Excavating a Unique Pairing: Between Joti Singh and Zenón Barrón

By Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos

November 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

IN THE SPRING OF 2009 I interviewed Joti Singh and Zenón Barrón; at the time they were collaborating through Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME), investigating a unique partnership and exploring the constructs of ethnicity and cultural identity through their distinctive dance forms through the cultural lens of the Punjabi-Mexican communities of California in the early 20th century. Joti, founder and choreographer of Duniya Dance and Drum Company, works in Bhangra and West African dance, and Zenón, artistic director of Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco, works in traditional Mexican folkdance. At the time, they were planning a research trip to Imperial Valley to interview children of Punjabi-Mexican parents, all of whom are now in their 70s. They had also just started taking each other’s dance classes as a way to experiment across their respective cultures and investigate what such a fusion and collaboration might feel like. By learning each other’s form could they develop a deeper awareness for the experiences and challenges this early migrant community faced? What kind of community comes from a mash-up of two different cultures? If there was a dance, how would it feel?

Now funded through the Creative Work Fund and the San Francisco Arts Commission, I sat down again with Joti and Zenón in the midst of their preparations for the November 13 -14 premiere of Half and Halves—their first production, which takes its name from the slang term used for the children of Punjabi-Mexican parents.

It’s been over a year and a half since we last spoke. What are you guys doing right now?

Joti Singh (JS) and Zenón Barrón (ZB): Panicking

Why are you panicking?

ZB: No, we’re pretty good. I think that what’s tough is that our dancers are not professional dancers necessarily; they have regular jobs during the daytime, so the schedules are difficult. Last night was only the second rehearsal together with everybody from both companies. She was doing Bhangra dancing yesterday.

JS: Yeah, we did a lot. We’re performing the dances together, so the work that I’ve set on his company I’m also setting on my company and vice versa.

And are you two performing?

ZB: Yes, of course. We are the stars! (all laugh)

When we first spoke in 2009 you were just starting to explore a mentor/mentee relationship as set up by the CHIME program. How has your relationship evolved from that project?

JS: Now we have a more specific goal. We used CHIME to explore each other’s forms and explore working together, but now we have an end product that we’re creating.

The mentor relationship is still continued in some ways because I just watch the ways Zenón works, and I’m able to observe the way he does his formations and how he moves around his 30 dancers and looks at the space. He’s able to foresee where things are going and to direct who goes where. I’m not used to working with as many people, and I try to figure out everything beforehand by writing it down in my notebook. I have so many ideas, and I don’t always know if they’re going to work. It’s inspirational to think that when I’ve had his level of experience I might be able to see or anticipate things before they happen.

How is it to work in or with each other’s companies? How does it work?

ZB: They’re excited. In Mexican folkdance we use a lot of footwork, and Joti’s company uses more full-bodied movement. Sometimes I know it’s hard to do the steps, but I think at this point her dancers are very good.

JS: It was helpful for us when his dancers came to our rehearsal last week; sometimes other people are able to articulate the form in a different way, which is useful. One of your dancers, Zenón, said “you want to hold your body up so that you’re almost not putting any weight on your feet. That’s how your feet move fast.” And that was like a light bulb for me because it was what I needed to think about in order to do the steps. With Bhangra, it’s so earthy and grounded, and with West African too, you spend a lot of time with the ground. So that was an A-ha moment for me. Hopefully that will help us do it better so that we won’t massacre his choreography. (laughs)

Last time we spoke you said that it was hard for you to shake your body?

ZB: It’s much better now. (laughs)

Any challenges or pleasant surprises that have come up since CHIME ended last year?

JS: I’ve learned a lot about collaborating, and I’m doing things that I’ve never done before in a show. I wrote a song, my very first song that I’ve ever written. I’ve written text, which is very new to me as well as the fact that we’re putting it on stage. And then both a challenge and a surprise is putting both groups of musicians together…putting the music together and seeing what comes out of it. I feel like we’re just creating stuff that’s totally different. I don’t know if people would ever combine these instruments, but here we are doing it. It’s challenging, and it’s also really amazing.

Another challenge too was in thinking of the people we interviewed and what they might think of our show. It’s so important that they even spoke to us because they want their stories to be known and they want the histories of their communities to go on. How do we be true to ourselves as artists—to do things that are challenging and interesting and exciting—and marry that with being respectful?

