eMotion Arts: A Conversation with Mariana Sobral and Susannah Faulkner

By In Dance

December 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Four dancers wearing white in different poses on the ground

Photo by Kyle Adler

Artistic Director Mariana Sobral and Assistant Director and Company Manager Susannah Faulkner discussed their company eMotion Arts with Dancers’ Group. eMotion Arts is a contemporary ballet company in their second season with a mission of spreading a message of Oneness through dance. The company’s goal is to create and showcase a cohesive body of work that highlights and celebrates Oneness by bringing together dancers, artists, and their unique styles. 

How did dance enter your life? (when, where)

eMotion Arts artistic director Mariana Sobral dancing
Photo by Lynne Fried

Mariana: For me, it was a typical start. When I was five years old in Argentina I saw Baryshnikov’s Nutcracker on TV, and I fell in love. I wanted to do what I saw on the screen, but I didn’t start dance classes for six more years. Eventually my mother was able to figure out how to make dance classes work financially, and I started movement classes first. I didn’t start ballet classes until I was 11 years old. I have tried every artistic expression you can imagine, and I think dance stuck because it was the way I was most authentically able to express myself.

Susannah: It was similar for me. On my first birthday I went to see The Nutcracker in my hometown, Erie, Pennsylvania, and I haven’t stopped dancing since. I started creative movement classes when I was four years old.

Please share any stories about your relationship to dance. 

Susannah: Mariana has a background in social psychology, and I have a background in public policy and advocacy (specifically youth mental health advocacy). Dance gives expression beyond the other parts of our lives. Having different abilities and capabilities are not always embraced in ballet, but everyone at eMotion Arts comes together around the belief that everything we do can relate to dance. That’s really our collective relationship to dance as a company.

Mariana: I believe that dance can be a refuge, and when I’m dancing I can be me, but when I was getting started I felt like I had to choose between ballet or modern (I couldn’t do both).  When I started I had a typical ballerina look (you could even tell I was a ballet dancer when I was walking). Because of that it was hard to break into modern—teachers would tell me that I looked too much like a ballerina. Again, Mikhail Baryshnikov was a big inspiration for me when he started doing more modern dance. He showed that it was ok for ballet dancers to do modern, and it was ok for modern dancers to have ballet training. Dance was a way to find what acceptance truly meant at a young age and that inspired the creation of eMotion Arts.

What do you do outside/beyond dance (how do you spend other parts of your life)?

Mariana: I have two Marianas: the social psychologist and dancer and the bookkeeper and HR professional. I work in tech and aerospace and I’ve always taught dance. I teach every day. I think of myself as an artist who does bookkeeping, an artist that does HR. I am not a bookkeeper who dances. Everything I do is part of who I am, but my way of thinking and how I approach things is rooted in a creative way. I try to bring all aspects of myself together as much as I can.

Susannah: For all of my 20s I was trying to make myself into a public policy advocate and researcher and let dance become a hobby. I was always teaching, doing gigs and freelance work, but I could never quite let dance become a hobby. Now I say I’m an artist and an advocate. I find a way to bring dance into whatever I’m doing. I’ve learned that there are some things that you can’t escape because it’s so fundamental to who you are, and for me dance is fundamental to who I am. Now I’m trying to integrate it all together.

Describe eMotion Arts’ work or choreographic style.

Three dancers performing outdoors with a visual artist
Photo by Kyle Adler

Mariana: I call our style contemporary ballet because it has such a strong ballet influence.  We use the language of ballet to explore new themes that ballet has not traditionally worked in. I strongly believe that we need to bring ballet into 2019, especially through the themes being explored. eMotion Arts works on topics like immigration, mental health, acceptance, and oneness. We’re trying to break from ballet’s demand for uniformity into oneness where we can all dance together without losing ourselves by trying to look exactly the same as the dancers around us. I think of this idea in the same way as English speakers don’t just keep writing Lord Byron and Shakespeare. We can be current. In exploring these tough themes we can give the audience seeds of ideas and provoke conversations. Our work speaks to audiences in different ways, and I want each audience member to be able to see themselves in the work in some way.

What are you currently working on? 

Mariana: Our December show is the end of our second season. We’re showing some work we’ve been exploring over these last two years and bringing in some friends to perform.

One piece you’ll see at our December show is an excerpt of our full-length work Ubi, which touches on acceptance, compassion, and oneness and the lack of these. We explore how these ideas impact our relationships with one another.

In Act of the Dreamer we explore the soul journey of an immigrant. We look at the full journey, from the moment the immigrant decides to leave a place that is known and comfortable and come to a place that is unfamiliar. The piece looks at how you try to adapt to a new environment and society without losing yourself. We ask how much individuality can you keep without ostracizing yourself? These themes are broader than the immigrant experience and are really rooted in transitions and adjustments, so it’s relatable to any audience member.

We’re also showing Tanguera, a piece about shedding stereotypes, and Sombro, a piece based on the poet Alfonsina Storni who committed suicide by walking into the ocean. These pieces will also be the starting places for our work in our third season next year.

Susannah: Adagio is a new collaboration with a local violinist. The dancers have put together different sections that play on the relationship of music and dance. We’ve described this process as a dance lab, working with a musician to deconstruct the song, explore intention, and express the different feelings in the music.

We also have some eMotion Arts dancers presenting work at this show. eMotion Arts is a place where the dancers can find their own artistic voice. It’s a collaborative and accepting environment, and I’m so blessed to have dancers, company members, and collaborators who embrace that.

Please tell us about your decision to have an educational focus to your work (you have a training program and a company – why is having both important to you?).

