Joti Singh and Zenón Barrón: Excavating Cultural Encounters

By Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos


On Friday, March 27, I watched a rehearsal between Joti Singh and Zenón Barrón. Joti is the founder and artistic director of Duniya Dance and Drum Company, a performance project blending music and dance from Punjab, India, and Guinea, West Africa. Zenón is the founder and artistic director of Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco, a traditional Mexican dance troupe. The two were recently awarded a Choreographers In Mentorship Exchange (CHIME) grant through the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, which pairs emerging Bay Area choreographers with an established artistic mentor. As a contemporary performance artist trained in traditional Mexican dance, I was curious to see how this West African-bhangra-folklórico collaboration began. How is this unlikely pair working with culture and tradition? And to what end? After their rehearsal, we sat down to discuss where they are in this early stage in their collaboration.

Jorge: How did this CHIME project begin, and what are the two of you doing?

Joti: The project is based on a community of Punjabi-Mexicans that formed in the early 20th century in the Imperial and Sacramento Valleys. Agricultural workers came over from Punjab and intermarried with Mexican women, but they were shunned by their respective communities. The kids would grow up speaking Spanish and going to church, but the men for the most part didn’t hold onto that much. They didn’t teach their children Punjabi language, but they taught their wives how to make Indian food. When they died, they were cremated and not buried. This is something Zenón and I have talked about—how food and death practices were what was really held onto. I was thinking of making those what our presentation hinges upon as we develop the work.

What piqued your interest in the first place? Is there a family history or is it something you just came across?

Joti: It was interesting to me for a number of reasons. My family was Punjabi, but I grew up here in California so I’m really interested in the intersections between cultural practices. Historically, Punjab has been the breadbasket of India, and my dad grew up in a village on the farm. My great-grandfather came to the U.S. around that time as a freedom fighter escaping the British government, and he lived in the Central Valley so I heard stories growing up about his life there. Then one of my dancers is half Indian and half Mexican, and even though she is not from that particular community [in the Central Valley] she relates to being mixed because in Mexico she was the only one—her and her brother. So that sparked things for me.

How did you first hear about the project? Did you know Joti beforehand?

Zenón: No, she sent me an email the summer of last year because a lady who was working at the Mission Cultural Center recommended me [as a mentor] because of my Mexican dance background. When Joti presented the project, I found that we had very similar things in common especially in regards to farmers and families working in the fields. I thought we could connect around the more indigenous people in Mexico. We have the same production as Indian people in terms of agriculture, and that’s how I felt we could relate.

Joti: One of the dances he’s teaching me is a harvest dance from the fields. The dance, bhangra, that I practice from Punjab is also a harvest dance so there’s some overlap in that way. What struck me too is that he takes his tradition and puts his personal style and aesthetic and other training into that, which is important to me because I’m not looking to present a piece that’s “pure” or “authentic” to any one form. Zenón is well respected in what he does, and I’m taking what he’s learned.

Zenón: I feel that my work is very traditional, but I put my personality and what I’m thinking about now into it. Mexican folk dance twenty years ago was completely different than now. If you want to go to the communities in Mexico, you can see that the indigenous people there have been dancing the same dance for a long time. But if you move the dance out of the town, then it [becomes] completely different. Even though you might have a tradition and know everything about the dance, you don’t have the same thing. For example, I’ve been living here for the last 16 years, and I no longer have close connections to my family in Mexico to celebrate certain things. When I go to visit people over there, I’m treated as part of the family, but it’s not exactly the whole feeling because I’m not living in that culture anymore. When I decide to put something on stage it’s hard because you need to go from the middle to the top because if you put something very traditional then sometimes it’s very boring: People think the music is slow, the dancers don’t have energy, [or they think] that you should change this and that part.

Earlier you said that Mexican folklórico was different twenty years ago as opposed to now. If you’ve learned dances, then do you have to stick to the dance the way it was taught?

Zenón: Well, for example, I have a classical ballet background of many years, and I have my traditional part, so I combine both. Otherwise, if I didn’t have this technique then maybe I would be doing the same things they do in Mexico…. So I approach it more with an academic understanding.

In folklórico many of the dances are choreographies that were created in the 1950s and continue to be taught. Have you done that yourself where you did the research, made the steps and put the choreography to the songs? How do you do it?

