by Byron Woods
INDEPENDENT: How does an artist make the transits you’ve made—from supremacy on the streets of L.A. in the hip-hop culture to world-class modern choreographers like Twyla and Rudy Perez, to ballet with Eliot Feld and Les Grands? How does an artist walk between those worlds?
VICTOR QUIJADA: To be honest, it’s less something that I planned and more something that I followed. When I was 16 and I first went to the L.A. County High School for the Arts, I didn’t have this master plan (laughs) that I would someday be in Montreal and have a company of my own. Not at all. I just wanted to get out of my home city of Baldwin Park and see what else was out there.
It was these characters I met along the way that really pushed me, inspired me and opened new doors for me—who really opened my eyes to different possibilities. At times I was quite reluctant to go on path I now find myself.
When I left L.A. to join Twyla’s company, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. (laughs)
Really, it was whole new world. And as I was leaving New York to join Les Grands Ballet, I think I was only starting to get an idea of what could happen, where all of this could go.
I had quite a chip on my shoulder coming from that street dance world because, dancing in Twyla’s company, I was the only one who didn’t have a full classical training behind him.
It was tough. For when people who have a lot of training find themselves dancing next to somebody who doesn’t—that might say something about them and the contract that they have. So at times I needed to prove myself more than anyone else was proving themselves.
I had a lot to catch up on. I got this very specific goal in mind: I was somehow going to catch up on all the classical training I hadn’t had since I was 8 years old. It was a very intense time for me in New York.
I remember thinking early on, “I’m not going to try to choreograph yet, I need to learn everything I can.” I approached that role with a lot of humility and respect. I’d worked with choreographers I had a world of respect for, so I wasn’t going to rush into it. But when I heard Les Grands Ballet had a choreographic workshop, I took it. And I started thinking.
I started my own project as 26. I guess people may think I rushed into it. But for me, it was a long journey that brought me to RUBBERBANDance Group.
A 2004 video documentary for Bravo focused on your attempts to fully embrace the balletic as well as street dance. Now, a lot of people say they’re trying to do this, but when you see their work, they’re really staying primarily in their own world, and giving the other side a lick and a promise, a glance or two.
From what I saw, I sensed you were in the early work of trying to create a true fusion of these two things. I’m wondering how far you think you’ve come since then.
As time has gone on, I wouldn’t say this synthesis is completed—but it’s more completed.
In the last eight years, I’ve been able to define, a little more, the essential of what it is I’m taking from the two worlds—and not just not those two worlds, but also the contemporary world. There’s much more of the contemporary than classical ballet in the work.
That's a point well taken.
I would say what’s coming from classical ballet is more the compositional approach to creating work. Eight years into this experiment, we still have a hard time finding a category for this work. To say that it’s a fusion of ballet and hip-hop is a little simplified. I don’t even think it’s appropriate anymore.
It’s a combination of many influences, including contemporary work, theater, capoeira, yoga and the gamut of movement forms; different types of martial arts, and even different types of performance forms, including improvisation and theatrical improv.
Through my work with Anna Plamondon, we’ve developed methods and techniques that can prepare any dancer from contemporary, classical or street forms, reducing the movements to a few essentials and building upon those essentials. I think the vocabulary has become more refined and defined as we’ve explored.
Everything has become more solidified as it’s grown and developed. Now we can say, this is what we’re doing.
It’s a new movement form that allows us to play with gravity in a different way, and allows us to use our bodies to attack the music and rhythmic meter a little bit differently.
What we’re taking on this bridge is—and I think it comes more from the street, the hip-hop and the b-boying— is the syncopation of the meter and the different spatial structures that are not the norm in classical or contemporary dance, where gravity begins to be defied, in a way.
But then, they’re not being played for its sensationalistic properties. They’re there for a dancer to express something more than just getting oohs and ahhs and applause. They’re being used as part of a vocabulary to express or engage with another person on stage. Many times it’s very narrative.
It was something you said during the documentary in 2004: “What else could hip-hop be? Could it be sensitive, could it be communicative? Could it be something beside ‘I’m good and you’re not; let’s battle,’ when for 20 years that was the only story?”
Let’s go down this road a bit further for a few moments. When you say it’s “not being played for its sensationalistic properties,” it sounds like a critique of what hasn’t been done with hip-hop up to now.
