The choreographers behind R.Evolución Latina’s Beyond Workshop talk dance

R.Evolución Latina utilizes the arts to empower the Latino community to discover their full potential and this year’s “Beyond Workshop Series 2016,” a two-week dance intensive in March gave participants a chance to audition and perform at the choreographer’s festival weekend. We caught up with Valeria Cossu, Luis Salgado, Matthew Steffens, Rebeca Tomás, Rickey Tripp and Amanda Turner, some of the choreographers who are a part of the festival, to talk dance, the importance of festivals like this and their hopes for the future of the art form.

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Dancing is hot right now in the media. How do you think television shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars” have affected the dance world? How has that affected what you do as a dance professional?

Valeria:  Shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” give young dancers and choreographers the possibilities to show the audience new dance styles, but most importantly, it gives to the young kid watching it from home the hope and the inspiration for it.

Matthew:  Before shows like these, when I was at a party and people found out I was a dancer and choreographer, they would want me to dance. Now, when people find out, they say, “You should go on SYTYCD!” What I love about these shows is that dance has become common entertainment on TV, much like it was doing the hey-day of variety shows during the 60s/70s. I love the story driven choreography, and the opportunity it affords dancers. As a dance professional, these shows push me to continue to make my choreography stronger and more inventive.

Rickey:   While both of these widely watched television shows have shed even more light on the dance world, they have also hindered it a bit. It’s amazing exposure for up-and-coming professional dancers and up-and-coming or established choreographers. However, it’s opened the Pandora’s Box of everyone thinking the can just hop up and be considered a dancer. While they serve a great purpose in inspiring the world to dance, it can be taken for granted how much training, discipline, focus and sacrifice is in becoming a professional dancer.

Rebeca:  Speaking in terms of flamenco,  I feel it has given people a flashy, false view of what flamenco is, often conflating flamenco with other forms of dance like “Latin” and ballroom.  As a professional, it has necessitated more of an explanation when I am dancing or explaining what it is I do. I have to really teach, explain, and show what flamenco is, where it comes from, and how it is different than other forms of dance.

Rickey:  I enjoy both programs for all they have to offer but to be seen as a dancer, it takes more than just a televised program to inspire and keep the undeniable fire a dancer has deep within.

Luis: With time, and thanks to “So You Think You Can Dance” and the team behind it, the art form of dance is celebrated and shared with the masses. The respect for choreography and the discipline needed to be a successful performer was in the fore front. It isn’t about fame, it isn’t about drama. It’s about the celebration of dance and the dance community, opening doors to many artists and has even evolved into the creation of supportive non-profits that serve as examples. I continue to celebrate and honor the contribution a show like “So You Think You Can Dance” has done for us.

Amanda: I trained in ballroom before I ever started my professional training so watching that kind of dance brings back a lot of good memories. I am inspired by the resurgence of dance that has been happening, even if it is on TV. It reaches more people that way even though there is nothing more moving than the transmission one experiences with live theater. Seeing the popularity of these shows just confirms to me what I’ve always believed, that dance touches everyone in a profound way, it inspires and changes lives. It further reassures me that I’m on the right path.

Luis-recolored

What was the most recent dance experience you had (a performance you saw or were a part of) that reminded you of why you love dance?

Rebeca:  A few months ago, I performed at the Chicago Flamenco Festival at the City Winery,  just me and 2 of my musicians. It had been a while since I had performed a full solo-concert, and as the show went on, I felt more and more filled with energy and confidence and power.  I enjoyed the connection with my “companeros” on stage, I enjoyed my connection with the audience, and I enjoyed imbibing the power and energy that is my dance – the reason I have chosen this path.

Rickey:  One day I was out with a friend and his friend joined us. Through some easy conversation about life, he turned to me and said, “Okay, I have to finally confess. You’re the reason why I do what I do. It was because of you in In the Heights that I decided to do musical theatre. Seeing you on that stage let me know that I can do it too.” It brought tears to my eyes. That’s why I dance. It’s a transformative, life altering art form.

