The way back home: A conversation with Judith Sánchez

The first-ever choreographer commissioned to do work for the emblematic Trisha Brown company in history (other than Brown herself) is a Latina powerhouse

Judith Sánchez Ruíz. Photo by David Beecroft, courtesy of Trisha Brown Dance Company.
Judith Sánchez Ruíz. Photo by David Beecroft, courtesy of Trisha Brown Dance Company.David Beecroft (Trisha Brown Dance Company.)

Last May, the legendary Trisha Brown Dance Company took the stage at The Joyce Theater in Manhattan with two repertoire dances paying homage to Brown’s collaborations with composer Alvin Curran. But the night’s most anticipated work was the program’s third choreography and closing act, the company’s first-ever commissioned work, “Let’s Talk About Bleeding,” by Cuban dancer and choreographer Judith Sánchez Ruíz.

Sánchez defined her piece as “an architectural orgasm of poetical constellations” in a video promo released before the performance. “It is a symphony of layers, a metaverse in which multiple universes collide, seeming to exist simultaneously, yet viewed in segments,” she elaborates. “The work intends to convey the notion of moving backward in time, recreating realities that make us question the arc of human existence. Half the scenes are reversed, underscoring the idea of reversing time and deepening an understanding of being.”

The choreography was also a tour de force and an emotional journey for Sánchez, feeling she was paying homage and bringing Trisha back into a new step. Into a new future for the company. To witness the “evolution she always created in contemporary dance.”

There is always a first moment for everything. Sánchez was the lucky one to receive the invitation call from Trisha Brown Dance Company’s Carolyn Lucas, Brown Choreographic Assistant and closest collaborator in her creative process for 20 years before being named Associate Artistic Director in 2013, and whom Sánchez thanks for the trust and the opportunity. With the commission came the challenge and great responsibility to dialog with the legacy of the iconic dancer and performer. “Let’s Talk About Bleeding” was created and staged in about four weeks, a kind of process “which usually took Trisha about 19 weeks.”

As with everything in life, some things are only explained with a stroke of luck. Sánchez has built a reputation in her thirty-year professional career, in which she has created two practices: Functionality and Perspective in Dance (Release) and Your Own God Intensive Improvisation, establishing herself as a choreographer and teacher at major higher education institutions in dance throughout Europe, the U.S., Latin America, and Asia. “It was a very intense and unique process,” she says. “But you know what? It was exciting because I had been preparing for this moment for many years. When I started as a choreographer in the United States, my English was intermediate. I had to establish my credibility as an artist with my vision in a context and community where no one knew me,” Sánchez adds.

The iconic American performer, dancer, and choreographer Trisha Brown passed away on March 18, 2017. Regarded as an innovative disrupter since the early 1960s and a pioneer of Postmodern dance, Brown founded her dance company in 1970. She was the creator of over a hundred choreographies and six operas. Sánchez knows the responsibility of being the bearer of a powerful legacy. That is why she refers half-jokingly and half-seriously to her tenure with the company (2006-2009) and her friendship with Brown as her “informal” PhD in dance.

“Working with Trisha was returning to the source of many things learned secondhand,” Sánchez says in a video call from Berlin. The artist, who is in one of the most acclaimed moments of her career as a dancer and choreographer of international stature, has had a couple of years of intense activity in which she has been invited to collaborate with choreographies or master classes based on her research from all corners of the planet, from Hong Kong, NYC, Germany, Senegal, Norway, Switzerland, and Japan. During her work with the legendary dancer, Sánchez reemphasized essential practice skills. “Trisha took dance to unimaginable contexts, defying the body and gravity as in her well-known performance ‘Man Walking Down the Side of the Building,’” Sánchez explains. “I learned with Trisha about multi-directionality, dancing from the bones, with gravity, the importance of functionality and the somatic,” she enumerates. Adding “the importance of improvisation in the creative process. And the capacity for structural challenge and vision of an artist in his artistic universe.” All these elements are part of Trisha Brown’s critical contribution to contemporary dance and pillars on which Sánchez has built his legacy because Sánchez is also recognized as a gifted improviser.

“I have been researching improvisation for more than 20 years,” says Sánchez of her contribution to dance. “I have been lucky enough to be in major international companies and projects with independent artists in various parts of the world. Plus, my education at the National School of Art (ENA), from which she graduated in 1990, and her professional training in Cuba as an ensemble member of the Danza Nacional de Cuba company (1990-1991) y DanzAbierta (1991-1996).

Sánchez established her own company, JSR Company, in New York in 2010, focusing on interdisciplinary performances. She is now developing JSR into what she calls “a portable company. That can adapt and present works for multiplex fields, with much more access within the artistic world.” Her plans are “to choreograph for ballet, exchanging our evolution in both styles. Investigating different things, with multidisciplinary potential.” Pursuing that goal, she relocated to Berlin in 2011 to work as an ensemble member and guest teacher at Sasha Waltz & Guest Company, where she stayed until 2014. Therefore, the Trish Brown Dance Company commission was also an opportunity to return to New York, where she lived since the late 90s and where his son Lucian Prieto-Sánchez was born, the closest thing, along with Berlin, to a home that this global and nomadic artist knows.

Trish Brown Company dancer in a rehearsal of 'Let’s Talk About Bleeding.'
Trish Brown Company dancer in a rehearsal of 'Let’s Talk About Bleeding.' Stephanie Berger (Courtesy of Trisha Brown dance Company.)

“Compared with Trisha, my dance is more expressionist; it touched you differently,” Sánchez explains. “My choreographies are intense, complex, with much physicality and information. My contribution is knowing how to take risks and defend my vision regardless of everything. I’m looking for a new dance beyond the contemporary classification,” she continues. “I do not structure the usual; I pursue the vision; my dancers are highly trained in improvisation and choreographic material and can excel in both. There, I have a lot of fields to investigate, starting from a more portable, more accessible, more multidisciplinary format and hoping to have more collaborations with visual artists and music and theater. Either as site-specific or stage theater pieces.”

While Trisha never claimed to have created the Release technique and even denied any knowledge about it in a Movement Research Performance Journal in 2000, Sánchez attributes to her this technique innovation. “There is a taboo and a controversy about if the Release is a technique or a skill or a dancing style, but when I was transitioning into a choreographer, I noticed that it has all the components to be considered a technique,” affirms Sánchez, doing justice to who was her mentor and supported her during her first steps as a choreographer in New York City. “When I left the company, Trisha always came to my performances and premieres and supported my work as a choreographer.”

For Sánchez, “being the first guest to choreograph at TBDC leaves hope for many others like me,” she says. “It’s rewarding to think people support an inclusive and more transparent world; many artists are doing interesting things. It is possible, and it can happen to you too.”

Sanchez attributes her success to “sacrifice and survival. People often say to me: ‘You are so bold.’ At first, I had a hard time understanding what they were saying. I even went to the dictionary because I needed clarification. And I understand it now, after five years. Of course, I have the freedom to do what I want in my art, to design how I want people to see me, because I don’t have funding or sponsorship. After all, I am not tied to anyone. In other words, I have nothing to lose. I reinvent myself according to what suits me, following my creative vision and what I consider necessary after the exchange with the audience, my students, and the people who support my work. So, from there, you will find a map, but at the end of the day, that map is a survival,” Sánchez says.

“The secret of success is passing on your legacy and never giving up on your dreams.”

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