Looking at Home From Both Sides of the Equator

By Natalie Greene

October 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

For the past two summers I have traveled to Peru through the University of San Francisco’s Community Connections. I work as Adjunct Faculty in the USF Dance Program, which is part of the Department of Performing Arts and Social Justice. The Community Connections program in Tacna, Peru was initiated by the Department of Computer Science. Five years and several computer labs later, the program expanded to include other USF Departments. I was chosen to represent the Dance Program because of my experience working with children and teaching dance classes in Spanish.

Amie Dowling and I created a residency for first to sixth grades that is focused on teaching academic curriculum through movement. Our residency includes the training of teachers and an end-of-session performance at Escuela Miguel Pro. My interests, however, reached beyond the week-long immersion in Tacna. I saw the invitation as an opportunity to get to know Peru – its people and its culture – and to learn what, if any, modern dance was going on.

I spent several weeks dancing in Lima with support from USF’s Adjunct Teaching Development Fund. Many of my contacts came through photographer Rob Kunkle, who has worked with the Lima dance community in years past. The first thing I noticed was that simply stating that I am a dancer and teacher from San Francisco took me a long way. The assumption of wisdom based solely on location surprised me, but I happily went forth letting my California banner open doors.

Modern dance is thriving in Lima, Peru. Classes, performances and festivals abound and contemporary dance is in the public eye. Popular choreographers are celebrities in Lima and receive media coverage beyond just previews and reviews. Reporters delve into the daily and personal lives of Lima’s successful dance-makers, and the public is interested. With such popular appeal and fashionable mystique, one wonders whether modern dance is just the latest Limeño trend, or if there is lasting value in this newly well-known art form.

Traditional dance forms are alive and well, maintaining a high status in modern Peruvian culture. I particularly enjoyed the Marinera Norteña class that I took with USF students in Tacna. However, I limited my research in Lima to contemporary dance, and there was enough of it to keep me busy for weeks.

The generous, energetic people who make up Lima’s contemporary dance community seem, to me, to be the city’s artistic elite. In a country where the class system is still intact, most people cannot afford to become artists. The (almost) thriving middle class must struggle just to stay where they are. The poor have no opportunity to study, let alone experiment. So the people who become professional dancers are mostly from upper middle class or wealthy families. This may be one of the reasons why modern dance is viewed as “glamorous” in Lima.

Among the most accomplished and best-known choreographers in Lima are Morella Petrozzi, Pachi Valle Riestra, Patricia Auwapara, Mirella Carbone and Elizabeth Muñoz. While they all create within the modern dance genre, they often address issues of national or regional importance. It was exciting for me to see local and traditional themes explored through non-traditional means. Most of these women have their own studio, company and school.

In the Bay Area, a visitor might meet a local dancer in class and ask for recommendations of other classes to take. Local dancers are likely to recommend their favorite teachers in different spaces.

In Lima, however, many dancers admit that they have studied with only one teacher, and they can only guess where else to send you. They tend to stay with one teacher, one choreographer, one studio… as if flocking to a guru. Some teachers there will tell their dancers that they have to learn one technique – their technique – as if there were no value in practicing different ways of moving. I was surprised at the lack of sharing, mixing and dancing around.

Of course this is not always true. Some persistent dancers cross-train and work with different choreographers. One such renegade is Omar Ananias, a radiant young performer, teacher and choreographer. He recently left Petrozzi’s Compañía Danza Viva to start an NGO combining arts and environmental education (www.casaninfa.org). He and a small group of Limeño artists are giving back to the community, pursuing art in the spirit of USF’s own Department of Performing Arts and Social Justice. I asked Omar about my perceptions of the Lima dance community. First, he reminded me that these choreographers are not always friends. It is as if the Lima dance community is a collection of several talented choreographers and their devoted followings. I realized that each individual I met was delightful and luminous, but their generosity toward me does not necessarily extend to their neighbors.

This discovery brings me back to the topic of dance in San Francisco. Although competition exists, we are certainly an intermixing and collaborative community. We seek each others’ feedback and present work in shared events. Recent initiatives such as Margaret Jenkins’ CHIME and Mary Armentrout’s Dance Discourse Project encourage critical dialogue and community relations. For the most part, we are free to teach and take classes wherever we like.

Omar Ananias said to tell dancers in California, “You are SO lucky!” He proceeded to list the resources lacking in Peru, which include shoes, clothes, space, funding, as well as access to teachers and new information. He suggested that modern dance is celebrated in Lima, not because the creators are from the upper class, but because of the hardship suffered in bringing something to the stage. He stressed that dancers and choreographers endure much just to create their art.

I wanted to understand and sympathize with the difficulties of creating without the resources that we are accustomed to in San Francisco. Instead, I was amazed at his theory: dance is celebrated in recognition of the difficulties one endures while creating it.

If only Americans had the patience to recognize the effort put into a long process, and the fortitude to celebrate the fruits of our labor! I wonder how often people in our country see modern dance and assume that it is improvised.

I look around a dance show in Lima, and the room feels alive. The audience appears affluent and educated. They are excited and interested in the work, but there is something else. I think this is what Omar was referring to… they seem to be grateful. They are appreciative and adoring. It is an audience of dancers and non-dancers alike, who all seem to understand that it may take an hour or more to create a minute of choreography. The applause is rich, full and genuine. Outside, reporters await and ask notable attendees their opinions of the work.

I get caught up because the excitement is palpable, but I can’t help but think back to the week before when I was in Tacna. I think about that impoverished city and USF’s Community Connections, a volunteer program working in the dust and dirt of a small Jesuit elementary school. Could any of the children at Escuela Miguel Pro ever hope to perform on a stage in Lima?

The juxtaposition of my experiences in Peru made me grateful for the opportunities that I have had in the United States. I arrived in San Francisco seven years ago, nearly clueless and penniless. I packed my car and drove here alone, and Kelly Kemp was the only person I knew in the Bay Area. I am honored to have danced for Kelly Kemp & Company for the past six years, and also blessed with the opportunity to have performed for many different artists and choreographers.

Before dancing in Lima, I never realized how privileged I am to be able to work with several different artists at once. Many of us in the Bay Area wear many different hats, oftentimes performer, teacher and choreographer. We complain about the problems of getting around town and switching gears between gigs. Now, I am grateful for the freedom that allows me to perform this balancing act. I am allowed to perform in or initiate projects that interest me. I am no longer bogged down by the plight of the part-time employee. Instead, I appreciate being part of a community that values collaboration and variety.

As I write from the patio of a hostel in Lima, I am nonetheless thrilled to be here. The sights, sounds and flavors of Peru will continue to inform and inspire me as an artist wherever I am. The gracious welcome I receive in Lima assures me that modern dance will continue to grow and thrive in this city, and I feel a genuine interest in the art form and its constituents. I am reminded, however, that sometimes you must go somewhere else to learn about your home. More than anything, I am grateful for our community and our freedom. I came to California with little, and I have gained so much.

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

Natalie Greene loves working at USF. In addition to teaching, she is a singer, dancer and actress who enjoys creating and collaborating on performances of all sorts. Natalie has been honored to work with many different companies, mentors and friends in the Bay Area and beyond. You can reach her at njgreene@usfca.edu.