Travel to move: An Interview with Zenón Barrón

By Micaela Nerguizian

January 1, 2012, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Viajar libera la mente.
Traveling frees the mind. For Zenón Barrón, Founder and Artistic Director of Ensambles Ballet Folkórico de San Francisco, travel is a linchpin to creativity. “When I board an airplane, a train, a bus…I drift into an emotional state of being in which I become very sensitive to the arts. My thoughts begin to take shape and my creative process is set in motion.” Sometimes all it takes is a short escape or trip to reawaken his imagination and plant the seed of ideas for his new productions.

Through dance that ranges from ceremonial to celebratory, Barrón brings to life stories from Mexico’s rich culture and history. “Once my vague ideas concretize, I begin threading together all the components to form a storyline. It is very important for my pieces to tell a story.” Among his repertoire of choreographies, which often incorporate social, religious and political themes, he has re-created elaborate depictions of Mayan rituals, staged folk dances from 18th-century-old Mexican festivals, and masterfully brought together six local ballet folklórico companies to present a suite of dances commemorating the Mexican Bicentennial.

In an interview over coffee and tea, at a café in the Mission District, the topics of travel and creativity were a recurring theme. Barrón recalled that as a young boy he did not have many opportunities to travel because they were, as he put it, “so many” in his family. By “so many” he meant 17 children. Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, Barrón’s earliest childhood memory of dancing was when he was five years old, attending the rehearsals of his town’s religious festivals during the month of May. Participating in indigenous and folk dances were common activities within the community. These dances were passed down from one generation to another. His great-grandfather, grandfather, and father knew the basic steps. Dancing was as natural as eating and walking.

As a young boy his biggest dream was to someday become a classical dancer. He remembers how strongly he was drawn to this style of music when he heard it at home on the radio. “Classical music transported me. When I asked my family what I was hearing I received brief explanations. They didn’t go into much detail about its meaning and origin…and I yearned for more.”

Mentores. Guías. Maestros.
Mentors. Guides. Teachers. They are essential in Barrón’s life. When it came to matters concerning his vocation and purpose in life he turned to them for support. Barrón believes it is very important to have a mentor and be guided by someone who will look out for your interests and help you get ahead. It was not so much his parents that guided him to pursue a dance career, as other individuals he met along the way. Among the numerous mentors he had during his formative years, Jaime Bernard was a key figure and the first person to truly inspire him to seek a career in the arts.

Mr. Bernard was the dance teacher at the school in Puerto Vallarta that Barrón attended when he was 12 years old. “After my father’s death, my mother could not raise 17 children on her own, so some of us went to live with our paternal grandparents in Puerto Vallarta and continued our education there.” During this period, he had the opportunity to take courses such as painting, drawing, design, and contemporary and traditional Mexican dance. Mr. Bernard noticed he had a passion for the arts, particularly in dance, and guided him to follow his dream. “He pushed me to accomplish things I had never imagined possible. He informed me about scholarships and encouraged me to audition for a dance company that would eventually open the door to tour internationally.”

This dance company that Barrón refers to was the Ballet Folklórico de México of Amalia Hernandez. In 1983 he joined her resident company and a year later became a first company dancer, launching his touring career in South America, Europe and the U.S. Previous to joining this company, he had studied with America Balbuena at the Universidad Autónoma de Guanajuato and a few years later graduated with a dance degree from the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

His career as a professional dancer, trained in classical ballet and modern dance, opened numerous doors of opportunities and the desire to teach grew stronger year after year. Today, not only is he the artistic director and costume designer of his company Ensambles, which he founded in San Francisco in 1992, but also a dedicated researcher of Mexican and Latin American folklore. Just recently, in 2009, he received his PhD in dance, writing his thesis on indigenous communities from various countries.

