How has your diverse geographic history—Mexico, California, Arizona, New York, Illinois, etc.—shaped your ideas about, and approaches to, dance and performance?
I grew up in a small town called Zapotitan de Hidalgo, in the state of Jalisco, outside of Guadalajara, Mexico. Dance has always been a very common thing in my family and in the communities I grew up in. Dance was really rich in everything from weddings to weekend parties to birthdays to school. Cumbias, boleros, mambo sounds, and traditional Mexican folk music and dances were always around. I moved to Berkeley, California, when I was seven but since there is a large percentage of Mexican-Americans in the state, the traditions were pretty similar. At the same time, disco, hip-hop (break dancing), samba, and salsa dancing were also very popular. All these forms nurtured my cultural environment.
I was very lucky to attend Berkeley High School, which had a theater department with a strong musical theater program, a dance department, and an African American Studies department, which also included dance. We had classes in traditional Haitian, West African Senegalese, Guinean, and dances like manjani and dudunba, which were all taught by Anisa Rasheed. Thanks to this high school teacher I became an apprentice with Oakland’s Dimensions Dance Theater where I started taking [classes] on a daily basis—jazz, ballet, modern, and Dunham technique with an emphasis on traditional African forms. For college, I went to San Francisco State University and continued training in Dunham technique while being introduced to other modern techniques like Graham, Limón, and Cunningham. I also had an amazing Russian ballet teacher who encouraged me to take classes off campus with Alonzo King, and I also studied flamenco with Rosa Montoya. For a minute there, I was going to run away to Spain and become a flamenco dancer! (Laughs)
At the end of my first year in the dance department at SFSU, I was given a scholarship to attend the Summer Arts Program at Humboldt State University and study with the José Limón Dance Company and Garth Fagan Dance (then Bucket Dance Theater). At the end of my first week in Fagan’s intense classes, he approached me and asked if I was interested in joining his company. I was this 19-year-old Mexican kid who had grown up in a working class West Side neighborhood, not too far from UC-Berkeley, but by then I had seen a wide range of dance, from Bill T Jones to Mark Morristo Ballet du Senegal at Zellerbach Hall. I knew who Garth Fagan was. In any case, I still could not believe he would ask me such a thing. I said, 'Well I have three more years of this undergraduate degree. What am I going to do?' My adviser, Albirda Rosesaid, 'It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Go for it.'
So at the end of my sophomore year I packed my bags and got a one-way plane ticket to Rochester, New York—not knowing where Rochester, New York, was! I left school, the theatre troupe I was a part of in San Francisco, my new film agent, friends, and family. Some people thought I was crazy! I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought, I’ll go there and see how it goes. Twelve years later I looked back and thought, Wow—a lot has happened.
Within six months of joining the company, I had already gotten two weeks of paid vacation and traveled to Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and France, and performed at the Joyce Theater in NYC that Fall. At the Joyce we were surrounded by all these famous personalities, like Mary Hinkson, Paul Taylor, Erick Hawkins, Wynton Marsalis, Merce Cunningham, and Judith Jamison who all knew Fagan’s work. It was an intense and exciting time for me! Performing throughout the US and around the world [demanded] a whole new level of commitment to this art form. One of the highlights was touring the country with Wynton Marsalis and his jazz septet, performing Fagan's full-length piece "Griot New York." It was an enriching experience performing to live music and traveling on planes and tour buses while listening to Wynton express his philosophy about jazz and overall love for the arts. This became my life. Taking two company classes a day, teaching dance, and attending rehearsals Monday through Friday and sometimes Saturdays before going on tour became my regular schedule. I had an opportunity to embody movement beyond the body.
By my eighth year with the company, Fagan got The Lion King on Broadway and touring started to die down for his company—but never [my] paycheck or the weekly schedule. At this point I decided to take a break, because I became extremely concerned that I did not have a backup if I couldn't dance any more. I lived a year in NYC where I had a chance to see the best theater/dance six times a week. Then I went to the University of Texas at Austin for a year to try to finish my undergraduate degree. At the end of that year, I realized I was doing things I had already accomplished as a professional. In just one phone call, Garth told me I could return to his company. So I did. I continued for three more years then I had to leave because I had pain issues in my lower back, which began to intensify. It was time to move on. But I knew I did not want to leave dance completely.
