by Byron Woods
After five full weeks of dance, it was hard to shake the inaccurate sense that we’d already seen it all. But when a dapper young man shot a young woman sitting across from him at a café table in the face, without warning, with a high-power water hose on stage during the final week of last year’s American Dance Festival, it was a wake-up call, to say the least. Then, just to make sure we got the point, he did it again. And again, as the stunned party crowd on stage went as still as the audience.
And that was merely the opening bid of Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret by choreographer ROSIE HERRERA. By its conclusion, Herrera’s work hadn’t flinched in its spoofing of Celine Dion—or its unhurried representations of androgyny and gay male desire, for that matter. Its various sequences sending up old school sex symbols made us chuckle—before we went quiet as we wondered exactly why we were laughing.
Then a depicted moment of hospice silenced us, before a surreal film sequence dared suggest that, ultimately, no one stays on board a lifeboat, in one of the most stunning—and humane—works of the 2009 season.
This year ADF invited Herrera back, commissioning a new work, Pity Party—and requesting a restaging of Various Stages by her own company.
We spoke with her by phone at midday, on June 30, in Miami, Florida.
INDEPENDENT: The title of your work, Various Stages of Drowning, brings one question immediately to mind. Who’s drowning?
HERRERA: That’s a good question. I think it symbolizes several different types of drowning: drowning in somebody’s presence, by an experience, by an emotion, or being drowned by memory.
It also comes from my personal experiences, having felt at times like I was drowning, too—professionally, emotionally or psychologically. There are five stages of drowning; I used that as a structure to help separate those different ideas.
I’ve always had a very strong connection to the ocean, to the freedom of being underwater. My father’s Cuban and my mother’s Puerto Rican, so I’m genetically predisposed to being below sea level. (laughs) I’m bound to be within five minutes of the beach; that’s my structure. I’ve been working with underwater photographers and underwater filmmakers; I’ve always felt this incredible energy with the water.
But Various Staging of Drowning was based on series of dreams. I felt at first they were disconnected, but then I realized they were part of the same thing. When I started developing a structure for putting them all together, I was interested in created the surrealist atmosphere of a dream. The closest I could get to that would be underwater.
I gravitated toward working with people who I felt could relate to that feeling. I think every time I create a piece I’m completely influenced by my dancers. When I start creating work for them, I go into the studio with them and just kind of see where they are, movement-wise, physically and emotionally. Then we create a solo and I’ll feel it’s completely reflective of who they are.
Then a couple of years pass, and I’ll suddenly realize it was all about me.
Hopefully we get to that point where it’s as much an expression of what they’re going through and at the same time about me as well.
Let’s talk a little more about the gestation period for the original piece. Various Stages was a reconstruction last year at ADF, from the original work you made with your company in Miami the winter before. How long had you been working on that piece?
I had been dreaming about that piece for two years before I created it.
Do you keep a dream diary?
No. The only thing I remember very clearly are my dreams (laughs) and my choreography. Everything else kind of goes out the window. (laughs) No, I’m good at first names, too.
By time I sat down to start creating the work, I had the entire structure from beginning to end—everything—down in my head.
I worked with the dancers for five months. Actually, I worked the male duet the longest; maybe a month and a half longer than anything else. That was done first.
Then I worked everyone else for four months.
So—very quickly. At least I think it’s very quickly.
Four months is a fairly short gestation period for your work, then?
Yes. It had been cooking, you know, in my mind for a very long time. But by the time we started the work, I knew everything: the costumes, the lighting, everything.
So when you compose it, you see the movie of it in your mind?
Interesting. It amazes me that the dreams and dream imagery stay with you for that long. I guess it speaks to some pretty strong dreams.
Some of them are dreams like when I go to sleep and I remember something. Some of them are daydreams, where I’m just sitting, or washing dishes, and I see them very clearly in my mind.
When I plug this scenario into the title you’ve given us for the overarching frame, I’m asking myself, “Exactly what kind of a relationship is this? Is this really okay for both of these folks?”
And yet the musical frame, an old recording of
I love that tension. I think humor is a really powerful tool for the stage. There’s something unifying and intimate about laughter. People drop their guard and just have the physical experience of laughing, a natural experience of reacting to what’s going on. And from there, they’re in that moment with you; you have a lot of flexibility for where you can go.
I love working with these dualities in my work, where something is not always as it seems.
