was intentional, according to one of the group’s co-founders, Amy Xie, who decided to bring the dance “Beside the Water” out of a multiyear hiatus when the group was booked at the event again. According to her, the choreography tells the story of a little girl dancing next to a body of water, which she thought was perfect for the lakeside stage.
“I haven’t done this dance in a few years, but the moment I heard about the event, I said, ‘This is the dance I need to bring to Chicago Live!’” Xie said.
The group also performed other pieces, one of which was a fan dance, which incorporated the younger members of the troupe to show off their skills.
“It shows their youth and energy perfectly,” Xie said.
Gary and Roberta Tolman decided to walk to Navy Pier — as they often do — on the recommendation of their physical therapist, who also works with some of the dance groups.
The couple, self-proclaimed fans of dance and classical music, had been looking forward to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, though Roberta Tolman had looked forward to seeing the Yin-He dancers since she’d seen them perform before.
“It’s wonderful the arts we have here,” she said. “It’s so important to bring our city together,”
“The weather’s great, the show is great,” Gary Tolman added. “It’s a great day on the lake.”
The shows continue at Navy Pier on Sunday from noon-6 p.m.