Young Choreographer Brings People ‘Back to Life’
Choreography by Norbert De La Cruz III
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
The Lensic Performing Arts Center, Santa Fe
April 17, 2012
The Juilliard School has become a kind of farm-team for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Five of the company’s current 11 dancers were trained at the New York City conservatory of music, drama and dance, known for alumni including Yo Yo Ma, Robin Williams, Paul Taylor, Nina Simone, Tito Puente, Renée Fleming, Patti Lupone, Pinchas Zukerman and Barry Manilow. What ASFB Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker was not expecting to find at one of his scouting visits was a choreographer. Norbert De La Cruz III, now 23, created a piece for an end-of-year performance Mossbrucker attended and impressed the director so much that he commissioned Cruz, right out of school, to create his first professional work on the company. “Square None,” a 19-minute piece for seven dancers, premiered in February in Aspen, debuted in Santa Fe in March and will return to Santa Fe’s Lensic Theatre in Santa Fe for one night on April 17.
Cruz, who started as a very young hip-hop dancer in Los Angeles before finding his way to a ballet class, began experimenting with dance-making as an outgrowth of his love for improvisation: “I like to use my classical background and add my own, slightly awkward movements. I combine expansiveness with monkey-like moves. I like to go from the heights to the floor.” He calls making dance, “finding magic.” “I think of dance as a humanitarian act,” he said during a phone interview. “It can bring people back to life.”
The Juilliard dance curriculum, like the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet repertory, is a mixture of classical and contemporary styles. Due to the school’s location in New York, the students there often have opportunities to work with some of the leading artists in the field, learning and performing dances directly from their creators. Cruz (pictured, right) said some of his biggest influences include Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris, Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Jose Limón and Jiří Kylián. “I’d never even seen those kinds of works before,” Cruz said. “I thought what they were doing in L.A. was all there was.” Cruz graduated from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts before attending Juilliard. He was born in the Philippines, and moved with his family to the United States at the age of 2. He grew up in the neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles known as Koreatown.
“Forsythe technique is like mathematics,” Cruz said. “There is numbering, a graph within the human body. Ohad Naharin’s ‘Gaga’ method reminds you of why you dance. The energy you generate has meaning. He teaches you an appreciation of exhaustion and sweat. The Limón technique teaches you how to use breath and release. You pay more attention to your back, your eyes, and the curl from your head to your tail. It helps you free up your range of movement.”
During the interview, Cruz used the word “research” a lot. “In a big ballet company, everything is so fast-paced, there isn’t time for research,” he said. “At Juilliard they take the time to break everything down into smaller pieces. They go into meticulous detail about how movements work, how to have a more intelligent body.
“I am a researcher. I like to know what has been done in the past, and then put myself in a position to feed myself with the future of choreography. You can only see so many ‘Giselles,’” he said.
Cruz’ first love is as a performer and the title of his new dance alludes to some of the challenges he has faced in that regard. Because Cruz is only 5-feet-4, he has found it difficult to gain a spot in a large dance company. “I went to 30 auditions last year, and everyone said I was too short.” He did join a dance company in Italy shortly after graduation, and went to Europe feeling like his dreams had all come true. The elation was short-lived. “I didn’t fit into an Italian company,” he said. “So it was back to square one. Trying to make a living.”
“Square None,” features a musical score that is a tapestry or playlist, depending on how you look at it. “I had a list of music I always wanted to use in a dance, so I pulled that out,” he said. The score includes music by Alva Noto; an electronic music composer, Michelle Ross; a colleague at Juilliard who writes “romantic ethereal, dream-like music (that is) like sunshine after rain.” The dance continues with classical music by Handel, an excerpt from the Italian-language opera, “Ariodante.” “It was me conveying what I felt about Italy. A fury thing. What I loved and lost.” Finally, Cruz chose music by Aphex Twin, another electronic music group. “That’s all about speed, velocity and the sense of youth.”
The new ballet features all the newest dancers in the company and aims to capture what Cruz himself calls “a youthful spark.” Cruz arrived in Aspen with a notebook of ideas, and, according to Mossbrucker, worked very quickly to embody them. It was still a collaborative process, however. Cruz explained: “I would ask the dancers questions, like, ‘What do you dream about?’ ‘What are you afraid of?’ ‘If your house was burning down, what would you save?’ I had two or three gestures worked out, and I would show them to the dancers. Whatever they did well, I would embellish more.
“I had them imagine they were in separate cubicles. They were to create their own atmosphere there. One person was rain. Another was sex. One was invincible.” When it came to partnering, Cruz said he would ask the dancers for even more help. “I would say, ‘What would you do if this arm were placed here? How would this work?”
Cruz was given an opportunity to meet with the two other choregraphers who worked with AFSB on pieces for the concert in which his work is featured— both seasoned, well-known and possibly more confident than Cruz. Both Jorma Elo and Nicolo Fonte watched run-throughs of “Square None” and sat down with the young choreographer to answer his questions. “They’re two very different people,” Cruz said. “Right now, I get angry when I see people steal choreography. Jorma said, ‘Let that go. Dance is dance. If you believe in it, the dancers will see.’ Nicolo told me, ‘You need to be smart — to voice your opinions politely and to be organized.’”
Cruz was in Aspen for the premiere of his piece in February, but won’t be able to travel to Santa Fe. “It’s audition season,” he said. “I think it’s very important that I dance professionally. There’s only so much I can do with the information I have now. When you’re a part of a big company, you’re physically in contact with others.”