I think that also is part of what I love about cabaret: There’s this juxtaposition of very forward, entertaining, almost striving energy, and it’s always grounded by this dark, sexual humor.
It’s like sardines in spaghetti sauce. It gives it that…something.
About playfulness, in my arc of working as choreographer and creator, there’s always this… I think my greatest moment of liberation as a choreographer was when I stopped trying to be interesting, when I stopped trying to be clever, and just did what felt completely natural for me.
And sometimes you nail it and sometimes you don’t, of course; that’s part of the process. But I try to be open to what my instincts are, and that’s how I am.
The male duet also directly represents male desire—gay desire—in a way only a handful of stage artists I’ve seen in theater or dance have dared to. Few major choreographers and stage directors are willing to actually represent it, come straight at it, and not sidle around it, be coy, suggest it and then conveniently fade to black, into the next scene, the next day. It’s the one thing that still stays blank, on the screen, on the stage.
In Various Stages you weren’t shrinking from it, you were diving straight into it, and you were pretty fearless in representing it.
Moreover, what we saw wasn’t merely an uncritical endorsement—which deserves thanks in itself. You weren’t just cheerleading, which isn’t particularly useful, even if it feels good. You were asking us several questions, instead.
I have received some frustration for that choice. Some people have said that I’m exploiting homosexuality in addressing these issues on stage. Not just in the male duet, but the piece in general, since I have drag queens in it. With some, it was almost as if I wasn’t gay, I didn’t have a “pass” to talk about it.
But I think it’s very simple, for me. I wasn’t attempting to be ambitious. I wasn’t attempting to be fearless.
I just have the wonderful and fortunate experience of being surrounded by people from all walks of life—different paths, sexualities, colors and experiences.
I try to be open to them.
I think that to exclude exploring gay male desire—that, in itself, is a much stronger statement than my choosing to do what I see.
It’s why I started working on that duet first: I realized it would take time. One of my dancers, Rudy Goblin, had never done contemporary dance in his life. He’s a break dancer; a b-boy.
It was very important to me that the dancer who served as the more submissive person in the relationship have a very strong presence. I felt like it was too obvious, or not true, that the submissive one would be the smaller, more innocent one, because that’s not necessarily the case.
Playing the cliché, not the reality.
Exactly. So I found this dancer I’d been wanting to work with for years, who had this strong presence as performer, and an extremely strong presence as a mover: very dynamic and aggressive. I can’t imagine an art form besides break dance that’s more in-your-face and more aggressive; they’re all battling and ciphering.
And then I found Leony Garcia. He’s amazing—they’re both amazing. Leony’s the only man I know who dances with the strength, agility and dynamics of a man, but the sensitivity and the vulnerability of a woman. I think he’s amazing; there’s nothing he can’t do.
To put these people in two roles that were completely unlike who they were as people—that took time, a lot of time. We were working and working, trying to get them out of their natural body states and into different states.
In the end I was really quite happy with it, for there was that balance, and that energy: a nice balance and strong energy.
Coming to ADF and restaging the work on other people was hell. The process of auditioning in general is just a really foreign process to me. I never work like that, it’s difficult for me.
Yet there were a number of sequences last summer where the dancers had taken on another character’s movement and life; internalized it, made it theirs, and brought something meaningful out as a result. There was this interesting fusion that was happening.
Whenever you do recreate a piece, you must allow for flexibility, so the work can become a reflection of the person who’s doing it then. You can’t be too rigid. What’s important, and what’s going to get the audience to have an experience, is if the person on stage is having that experience. What’s important is getting [the dancers] there.
Then there was what I call the hospice sequence. Someone was terminally ill, and another person was providing that person with very tender care. It was moving, and honest.
It’s also another part of the human experience that the overwhelming majority of us, as artists, as people, tend to shy away from. It’s another place that no one ever takes us in live performance.
I think it was very important.
That section was inspired by a very dear and close friend of mine, Bridget Baker, who lost her lover of 37 years. I was with her through her grieving process. And of all the things she got mad about in her range of emotions, was that when he passed away, she wasn’t there to prepare him. She wasn’t there to feed him. She wasn’t there to dress him. She wasn’t there to comb his hair.
And I thought that was so powerful; and after all these attachments that we have in life as people, and how much we define ourselves by our relationships—even after he was gone, the thing that she missed the most, and wanted the most, was still to be the one to take care of him. That’s what she resented, losing that opportunity. I think that’s a really selfless and beautiful thing.
