Dance critic and scholar Celeste Fraser Delgado talks with Miami-based choreographer Rosie Herrera, of Rosie Herrera Dance Theater, about her piece Dining Alone, running Thursday and Friday at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (Thursday 7:30 and 9:30 and Friday 7:30, tickets $20). They explore how a girl from a post-communist compound in the Cuban ghetto of Hialeah, Florida grew up to love opera, big ensembles, and even bigger emotions.
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Celeste Fraser Delgado: Rosie, you’re from a place called Hialeah, can you tell us about Hialeah and how it has shaped your work?
Rosie Herrera: I always answer this by saying that I’m not just from Hialeah, I’m from a post-communism, north Cuba compound in Hialeah, because I grew up in my house which was next door to my aunt’s house which is across the street from my uncle’s house. You know, with chickens in the yard and no need for telephones because everybody would just yell through the windows. So in that sense I was very lucky to be able to remain that close to my Cuban roots. I think that those influences are very apparent in my work. Not just in my movement aesthetic or my selection of music, but also in the way that I interpret themes. When you grow up listening to Romance 106.7 and ClÃ¡sica 92.
CFD: And what are those things? What is Hialeah?
RH: Hialeah is like the largest suburb in the entire world. It’s what I call the last neighborhood left in Miami. It’s a massive, massive suburb in Miami and it’s what we would consider the “Cuban ghetto”, but it’s not ghetto in the sense of drive-by ghettos or gang violence ghettos. It’s ghetto as in leaving your house with curlers in your hair, wearing sandals to church--that kind of ghetto. Everything in Hialeah is nonsensical. It’s like living in a Hispanic Alice in Wonderland. Every street is also another street. Northeast 79th Street is also Northwest 103rd Street, which is also East 4th Ave… and everything kind of works like that. Everything in Hialeah is a scam or a ponzi scheme. Everything is like the faÃ§ade of something, but behind that house there are actually three illegal apartments and four businesses running out of somebody’s house.
Photo by Adam Reign
So in that sense, Hialeah is a very colorful and interesting place. You can’t grow up there without feeling this incredible ironic fascination with the place. I remember I went to BFI, Bas Fisher Invitational, an arts organization here in Miami, and they had this really cool thing called the “Weird Miami Bus Tours.” They take people to places that most people visiting Miami wouldn’t go to. So they took them to Hialeah, which as I said is the Cuban ghetto, nobody really goes there. They did a tour of Hialeah and the interesting places and I just grabbed the microphone and was like, “let me tell you what’s going on here.” So I took over the tour because I love all of the dichotomy that exists there. What I do love about Hialeah aside from the ponzi schemes and the curlers in the hair and the loud music and the driving down the street and finding a rumba, seeing chicken carcasses on the other side of the train tracks because somebody has done SanterÃa, is that it’s really a neighborhood. It’s really a place where you can ride your bike down the street and every single person is looking out of their window to make sure that little klutzy ten year old girl, which is me, is okay.
There is a certain security, growing up with that clan mentality, that I think a lot of places in Miami lack. It was a real neighborhood. And on top of that, not just growing up in Hialeah, growing up in what I call north Cuba, which is my family compound, I think has greatly affected me. And growing up listening to Romance 106.7 and Clasica 92, which are these Spanish radio stations that every little Cuban kid in Miami knows, or I don’t know, maybe the world. These romantic, melodramatic Spanish ballads that I think greatly shift your sense of romance. They are so poetic and so dramatic and so passionate that I think it greatly affects what your definition of normal is, or your definition of love. And on top of that even, just watching [tele]novelas. I was thinking about that the other day...“God, how have I been shifted or created or affected by the use of novelas in my culture?” The classic theme, the reason the novela exists, is because somebody didn’t tell another person something very simple like: “I’m in love with you.” So instead of me just telling you that I’m in love with you, we keep this secret and then it develops and develops and develops and that’s how you get a novela. Some things are just so deeply a part of who you are that it’s hard to unravel them.
Photo by Adam Reign
CFD: So you see a connection to the emotion in your work?
RH: I do. I think there is a sense of drama inherent in the way I interpret things. It’s not just inherent drama, but being okay with inherent drama, being okay with romance. I think as a contemporary artist, although a lot of people don’t talk about it, there is this fear of what I call heightened vulnerability. It’s okay for someone to be abused, it’s okay for someone to be intelligent, it’s okay for someone to be clever, but for somebody to be beautiful, or for somebody to connect with something really beautiful, is considered to be less meaningful or less significant in the art world.
