Mexico and India meet onstage in a blend of dance and culture
By Arisa White
Dancers tell stories with movement. And the story that Half and Halves: A Dance Exploration of the Punjabi-Mexican Communities of California tells is no small tale: it tackles immigration, agriculture, xenophobia, ambition, and the necessity of love.
Half and Halves was conceived and developed over the course of two years by artistic directors Joti Singh of Duniya Dance and Drum Company and Zenon Barron of Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco. Choreographer and performer Singh was introduced to this particular history by a dancer in her company who is half Indian and Mexican, although this dancer was raised in Mexico and not the Imperial Valley, where many of the Punjabi-Mexican communities were established. “We both realized that it would be a great subject for a performance, and something really interesting to explore,” says Singh.
The daughter of immigrants from Punjab, Singh grew up in the South. “I always have felt like I was straddling two cultures. Part of what struck me about this story was the ways in which the Punjabi-Mexican couples adopted certain elements of each culture,” says Singh. “I could really relate to that, and it made me think a lot about choices my parents had made. Even though the Punjabi-Mexican communities were mostly in the late 19th and early half of the 20th centuries, while my parents were raising us in the late ’70s through ’90s, the issues of discrimination, cultural compatibility, and how to raise the next generation were really the same.”
A bhangra dancer since her youth, Singh mined her dance network to find possible collaborators, and someone recommended Barron. Barron, who had been spending summers in Mexico learning traditional dances from one of his mentors, was intrigued.
Both Singh and Barron work in traditional dance forms but innovate within them, adding their contemporary sensibilities to make the forms relevant to audiences who may not be familiar with those cultures. Trained in classical ballet, Barron infuses his folklórico choreography—already characterized by upright posture and intricate footwork—with ballet technique and sensibility. Singh animates and invigorates the traditional form of bhangra—a community folk dance often performed after the days of harvest in Punjab, which incorporates movements such as shoulder shrugs, hopping, and jumping—with her decade-plus study of West African dance.
I always have felt like I was straddling two cultures. Part of what struck me about this story was the ways in which the Punjabi-Mexican couples adopted certain elements of each culture. —Joti Singh
The project began in 2009, under the auspices of CHIME, a choreographic mentorship exchange between emerging and established choreographers, produced by Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in San Francisco. As Barron mentored Singh, the two artists began to see overlap in their dance forms and experimented with ways in which the forms could complement and combine one with another. “Exploring our traditions, we saw that we had the same [kind of] dances, same ceremonies,” says Barron.
Maria Anaya, who has danced with Ensambles for four years, says, “Folklórico tends to be more influenced by ballet, which is more upright and rigid.” The most difficult part about learning bhangra, she says, was “letting go and being looser.”
Another four-year member of Ensambles, Lupe Aguilera, found bhangra intimidating at first. “After tens of years dancing in one style, your body doesn’t quite know how to move like that,” she says. “However, Joti and her dancers were welcoming and helped us understand the intricate foot and hand movements in their pieces. It has been fun getting to know the other dancers and feeling the beat from a different style of music.”
In conducting interviews with members of the Punjabi-Mexican community, Singh and Barron discovered that food and death practices were central to this melded society. The men and women interviewed also “talked a lot about farming, about how they mixed traditions, about discrimination,” says Singh.
Half and Halves was structured around those themes and around the importance of food and death in the Punjabi-Mexican culture. One dance, a quiet, meditative work for five Ensamble women, celebrates the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday.
“We decided to introduce each section with a video clip of these interviews to give it some context. Then we each choreographed a dance for the section,” Singh says. With additional support from the Creative Work Fund (which invites collaborations between artists and nonprofit organizations to create new art works), Half and Halves premiered in November 2010 at San Francisco’s Brava Theater.
A little known history
The history of the California Punjabi-Mexican community in Imperial Valley takes center stage in Half and Halves. Due to economic hardship in Punjab in the 1900s, farming families sent their sons abroad to earn money, and many of these young men ended up in California.
“Nobody came to this valley because they were rich,” says Karmen Chell in a video clip, recalling the realities her father faced when he settled in Imperial Valley in 1913. “They came here because the land was cheap.”
Punjabi men were enterprising and ambitious. Fed up with poor working conditions and low wages, they pooled their resources, leased farmland, and began to grow their own crops. Enduring temperatures in the hundreds and living in tents or shacks without electricity or piped-in water, the immigrants found that life wasn’t easy. Still, there was one comforting familiarity: the landscape looked very much like Punjab.