Also it meant working with [company member] Geraldine, who lost her mother very young, and started working in drag, really, as means of reconnecting with her. That was the only way I could help her go through that process.
We’ve talked about water and drowning, and there are a number of places I can go with that as a frame. Ophelia, Hamlet’s girlfriend, throws herself into the river, and slowly sinks beneath the surface. Or that marvelous verse, in Shakespeare again, from The Tempest:
Many of us recognize the concept of ocean as transformative or transfiguring.
But before I go in that direction, I have to note a couple of things. In the movie sequence at the end, you have the people on what I’ll call a lifeboat—all by itself, on an empty expanse of water.
By the end, nobody’s on it. Everyone’s in the water. And no one’s on the surface anymore.
There are darker elements in several other sequences in the work.
I don’t know if you’ve read Primo Levy’s Survival in Auschwitz.
No, I haven’t.
In the work, Levy describes his experiences in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. He divided the prisoners he found himself among into two groups. He called them the saved and the drowned.
He said that if the prisoners could salvage one thing—a talisman, a physical practice or even a memory from the lives they’d led before prison, they were a lot more likely to survive than those who didn’t. He concluded that simply being able to keep one thing from the disappeared world somehow meant they’d be able to possibly reassemble that world, someday.
Those who couldn’t, he called the drowned. He wrote of them losing their grip on their own physical condition, their companions, their situation and ultimately, their lives.
Ms. Herrera, I started by asking you the question, “Who’s drowning?”
I rarely ask questions I already have an answer for. But in this case, coming into the conversation, I had a provisional response to that one that I’d like to share with you.
Please, go ahead.
I think, potentially, we all are.
There are so many things: jobs, relationships—
—yes, what society does and does not do with however you identify, however you show up on this planet. There are so many things that so easily…swallow us up.
I think your story about Primo Levy was very beautiful and very poignant. I think that if you can recognize that you’re drowning, then you can survive.
In the final stage of physically drowning, your body goes into complete relaxation; after you’ve swallowed water, after you’ve choked, your body completely relaxes.
I think that when you can recognize that, whatever symbolically drowning might mean to you—it could just be being overwhelmed—then it’s much easier to move forward.
If in this piece, water comes to symbolize emotion, I think there are definitely points in all of our lives where all of us are drowning in our own emotions.
But water has the power to be very healing as well. Which kind of segues us into the new piece, which is about grieving.
At some point, you actually believed you were working on a different piece for the ADF premiere.
I started creating a work, Dining Alone, about solitude and aging. It’s another piece out of years of dreaming in my head, for a long time.
To a certain extent, all of my work is collaborative. I’m open to what the dancers have to say, movement-wise, and what they contribute; in some sense I’m always collaborative. But 90 percent of the time I’m getting very clear direction, I know exactly what I want and how I want it. I decided in the new work that I wanted to be more collaborative—which is a lot more difficult than it seems, but very rewarding as well.
We started working with this piece. And I kept feeling it’s the wrong time, in the wrong place; I felt like everybody I was working with was not in a Dining Alone state of mind.
I had this other piece, Pity Party, which was always in the back of my mind. And I would keep coming up with ideas and then I’d realize, “Oh, that’s not this piece, that’s Pity Party, let me put that aside.”
Eventually, I just gave in and said, “You know what? We’re feeling Pity Party; we’re in a Pity Party state. That’s what the dancers are saying to me with their bodies, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
This whole time I thought I was responding to the dancers. (laughs)
It wasn’t until two weeks ago that I realized I was the one who was grieving. And that’s why it took so long for me to figure it out.
I love that I created this piece, and I’m glad that I continued to work, because that was my way of grieving. I just didn’t know it.
That’s how we began creating Pity Party.
And when did the realization kick in — it’s not Dining Alone you're working on, it’s Pity Party?
All right; that’s significant. And two weeks ago, you realize you’re actually making a piece about your own grieving.
I hear you clearly. And I want to be careful and respectful here, Ms. Herrera.
What do you want to tell me about your grieving?
I can tell you it took a really long time to figure it out.
My dream, since I was very young, was that I always wanted to dance for Pina Bausch. I had always felt this pull between being a dancer and wanting to be a choreographer and director. And it was just very ironic that when I go to ADF—it’s a huge deal for a young choreographer, who’s swept off her feet and flown to ADF for the summer—that Pina Bausch passes away. The anniversary of her death was last Tuesday (June 30).