There is a part of me that struggles with this, sometimes. I’m struggling with it right now: “Is this too much? Is this note being carried for too long? What is the meaning of this?” There is this part of me that has to be okay with that. At times that comes from being raised in this passionate, dramatic culture. At the same time there is a lightness to all of it. That’s the thing about the novela--the girl cries and then five minutes later she is laughing. It’s the same thing if you listen to salsa music, even rumba or anything. You listen to the music; people sing salsa about anything, any drama in the world. Like Willie Colon’s El Gran Varon--it’s a salsa about a transgender guy dying of AIDS in a hospital and it’s one of my favorite songs to dance to. There is a lightness to that too, that is apparent in me, and then it is clear in the work.
CFD: You’ve been talking a lot about your Hialeah roots, but you also include what some people would consider “high art,” classical music and opera, in your work. How did that come about?
RH: It’s interesting… what is high art? I can talk to you about classical music. I don’t think my voice matured until I was twenty four. I am doing my best at sounding pretty old right now. I always had a really highpitched Minnie Mouse voice, ever since I was young. When I was doing theatre, I kept getting typecast. I was the damsel in distress, prostitute, little kid…never really significant roles, and I wanted to do Shakespeare. So I went to a vocal coach who was a friend of a friend, Oscar Diaz of the Performance Institute of Miami, and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Rosie, I’m an alto,” and he said, “No you’re not.” I started to study with him, classical music, and I fell in love with opera. I fell in love with opera. I would say to this day it’s probably the most romantic relationship I’ve ever been in. I think that it’s always been something that I’ve done, almost like this dirty little secret--it just hasn’t always been at the forefront of who I am, or how I identify myself as an artist. As of late, as a choreographer, it seems to be something that I’m realizing has shaped me in one of the biggest ways. I’ve been singing as long as I’ve been dancing. I never really had a career instrument. A soubrette, a very very very very light soprano--there are maybe two roles that I could sing. The maid, usually, in everything.
CFD: So how do you integrate opera? It’s something I don’t think I really saw directly in your first two major works, but in Dining Alone it has a big role. How does it come in?
CFD: Most of my work really revolves around the cast. With Dining I knew that I wanted there to be live music, so it wasn’t necessarily a collaborative result of my cast selection. I had the intention to work with a singer because it is a huge aspect of who I am as an artist. It has not really been represented in my work, aside from the way I interpret music, which I think is greatly influenced by me being a musician. It actually started because when I first started researching Dining I was really interested in the isolation of aging, and what memories remain. I was intrigued to find out that the first twelve years of your life are pretty solid, you are going to remember those suckers forever. But after that it’s kind of difficult to retain memory.
I was a Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) Fellow at Florida State University, conducting research for Dining, and I was working with Dr. Kenneth Brummel-Smith, who has been the Head of Geriatrics for forty years or something, and he really had the experience I was looking for. He was talking to me about what is successful aging and what actually happens to the body, and these were themes that I was interested in exploring in terms of physicality, what happens to the body--it becomes dehydrated, and what are the physical changes? Also what are some of the emotional changes and what can help produce what is successful aging? One of the things that we were really interested in was memory--how memory is retained and what memories are retained. I was actually researching with Octavio Campos and we had this cardboard cutout…
CFD: Who is Octavio Campos?
RH: Octavio Campos is a collaborator of mine, but he is mostly a guest artist with my company. He is a twenty-year veteran of dance theater, not just in Miami, but in Germany and all over the world. He’s the creative director of Camposition, which is a hybrid theatre project, and a solo artist as well. He is a great friend of mine, and a great inspiration for me. Dining Alone was actually the first piece we did together and we conducted this research at MANCC together. He was one of my main collaborators. We had this cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe, kind of everywhere, traveling with us. It was in Various Stages of Drowning, my first piece in 2009. She was just in rehearsal, so I asked him to recreate a scene--I always joke with him, “Wow, you can remember the most complicated German names, but you can’t remember my name or this person’s name or people that we’ve danced with every day”--so I asked him to recreate a scene from Seven Year Itch, which is a movie that he can remember very well.
