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Interview by Theresa Mitchell
Mar Parrilla performing during “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-85,” Brooklyn Museum and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, 2018. Photo by Sergio Tupac Uzurin.
Enmeshed in the dance world during early aughts New York, Mar Parrilla did not see her story or her experiences reflected on the stage. After studying dance education at New York University, Parrilla drew from her degree and her background in dance growing up in Puerto Rico to start the dance company Danza Orgánica in 2007. Based in Boston since 2010, the company has developed relationships with community organizations in the Boston area and beyond, collaborating with the likes of local prison abolitionist group Sisters Unchained, artists in Puerto Rico, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). The company’s interest in manifesting collaboration and connection is fostered through performances and discussions across New England, as well as the We Create festival and the Dance for Social Justice workshop.
Danza Orgánica has provided dancers with a space dedicated to transcending a colonial framework, allowing them to share trauma, push their comfort zones, and grow. Parrilla’s choreography works with, through, and against prescriptive movement while bringing in forms of dance that are outside of the Western canon. The company’s projects often focus on how societal forces are transmuted through the individual, exploring the tension between the structural and the personal. Drawing from their own daily experiences and the embodied experiences of their collaborators, Danza Orgánica creates a space of hope, an example of how art can move beyond pure form into a decolonial praxis. Parrilla and I met at the Tony Williams Dance Center in Jamaica Plain on Valentine’s Day to discuss the history and philosophies behind Danza Orgánica.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Theresa Mitchell: You’ve worked with artists in Puerto Rico, especially with “Proyecto Melaza,” a multi-performance project that explores the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. The first iterations of the work explored colonization and diasporic perspectives through performances in New England. Postponed due to COVID-19, the project will continue in the summer of 2021 with a Puerto Rico premiere of a performance centered on decolonization work after Hurricane Maria. Could you talk more about that project and how you were able to build relationships with artists there?
Mar Parrilla: Let’s preface by saying that half of my company are people who moved from Puerto Rico to here. When we started the project “Proyecto Melaza” in 2016, we started to create this work to premiere it a year after. We created the piece based on our stories of coming to this country and the reality of what the American dream actually means to us. Race and prejudice and economic status and nostalgia were all very present in the work. About a month before we premiered it, Hurricane Maria happened and completely changed what it meant to be Puerto Rican. For Puerto Ricans living on the island, reality changed so much. We decided that this work was not complete, and to expand by working with artists based in Puerto Rico. Depending on how the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, “Proyecto Melaza” will premiere in the summer of 2021.
TM: What drew you to dance as a medium?
MP: I feel like the word medium goes perfectly with what dance means to me, energetically. Sometimes I think in movement, and the movement will out of me, and then I don’t understand why those movements were chosen until when I’m actually putting the narrative together; then it makes sense. I’ve always danced. In Puerto Rico it was mostly traditional and in the street, like bomba. I did some theater and I did some tap dancing and a lot of folkloric dance. I have a very close relationship with my body and I trust my intuition. When a movement or idea or a thought comes to my body, I trust that there’s a reason why it’s been translated that way through me. With other dancers, when I see them interact with each other, the creative process is something else. It’s like we create another world. I love that.
TM: I love the idea of another world. And I think it sort of mirrors the way that Danza seems to ground its ideological beliefs in a material practice. People move through the world and their bodies have to navigate these forces such as racism or capitalism. How do you work with the body to bring out ideas that can transcend oppressive forces?
MP: There are different ways of looking at it. For example, ballet has steps that you learn, and that’s the way the step goes and it has a language. That is a more Western way of thinking about movement.
The movements that we present when we’re with community come from the community itself. How can we generate a piece where, just by looking at us, the viewer can actually see the idiosyncrasies of the community that we’re working with? For example, for the Indigeneity work that we’re doing with the Aquinnah Wampanoag people, we base the choreography in their story. We are providing the platform and helping tell the story, but they are the storytellers. There is a whole section that came from one of the participants. He was showing us how they used to catch whales. He showed us with the spear, and I was looking at him and I said, “Let’s build something around what you just did.” He didn’t even see it as making art. But he was.
Danza Orgánica, Melaza. The Yard, 2018. Photo by Heidi Wild.
Danza Orgánica, Vessel, We Create Festival, 2017. Photo by Ernesto Galán.