Obviously, I didn’t know Pina Bausch personally. I don’t have a relationship with her. But she’s left so much inspiration for me in her work. So much.
And that had been Leony’s dream as well. He had just graduated from college, and we were both set to go to Germany; her ballet mistress had invited us to come take class with her company.
I was in the ADF dormitory, with Rudy, after rehearsal one day. And Leony comes in and tells us that Pina’s passed away. Of course it was a total shock to me; it was a shock to everyone.
But it wasn’t until I was washing dishes that I lost it.
It’s the perfect example. We both lost it: Leony was eating chicken nuggets, dipping them into sauce and just sobbing. I was washing the dishes, and we were both crying like babies—but we didn’t stop what we were doing. I didn’t stop doing the dishes, and Leony didn’t stop eating his nuggets.
And poor Rudy. He’s a b-boy; he barely knows who Pina is. He was trying to pat my shoulder, hug Leony, and run in between.
It was just the absurdity of the moment. How much we strive to hold on to something, no matter what it is—washing dishes, eating nuggets—against the loss of a dream: something you’ve aspired to your whole life and then, one day, it’s gone.
Pity Party came out of that idea—this celebration of weakness.
I use the structures and symbols of parties and celebrations—music, pinatas, balloons—to juxtapose against the weight and the heaviness of grieving. Then I try to celebrate our weaknesses—as dancers, as people, as technicians—and run with that.
Luckily I was working when it happened, and I had to continue to work. I just never expected that I’d have such a strong emotional response to someone’s passing who I didn’t even know, I’d never spoken to or had a relationship with.
But I did. I did.
It wasn’t until two weeks ago that I figured out that I was grieving. And that I am grieving, you know? Sometimes the body is so much wiser than the mind. It’ll tell you what you need to know. You’ve just got to shut up and listen.
I go to a couple of places, in my memory, when I hear you talking about this.
In a small town, funerals are such an invocation of community—all the folkways, all the things people do when a family loses somebody.
When you talk about pairing celebration up with weakness, first off, everybody brings food. Either they cook, or they go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. All of the tables and countertops in the home of the bereaved are just filled—and it’s really, really good food.
People are sitting around, eating, talking about the person who died, remembering jokes and cool things about them. Everyone’s doing that, to varying degrees: they're eating, laughing—and crying—all within a very, very short amount of time, as they're remembering the person who died.
The emotional valences are like a wind vane, or a dial—they’re just spinning, freely. And maybe that’s exactly what they need to do: such a broad range of emotions, put so closely, side by side, with one another.
They’re all on the verge of becoming the next emotion. What you’re saying about the dial is exactly right; it’s like the wind is spinning.
My tradition of grieving, being Cuban and growing up in a Catholic household, is a little bit different. It’s ten days long. You have the viewing, where people go to see the body, in a funeral home. There’s a ceremony at funeral home, and then there’s the burial.
And coming from my very dramatic family, at all of the funerals, there’s always an episode. Somebody always throws themselves on the body…
…I’ve seen that in funerals in my family…
…but I think it’s important that whatever self-pity you have over your grieving process—you have to let yourself feel that, and then you let it go. Let yourself cry and whinge and feel sorry for yourself for a good five minutes. Then you can move on. Because to deny yourself that is very unnatural, very unhealthy.
In Cuban American culture we have this thing called “compromiso.” You try to escape it your whole life. It’s that—well, if you’re Cuban and Catholic—that ingrained guilt that’s always in your heart and the back of your mind. You can be as independent as you want to, but you’re always carrying that information with you.
I don’t think any one religious tradition has cornered the market on that. Guilt was a definite part of the ultra-fundamentalism in this strange place I come from. Tell me about it: Yes, you do fight against these things. Even when you realize it was being hardwired into you from very early on, it has a way of sneaking up on you.
I mean, with all of our—I guess, conditioning—it’s still such a surprise.
I went to another funeral this year for a beautiful, dear friend of mine, Jennylin Duanny. She was an amazing artist, performer, person and mother. She was a cornerstone of theater in Miami; a pioneer, and one of the most beloved women in Miami. I honor her by showing her work; that’s the best you can do.