We started playing with his memory of Seven Year Itch, having him recreate it, using Alzheimer’s as a way to explore a kind of fragmenting of his memory. We were trying to reconstruct the fragments of his memory with the cardboard cutout, which led to this text that we use, text from the movie when the girl comes into the room and he thinks he’s playing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto but he is actually just playing chopsticks. So with the introduction of this text, I started researching Rachmaninoff, and now we have three Rachmaninoff pieces in the work. We had things that we were developing on the side, this girl dancing on plates, and once we brought in Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise it just made perfect sense.
Photo by Adam Reign
That’s a really, really complicated story as to how opera made its way into Dining Alone. Also, I’m interested with this project in nostalgia and fragility in a very strong way. I think that Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise has a way of really expressing emotional vulnerability through a very strong sound. I’ve always been kind of obsessed with that song, the way that the chord progression can just break your heart. Nothing is being said, it’s just the beauty of the voice, of the vocal line, which creates so much story and so much depth. That’s how it made its way in. It’s also because that’s how I work, that’s how anybody makes their way into my work--because we are friends, colleagues, collaborators, people that I work with, people that I see that have a little fire in them, a little spark that I want to stand close to. That’s how I worked on my last piece with Melissa Ruiz who is somebody that I’ve sung with for ten years. I’ve been a humongous fan, I saw her in a performance once and I thought, “Wow, there is so much integrity and beauty and honesty in her.” She’s not just an explorer, she’s really a master technician. That’s what I’m looking for, people who have that drive, that force, and love of what they do, or passion, but also have the chops to back it up.
CFD: The piece is called Dining Alone, and yet most of your works are major ensemble pieces. Why do you work with such big ensembles?
RH: It’s so funny. Is it really a “major ensemble piece?” I had a lot of objectives when I was creating Dining Alone, not just thematic objectives, but things I wanted to explore. I wanted to simplify, and I thought I was simplifying. I’m now down to eight people, and I think, “Wow, that’s great! Yes!” But it’s not at all. Why do I work with large ensembles? Because I am gluttonous and I want everything. I work with large casts because I think there are so many sides to a story that I’m interested in.
Photo by Adam Reign
Maybe it’s my own youth or inexperience as a director or choreographer, but when I think of Dining Alone, I thought, “What are the most intriguing perspectives?” I grew up in my fathers’ restaurant, which is where the inspiration for Dining Alone came from--sitting behind the counter, watching people eat. I was privy to a lot of different experiences watching people dine alone. It engaged in me an empathetic reaction that I still have to this day. I am constantly analyzing--where does this come from? Is this cultural, social, psychological? For me, as that little girl in the restaurant growing and watching things, the movie that played in my head was of the person who was waiting tables, who I saw every single day, in constant service to something else, never able to say what he really thought, which I really connect with. Part of what was so beautiful about watching this movie in my mind was the piano player at my dad’s restaurant, sitting on the side playing a bunch of romantic Spanish ballads. Jose Feliciano, playing all of that on the piano for tips and I’m thinking, “God, this guy was a concert pianist in Cuba, how did he end up at my dad’s restaurant where people are having conversations and nobody is looking?”
That was part of what was so beautiful about it. What was so interesting to me was the young girl organizing herself in a restaurant for the first time, how to sit and where her napkin should go, and people placing things for her, and people cutting her meat. And the old woman who’s left at the end of the night with all of the damn dishes to clean. And the man whose wife passed away five years ago. I mean these stories were such a humongous part of what the whole theme was for me. That was so hard for me to synthesize and say, “I’m going to do all of this with four people.” And I’m sure it’s possible and plenty of talented choreographers have done it. In that sense, I approached it more like a theater director than a choreographer, who is asking one person to play one role throughout the entire piece. In other pieces I ask people to play several roles, but in this I didn’t.
Photo by Adam Reign
CFD: Let’s talk about that process--how do you chose your performers, how do you work together? You talk about how some of your process is through collaboration, so how does the material arise?
RH: Well, every process is different. I’m young in my career, so I am learning what my process is every single time, and every time I try to challenge myself. That’s how I keep it interesting. I worked this way before, and even if that worked, then what’s a new way to work and create a different environment? I am so grateful for my dancers to be able to allow me the space and to have patience. There are plenty times of when they are sitting in front of me with their arms folded looking at me as if they’re thinking, “what the hell do you want?” But in the end, we are working toward the same goal.