I moved to Arizona and got a job as a senior lecturer at Arizona State University. It was a fabulous place to transition to teaching dance. Five years later, I moved on to Northwestern University to work in the Theatre Department’s Dance Program. It’s great to live in a place where students, colleagues, and the overall community truly embrace the arts.
How would you describe your choreographic voice and process?
Around the time I was in Arizona, I began to explore what choreography meant for me. I began trying to figure out what I could contribute to dance. I have performed and seen quite a bit of dance; that helps me see what is missing for me in the field. I’ve gotten to the point where I accept my lineage of the traditional modern background, and the diasporic forms within that, and then figure out how to mesh it all together to create new ways of looking at contemporary dance. Commissions with Luna Negra Dance Theater and Steppenwolf and my ongoing collaboration with visual artist John Jota Leaños in California have given me an opportunity to explore how my Mexican/Chicano roots play a big part in shaping my creative voice.
I am open to creating work that is narrative-based, but I also embrace the abstract whenever necessary. I don't like to spoon-feed an audience. I try to do as much research whenever I dive into a project, so that when I get to the studio I can simply focus on developing the movement. Once I create the overall choreographic structure, I then rehearse the dancers over and over again so that they develop muscle memory and stamina. There's nothing worse than seeing an exhausted dancer on stage who is not ready to execute the movement given to them. When dancers get on the stage, they should do so with confidence, but this can only happen if you give them the time to embody the choreography.
How do you bring issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality to bear in your work, either in the content of your choreography or in the way you teach your classes?
There’s usually a very close connection in most of the work that I do. I like to tap into what is personal but then figure out how to get beyond my personal history so that I can make it accessible to others. Representing social politics on stage is very important for me. As a dance instructor I want to impress upon a predominately female student population that if it were not for women, we would not have what we now call American modern dance. I also try to create a homophobic-free environment where men feel fully invested in dancing. This one is particularly important for me because as I was growing up (Yes, in Berkeley!), I consistently received subliminal and at times blunt homophobic messages, which discouraged me from studying dance earlier on. I knew I wanted to become a dancer ever since I was nine and I think I wasted so much time trying to please others. By the time I was 16 I said to myself, 'To hell with everyone. I’m going to dance whether I’m gay or not!' I think that boys still have to deal with these kinds of pressures and they usually get a late start compared to girls. Girls are usually taught to embrace dance at a very early age but men still have to overcome hurdles of homophobia.
As far as choreography is concerned, I want to give the audience something that is hopefully going to challenge and educate them but, most of all, [I want to] give them great dancing.
A few months before I left Arizona there were the massive immigration marches with tons of Mexican and Mexican-Americans walking the streets. They were protesting being vilified on many levels. I was and continue to be quite disturbed by the xenophobic agendas throughout the country. I think that for me [my piece] “Tlatelolco Revisited” is my reaction to all this hateful rhetoric and wanted to show that Mexicans come to the US not just for economic reasons but also for more complicated ones such as the massacres and the so-called “dirty wars” that took hold of the country soon after 1968. A piece commissioned by the Joel Hall Dancers called, “Passage Break,” explores social divisions that take place in tourist destinations in Mexico. I look at how race, class, and gender still play a role in the distribution of wealth and the lack of recognition of African presence in the country. With “Missplaced Flowers,” I attempted to echo the ideas behind the music of composer Hilda Paredes and the three poems by Briceida Cuvas Cob, which speak about indigenous populations, especially women, trying to survive in a postcolonial era.
Currently I am working on a project inspired by my interest in trying to understand my father’s past. Along with more than 4½ million other men, he participated in the Mexican Emergency Farm Labor Program, better known as the Bracero Program. From 1942–1964, they left their homes in Mexico in order to work in the United States, ironically ending up performing work similar to that which they had always done, namely physically exploitative, unskilled, and poorly paid agricultural and railway labor.
What’s challenging about dance now?