I found myself at her funeral, performing all these rituals that I didn’t even know I knew. Prayers, genuflecting, kneeling and standing—and I didn’t even know that I remembered how to do this.
But your body remembers.
Elaine Scarry says what is learned in the body is learned well.
Grief does have the potential to unite people. Grief is contagious, but at the same time, so is pity. And that’s a dangerous slope.
But there’s a beautiful sense of community in loss and in grieving. It’s intuitive knowledge that we all have, to protect each other and to be there for each other when there’s a loss.
I’m not going to get into politics and death. But I try to play with the idea of community and grieving in Pity Party as well
But I have to say, the process of commissioning is very stressful.
Like I say, it takes me years, so having a time restraint is really nerve-wracking.
You try to keep yourself, be as real with yourself and honest with yourself about your process and doing what you need to do. And there’s no better organization in the world besides ADF to work with. They’re so understanding, so supportive; it’s perfectly ideal for the circumstance.
But there’s always going to be that part of you that wants to succeed, to be successful; that wants to be well-received; that wants to be interesting.
And you really have to let it go, and just do your work. That’s a process in and of itself.
It’s my first huge commission, and it’s been quite a learning experience.
I’m not remotely in the place where I feel like [Pity Party] is done. I don’t think it’s done. But we’re on our way.
Although I don’t feel that the piece is where I would love it to be for a performance yet, I have learned so much in such a short amount of time. That information is invaluable.
The pieces, Dining Alone, Various Stages of Drowning, and Pity Party, are part of a trilogy of works. They’re to be performed together; they’re just not all created, just yet. But they all relate to each other; one thing leads to the next.
The term "pity party" is pejorative. We say it when we want to say, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Man up.” It’s the kind of thing you say to someone when you’re trying to get them to stop.
But in this piece, it’s just the opposite; it’s an encouragement.
Feeling bad for yourself? Throw a party.
As I said earlier, it’s about celebrating your weakness. Part of that is embracing it, exploring it and moving on. I think you have to allow yourself—you have to—those five minutes of self-pity, because that’s natural. Then you move on.
This year has been a very difficult year for our world, for the Earth. There’s been so much loss, so much death and so much negativity in the past year.
And there’s been so much talk and debate about what to do—about the oil spill, about the health care crisis, about Haiti, about the recession. It’s so important to have these conversations.
But I also feel that chaos is important. And loss and death are important for evolution.
In this time of great loss and difficulty in our world—what better way is there to move on than to throw a party? Let’s just have a party—eat our chicken nuggets, cry—and just let it go and move on.
There’s an old saying: That which we resist, persists.
And, again, I have to observe, this is yet another place you’re taking us where we tend to not want to spend a lot of time. Who likes to say they’re weak? It’s one of the last things we care to admit.
As for grief, it’s strenuous; the body is actually doing very, very hard work. It’s intense labor—and it’s pretty punishing, in that one is not excused from it; you have to do the work.
Plus there’s so much—too much—mystification involved with grief. We say it’s very private, but I think our culture tends to create the conditions under which it is. Many times I think those conditions have more to do with convenience and fears of contagion, perhaps, than consolation or healing.
When we say we don’t want to impose ourselves on people in grief, it usually winds up being a much better deal for us than it is for them.
It’s uncomfortable being in that place with someone. In general, I think we all avoid situations when it’s not the right thing to do. There are times when there’s a great loss; when there’s nothing you can say, and nothing you can do.
All you can do is be with that person. And that’s a hard thing to do.
A local theater company did a show a few weeks ago called God’s Ear. It’s a vexing play, and I think its script is problematic on a couple of levels, but one of the things it gets at, though, is how little the language and the words do, when you’re in a place of grief. Proximity and physical presence go places language can’t in those circumstances.
I’m cognizant that there are a number of ways of grieving. But I’ve often thought that stoicism is next to denial; I haven’t always thought the versions of it I’ve seen were very helpful.
So I’m in sympathy with what I hear you saying; actually, you do have to get grief out.
Because if you don’t get it out, guess what?
And it turns into something else. I just imagine it as an image of wind, and how the emotional dial sometime spins. If you don’t let it spin, I imagine it turning into a huge tornado inside. If you don’t allow yourself to go through the process of grieving, throw that pity party, you deny yourself the opportunity to celebrate—and learn—from someone’s life.
The dial gets rusted. You get frozen, or stuck. You can’t go forward.
And that’s how you drown.