Birthing a Company: Part I

For the record, I never wanted to be the director of a dance company. Maybe artistic director one day, when in my 60s, at a University with a joint appointment in Mexican American Studies and a Dance Department. I would probably need a PhD for that, but I digress, I didn’t set out to be a Director. And definitely not an Executive Director of an emerging (read: no money or other resources) non-profit art organization in a grossly underserved region in the West. No. All I wanted to do was choreograph. Choreograph and dance. So how did I get here…?

I wanted to be a choreographer for as long as I could remember. I was creating dances at the age of three to my Strawberry Shortcake vinyl record. I had all of these ideas for dance, props, and the costumes. I loved costumes. Fast forward to the early 2000s. I was in graduate school for Mexican American Studies and auditing dance classes in the University of Arizona Dance Department where I studied as an undergraduate. I was also dancing for a handful, let’s say two-ish, of local modern dance companies in Tucson. And I was miserable.

The Tucson dance crowd at that time was very very clique-y and I was not a part of the in-crowd. The very white, very granola, group of women who comprised the core of the modern dance community at that time thought they were very progressive, but when it came to the social issues that were exploding in Arizona and around the nation at that time – specifically in regard to the 2006 U.S. Immigration Reform Protests, they just didn’t get it. As I was leaving rehearsals or board meetings and a comment was made about my “role in the community” or my then job as Adjunct Faculty in the Mexican American Studies Department, remarks were always made in a snarky semi-sarcastic way that made me question their sincerity. I interpreted these remarks as snide comments, microagressions. And I usually was also the only woman of color in those companies. My short curvy body most definitely did not fit in with the taller thin frames of the other dancers. And when one dancer who was complaining about “all Latinos having muffin tops” or “Mexican food being the unhealthiest,” (and by the way it isn’t), combine with the faces I got when someone, heaven forbid, had to lift me, I took it personally. Microagressions. When I was cast as Zorro or an African slave on an auction block because “I was Latina and that was the closest thing.” I took it personally. (And I am sure that one is much more than a microagression). I felt otherized, ostracized, I did not belong and it was blatantly obvious. I was not a part of the exclusive club. There was absolutely no place for me in that dance community.

Yet, I did not think of leaving Tucson because at that time, I was in one of my dream jobs! As I previously mentioned, I was Adjunct Faculty at the University of Arizona’s Mexican American Studies Department teaching fun classes like Chicana Feminisms, Mexican American Social Perspectives, and Latina/o Representations in the Media, to name a few. I loved that job. I loved teaching the upper division courses and the subject matter inspired me artistically. I could see all these great pieces coming to life in my mind’s eye. I knew that I could take what I was teaching – cultural competencies, participatory action research – and fuse them with the contemporary performing arts to make something relevant for the Latino/a communities in the Southwest. In graduate school, I was indoctrinated by my professors and academic elders that if I had a platform and a chance to have my voice heard, that I, as a woman, a Latina with ancestry from rural Northern New Mexico, as a first generation college student, needed to use that platform to do and say something meaningful for the greater good. I struggled with the fact that I was on stage dancing as a piece of seaweed in rehearsals then 15 minutes later I was protesting immigration policies that could affect my future husband. It felt like cognitive dissonance.

Despite my feelings of “other” in the dance community, I pushed forward, the stubborn woman that I am. I stayed in the companies longer than I should have. I thought out loud at rehearsals about a company that served Latina/o audiences. A company that could apply Chicana epistemologies to modern dance. I was so excited about the possibilities. When I shared my ideas with one of my directors at the time, she told me that “your people don’t watch modern dance.” I was undeterred.

In spring 2006, during the time of the immigration marches, the time leading up to the Arizona State Legislature passing SB 1070 and HB 2281, controversial immigration and ethnic studies laws, I decided to choreograph for one of the company’s choreographer showcases. I worked with two Latina dancers with folklόrico dance backgrounds, both of whom were not in the company, to create a solo piece performed by me in silence. The piece entitled “Estatus: Unsent” incorporated elements of folklόrico and social dance (salsa and reggaetόn) and spoken word in Spanglish, which was my main mode of communication with my friends at that time. The piece was about one woman’s passionate journey through a courtship with an emotionally unavailable lover. It was more dance theater than post-modern dance and it was completely different than any other piece in that showcase. I took pride in the fact that I was using different aesthetics, aesthetics that represented my experiences and those of my friends in a more meaningful way.

Performing this piece of choreography with this company was a terrible experience. My text was questioned and censored in front of the entire cast the night of dress rehearsal, because I used words like “chingado” and “cabrón” in my piece. This happened despite the fact that me and my co-collaborators gave the directors a transcript of what I was saying, that we translated for them from Spanish to English, six weeks in advance! Moreover, the show that my words were censored in featured a piece about gynecological exams with dancers in booty shorts with their ass cheeks hanging out that did not get censored! 10 years later and I am still angry. I put another giant check mark in the box of microagressions. But the icing on the cake came when I overheard another dancer, a dancer I met my freshman year at the UA who I had known for eight years at that point in time, say “My family doesn’t want to see a Mexican woman screaming on stage.” It was obvious to me that she wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Stubborn as I am, I stuck it out with that company for one more year, then I quit dance for the second (and final) time in my life.

Failure + The Tortoise and the Hare

MPA_TortoiseHareImage.jpg

It is 12:30pm on a Monday in February 2015. I am sitting in my incredibly messy home office, desk by the window, glancing out at the warm AZ sun. I have 1 hour before I needed to pick up my son from school. This call can’t go long.

I am on the phone with Tay and Val, two Singaporean documentary filmmakers based in Seattle. We are all going to be attending the first ever Community Arts Gathering in Ajo, AZ in March and Tay and Val are interested in me performing in their ever-evolving traveling project “Dreams Unlimited.”

