On the Record With Choreographer Edgar Zendejas

by Ariel Osterweis Scott

Dancer Magazine, December 2009

Born in Mexico, choreographer Edgar Zenejas danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal [now BJM Danse], and Gus Giordano Dance Chicago before starting his own troupe, ezdanza, based in Montréal. He sat down with Dancer to talk about his creation methods, the choreographers who inspire him, and his recipe for turning Montréal’s economic blues into fertile ground for collaboration.

Q: Did you dance as a child?

A: No, I started when I was 16. In my country, my parents weren’t close to the world of dance at all. I found it, liked it, and went for it. No one was interested in art in my house. I discovered dance in high school when two performers came to perform.

Q: When you were a dancer, did you know you were a choreographer? We know that not all dancers are choreographers and vice versa.

A: Actually, not at all. I never planned it. It wasn’t in my thoughts until I arrived in Canada. As a dancer, opportunities came about to choreograph, such as workshops, so I started doing that and started developing my own vocabulary and I really enjoyed it.

Q: What do you feel characterizes your own vocabulary?

A: I think my vocabulary is a mix of different influences I had as an artist, in my career working with so many people. I would say they have all influenced me, but some are very strong. I really enjoy their movement and working with them.

Q: Who?

A: I can mention three: I worked with Twyla Tharp at Hubbard Street, Crystal Pite from Canada (she was BJM’s resident choreographer), and Ulysses Dove. When I worked with Dove I was very young (at BJM). It was a very strong but beautiful experience. He came for only two days to work with us. I was second cast for that piece and when he came he put me in first cast and I was really touched.

Q: Do you consider yourself a contemporary ballet choreographer? Modern? How do you feel others categorize you?

A: I think right now there’s a fusion of dance. And to classify my work…well, it has a strong base of classical ballet technique. [Throughout] my career, I was taking ballet class and working with contemporary choreographers with freedom of movement and creation (but the base was always classical). My work is very based in classical technique, but the influence of other choreographers has brought in this other term called “contemporary.” I do have a special style here in Canada. It has been a little hard for them to define my work here, which has been good and bad. The contemporary people here in Canada don’t classify me as contemporary; they think I do too much technique. The bigger companies like Les Grands Ballets [Canadiens de Montréal] see my work as contemporary. I kind of like that uniqueness of the work. I’m just waiting for them to recognize…that it is contemporary but it’s also classical. Also, this is something that’s been happening in the States as well; they see my work as contemporary.

Q: Your movement is both fluid yet organized. I can definitely recognize movement phrases, but I also sense a certain kind of drama. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your process. Do you come in with phrases? Do you collaborate with the dancers?

A: My work as a choreographer has developed over the years. I remember the first work I did. I was really creating everything—counts, each step. I would be so tired after the creation. Then we [at BJM] had this wave of improv and European style of creating. In the beginning I had a hard time working with such choreographers, but then I started enjoying it a lot, so I took part of that for the way I was working. In terms of myself, I like to create phrases, or what I call “combos.” The number I create depends on the length of the piece. I do like for the movement to [become] familiar for the audience and the dancers throughout the whole piece. In the beginning I used to do tons of steps from the beginning to the end, and it was so much work and [audiences] didn’t appreciate it. So I came to enjoy movement [executed] in different ways. I wanted to see how you could develop a phrase: floorwork is completely different from the standing version [of a phrase]. Working in colleges and universities has given me a lot of freedom to experiment because the students really go for it. They are like, “We’ll do anything you tell us.” It’s great because I learn a lot from them and I learn how to work better, so, by the time I work with professionals I have the base.

Q: Do you feel there is a dramatic or narrative impulse to your pieces? How do movement and the dramatic come together in your choreography?

A: It’s been different with every creation. Sometimes I feel really inspired by some event in my life—some relationship, something very personal, so I will decide to express it through movement with some kind of music that gives me this feeling. But sometimes I feel very inspired by the music and I don’t think of narrative or emotional expression; I just want to do movement with music. But its very interesting to see how the audience receives it because everyone identifies according to their own experiences or culture…

Q: In terms of your relationship to music, do you tend to use prerecorded music, or do you also work with composers?

A: My experience with composers has been amazing. I met composers here in Montréal and Europe and they have been with me for many creations. One of them is Edouard Dumoulin and the other is Jean-Philippe Barrios. They have been working with me for so long and almost for free. Their music is amazing. It’s great to work with people like them because sometimes they see my movement and they create through the inspiration of my work or I explain what is in my head and they create through that, so it’s a collaboration. With recorded music, it’s completely different; it’s already set.

Q: In terms of the thematics of your pieces, how does your Mexican heritage or culture play into your work? You touched upon the fact that different audiences respond differently to your work, but in terms of your own cultural heritage—whatever that means to you—do you draw from your own background, or not?

A: That’s another good question because as a Latino choreographer, some people hire me to do a “Latino” piece or something with “roots.” I did a piece for Luna Negra. They said, “You can do a contemporary piece but it has to have something Latino in it.” That piece and another I did for BJDM are two pieces I decided I had to be inspired by something from my culture. I did a piece called “Besame Mucho.” It has sections and explains my place in my culture as a Mexican person. I used a very famous Mexican singer: Chavela Vargas.

Q: Who are some living choreographers you consider yourself to be in conversation with?

A: I had an opportunity to give a workshop in Portland and the other choreographer was Jennifer Muller. I remember being young in San Diego, seeing her company, and I was extremely touched. I don’t remember steps or anything, but I remember coming out of that show very high. When I saw that she was working next to me I felt very small but at the same time, just very excited and I wanted to talk to her. She is such a beautiful lady, and I just tried to absorb as much as I could about the way she thinks. She is extremely smart. Another choreographer here in Montréal I respect as a person—she has so much passion for dance—is Margie Gillis. She is a soloist. Talking to her has been a beautiful experience. I like the humanity of these two choreographers.

Q: How do you develop material in your dances?

A: I do two or three combos. From that, I work myself, develop something from each phrase. Then I ask the dancers to do tasks. I will say, “Can you take all the arms of the combo without moving your legs?” It becomes something totally different. Or I will say the opposite. Or sometimes watching the combo, I will sit in the back of the room and I see another perspective. I have noticed lately that my work is very three-dimensional. Sometimes I finish the piece and tell the dancers, “Now we’re going to face the back in this part.” So I change the front for them. They’re not very happy, but they adjust and it’s beautiful because you see something totally different. I collaborate with the dancers a lot, for example, “Can you transfer this phrase onto the floor?”

Q: What are you currently creating?

A: Right now I want to promote my company a bit more here in Montréal. Just like in the States, the economy is not doing very well. So, it’s been hard to have a real season in a theater. So, I am creating a studio series for my company every month to bring a different artist in to collaborate with us each time—singers, musicians, painters. Every show will feature a different one. Hopefully at the end of the year (because each one is short) we can create a full performance with all these artists.

Q: So, it’s as though the bad economy has forced you to stage all these interesting collaborations.

A: Coming back from the States—and here in Canada—that’s all I hear: so many cuts. So, let’s do something low budget, create something more local, more for the community. Let’s have donations or something. These will take place in inexpensively rented studios. Canada supports the arts as much as they can. We get a lot of support from the government. Once you are in it, and they know you, you have made it. It takes time, but I’m happy. Hopefully I’ll get a grant for the studio series project so I can pay everybody.

For more information on the work of Edgar Zendejas, please visit: http://www.ezdanza.com/

Ariel Osterweis Scott, a PhD candidate in performance studies at UC Berkeley, is a contemporary dancer, choreographer, educator, and scholar. She can be reached at aos@berkeley.edu.