Welcome to imagi*Nation: Part 2: Interview with Choreographer Carmen Caceres

“Welcome to imagi*Nation: Part 2” is a new performance by DanceAction, occurring at The Center at West Park.

“Welcome to imagi*Nation: Part 2” is a new performance by DanceAction, occurring at The Center at West Park. This in interactive multimedia show tells the story of a conflict between two fictional neighboring countries to highlight the hot-button issue of immigrants’ rights. The characters’ fates will be shaped by the audiences whose decisions will influence the outcome of the events transpiring on stage. The dance-centered production – co-directed by choreographer Carmen Caceres and dramaturg Lauren Hlubny – is the second part of a planned trilogy dealing with traditional, nation-based communities in the face of pressing global problems affecting the whole of humanity.

Carmen Caceres is the founder and artistic director of DanceAction. A choreographer originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Carmen received a BA in Dance and Education at SUNY Empire State College and continued her studies in dance, performance, and choreography at the former Merce Cunningham Studio in New York. Carmen has been creating and presenting dance works in both Argentina and New York since 2009. In 2012, she founded DanceAction, a creative platform composed of artists from multiple disciplines, to produce performing artworks and provide educational opportunities.

Carmen recently discussed her career and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for dance and how did you break-in?

Carmen Caceres (CC): I can’t find that exact moment when I learned that I wanted to dance. I do remember being very young, maybe 5 or 6 years old and visualizing myself wearing a ballet costume and dancing. Maybe I saw it somewhere on TV and that’s how I came to know about it. A year later more or less, one of my closest friends in school started taking ballet classes at a local studio near my home. She told me about it and I immediately asked my mom to take me to these classes. I was 7 years old. That year was my first performance and I still remember the exhilaration of being on stage that very first time. I never stopped dancing after that.

MM: What types of dances most appeal to you and why?

CC: Currently I’m very interested in contemporary dance forms, and more specifically dance theater and physical theater. There are several choreographers and dance artists that influence my work. Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Pina Bausch, and David Zambrano, to name a few. I love improvisation and I always make it part of the work or the process, it’s an amazing source of inspiration and creativity. I also practice Argentine tango regularly and while I don’t perform it, I feel that my work involves a lot of influences from this dance.

MM: How did your love for dance lead you to the theater?

imagi*NationCC: I feel that dance and theater have always been closely interconnected for me. At the very beginning, age 4 or 5, I used to play with my mom’s tape recorder: it had a microphone and was able to make a voice recording on cassette tapes. I would improvise songs (with lyrics!!!) and sing and act to the tape recorder. Shortly after, I started putting together these improvised performances at my living room during family gatherings or parties. I would dress up and pretend I was some kind of character according to the costume I was wearing, and I would play classical music or Latin pop music of that time (Thalia was very popular!!)

MM: You are formally educated in dance, so how valuable was your college experience, and follow-up classes, to your career as a whole?

CC: Everything I’ve done as part of my dance training has been incredibly influential and defining for me. My college experience started in my home country Argentina, and it was accompanied by a variety of dance classes in ballet, contemporary dance, and tango that I used to take in addition to my college classes. Shortly after moving to New York, I attended the Merce Cunningham school and was able to continue my formal training with multiple renowned choreographers and teachers from New York and abroad. I received my Bachelor’s degree in New York, connecting two areas that I’ve always been interested in, dance and education. Because of this, I was able to come in contact with a wide variety of styles and dance forms that shaped who I am today. I believe that the biggest takeaway I have from my formal college experiences is learning the necessary skills to enter into the workforce, first in Argentina and later in New York.

MM: You work in both New York and your native Argentina. What are some of the differences between the audiences you get in both countries?

CC: My art speaks about my current experiences within the context of the place where I live. As a result, when I reach audiences in my home country, I feel that I have to make adjustments to make the work relevant to them. I am looking for more opportunities to share my work life in Argentina as well, but the current pandemic has made it very difficult. Nevertheless, I recently had an amazing opportunity where I was able to present my recent piece “Welcome to Imagi*Nation: Part 1” as a virtual interactive experience. The show speaks largely about immigration and the relationship between natural resources, industry, economy, and migration. I noticed that at large, viewers in Argentina had a very different interpretation of this piece from audiences in New York. While immigration is a reality in both New York and Buenos Aires, the people experience this differently because the policies implemented in the places they live are very different. There are, of course, some themes I explore in my work that are more universal.

MM: How did you come up with the content for your latest show and how did you get it staged?