San Francisco marca un nuevo capítulo.
San Francisco marks a new chapter. Barrón had first visited the foggy city by the bay in the early eighties and decided to move there in 1992, the same year his dance company became an official nonprofit. One of the things he loved about San Francisco before moving there was the “mixture of races, cultures, food, and music.” He felt this city had the right vibe and pictured it as a huge door of opportunities, or can we say, as the Golden Gate of opportunities.

And he was right. With the help of his friends Jorge Pacheco and Amanda Almonte, who were already living in the Bay Area, they began generating ideas and discussing the possibility of forming a ballet. It took some time to create a structure, but soon all the hard work and dedication paid off. In 1996, Ensambles made their first appearance in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, which Barrón believes pushed them to a new level and marked their “punto de partida” (starting point). Carlos Carvajal, co-artistic director of the Ethnic Dance Festival and good friend of Barrón, writes, “I have grown to admire Zenón as a performer, musician, costume designer, and choreographer over the years. He is very well versed in Mexican dance culture and audacious in his use of the traditional materials when designing and manufacturing costumes for his company. I feel he expresses the very best qualities of his craft and is always a positive element in any panel and community discussion. He is not afraid of failure, has confidence, and is fearless in wanting to bring dance that has never been seen before to our Festival.”

By 1999, the company began presenting their annual productions and just three years later, Barrón created the children’s class for ages 12 and under. “I forget the world around me and experience an emotional catharsis when I’m teaching the children. I feel my vocation has been to teach them…something I discovered late in life.” As he watches them grow and improve their dance skills, it brings back memories of his childhood. He works parallel with the parents and has agreed with them that in order for their kids to be a part of his company, they are required to keep up their good grades in school. “The class is like my semillero (nursery). I’ve been teaching some of them since they were five years old. My hope is that they stay on, continue to nurture their passion for dance and eventually join the adult company.”

What started out as a company of six dancers has grown today to about 22 dancers in the adult group and 30 in the children’s. Currently, Barrón’s classes are held in San Francisco’s LINES Dance Center (for the adults) and the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (for the children). He works with many talented musicians from the Bay Area and from time to time hosts other folklórico dance companies from California and Mexico to perform in San Francisco.

Aside from designing his own productions, he enjoys collaborating with other dance companies and communities. Last year he partnered up with Duniya Dance & Drum Company, from the Bay Area, to present the production Half and Halves: A Dance Exploration of the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of California. Barrón, along with Duniya’s choreographer and artistic director Joti Singh, conducted several interviews and did a great deal of research on the Punjabi-Mexican communities founded in California in the early 20th century. As described in their program, they “explored themes related to farming life, marriage, immigration, and racial and ethnic discrimination.” The result was a brilliant combination of high energy Bhangra with Mexican folklórico dance.

Mirando hacia el horizonte.
Looking toward the horizon, Barrón has many ambitious projects in mind. When asked to dream big, he wishes to someday have his own academy and cultural center. On the topic of future dance collaborations he stated, “I would love to work with the Philippine and Peruvian communities. I think there are some ideas waiting to be brought to life there!”

While maintaining a realistic perspective during his creative process, he always aims to conclude his ideas, instead of leaving them hanging halfway. “As an artistic director I work with passion, dedication, discipline, and always look for an objective. A well thought out project, with good logistics, should have a beginning, middle, and end. I do not like to leave my projects unfinished. I believe they should always be concluded.” And as we brought our conversation at the café to a conclusion, he shared with me his plans for his upcoming 2012 production titled Las Pinturas de Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo en movimiento, which will depict Rivera and Kahlo’s art in movement. Considering how essential travel is in stimulating his creativity and imagination, who knows what journeys the new year will bring?

Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco will perform on February 10th at noon at San Francisco’s City Hall Rotunda as part of the free Rotunda Dance Series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West in partnership with San Francisco’s Grants for the Arts.

Micaela Nerguizian works in production for World Arts West, producers of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and SFJAZZ.

This article appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of In Dance.

Micaela Nerguizian works in production for World Arts West, producers of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and SFJAZZ.