In Conversation with Dance Monks’ Rodrigo Esteva and Mirah Moriarty: Examining Natural Environments Through Interdisciplinary Performance

By Heather Desaulniers


Water is essential. It sustains; it cleanses; it feeds; it restores. It makes all life possible. In recent months, these realities have hit particularly close to home as we have faced and continue to face a serious and significant drought in California. Calls for conservation abound; immediate changes in consumption are required; mindful usage, a necessity. But even in the midst of this dire circumstance, how often do we consider water in our daily lives? Do we truly understand its importance and fundamental nature? Can we be more connected to this vital material?

For their new, site-specific, mobile work, Dance Monks has taken inspiration from a real water source, Berkeley’s Strawberry Creek. NOMAD: The Blue Road is all about water. Through dance, music, sound, puppetry and ritual, the project explores the mythical ancestry of water as well as the history of Strawberry Creek itself. Performances follow the path of the Creek (the majority of which is underground), beginning at the base of UC Berkeley, moving through Downtown Berkeley and culminating at Strawberry Creek Park. And at every point along the pilgrimage, NOMAD offers unique and hopeful opportunities to recall the power of water, to pay tribute to its heritage, and to recognize its beauty.

For Co-Artistic Directors Rodrigo Esteva and Mirah Moriarty, Dance Monks is far more than just a contemporary performance company. It is a life practice—a commitment to different ways of thinking, working and creating art. Esteva and Moriarty met back in the 1990s when both were members of New York City’s Pearson Widrig Dance Theater. In each other, they found a common desire to connect the environment and choreography in a new way, on a deeper dimension. As Moriarty describes, they longed to “deepen the process of site-specific work by spending extended periods of time in natural spaces, creating material in that place, for that place and formed by that place.” Esteva notes that they were drawn to the active, collaborative nature of outdoor environments, and how “the process of composing dance in a site-specific location gives a different lens, a different perspective than exporting it from the studio.” Moriarty adds, “we are so used to demanding that our environment meet our physical requirements, but we can rethink our needs and protect environmental spaces by physically adapting to nature rather than making nature adapt to us.” To those ends, Esteva and Moriarty founded Dance Monks in 2000 as a multi-city dance troupe based in both Mexico City and San Francisco. Fourteen years have passed and Dance Monks is still going strong, staying true to its core goals, values and ideals.

Continuing with their project-based, environmentally focused, site-specific choreographic vision, Dance Monks is pleased to premiere NOMAD in the East Bay, Saturday and Sunday, May 17-18. As the audience travels and follows the circuit of Strawberry Creek, multi-disciplined collaborating artists will express the theme of water. But observing the dance, music and visual art is only one part of the picture. Participants are invited to become immersed in the narrative experience, contemplating both the Creek’s history and the largess of water as a whole. NOMAD allows for a rare intersection of social consciousness, remembering and artistic exploration—a piece about a particular environment, composed in the environment and performed in that same space.

Moriarty describes NOMAD as a collection of “arrival places, where the audience will engage with a particular setting, as well as processionals, where the group is guided from space to space.” Every site has its own flavor, yet the common thread of water flows through each. Among redwood trees, the first site is more meditative; a process of listening to the area’s history. Other sites on the performance route are more story-based, re-telling spiritual tales of water deities, water rituals and ancient water myths. One section will travel directly through Downtown Berkeley’s Center Street, which on Saturdays is home to an incredibly vibrant Farmer’s Market. A bustling scene, full of pedestrian movement is the perfect spot for one of the work’s choreographic sequences. Everyday movement as choreography has been an ongoing trend in contemporary dance since it was made famous by the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s. But much of the time, choreographic depictions of pedestrian tasks model urban living and urban movement. In this vignette, a fresh approach to postmodern choreography will be explored, “what does pedestrian movement look like in relationship with natural environments; still everyday movement, but more connected to the land,” explains Esteva. In addition to these varied performance areas, NOMAD is also dedicated to the simple, egalitarian act of walking. Moving between the sites is itself an integral part of the process, a meaningful journey alongside the Creek, in partnership with it. Some may experience the walks as personal and introspective, while for others, they may be more of a communal and outward response. Esteva shares that the combination of these individual segments (the sites and the processionals) creates “a remembrance celebrating our sacred relationship with water; an active way to help recall that which has been forgotten and to connect people with memory and ancestry.”

Constructing collaborative, site-specific work comes with its own set of challenges. Dealing with details is always part of the puzzle—there are the permits to obtain and departments to communicate with. When the piece is going to be held outdoors, weather and conditions are another inevitable factor; one that cannot be controlled and sometimes not even predicted. In addition, with a substantial number of collaborators, it can be tough to get everyone in the same physical place at the same time. And with all those moving parts, the cohesiveness of the work must remain the top priority.

Joining Esteva and Moriarty is an amazing line-up of artistic collaborators including Dohee Lee, Pauchi Sasaki, Jennifer Curtis, Lauren Elder and NAKA Dance Theater’s José Navarrete, Kevin O’Connor and Debby Kajiyama. When it came to the contributing artists, Esteva and Moriarty had a number of considerations. First and foremost, an environmental focus was a necessary requirement. In addition, the collaborators would be charged with making original material for one of NOMAD’s distinct sites. As such, having dynamic artists, with unique and individual creative processes was key. It was also valuable to have choreographers, artists and musicians who had avid interest in both international work and local communities. This final criteria was not only important for NOMAD but also related to another long-term endeavor for Dance Monks.

While the current iteration of NOMAD is scheduled for a limited two performance run, Esteva and Moriarty see that the spirit of the piece can extend far beyond a single weekend. Something bigger is brewing and percolating and this work may be the perfect jumping off point. Their hope is that this current project could help launch a type of international artistic network where the practice of environmental awareness can be examined through interdisciplinary collaboration, conversation, experimentation and performance, “a collective where relationships can be cultivated with other artists who have a heart for environmental issues” says Moriarty.

This idea of exploring broad environmental topics brings us back to our starting point – the open-ended questions posed about our relationship to water. While there isn’t one right answer to any of them, being engaged with the issue is the first step. It can lead to increased awareness, critical thinking and more cognizant daily choices. Come to Berkeley this May for the premiere of Dance Monks’ NOMAD: The Blue Road. See first hand how art has the capacity to influence human behavior.

NOMAD: The Blue Road
Sat-Sun, May 17-18, 11am, Free
Meeting Place: UC Berkeley Entrance (at Oxford & Center Street)
For more information about Dance Monks and the upcoming
performances please visit

This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.