In the past few years I’ve come in and it feels like a benevolent dictatorship. “You stand here, do this, go there…” Then I groom and clean and fix and shift. But really most of the time it’s important for me that the dancer or the performer has a really deep personal connection to the subject matter. I’ve learned that is the best way to work for me. If I start to talk to someone about a project and they light up in a way inside of themselves, if the lights behind their eyes open up--you can feel a sense of them is connected to it in a deep way. That’s what I look for.
CFD: So for Dining Alone specifically, how did it work?
RH: I was very interested in this idea of a ghost or spirit and how we attach the memories we have to certain situations. We have a ghost in the show, she’s in a red dress. Kind of like a physical representation of another time that people impart their memory on, and she represents different things for different people throughout the show. We work a lot with plates and the sounds of plates on the floor. The plate itself, that was a huge evolution, because it was my solution to a tangible fragility that I could not otherwise access. But when we were using the plates we wanted to summon something bigger, something greater, something stronger. So we created a humongous ouija board first on a table, then on the floor. We asked questions one at a time, but instead of a circle we used a clear plate. The whole cast moved the plate across and we tried to play ouija on a larger scale. I would ask them questions and they would respond towards the yes or towards the no. The movements to either side of the board were the beginning of movement material that we ended up using later without the plate.
Photo by Adam Reign
That’s one way we developed work, but there are also simpler things that greatly shift the development of a work, which is with cross collaboration. I remember I created this solo for Ana Mendez, who is actually not dancing in this performance of Dining Alone because she recently got married, but she’s been in a lot of my work. She’s quite a phenomenal, amazing person. I remember we had created this solo to Indian Love Call, which is this obscure 1940s/50s piece [written in 1924, a hit in 1936 and again in 1951]. We were exploring different music and we kept trying different things, and different things, and different things, and one day she came into rehearsal and she just said, “I have been doing this solo every day at my house to Clair de Lune--can we try it?” I was open to it--we tried it and it was just complete magic. She shifted the piece in a huge way with the contribution of something that simple. Every process is different. I try to leave enough space for the dancers to feel that there is some investment in the work, some signature on the work. They are a huge part of it, but at the same time they don’t have to create something. It’s my job to create it, and create the atmosphere and the environment and the tasks. Their job is to just show up and be invested.
CFD: So you’ve been creating in Miami for a few years now, and you’ve been commissioned by the American Dance Festival [ADF] to create as well, so you’ve done a lot of work in Durham. What does it mean to take to your work to New York now, and the Baryshnikov Arts Center?
RH: It’s a great honor for me to work in Miami and work at ADF and now to go to New York. It’s a completely different audience that I haven’t had as much experience performing for. A lot of people might say that my work is dance, a lot of people might say it’s more theatre, a lot of people might say it’s neither--they might say it’s cabaret. The New York audiences, particularly the ones that are going to my performances at BAC, are really dance audiences. They are much more familiar than the Miami audiences are with that genre, they are seeing things differently. They are more attuned to the compositional eye of things and how things flow. In Miami, there is much less importance placed on understanding the work, they just want to have the experience, which I like. In Durham, it’s a dance festival audience, they are young dancers and they are looking and wanting something different. Being there is like being at a rock concert, they are just like screaming and yelling. For me, New York is a very new audience that I think will give the performers something different to bounce off of.
Photo by Adam Reign
CFD: What’s one thing that a New York audience might need to know that they might not already understand in watching Dining Alone?
RH: With my work I’ve noticed that you have a successful experience as an audience member when you allow yourself to have an experience, whatever that is, as opposed to understanding, or dissecting the work. There is time, definitely, for dissection, maybe coming to a second performance or after, but I think if you really leave yourself open to an experience, it’s much more gratifying, at least that’s how I feel. I have the luxury of being an audience member in my work all the time, so I’m really good at it.
What would a New York audience need to know? I would like to know as an audience member that every single person in the cast is Miami-based. Or has really, really strong roots in Miami. We aren’t just doing my work, but we are representing an entire Harlem Revolution in Miami that is going on, so that’s really intriguing. In essence I just hope that people connect to the work in some way and that they are able to have an experience.
ADF, Aging, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Celeste Fraser Delgado, dance, MANCC, Miami, Opera, PDF, Rosie Herrera, theater