Amanda:  I went to see a performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream by the Royal Ballet from London. I was trained in that style and by teachers from the Royal Ballet. Merle Parke was a regular teacher of mine. Seeing the etheric quality, beautiful form, softness and articulation of the feet, and uncompromising attention to detail brought me to tears. It was so beautiful and it reminded me who I am. I felt proud of my background even though the training was extremely hard, and I left that performance knowing I have something of real quality and value to share with the world. I felt like I belonged.

Matthew:  Recently, a video of Chita dancing a Peter Gennaro/Gower Champion/Fosse type number on a late 1960s TV show really inspired me. It made me wish we still danced like that and just gave our everything and didn’t worry about the technique as much as the feel.

Luis:  Last night doing my show (On Your Feet), right after I did the number “Mi Tierra,” I walked backstage and said, out loud “I LOVE MY LIFE… Thank you God for the chance to do what I love.” My day started with teaching Latino kids about dance and having a Q&A with them, and they reminded me of where I come from. After class, I headed to my matinee at the Marquis Theater on 46th Street and stopped to get a sandwich right in front of the Richard Rodgers. It was an inevitable moment to remember my first Broadway show, In the Heights, and to think of the many friends who are there now in Hamilton. All of this filled me up and I walked into my theater thinking “Luis, can you believe you went to see Movin’ Out nine times dreaming to be in a Broadway show one day?”  The connection of all these moments in my day, my emotions were running and after “Mi Tierra,” I just couldn’t contain my mouth and I exploded saying out loud.

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How does that inspiration seep into your work afterward?

Rebeca:  I feel rejuvenated and reminded of how much I still love dancing and performing. It gives me impetus to accept other gigs soon thereafter and the positive energy and enjoyment in performing continues into the following productions.

Rickey:  How this all plays into my work is quite simple: I have to keep going! This is something bigger than me;  a gift that has to be shared. I hope to never be stingy with it.

Amanda:  After seeing the Royal Ballet, I felt called to teach more ballet again. I realized I have something sacred in my heart to pass on in this discipline and style. As a choreographer, I tend to be detail oriented, so I decided to re-choreograph and reorganize my contribution to the choreographer’s festival to be a true example of continuing the story we are telling through the style, detail and the nuances that are unique to me. It may sound strange, but I actually lived and breathed the story that my choreography is telling so I hope that somehow that “realness” is magically conveyed. I want my work to be truthful.

Matthew:  As I worked the past two weeks with R.Evolución Latina’s Beyond Workshop Series students, I found certain moves that really lit up their faces started to seep into the choreography I’m creating for BOUNTIFUL. Whenever you see a step that feels natural to someone, whether they created it or it came from a choreographer, it feels right and that inspires more movement.

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Why are festivals like this one important for choreographers to be a part of?

Matthew:  R.Evolución Latina’s Choreographers Festival brings together nine choreographers with one story. One story! It’s crazy to get the logistics to make that possible, but everyone is on board and we have a great team to shape the piece. Our festival is amazing because audiences can come and see one show and see so many different styles of dance in one night. It’s really amazing. The cultural exchange that happens by embracing international students and dance companies, allows both the cast and choreographers to grow both as artists and individuals.

Rebeca:  It’s a great opportunity to explore, learn, and grow from styles that are different from your own. I specifically look to push boundaries when creating choreography in my “Flamenco world,” and being exposed to other ways of seeing, creating, dancing, moving, and being onstage inspires and informs my work.

Rickey:  It allows established choreographers to further develop their voice and those, [and newer choreographers] like myself, the opportunity to find what their voice is. It also allows a cross-cultural experience and at the end of the day, we are all speaking the same universal language: dance.

Amanda:  It’s really great to work with the other choreographers, knowing that each one is bringing his or her talents to the table. This process works very well because it allows everyone to go a little deeper into their style without having the pressure of choreographing the entire show. It works beautifully. We all get to explore more and develop a style and voice which is important as artists. Often we are called upon as choreographers to produce a lot of work in a little time. The difference with this festival is that we have 9 choreographers all telling one story and it is amazing because we all have an awareness of what the others are doing and that we are each continuing the story, and then we let each other get on with it. It’s like a tapestry and each choreographer is devoted to weaving his and her section.