CC: My latest work, “Welcome to Imagi*Nation: Part 2,” started as a result of my experience as a Latina immigrant in the US. I moved here 12 years ago but my journey really started in 2005, on my first trip to New York. Since then, I always wanted to come back, but it was financially very difficult. Nevertheless, I still remember it like it was yesterday: my first interview with immigration officers at the US embassy in Argentina to obtain my tourist visa. When I moved here in 2010, I was still on a tourist visa and then I applied for a student one. The latter took two separate attempts and I had to pay for the application twice because the first one was rejected. A few months later, my school closed and so I had to transfer to another one to preserve my immigration status. For financial reasons, I was only able to do that briefly and then I had to go in a different direction. At the time, I was in a relationship, so we decided to get married – this would grant me stability at least in terms of my immigration status. But the relationship didn’t work out: a year and a half later we separated and got divorced soon after. Because my separation happened so soon after the immigration status changed, I had to prove to the immigration offices that my marriage was done in “good faith.” This was very stressful and made me once again feel not welcomed here. Thankfully, everything worked out for the best and I became a resident. Five years later I obtained my US citizenship. I came here because I wanted to work, I wanted to make art, I wanted to have the space and opportunity to express in my own voice what I wanted. But for many years, I did not feel welcomed. Going through that complex immigration process really made me do more research on the topic. I found a very interesting book, “Open Veins of Latin America ” by Eduardo Galeano. It guided a lot of my process investigating the relationship between industry, economy, and migration. After I came up with the idea, I shared it with my dear collaborator and the co-director of this piece, Lauren Hlubny, and through a pandemic, we started exploring these ideas together. The staging was a deep collaboration with her as the dramaturg and also with the other performers in the piece. I always like to integrate their voice in my projects because it makes the projects so unique.

MM: What’s your favorite segment of the show and why?

CC: My favorite segment of the show is the Innovation Dance in Act 2, a combination of dance as a visual art experience in movement and physical theater. It is the only moment in the entire piece when all the dancers are moving together at the same time and finish in unison. In dance, this is not at all out of the ordinary; nevertheless, it’s extremely satisfying to see people moving together in synchronicity. I believe this is especially true after the difficult experience that we all had through the pandemic: It was a rare moment when we were finally dancing together in the same place at the same time, not through Zoom.

MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?

CC: I really hope audiences will start looking at the reality of the immigrant from a different point of view. I hope they’ll start asking themselves other types of questions when it comes to immigration. I wish for the conversation to start focusing more on why people need to leave their homes, rather than the “assumed effect” of immigration in any nation. Immigrants in this country oftentimes feel ashamed of themselves, they believe the narrative that is out there: “they come to steal our jobs,” “they come to use our resources for free.” Many immigrants feel like delinquents because they are here “Illegally.” I really hope that this piece will help people see things differently.

MM: What other pieces have you written and what are they about?

CC: I created many dance projects over the past 13 years. My first full-length project in New York, titled “Game Night” (2015,) was about relationships and chance. In 2018, I presented another three-part work titled “To Make a Blindfold, Measure the Size of Your Head (BMH).” It was inspired by the kidnappings and the political persecution in South America during the Dirty War, also known as the story of the “Desaparecidos.” More recently I presented Blindspot (2019), a live dance and multimedia piece based on George Orwell’s classic novel “1984.” In this work, the slogan of the party, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength,” is translated into a movement narrative.Live music and media projections create an immersive multimedia experience for the audience. Overall, my works involve a component of interactivity, and they reflect social realities that concern people, relationships, and social justice.

imagi*NationMM: What are your ultimate career goals?

CC: My ultimate career goal is to develop an arts and education organization that would be self-sufficient and provide opportunities for artists to grow in the dance and performing arts industry, create thought-provoking and culturally relevant artworks, and make an impact in the community by offering education and professional development. With that, I hope I can continue working both as an artist and educator until for as long as it’s possible.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and what topics would you like to address artistically in the future?

CC: I am planning a few projects for 2022. Nothing is set in stone, but I do have some strong ideas I would like to materialize. One of these projects is a solo work titled “About Zamba” which I started in 2019. I would like to do more research on this project, collaborate with other artists both in dance and music, and create a full-length piece.

MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?

CC: I would like to address my collaborators in this project: without them, this piece would not be possible. Lauren Hlubny as the co-director, dramaturg, and one of the performers, and the seven amazing individuals that are my artistic associates and performers: Aviya Hernstadt, Israel Harris, Lydia Perakis, Mallory Markham-Miller, Mar Orozco Arango, Sofia Baeta, and Sofia Bengoa. Also, our Lighting Designers, Technicians, Video persons, and Consultants Stoli Stolnack, Nicole Sliminski, Daniel Hess, and Maria Nissan. Lastly, Emilio Teubal, an amazing musician who has allowed us to use his music in this project.

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The piece will have its world premiere as a one-night event on Thursday, October 21, 2021, at 7:30 pm at the Sanctuary Space at The Center at West Park (165 West 86th Street, New York, NY 10024.) Admission is free (with a suggested donation of $10 – $40) but RSVP is required; to reserve a spot, visit https://www.centeratwestpark.org/events/welcome-to-imagination-part-2. To learn more, visit Carmen’s official website: www.carmencaceres.com

Photography by Stephen Delas Heras.