That is when it happens. Tay casually asks me “What is your biggest failure?”

In Tay and Val’s project, they look at the 5 Fs that they identified as impediments to one achieving their dreams. I can’t remember what the other 4 were, perhaps funding, fear, or family. But it was failure that they ask me about. “What is your biggest failure?”

I tell them that in my personal experience, failure is not a big cathartic crisis where everything falls apart at once, like some Hollywood movie. No, for me, my days are filled with little failures that, over time, snowball into huge failures. And all of these failures have to do with my lack of balance between the million roles I play in my small performing arts company and my most important job, mothering my special needs son. The short fuses, the rushing him out the door, the lack of nights and weekends together, the hours he is in front of a screen while I am writing and administering grants to fund artists – grants where not even a penny of funding comes my way. Those little moments, the countless “hurry up, we are going to be late” and the short “I don’t have time for this” that I say to my son almost every day. Those are my greatest failures.

The Tortoise and the Hare

I’m at the Community Arts Gathering in Ajo, AZ. A day after I performed a compositional improvisation about failure and motherhood, I attend a workshop led by the Kimi Maeda whose performance Bend I saw the night before. Bend combined sand drawings and film footage to retell a true story of two men who were interned in a Japanese American relocation camp during WWII. I am most interested in her work with sand drawings; in particular, the physical movements her body uses to create the drawings. In her workshop participants, such as myself, are going to create sand drawings that illustrate specific challenges their communities face that can be transformed into desired outcomes. Great, I thought, sign me up!

For some reason, I am in and out of the workshop. It may have been for one of the five meetings I have this month with the education team that is evaluating my son for autism services. I may have stepped out to remind my ADHD husband to pick up our kid at a certain time and take him to daycare. It may be the talk I am giving about cultural competency and the arts, or the large org grant I have due this week. But most likely it is all the fires I have to put out given that my show, Dancing the Mural, is less than two weeks away and there is a mural that still needs painting, a frame for the mobile mural that needs building and the organizing of rehearsal and artists travel schedules that are not going to organize themselves!

But here I am in the middle of this workshop. I am sitting next to a woman who I just met. She is one of those people who have a vibe about them; a vibe like you have met them before. I felt like I knew her and there was a genuine calm and inner peace radiating from her aura.

Pretty soon, we are paired into groups and asked to share a situation where we wished we had acted differently. If you knew me, you would know that I don’t do that.

So here we are, getting all warm and fuzzy (barf!). Generally, in a warm fuzzy here-come-the-tear-situations, I stay on the surface. I don’t go deep. I do not like to open up. I do not like to be vulnerable. I do not trust people and I don’t share. If I have to share, I share a mundane story adding some bells and whistles to make it seem deep. I usually don’t share how I actually feel in those situations.

But for some reason, today is different. Perhaps it is because I did the failure performance the night before. Perhaps it is because my guard is down because I am so stressed out and busy with the upcoming show. Perhaps it is this woman’s aura and that feeling that I know her. I ended up actually telling her the truth. I shared my most vulnerable challenge: time and my son. Given my crazy work/life schedule, everything is timed down to the last second. It has to be. The only way I have a snowball’s chance in hell to get anything done is to have my day planned out to the nano second.

My son and husband are my complete opposites. My son once took two hours – TWO HOURS – to eat a meal. They take their time and time is not an issue. It does not exist.

How does this play out in my day to day life? With a lot of yelling. By me. At my son.
To hurry up. “Hurry up, we are going to be late!” “Five minutes, we have to leave in
5 minutes.” “Come on, come on, COME ON!! LET’S GO!” “We’re late, I told you so!!”

Oh my God! I became my mother!

So I share my “issue” with her. I shared that I believe my career is doing irreparable damage to my child’s self-esteem. And I know that the fact that he takes his time is a part of his disability. Unfortunately, the way I have structured my life and my career, I do not have the sacred resource of time to share with my child. The years are flying by and I am busting my ass and giving my all to other artists, sacrificing time with MY CHILD to run a small perpetually under-resourced company. My son and I have lost years that I will never get back. This is a young precious life that I must value to the fullest, but yet, if I don’t do the vast majority of the heavy lifting in my org, there would be no org. The org would fail.

And yet, the artists that work with my org have NO idea the sacrifices I make and what I have to do to give them the little that I can. Their expectations of the dance company’s traditional “heroic leader” are high and I am too under resourced, too overworked, and too underpaid. I cannot meet these expectations. And all the while, the most important person in my life gets yelled at because I am too busy. It feels like a lose, lose situation.

I share and yes, I am afraid she is judging me, as I fear readers may be judging me right now. I feel like a terrible mother who is choosing a career, a thankless career with no financial gain at that!, over my child’s wellbeing.

So I share all this with my newfound acquaintance while choking back tears and then I leave. I leave because I have something else to do. Somewhere else to be.

When I come back into the workshop, I find that my newfound acquaintance created a sand drawing story based on my “challenge” that transformed my struggles into a wonderful desired outcome.* She started out with a hare. That is me. Busy and always on the go. Then I gave birth to a tortoise. My son. A true child of the desert that likes to take things as they come. He moves slowly, observing the world and his surroundings like a leaf floating in the wind. A sharp contrast from his mother, a bulldozer with laser vision.

The third image is that of a rabbit/hare hybrid. That is a new and improved me. That is the me that I need to become to be a better mother. Retaining some of my hurry up hare nature while adapting to the needs of my tortoise child.

It is perfect and just what my heart needs. And yes, I cry.

*This “newfound acquaintance” in this story is Nicole Gurgel-Seefeldt who is also the editor of the MPA project blog.