Valeria:  As an artist, I can learn so much from each one of them and improve. Besides that, there is the cultural exchange and the possibility to work with dancers that come from different countries and realities. Dance is an international way to communicate, we use the language of the movement. Through it we can share, inspire and get inspired by different cultures.

Luis:  Our choreographers grow as they work and they rejoice in seeing the growth in the people they work with. It is a circle effect of dreams manifesting while exercising or confronting the necessity of discipline, the responsibility of training, the need to listen and the positivity of working with others. One of the most beautiful things is seeing how our New York cast ends up traveling to new places [because of] the relationships they build. We have people from Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico and Germany so out of this festival, we could not ask for a better reward than knowing people are becoming a community and helping each other grow.

Tripp

In a world where schools are removing arts programs and the emphasis on arts education is dwindling, what are you doing to help ensure future generations are experiencing and furthering dance?

Rebeca:  I do a lot of Arts Education, traveling to schools in New York and Connecticut and the Northeast, giving performances, lecture-demonstrations, where I dance, my musicians play, and we have students participate throughout the performance.  The kids go away with a window into a culture different from their own, a hands-on experience of an art, music and dance, and move in ways they never have before.  These moments are the ones that mean more than anything to me because I see how art touches these students and I believe that both teachers and parents see that. I hope that, as a result, they continue to push for arts programming in their school.

Valeria:  Thanks to organizations like R.Evolución Latina and their art programs for kids and young artists, we have the possibilities to help and communicate to future generations the power of the art and dance. Kids are hungry of any kind of inspiration; through art programs we can tell them to believe in their passion. In today’s society, the concept of success is so much related about money and people easily forget about happiness. Art is happiness. It’s a direct connection with your soul. If you can dream it, you can make it. Let’s help them to dream through the art.

Luis:  As an individual artist, I try to be a part of work that makes us ask the questions that move us to become better individuals and make us a better society. I try to travel and share my philosophy through my art as much as possible by teaching. I create spaces where growth happens for our kids but also for adults that can carry the torch of empowerment our new generations will continue to need. The adult program at R.Evolución Latina is so important to me. We build a platform to multiply opportunities for the next generation and a space where the adult artists can continue to grow with great training. Many participants go on to directly affect the next generation in their own ways.

Matthew:  One of R.Evolución Latina’s major missions is to create arts for the next generation and we do that by working with students throughout the year all over NYC to ensure they receive that in their lives. This past summer I served as the Interim Director for the summer camp and the students really embraced expressing themselves not only through dance, but all aspects of art. This summer, I’ll be working with young theater students in a Summer Youth Conservatory as well as some musical theater intensives. It’s important to me that as schools take away the arts, we fill that void. I played trumpet in the band/wind ensemble and did plays/musical from fifth grade all the way through college. Had I just played sports, I don’t think I would have as well rounded of an approach to life as I do.

Valeria

Going forward, what is your hope for dance as an art form?

Rebeca:  I hope that dance continues to grow, expand and evolve, but even more than that, I hope it finds a way of becoming accessible to everyone. [I hope] more people have the opportunity to take dance classes and that it’s not seen as something only really talented people can do.

Rickey:  My hope is that it continues to shape, mold, and craft some of the most beautifully and gifted people in this world so they can be a difference in someone else’s life.

Amanda:  I hope that dance will come to some kind of global recognition as a necessity rather than a luxury. If we go back to ancient cultures, dance was always a connection to something greater than ourselves, to the Divine. In these times of crisis, extreme violence and fear, I think people may be forced to self-realize and reestablish their connection with the sacred. Dance and the arts have their place and power in this vital and life affirming connection.

Matthew:  I hope dance continues to evolve. It’s important to remember our roots, but when we challenge the status quo and grow by daring to go beyond, we get the unknown. I also hope society continues to value dancers as both artists and athletes. The dedication of the dancers I work with supersedes any other type of artist out there. It is truly inspiring and makes me heart BOUNTIFUL!

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R.Evolución Latina’s Choreographers Festival 2016 runs from April 27 through May 1 at the Manhattan Movement + Arts Center 248 West 60th Street, NYC. Get your tickets HERE!
Coordinated by Heather Hogan
Interview by Ryan Brinson
Photography by Jason River
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