Mariana: At eMotion Arts we have a youth mentorship program. We have younger dancers who are interested in performing in a serious way, so we do workshops and master classes in addition to our regular classes. All of this is in the spirit of supporting dancers in finding their artistic voices. Even through cueing in class we try to center the dancers in their own work, so we’ll say “start to feel yourself point your toes” instead of “think about pointing your toes.” We believe that if dancers start finding their identities and embrace them at a young age, when they grow up they’ll be more connected to themselves. And we can give them a place where they can come back to and know they will be accepted. There is so much negativity, bullying, and discrimination, especially in our current political climate, and so it’s important for us to create as many safe places as we can. This is also why we’re touching on mental health in our next season.

What’s a future goal for eMotion Arts?

Susannah: I work closely with Mariana on the organizational side of things. I have a background in grant writing, and our future goal is to secure a grant to put on a full show of Act of the Dreamer. We got to present it for West Wave at Joe Goode Annex and Zohar Performance Series in Palo Alto this year. Act of the Dreamer is such a special piece, and the dancers have taken it to the next level. We’re working to bring together other Bay Area choreographers who are immigrants, refugees, and people of color to have a dance forum on immigration.

Who or what inspires you?

Mariana: The human experience in general. For a long time I was just teaching and wanted to have a company. Joe Landini gave me space to get started. I get inspiration from feelings, from stories, and from music in general and from the dancers in the moment. Act of the Dreamer came about after I spoke with a friend who is a composer who put music to a poem of a DACA student. In the process of creating I allow myself to connect with the music, the moment, the dancers that I have, and what I want to say. It’s the creative human experience.

Susannah: I was at a concert, and one of the performers played a new piece on a violin. After the concert I asked the artist to use her music, and we’re meeting next week to collaborate. I’ve had this piece in my mind about youth climate resistance, and I was waiting for music to hit me. Being present can be so inspiring. We did a piece with a visual artist all about how ideas come to you, and how as artists we’re conduits for ideas. I think we have a duty to each other, to humanity, and to the planet to express inspiration when it strikes. I’m so grateful to see people expressing their inspiration.

Do you have a favorite song or type of music to dance to?

Mariana: It depends on my mood. I love tango, jazz, musicals, and good flamenco-style guitar. I have a tendency to prefer music that is soothing. I love to work with Max Richter’s music for choreography.

Susannah: Our warm up playlists are all over the place. Lizzo has had a big presence lately. I love classical covers of alternative rock songs, and I did a piece to Florence and the Machine. As a group it really depends on our mood. We have such a collective group energy at this point, we can usually tell what kind of music is right for the moment.

What’s a piece of advice that you still hold onto?

Mariana: Two pieces of advice from my mom that have really stuck with me: “if you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say it” and “make sure your words are sweet in case you have to swallow them back down.” It makes me take a pause when I want to hit back and remembering this advice helps me to not recycle bad energy.

The other advice that I hold onto is that “it’s ok.” It’s ok that we don’t have the same point of view. My experience is not your experience and that’s ok. I’m not you and you are not me and that’s ok. This advice helps me stop trying to control everything in my life. The only thing I can control is how things affect and define me.

Susannah: My grandfather used to always remind me to “wait for the right fit and you’ll know.” I didn’t get that at the time, and I was trying to put square pegs in round holes. My grandfather had a lifetime of experience of being a big band drummer and working as a journalist. He overcame so much in his life. I think so often as artists we try to adjust ourselves to fit. On your artist journey, wait for the right fit. If you don’t find the right fit, create it.

What haven’t we asked that you want people to know?

Mariana: We are on a mission of getting eMotion Arts into the world.  If anyone sees what we do and wants to talk or collaborate, we have an open door.  We like to bring the dance community together.

Mariana Sobral is the Artistic Director of eMotion Arts. She began her study of ballet as a student of the Escuela Nacional de Danzas in Argentina. Later, she attended the University of Buenos Aires where she studied Dance in the newly created Performing Arts program. Her performance experience includes working as a Principal Dancer and Soloist in many traditional classical, and contemporary ballet works like “Giselle”, “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Coppelia”, “La Bayadere”, and “Who Cares?” among many others.

Over the years Mariana developed ballet programs and award-winning choreography for many studios in the Bay Area. At Dance Attack (as their Ballet Mistress) she created the ballet syllabus used today in both locations, developed their pre-pointe assessment program, and choreographed pieces for their companies. She also taught ballet and directed students of all ages and experience levels for Ballet San Jose School (now New Ballet School), Bay Area Dance School, Santa Clara Ballet, South Bay Dance Center, Pacific Ballet Academy, Peninsula Ballet Theater, and San Jose State University.

Mariana’s work has been seen in San Francisco as part of the RAW Artist residence at SAFEhouse Arts, SF Movement Arts Festival, The DanceWright Project, Zohar Performance Series, Oakland Dance Festival, and also in Regional, National, and International competitions where they earned her a range of choreography awards. Last September, her choreography Caritas was presented at PUSHfest, obtaining the Audience Favorite Award.

Susannah Faulkner is an Erie, Pennsylvania native who started her training in ballet, modern, jazz, and hip-hop at Erie Bayfront Dance (now Erie Dance Theater) and Lake Erie Ballet. She is a graduate of the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts, as a ballet major, and attended various regional intensives and festivals. After performing, teaching, and choreographing for schools and companies in New York, Colorado, and England for a decade, she is now dancing with eMotion Arts Dance Co. in San Francisco and teaching master classes locally and nationally. Her passion for dance blends with her studies and work in public policy, politics, and activism holding a BA in Politics from Ithaca College and an MPA in Social Policy from the London School of Economics. In addition to performing with eMotion Arts Dance Co, she is the newly appointed Assistant Director & Company Manager.

This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of In Dance.

In Dance is a publication of Dancers' Group.