Interpreting and creating as equals across the age gap

The sound of heavy footsteps filled a studio at the Abrons Arts Center on a recent afternoon, as choreographer Mariana Valencia and her young collaborator, Heera Gandhu, walked decisively through the room. With their arms raised to one side and gnarled clawed hands, they were reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s classic “Thriller” move, but their faces betrayed little emotion. The recognizable gesture, combined with their balanced energy, managed to say “horror movie” and “postmodern dance” at the same time, a fitting synthesis of their interests.

Later in the rehearsal, lying on the floor, they wondered, “What was it like when you were 12?”

“When I was 12, I decorated my room with pages from magazines,” Valencia said.

“Magazines – who has them?” Heera replied in disbelief. “When I was 12 I started dancing, through my rehearsals with you.”

Heera is now 13 – two weeks ago – and for the past six months he and Valencia, 38, have been collaborating over their 25-year age difference. Their show, “Heera,” opens in Abrons on the Lower East Side on Friday. Created in the playful, autobiographical, genre-blending style that famed solo performer Valencia is known for, the project became an exercise in working as equals despite a generational divide.

Layering understated movement with conversational text, in an obliquely funny and surreal way, “Heera” tackles themes of memory, imagination, aging and coming of age. At its heart is the relationship between the two people on stage, who resist the typical hierarchies of teacher and student, choreographer and dancer, establishing something closer to a friendship. Valencia describes the work as an “abstract realization, in front of an audience”.

The idea for a cross-generational piece came from Ali Rosa-Salas, the artistic director of Abrons, who grew up in New York and was involved in similar collaborations as a teenager through the Brooklyn Dancewave organization. Since arriving at Abrons in 2017, she has sought to deepen the connections between her artistic and educational programs, which include performing arts and visual arts classes for students aged 3 to 19. She wasn’t starting from scratch; Since the mid-1990s, the center has housed the Urban Youth Theater – of which Heera is a member – where young performers can take their training to the next level in professionally directed productions.

Rosa-Salas, 31, approached Valencia before the pandemic to gauge her interest in working with students. Over the past two years, the need for strong creative outlets for children and teens — where they’re taken seriously as artists — has only become more urgent, Rosa-Salas said. She noted that Abrons is not alone in providing such spaces, citing, as another example, the Young Dancemakers Company, a summer program for public high school students, whose alumni recently performed with the choreographer. Oona Doherty at the Irish Arts Center.

“It’s been a really tough two and a half years of distance schooling, anxiety around Covid, anxiety about how to interact and engage with people, not to mention share how you feel” , Rosa-Salas said in a phone call. interview. “I think artistic practice and that kind of design process, it sounds corny, but it really has the potential to heal a lot of trauma.”

“That’s my meta hope for this work,” she added, “even though it works on a micro level.”

Along the same lines, Rosa-Salas worked with choreographer Marguerite Hemmings and new media artist LaJuné McMillian, who developed a video and performance for local high school students, presented at Abrons l’ last year. Rosa-Salas said she’s drawn to artists who see this type of process as an exchange of mutual teaching and learning, rather than “reinforcing that hierarchy of ‘you learn from me as an adult professional’. “. Starting his work with Heera, Valencia brought that perspective.

“It didn’t seem interesting to me to say, ‘Now I’m just going to make you do what I say,'” Valencia said in a phone interview. “I think I remembered my experience of being that age and being told what to do for a stage practice, whether it was singing, an instrument or acting” – she came to dance later – “and I remember feeling, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m being given this because I’m a kid.’ I wasn’t interested in being that adult for a younger person.

When they started rehearsing in January, Valencia and Heera, who attend Tompkins Square Middle School in the East Village, barely knew each other. Much of their time in the studio was spent discovering common interests. Among their discoveries: Both love Caesar salads, “loose clothes” (like sweatpants) and horror movies, which have become a central subject of the work.

Speaking to Valencia in Abrons’ backyard on a blustery day in June, Heera, who lives with her family in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, said the show “includes a lot, so it would be hard to sum it up in a few sentences .” He described his favorite part, a passage of precise unison motion known as “dolphin” – it features a sweep of the arms reminiscent of a dolphin’s tail – as “probably a perfect dance. It goes with our game.

Originally, Valencia had considered a bigger cast, but when only four students showed up to audition in October, she took it as a sign of being reduced to a duo.

“There was something about the way Heera was moving,” Valencia said as they sat together in the yard, recalling the movement improvisation games they had played in the audition. “I was like, ‘Oh, this kid can dance! And I’m not sure he can.'” She remembers thinking, “As long as someone can riff and feel comfortable in their body, that’s what I’m looking for.”

Prior to meeting Valencia, Heera had no formal dance experience; acting has always been his main interest. (He also makes horror films at home with his two brothers, ages 10 and 14.) But Randy Luna, the director of education at Abrons, had noticed his distinctive physique as a performer. When Luna choreographed a Zoom version of “The Wiz” for Urban Youth Theater, he saw “this lightness” in Heera, a “graceful and very peaceful” way to move, Luna said.

Reflecting on his role with Valencia, Heera observed, “It’s not really like we’re dancing. It’s more like we move, and we do it in a way where you’re not really bothered by the way you dance.

Her parents, Dale Gandhu and Monica Varma, said in a phone interview that Heera – who Varma says is named after “a beloved Bollywood character” – revealed few details about her upcoming performance, wanting to keep the surprise. But his mother could sense, even from the little he had shared, that Valencia had brought out a more secure side of him.

“Naturally, he’s kind of an introvert,” Varma said. “I think this opportunity has given him the platform to speak out, because Mariana is actually trying to ask him what he thinks.”

Just days after making her professional debut in New York, Heera will move to Dallas with her family. (Gandhu, who works in market research for PepsiCo, said he was taking a job-related opportunity there.) Heera doesn’t seem too disappointed.

“I love New York,” he says, “but I don’t really like the bustle of the city, the trains or the commute. It’s not that easy.” He added that he was thrilled “to be able to get around by car” and have his own room in a bigger house (in Brooklyn, he shares a room with his brothers).

In ‘Heera’, Valencia made room for him to dream further into the future. Without revealing too much: in twenty-five years, he is an actor and they are still friends.

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