CONVERSACIONES: MICHELLE MANZANALES & Con Brazos Abiertos

The Ballet Hispánico Company is thrilled to make its return to The Joyce Theater for our New York Season, April 18-23! This program of all-female choreographers features the World Premiere of Michelle Manzanales’s Con Brazos Abiertos, an exploration of Michelle’s identity and the iconic cultural symbols which she was reluctant to embrace as a Mexican-American child growing up in Texas.

Before being named Director of the School of Dance in December of 2016, Michelle served as the Rehearsal Director of the BH Company for seven seasons. A choreographer and dance educator from Houston, TX, Michelle has over 25 years of teaching experience serving on the faculties of Lou Conte Dance Studio, the University of Houston, Houston Metropolitan Dance Center, Festival de Danza Cordoba-Youth American Grand Prix, and Luna Negra Dance Theater, where she was a dancer. We sat down with Michelle to pick her brain on the inspiration behind Con Brazos Abiertos and her journey to get there.

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Michelle in rehearsal with the Company (c) Alona Cohen Photography

BH: Con Brazos Abiertos was originally developed in 2015 during Instituto Coreográfico, Ballet Hispánico’s choreographic lab. Since then, how has the work evolved, if at all?

Michelle Manzanales: After Instituto in 2015, it was kind of up in the air as to what would happen, if anything, with the ideas I had explored during the institute. However, my mind and heart were ignited with ideas of what would ultimately become Con Brazos Abiertos. I began thinking more deeply about the subjects I was touching on, identity and my cultural landscape. Since getting the good news that Con Brazos Abiertos would make its journey to the mainstage, I’ve been doing things like watching documentaries, discovering music, and trying to filter out what it is that I want to say through the work. I also had fun watching comedians like Cristela Alonzo, Gabriel Iglesias, and Cheech Marin and how they express their Latinidad through their art form of comedy.

BH: Tell us more about the kinds of documentaries, works, and other content were you looking at to help inform your work:

Manzanales: Hecho en Mexico is one documentary that has resonated with me. It takes you on a journey through Mexico using music as a vehicle, especially the music of contemporary Mexican music artists. The opening song of Con Brazos Abiertos, “Que Es Ahora?” is an excerpt from a song from this documentary.  There are many other artists used in Hecho en Mexico that have been very inspirational to the work. It was also fun discovering other artists from different art forms expressing their own tellings of this Third Culture Kid experience.

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Michelle and Company dancer Diana Winfree (c) Alona Cohen Photography

BH: As an artist, had you always thought of exploring your Latino culture and identity choreographically?

Manzanales: No. Growing up in Texas—more importantly, growing up as a Mexican-American that lived in a culture of assimilation—celebrating one’s culture wasn’t something instilled in me. It’s not that my family had suppressed it, but it was something that they hadn’t emphasized. It’s not like what I experience today in contemporary culture where people celebrate their diverse heritage. Growing up for me was completely the opposite. People were celebrating what was mainstream and in the pop culture. That was how I was.

As a child, I knew that I was Mexican (obviously) but I didn’t really identify with being Mexican until much later as an adult. I think back to hanging out with my teenage friends, and how they would say pretty racist comments without pause. I don’t think that these comments were necessarily fully realized by those friends or even by me at the time.  It would have an emotional, even physical effect on me. I didn’t fully process these feelings until much later in life, and it has been quite a journey of trying to sort this out.

“It was important for me to not only honor where my family comes from and my history, but to also honor where I am right now.”

Then as a dancer, dance became my safe space where I could be free as an artist to express myself. When I was leaving Houston to dance in Chicago, Mario Zambrano—a friend and choreographer—was setting a piece on us. He told me about Luna Negra Dance Theater, a company in Chicago. “Luna Negra explores Latino contemporary artists,” he said, “You should connect with them! You might find it interesting.” At the time, it was not what was interesting to me. It kind of felt like the way we’re perceived as Latino sometimes; in that somehow I felt less than something.  Isn’t that terrible? But it’s how I felt.

I went to Luna Negra and started dancing with them and met Eduardo Vilaro, the company’s founder. I never connected with my culture so deeply until I met Eduardo, and it was the first time that I connected my culture with my art. First, it was about being a dancer and exploring that concept through dance. Then, it was about exploring the music and having conversations with my parents. It opened up from there.

I’ve choreographed a couple pieces for  Eduardo, the first one being Sugar in the Raw in 2007. This was  the first time I was pushed in this direction. In 2010, I choreographed an homage to Frida Kahlo in Paloma Querida, where I put ranchera and mariachi music into the piece. Whoever thought I would use ranchera music or mariachi music in a piece?! Michelle? She did that?  Yes, I did! It was fascinating and exciting to see everyone’s reaction, the connections they made, and the conversations that followed. It was a very humbling and exciting moment for me.

Now, it’s ever present and I can’t shake it.  With Con Brazos Abiertos, the process of revealing feels more natural and organic. Sugar was still a little concealed, the veil has slowly come down now. Today, it’s,“Here I am! I’m going to dance with a sombrero today!”

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Diana Winfree in rehearsal for CON BRAZOS ABIERTOS (c) Alona Cohen Photography

BH: You’ve been working for Eduardo for a while—as a dancer, as an artistic collaborator. How has this working relationship with him helped evolve your artistic career?

Manzanales: When I danced for Luna Negra, Eduardo constantly asked me to think deeper and truly investigate themes within the work. He wants his dancers to understand what they’re dancing, and this is something that I brought to the table as the BH Company’s Rehearsal Director. You don’t just learn the steps, you embody them. You research videos and books as references and make connections to what it is that you’re expressing in a contemporary voice. It’s a responsibility that Eduardo has instilled in me and our dancers. I think that’s why we work well together. He trusts and knows that I’m going to honor and respect the choreographer’s voice because it is important to hear their story. I don’t know if I could set Con Brazos on a company other than Ballet Hispánico because I don’t know that it would be upheld with this same integrity.

“The veil has slowly come down now. Today, it’s,“Here I am! I’m going to dance with a sombrero today!”

BH: What do you hope people take away from this Con Brazos Abiertoswhen it premieres in a couple weeks?

Con Brazos is a piece about exploring  identity. It was important for me to not only honor where my family comes from and my history, but to also honor where I am right now. Most everyone in the US is an immigrant, and there are these splintered cultural backgrounds everywhere. And so now, everyone is having this experience of figuring out, “Who am I?” This conversation is so important, especially in today’s climate, where so many Americans are being attacked for who they are. The awareness, the celebration, and discovery of knowing yourself–I’m constantly asking questions about who I am. As a kid, heritage and culture seems like something you’re born into and that you don’t think is very impressive or amazing, but it really is.

Catch the World Premiere of Con Brazos Abiertos during the Company’s New York Season at the Joyce Theater, April 18-23. Tickets and details: http://bit.ly/2mmLwNd

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