It’s disturbing that in the US we are still struggling with this question of whether art is important to society. Throughout Europe and other industrialized nations around the world, art has been embraced in much better ways. In the US we’re still trying to figure out how it is we are going to prove to people that dancers and choreographers need to get paid for their work. We must continue to break through the walls that limit us but also educate dance aficionados, especially young people, on how dance is created. Creating dance is fun but it also takes lots of time; it’s exhausting work and dancers need to eat and pay the bills like anybody else. It will always take time to create great choreography, but we also need well-trained dancers. People want great art but do not want to pay for it. You cannot have both.
There was a recent article in the New York Times discussing the recession’s impact on the arts. It said today’s arts climate is beginning to echo how the arts looked at the turn of the 20th century where only private institutions could afford to nurture the arts. So only the wealthy could afford to study these forms. That’s scary considering that I come from a working class family. I directly benefited from a lot of those outreach programs that helped nurture my appreciation for the arts, my talent, and my overall creative sensibility when I was growing up. As an educator, if I can instill in my students a broader appreciation for the arts then I believe I’m doing my job. If I'm also able to give them a glimpse of the historical connection where this information is coming from—Duncan, Graham, Dunham, Limón, Balanchine, Primus, Cunningham, Ailey, Fagan, Jones, you name it—about how they all worked and continue to work hard to make dance a legitimate art form, thenI feel that I am supporting [them]. Every student may not end up becoming a professional dancer but if I can help them find a greater appreciation for dance maybe some will become critics, grant writers, or even heads of states who understand the intricacies of creating great art.
What’s the state of the field now? What do today’s emerging dancers need to be aware of? What are some interesting trends?
I am completely enamored with technology, but I want to see how it can better serve dance. With most of the dance performances I’ve seen that use technology I see the work itself but I don’t always see the connection. I think artists need to keep playing with it and figure out how not to neglect the human body. Technology can be so overpowering that sometimes you forget the performer is there. It’s challenging. The human body is much more amazing to me than any machine or any latest computer program. What the human body produces live, a film screen will never be able to duplicate.
I find that modern dancers have a difficult time continuing onto a path of choreography. I think it’s much more difficult than it is for a ballet dancer to do. I read about dancers who came out of New York City Ballet like Christopher Wheeldon or Peter Boal. It’s amazing to see the supportive environment they were able to find across the country after they left the company that nurtured them. I think even the African-American dance communities have established a fabulous network throughout the country where they can feature work a lot better than the Latino choreographers are capable of.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of practicing dance here in Chicago?
Chicago has been really good to me. Within three months of moving here I had a commission and have had extra opportunities to develop my work at Northwestern. So I’m always bragging to my friends in California and in New York about the arts here.
Although funding is great in Chicago, I do notice that the resources are still limited for such a large number of artists. Watching dancers that are dying to dance for very little money breaks my heart. After having danced with a company that provided me with a year-round salary for many years, I realize how good I had it throughout most of my career. Overall, I’m grateful for having more opportunities available here when compared to other parts of the country, but I’m still waiting for that commission from Hubbard Street and others.
—Interviewed and edited by CAR Dance Researcher Meida McNeal.
Joel Valentin-Martinez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He initiated his theater/dance training at American Conservatory Theater, Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Rosa Montoya's Bailes Flamencos, Oakland's Dimensions Dance Theatre, and San Francisco State University. From 1990–2003 he was a member of Garth Fagan Dance and toured with the troupe throughout the United States, Canada, the Middle East, Europe, Australia, South America, and the Caribbean. Since 2003, Mr. Valentin-Martinez has devoted his time to teaching at the university level and developing his own choreography projects. His works Misplaced Flowers (2010) and Tlatelolco Revisited (2008) were both commissioned by Luna Negra Dance Theater and premiered at the Harris Theater in Chicago. He choreographed the musical adaptation of Sandra Cisnero's The House on Mango Street (2009) at the Steppenwolf Theatre. He has also developed choreography for the Joel Hall Dancers and the multimedia performance Imperial Silence: Una Ópera Muerta/A Mariachi Opera in Four Acts (2008) which has been performed throughout California and was last staged at El Museo del Barrio in New York City. Valentin-Martinez is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Theatre Department at Northwestern University. Prior to joining Northwestern he taught dance at Arizona State University and the University of Rochester.