Zenón: I’ve been traveling to Mexico for the last eleven years every summer, and I would bring my camera and computer and record and write down everything that I saw there…. I went to Mexico in 2006 and 2007 for four months each year to visit my friend, Rafael Zamarripa, one of my major mentors. I visited him many times, and we talked from eleven in the morning to 1 a.m. believe it or not. I was very open to listening to him because I’m so new in this regard, and he’s one of the best teachers from Mexico in Mexican folk dance. He combines contemporary dance, ballet, traditional Mexican folk dance, and he has a wonderful company. I learned many things from him, and he’s my inspiration to do my choreography.

Joti, the name of your company, “Duniya,” means “world” in different languages. Using the training and movement that you already know, you are combining different worlds and dancing something new. How intentional is that?

Joti: I grew up studying bhangra dance, and I think I have the same feeling that Zenón does—if I were to present what I learned as a kid, it could be boring. It’s great for a show at a cultural festival where the whole audience is Punjabi and the dancers are not professional, but that’s a whole different context than presenting something to an audience that isn’t familiar with the tradition. I started to study West African dance about eleven years ago. When I do West African and teach it, I’m very careful to present the tradition as it’s been taught to me because it’s not something I grew up with, and it’s something that I’m studying as an outsider. But at the same time I was looking for an expression that was mine, and that style of dance became something very internal. It became a huge part of my life. I create my own dance style where it’s not like “this step is from Guinea, and this one from Punjab, or Congolese,” but it’s a kind of expression where I don’t feel limited by this or that tradition, where I don’t feel like I have to present it in a certain way because it’s my tradition or it’s not my tradition.

How does this project compare to your past work?

Joti: It’s really different. The last piece I presented at CounterPULSE was about my friend and collaborator who had been sent to Guantanamo Bay. For that piece I did research on it, but mostly this person was right in front of me and we were working together. Zenón has a lot of experience in taking a historical moment and presenting that on stage as a dance piece. That’s one of the many areas where this mentorship is going to be very valuable for me. How do you take this story of a specific community in a historical moment and then put that on stage and then have it mean something to your audience and to you and still be a beautiful piece?

You are both new to learning each other’s culture, and you’re investigating something very different. What challenges do you feel or expectations do you have for what can be accomplished within the year? Is this something that will continue after the CHIME mentorship?

Joti: I hope that this is just a beginning. If I was trying to present a folklórico piece, I would feel an immense amount of pressure because I’ve never studied it before. I’m not trying to master the form in a year and say “now I’m a folklórico dancer,” nor am I trying to present a “picture” of this community. What interests me are the issues I brought up before in talking about the project: how Zenón’s and my experiences connect with these themes of death and food and also cultural exclusion. For example, Zenón was talking about how the indigenous people of Mexico are on the fringes of society. We’re looking at those concepts through the lens of this historical time period/community. There’s pressure because it is not where I’m from, and it’s not my own people, so there’s always the tiptoeing you have to do.

There are also not many people, from my understanding, who have done extensive research in this area because this community formed in the early 1900s and … many people intermarr[ied] from generation to generation. One thing we’re planning on doing is going to one of these regions and talking to people who may have connections and roots to this moment. I know that they still come together for a dance that happens in Yuba City once a year. I think it’s more social type dances that you might find here in this country, or maybe it was more Mexican-based, but from what I understand, there’s not so much folk Punjabi dance mixed in. I have no idea what we’ll learn, but we’ll find out if people are still connected somehow.

Zenón: Yeah, we were thinking that we need to go to the San Joaquin Valley to study about what happened there in the community, visit any families that might be Indian and Mexican and write something. That’s very important to me because I don’t want to say anything about the community if I haven’t tried to really figure out what’s going on.

What were strategic thoughts on how you could meet one another on this project both conceptually and practically? How have you met already?

Zenón: Well, she was supposed to be coming to my rehearsals, but she hasn’t yet, so I don’t know what’s going on …

Joti: [to me] Don’t put that in there.