We both know hip-hop is a robust culture; it isn’t just a dance move or a series of dance moves on a stage. But I think promoters and presenters sometimes want to essentialize it or, maybe in the worse sense, reduce it to that. It’s something you really can’t boil down to a set of moves—on a stage, to start with, as opposed to in the clubs with people trading moves back and forth.
Many times, in the 2000s, it is reduced. When hip-hop was such an underground subculture, it was about everything that it encompassed.
Now, as hip-hop is a commercial commodity that is used to sell anything from hamburgers to tampons, it is reduced to whatever you can identify: A hat to the side, a backflip, or a beatbox. It is reduced to its most rudimentary, quickest identifiable elements.
That’s not what I’m doing on stage, and not the picture I’m portraying.
Even in the ‘90s, when I was deep in the bosom of the L.A. underground, doing free-style hip-hop dancing in those circles, trading moves back and forth, me and quite a few of the other dancers were really already part of a movement that was very marginal in its pushing the envelope of what hip-hop could be, at that time.
I’m talking about a time when I had already begun being initiated into the arts-with-a-capital-A world: Being at the L.A. County High School for the Arts, being introduced to artists like Picasso and Dali and different writers, and just opening my mind.
So. Fast-forward many years to what we’re doing now on stage. It’s influenced by all of that, but it’s not necessarily a capsule of that.
I’m trying to make those sensational movements part of a vocabulary, that can be used to communicate certain things.
It would be ignorant for me to deny that that’s a big part of what the hip-hop or the break vocabulary is based on. It’s what makes it so exciting. That’s why presenters love to push the hip-hop aspect of the group, or any group.
It’s why hip-hop is such a wonderful marketing tool to sell hamburgers or what have you.
But in this time, I think it’s important that we also think of what else hip-hop can be.
In 2002, there were a handful of us who were doing that. Now there are more. And there will be more.
ADF audiences aren’t going to see your company’s most recent, full-length work, Punto Ciego (Blind Spot). But they will see an excerpt from it in the scheduled performances of Loan Sharking, an evening of previous repertory works, concluding with the excerpt. How would you describe the full-length Punto Ciego?
Punto Ciego combined a lot that I had learned from all of the experiments I had done in this last handful of years. The successful and the less successful experiments, including how to bring different elements like video projection to create a distorted reality, set design, being interactive with set components and breaking that fourth wall in different ways.
Rudy Perez, who’s coming from the postmodern movement and re-examining the whole theatrical event, was a big influence on me.
As for the fourth wall? The way I came to know dance—in the clubs, on a street corner, in a garage or behind the school—there was no fourth wall. (laughs)
Yeah, what fourth wall?? (laughs) Because you're totally immersed in the world of the performance...
Exactly. So from the very beginning, there were many experiments I was conducting through performances and productions, to figure out how to bring some of that into formal spaces and venues.
Punto Ciego was something of a high-water mark, because it brought so many elements together, to figure out how to take audiences with me somewhere.
If we’re lucky.
Let’s talk for a few moments about the other rep works we’ll be seeing at ADF.
In the first act there are three pieces created under different situations for other companies as commissioned work.
One is a men’s trio to Vivaldi, called “Soft watching the first implosion.” I made it for Peter Boal, who was at the New York City Ballet at the time, and now is the artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet. He commissioned the work in 2005, and it was created on New York City Ballet dancers. It’s a work that’s very much on one end of this bridge I’m creating.
Another piece, “Dr Ib Erif,” was a five-minute composition to Stravinsky’s Firebird, commissioned for a collaboration in 2008 with the Symphonic Orchestra of Montreal. The symphony had different pieces they were planning to perform for a televised performance.
We wanted to flip it somehow, to come at it from a different angle. Our “solution” was a “Dr. Jeckyl, Mr. Hyde” kind of approach, down to the title—“Firebird,” backwards.
The last piece is “Attempt #2 at Reinventing the Hip-hop Routine.” It was commissioned by the NYC Center Park Sumerstage Festival in 2002.
They’re all pieces, commissioned at different moments in our existence, that hadn’t been seen. It’s kind of a catalog of different times and experiments.
The show is all of the influences coming together, in the aims of reaching the goal we’ve been talking about.