ZB: That’s the most important.

JS: Respecting these people’s time and willingness to share their stories with us. I’m not sure if any of them will actually be at the show. We’re inviting them but hopefully in the future we’ll actually be able to take it somewhere closer to them. I think about what they would think if they saw it. And what’s hard about that too is that they’re not all a homogenous group, so people have different opinions. So we might be representing one thing that is a vital part of one person’s story but might totally conflict with another’s. It’s a challenge.

And I think a lot of what we’re putting on stage is our interpretation because it’s not like they actually had a dance like a “Punjabi-Mexican dance.” In some ways we are fortunate enough to imagine what this kind of dance could be and create it and work together to create it. We’ve had a lot of support.

ZB: Do you remember the last interview we did in Imperial Valley? Not many are in the arts at all, but the last lady we interviewed was a dancer. She showed us pictures of when she was a teenager dancing.

JS: She did a lot of Mexican folklórico dance.

She’s Punjabi-Mexican?

JS: Yes. She was the last woman we interviewed, Norma Saikhon, and she danced her whole life, mostly folklórico. Her and her sisters would also put on their dad’s records and dance to old Bollywood tunes. Now she’s the Public Administrator in Imperial County and is featured in an exhibit on California history at the Oakland Museum.

I was pretty amazed at how willing our interviewees were to speak with us. The first woman we interviewed, Isabel Singh Garcia, was hesitant to speak to us at first, but we ended up spending the whole day together, going to lunch, and the Pioneer museum in Yuba City. The other folks we interviewed were just as generous with their time. I think it’s really important to them that their history be known. Most of them questioned how we would make a dance performance out of this subject, since there wasn’t a specific dance they all did, so we had to explain that we were interested in different aspects of their lives, not just whether they danced or not, and that we’d be telling a story through our dances.

Can you both think of a pressing question you have for each other? It could be small and specific or broad and philosophical.

JS: What do you think my company needs to do to make the folklórico sections better?

ZB: I went to the library at the civic center to get a Punjabi movie, and I invited my dancers to come to my house and enjoy it so that they can see more details about how they dance in India. I think that’s the best way to learn more about the style and to retain the material.

What do you think about our project? Do you think the community thinks what we’re putting on stage is true, or they might think we are making it up? I know we’re using traditional dancers, but do you think that the community will come to see…how do you say trabajo creativo?

JS: Creative work?

ZB: Creative work. Is the show more creative work?

JS: As opposed to traditional? Those as different? I think it’s both. I think even in my traditional work I do creating. We’ve interpreted a lot, but what I’ve taken away from research we have done is the sense of how layered and complex this community actually was. There are certain things that come up over and over again that we show in our performance: the difficulty of coming here; how these men felt like when they came to California—it’s something that was repeated over and over.

I think it’s a good balance. We have our traditional work and then we have our creative work. Thematically that makes sense with the creation of this community: they were very creative too in terms of aspects of their culture that they shared with each other and what they talked to their children about; choices that people were making, like if they were raised in the Catholic church; combining the food and combining the traditions. So I think if we were to create something totally traditional, I’m interpreting this more as stories.

JS: I want to ask the question he asked me, about whether this is traditional work or creative work we’re doing?

ZB: I remember in the first meeting we had with Jorge, I was saying that with Mexican folkdance when you have a show, especially when you have it in the theater, you have to be careful because sometimes our Mexican folkdances can be very boring. We have to balance the music and dance and how the emotions and energy comes across to the audience so that they’re not bored. I think we have more tragic aspects we’re dealing with.

JS: I have a short attention span, so for me going to a show that is all the same genre for two hours can sometimes be boring even if the dancers are great. That’s one thing that gives me confidence in how people might receive our show because we have two very different forms. Bhangra is so energetic, but even that amount of energy can get monotonous. I think the two forms balance each other out because they have different kinds of energy.

It’s interesting that you say it’s more tragic. (pauses to reflect) Well, life is hard. (laughing)

Half and Halves premieres Sat, Nov 13, 7pm & Sun, Nov 14, 2pm at the Brava Theater in San Francisco.

This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of In Dance.