Zenón: No, we have a very good feeling between us. We are both very funny with each other. We went to a meeting two weeks ago … it was a mentor meeting …

Joti: … a CHIME meeting

Zenón: Hearing from the other groups, we realized that we didn’t have the same problems and difficulties in meeting. We’ve worked together smoothly all the time. She’s very open to learning and I am too. I think it’s our culture. Because we have very similar things in common, and I think that’s why we can work very well.

How did you stand out or relate to the other CHIME collaborations?

Joti: I think we’re the only pair who is working in culturally specific forms. I haven’t seen much of the work of the other pairs, and I wonder how much they’re familiar with each other’s genres and works already, if they’re doing the same kind of dance or performance like modern or ballet. This is something completely new to both of us and different than what we’ve done before. Maybe because we’re both in this “traditional” genre from somewhat similar cultures, yet with very different dances, our process might require more discussion and open communication.

How do the roles of “mentor” and “mentee” fit on you then? Do they make sense in your case, or is this more of an equal collaboration?

Zenón: For me it’s an equal collaboration.

Joti: Something that I’m trying to do is draw from Zenón’s experience. For example, he has thirty dancers in his company and I have six. There is so much that I have to learn from him in a way other than just dance steps—me seeing how he works with his dancers and then having him come to my rehearsals and give me insight on how I work with my dancers on a specific choreography, on how I’m staging it, what works and what doesn’t. That’s how I’m seeing this mentor/mentee relationship will come into play.

[To Zenón] And maybe you don’t even realize that you’re being a mentor, but I feel like you are. I’m learning all these things from you. Like last time I asked, “How do you come up with your ideas? What do you do?” and you told me how you write out your ideas and that you go into the studio and you give yourself a certain amount of time to spend. I’m still figuring out what’s my work ethic and how I work. So I’m drawing inspiration from Zenón’s experience.

What have you guys done so far?

Joti: He’s been teaching me a couple pieces that are tied to harvest, and I just started to show him my work. So we’re just familiarizing ourselves with each other.

Zenón: I taught her “Sembradoras” which is a very traditional dance from people who work in the fields everyday.

Observing you two rehearsing in the studio—as in language, I could see your accents of each other’s dancing. Is this the first time you’ve learned West African and bhangra, Zenón? How’s it going?

Zenón: It’s very interesting because in Mexican folk dance we do a lot of footwork and only sometimes use the whole body, but rarely. I don’t want to say it’s difficult because when you learn ballet, for example, you use the arms and whole body in coordination—so that’s not new. For Joti, I think that they express the dance with their body language … and I love that. It’s very new for me.

And how’s it learning Zenón’s dances?

Joti: It’s a different energy. I’m not used to doing a lot of footwork…. Containing my whole energy is something very new for me because I’m used to using my whole body. And just seeing thematically, how do the actual steps relate to the people who do this, and the purpose for the dance. I’m just trying to put it all together and then feel it at the same time. It’s hard, but I think that when you’re a dancer, you’re used to learning by following somebody. I might not look that great doing it, but I understand what’s going on and can see what I’m supposed to do and that I’m supposed to move in a certain way. So how do I get the feeling that I’m supposed to have? How do I keep my upper body from thrusting and shaking?

Zenón: And I’m not shaking my body. That’s my problem. In our culture we don’t shake our bodies.

Let’s say you guys had lots of time and money. If you could dream, what would be a big picture project you two could work towards?

Zenón: For me, I would like to present this project to elementary schools to show the students what happened. That’s very important to me. That’s my dream to do that.

Joti: That’s really interesting because in San Francisco there are many mixed ethnicity kids growing up, and I feel that this is the generation where that’s very common. So I think Zenón’s idea would make a lot of sense. They’re growing up in a different way that I didn’t.

Do you think this is specific to the Bay Area?

Joti: I’m sure it’s happening in a lot of other places, but I feel it’s happening on a larger scale here. For me, like Zenón said, [I will] spend a lot of time doing research, following all the leads, spending time in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley, talking to everybody we can. I would love to go to Mexico.

Zenón: We’re going.

Joti: [Laughs] Yeah, we’ve decided. I’ll take Zenón to India. Just to be able to take our time and be as thorough as we can.

Good luck on your collaboration. I look forward to seeing what you two come up with.

This article appeared in the May 2009 issue of In Dance.