At around the same time, the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution led many Mexican families to flee to the United States. Their daughters worked the land alongside the Punjabi men, who, because of immigration restrictions, had not been allowed to bring their families with them. The Mexican women and Punjabi farmers found they had much in common, including social values, attitudes toward money and wealth, and a rural way of life.
The groups intermarried, even though anti-miscegenation laws occasionally created obstacles. In some cases, fair-skinned Mexicans were perceived as white and dark-skinned Punjabis were perceived as black and therefore were not allowed to marry in some states, including California. They had to hire lawyers who could validate that they were of the same race (then defined largely by skin color) and then issue a marriage license, or they traveled miles to Las Vegas to wed. Punjabi men learned Spanish, Mexican women learned to make roti and curries, and their children referred to themselves as “half and half.”
Racial hostility and violence were common, yet the small Punjabi-Mexican community “stuck together,” says Robert Chell, Karmen Chell’s brother. “People really helped each other. I think that’s why a lot of them were able to survive.”
Putting it all together
In developing Half and Halves, Singh and Barron worked in their respective genres when choreographing pieces for their own company dancers. For the group pieces that brought the two companies together, they conducted joint rehearsals. “I went to Ensambles’ rehearsals once a week for about a month and a half to teach them a bhangra piece,” Singh says, “and Zenon did the same with Duniya.” The two companies rehearsed together, at first weekly, and then with increasing intensity as the performance date approached.
Half and Halves’ 12 pieces, all of which incorporate singers and musicians, take audiences on a heartfelt journey—from loss of homeland and family, to the experience of being bullied, to the death of passing generations. But there’s joy too—the celebration of the harvest, marriage, and the newly constituted communities those marriages helped to forge. The finale, choreographed by Singh, conveys the strength and endurance of this blended community.
Costumes reflect the blending of the two cultures and their traditions. The Punjabi kameez, or shirt, is accented with ribbons to match the colorful designs on a Mexican folklórico skirt; Mexican blouses are paired with skirts whose design was inspired by the traditional Punjabi skirt called a lehenga. Other costumes illustrate the daily tenor of farm community life and are based on clothing worn by California farmers in the early part of the 20th century, school uniforms of the era, and traditional clothing worn in indigenous communities throughout Mexico.
Working together, Singh and Barron made this small, idiosyncratic community—one that survived, and by most measures, thrived for a generation before its children became more fully assimilated—come alive through original choreography and music. Eventually, they hope, Half and Halves will bring to a broader audience the extraordinary story of how two immigrant groups from opposite sides of the globe formed a vibrant new culture in a new land. “Most of us did not even know this piece of history,” says Anaya. “Part of [the purpose of] this work was to make it known.”
In the meantime, the process of creating the show exposed the members of both companies to dancers from very different backgrounds and heritages. “Many of us have remained in contact and support each other’s dance groups,” Anaya says. “[It’s] a testament to the power of dance and storytelling to bring people together.”
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Folklorico Mexicano program
By Lisa Traiger
Alexandra loves the chance to travel and see new places. Iris loves to meet new friends from other towns. Sisters Solana and Tavia love to wear the wide-flounced skirts and make a statement, loud and clear, with their feet.
As members of Folklorico Mexicano, a dance program for kindergarteners through high schoolers sponsored by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, these children are being taught more than traditional dance steps. Ask Francisco Nevarez, the program’s director in the Aspen area. They’re learning about culture and history, about perseverance and hard work, about friendship and sharing. Folklorico Mexicano is more than an after-school dance class. It’s a life class. But don’t tell the kids, up to 130 of them in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, home to Aspen and Snowmass, playgrounds for the rich and famous.
In the valley, in towns surrounding these wintertime resorts, resides an increasing population of Hispanic workers who have joined the service economy as construction workers, gardeners, and housekeepers to the rich and pampered. They commute from Carbondale, Basalt, and Glenwood Springs. But who’s watching the kids while their parents are pulling 10- or 12-hour shifts?
Nevarez by day serves as community liaison to the Hispanic community at Basalt Middle School. At 3:30 p.m. he changes his shoes and becomes a teacher, instructing his willing charges in the traditional dances he learned as a child growing up in northern Mexico. At 14 he danced with a professional folkloric company in his home state of Chihuahua. After coming to the United States 17 years ago, he founded a company, Mexico: Images and Traditions Folkloric Group, in New York, which was made up of adults and children from the community.