TM: So you almost take on the role of a curator or editor. Could you speak more about how the Indigeneity project came about?
MP: Most of us are people that come from places that have been colonized. So we come with an understanding of what that means and feels like. In 2018, we had a creative residency at The Yard [on Martha’s Vineyard], and we did a piece on the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. We devoted the residency to each dancer having a level of colonization that they were exploring. When it premiered, I had already, during our residency there, established a relationship with some of the members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe. Some of them came to see the show, and after an elder said, “When I saw you guys performing, I thought that could be us. Like that makes me feel like we are you.” This is perfect with the question you just asked about embodiment and how works materialize. When she saw that work, she could see her community in it, see their experience.
TM: The ability to bring different community perspectives into your work is something that I think a lot of artists are interested in doing. They want to have a level of empathy or collaboration, but those values are not necessarily taught well in Western academic education. Danza Orgánica has a really impressive framework of collaborating. How do you build relationships with other community-centered organizations?
MP: We work with community in different ways. In 2016, we premiered “Running in Stillness,” which was about the impact of mass incarceration on women and families. To do that piece, I reached out to local community organizations Sisters Unchained and Families for Justice As Healing, who work with formerly incarcerated women. I asked them if they wanted to partner in creating a work. I think that piece really set the tone in many ways for how we work with community because there were many things that became staples of what is nonnegotiable for me. For example, if it’s a piece concerning a specific community, they have to be integral in the creation of that piece and really have a say in how the stories are told. It is very clear to us that we need to create in a way that honors the people that we’re working with.
Mar Parrilla performance during Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-85, Brooklyn Museum and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, 2018. Photo by Sergio Tupac Uzurin.
TM: Danza Orgánica has a decolonizing praxis. What does that mean to you, and how does centering corporeal movement work within that praxis?
MP: That has definitely been a journey. From the moment that I decided to call my company Danza Orgánica, I was rejecting that there was one specific way of moving that had more validity than others. I wanted this company to feel like it was driven by something larger than a prescription. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about decolonization because we have been so trained on what a dancer’s body is supposed to look like and how professional dancing should look. I say “we” because literally everybody in my company can relate to what I’m telling you. I have a deep appreciation for all the arts, including ballet, and I’ve trained in ballet. But the way we as people from the Caribbean move… we are people that move differently. We undulate, we use our bodies in completely different ways that are not constrictive. In Danza Orgánica, we do a lot of movement that releases. It is almost like we’re dancing and healing as we’re moving. We are storytelling through the body in a way that is restorative for ourselves and potentially for audience members.
One of the stories I tell in “Proyecto Melaza” is of the forced sterilization of women. I can’t do that with ballet. That is not the language that I can utilize to tell a story that is so far-fetched from that. I have to dig deeper and see what are the ways in which my body’s going to respond to these very specific qualities, dynamics, feelings, emotions. How is that history going to be told through my body without having to adhere to a prescription of imposed movements? We utilize it as much as we can, whether it is from Brazilian or salsa or capoeira or ballet. We all have different levels of training in our body. A codification of movement that has been created to please aristocracy is not what we’re going to utilize to tell stories as oppressed peoples.
Mar Parrilla performing Maria Ancestral, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2018. Photo by Leonardo March.
TM: What does it mean to you to have a performance art group focused on social change?
MP: When somebody goes to see a performance, their mind is open. They are present; their mind is ready to receive. I think when we present our work, we are very clear on what we’re doing. We’re very clear that we’ve done enough research. We always have thorough conversations during our research process. When we present the work, we’re in a unique space with the body, and there’s a concurrency with every part of ourselves. Not only are we sharing an antiracist and decolonial perspective that we consider valid and unique- but we always have a question and answer session after our performances. People usually stay for it, and we have really, really interesting conversations about our work. People want to learn more about what we’re doing, the issues that we bring forth, and how to get involved. I don’t think I would do this work if it was just presenting it. Part of what is important for me—and also within the context of social change—is that we are sharing it with an audience and opening up space for them to talk about it in community. We learn from each other in the process.
Theresa Mitchell is a writer and an aspiring public librarian who works at the Massachusetts Historical Society and lives in Salem, MA.
For more information about Danza Orgánica, visit www.danzaorganica.org. In recent months, Danza Orgánica has begun creating programming and performances for online audiences. They also serve as a fantastic resource for anti-racist justice.