A photo othe Urban-15 Group by Ramin Samandari of the 2015 Dia De Los Muertos performance at Hemisfair.
Urban-15 performs at a Dia de los Muertos celebration in Hemisfair in 2015. Credit: Courtesy / Ramin Samandari

One July day in 1974, three musical quintets and dancers occupied an abandoned Clark Field at the University of Texas at Austin to perform an original composition by then-student George Cisneros. The ensemble for that event would go on to form the core of the Urban-15 performance troupe, a gathering of like-minded visual, sound and dance artists that would become an indelible part of San Antonio culture.

To celebrate the multimedia performance group’s 50th anniversary, co-founder Cisneros and photographer Ramin Samandari have curated Images of Motion, an exhibition of photography and video featuring Urban-15's drumming and dancing performances at events like Fiesta, Luminaria and Dia de los Muertos celebrations over the past five decades.

Photographers in the exhibition include San Antonio stalwart Al Rendón, longtime San Antonio Express-News critic Mike Greenberg, Urban-15 Communications Manager Pedro Luna, Todd Johnson, Michael J. Smith, Bryan De La Garza, Samandari and Cisneros’ son, Antonio Cisneros.

Co-founder Catherine “Cat” Cisneros is featured in two Rendón images, one from 1991 and another from Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival in 2008. She said her message today for Urban-15 is largely the same as it was 50 years ago.

Art “brings you to a level of understanding, seeing, using all of your senses — plus your other senses, your third eye,” she said.

A photo by Mike Greenberg shows a child watching the Urban-15 group rehearse through the window in 2000.
A photo by Mike Greenberg shows a child watching the Urban-15 group rehearse through a window in 2000. Credit: Courtesy / Ramin Samandari

Light and movement

Several photographers in the show mentioned Urban-15’s elaborate visual presentation as an ideal photographic subject.

Cat Cisneros’ costumery often incorporates lighted elements, a feature used by Samandari and De La Garza, who said he sees photographing the troupe as an opportunity for creativity.

De La Garza avoids using a flash for nighttime performances and employs long shutter speeds to capture movement, which he said is “what they’re all about,” echoing the exhibition title.

George and Catherine Cisneros are the co-founders of Urban-15 Group.
George and Catherine Cisneros are the co-founders of Urban-15. Credit: Bria Woods / ISF FORUM

Luna said the group’s performance rehearsal for a fall bioluminescence event at Confluence Park also gave him an opportunity for a creative approach, using the reflection from a puddle on the ground to capture Urban-15’s essence.

“They dip their fingers into so many things that people love,” he said of the troupe's involvement in events like Fiesta and Dia de los Muertos parades, Luminaria and the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. Luna sees his mission as communications manager to help raise their profile in the city.

“If my wishes came true, over the next 50 years, Urban-15 would be the most well-known and the most well-funded … performance organization in the arts,” he said, while still maintaining the humility and grassroots salt-of-the-earth approach that he said is their signature.

A photo by Pedro Luna of the Urban-15 Group performing at Luminaria performances in 2023.
A photo by Pedro Luna captures Urban-15 performing at Luminaria in 2023. Credit: Courtesy / Ramin Samandari

A community-based ensemble

George Cisneros said the group has consistently welcomed performers and participants at all levels of experience to audition for the troupe.

“We've developed this concept of what we call the situational ensemble,” Cisneros said. “We pursue the idea of being able to go into a community and do major events and include the community,” which once resulted in a group of 200 joining for the Fiesta Flambeau parade.

If you go

What: Images of Motion photography exhibition
Where: Magical Realism Studio, 107 Lone Star Blvd.
When: Saturday, July 13, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and by appointment through July 30
Cost: free

Rendón’s career as a documenter of San Antonio culture has matched the longevity of Urban-15, and he said he’s photographed them at countless events.

Rendón recalled their initial appearances decades ago as sporadic, then witnessed as they became a ubiquitous presence. “They're part of the fabric of San Antonio culture now,” he said.

George and Cat Cisneros admitted that when they started out, they would never have expected such an experimental undertaking to exist as a cohesive group for 50 years.

“The fact that we're here is completely amazing,” George Cisneros said. Urban-15 has “become a platform for launching ideas and thoughts,” which he said puts them in a good position for the next half-century. “As long as we're open-minded to people and thoughts and ideas, I think we're going to survive,” he said.

URBAN-15 passes President George Bush on reviewing stand during the 2001 Inaugural Parade.
Urban-15 performs during the 2001 Inaugural Parade. Credit: Courtesy / Urban-15

Images of Motion opens with a free Saturday reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Magical Realism Studio, with an Urban-15 performance scheduled for 8 p.m. The exhibition will be on view through July 30, accessible by making an appointment through the gallery website.

To continue the 50th-anniversary celebration, Urban-15 will host a free Reunion Mixer at its South Presa Street headquarters on July 20 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and a free Semi-Centennial Celebration July 21 with live music, food and dancing from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the same location.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...