In 2002, when Nevarez arrived in Aspen, the snowy mountains and vast valley reminded him of his home terrain in Chihuahua. That first year he taught after-school classes in Mexican dance to about 25 or 30 kids; the next year, 70. In 2006, under Nevarez’s direction, the troupe traveled to the third Las Vegas International Folk Dance Festival, where it received four first-place awards for best group, best production, duo, and trio. Last season Nevarez had about 130 children under his tutelage. In fall 2007 he started with 80 and expected that number to grow. They dance a minimum of six hours weekly and perform in local festivals, at church and community events, and in theaters a dozen times a season.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet director Jean-Philippe Malaty took a break after a rehearsal in Santa Fe, where the 10-member troupe is based, to explain the company’s commitment to the Folklorico Mexicano program. “We are a ballet company, but we are also an organization rooted in our community. We looked at our community and decided it was time to break down the barriers.” A former dancer who had had his fill of ballet company lecture/demonstrations in school gymnasiums, he expresses disdain for the typical arts-in-education assembly: “Too many times a company tries to push its product on the children with little or no success. A lecture/demonstration at 8:00 in the morning is not going to develop dancers or even audience members. A lot of organizations develop in-school programming simply to get the funding.”
Malaty worked backwards: “We have a large Hispanic community and we looked at what they needed.” He’s not worried about serving the ballet company’s artistic goals. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet—which emerged in 1996 from the Aspen Ballet Company and School, founded six years earlier by Bebe Schweppe—is unique among arts organizations for sharing its resources among two communities that are a six-hour car drive away from each other—on a good day, when mountain passes are cleared of snow. Malaty isn’t looking to develop future ballet dancers from the Folklorico Mexicano program. That’s beside the point. “We’re trying to teach these children their culture, develop pride in their background. While many of these children were born here, their parents are from Mexico. We try to teach them that Mexico is a very rich culture with European and Native American influences; every region of the country has a beautiful costume and a story.” Maybe, Malaty continues, some will grow up to attend ballet concerts, or send their own children to dance classes. But more important and more immediate, he wants to instill pride in children and teach them about their cultural heritage.
As members of Folklorico Mexicano, these children are being taught more than traditional dance steps. They’re learning about culture and history, about perseverance and hard work, about friendship and sharing.
Equally significant is sharing this rich culture with the Anglo population. Karla Teitler’s two daughters are huge fans. The girls, Solana and Tavia, tried ballet classes when they were younger, but they weren’t all that interested or impressed. When they saw the colors and swirls of the skirts and heard the rhythms of Folklorico Mexicano, they were hooked. “My children go to a school where they are a minority,” notes Teitler, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Crystal River Elementary, which her girls attend. “This program allows them to see other children’s culture and background, and it helps us as parents break down cultural barriers and interact with other parents.”
Nevarez also appreciates the mix of Hispanic and Anglo students he teaches. Though Anglos number only about 10 percent in the program, he is adamant about including anyone who desires to dance. When he instructs, he teaches dances using both Spanish and English, which is perfect for the Teitlers, who are being raised in a bilingual household. It’s also great for Ivan Loya, 11, a sixth-grader who also plays soccer. Loya enjoys the exercise and friends he has made in Folklorico Mexicano. He also gets to reinforce his Spanish, which he speaks at home, while practicing English in a non-academic setting. It’s equally effective for children of Spanish-speaking immigrants, who hear their mother tongue and English side by side. Anglos, too, pick up Spanish words—derecho, izquierda, vuelta en circulo—right, left, turn in a circle.
While parents pay only a $25 annual registration fee for their children and shoes and costumes are provided on loan from the company, they and the children must commit to attending rehearsals and performances. But that’s not all; parents are expected to help in some other way, with costumes, driving, concessions, fund-raising, or as extra hands backstage. And the children, too, must make a commitment to maintaining good grades. The program costs the ballet $140,000 annually, according to Malaty, much of it for costumes and transportation. But with funding initially from the Colorado Trust Foundation and now from a consortium of Aspen-area funders, Folklorico Mexicano continues to grow. A sister program six hours away in Santa Fe has just begun its second year.
Christian Kingsbury, Basalt Middle School’s principal, loves the program and the work Nevarez does, during school and after. “Folklorico Mexicano really gets kids hooked into the school, working hard, being part of a team,” Kingsbury says. “These are elements that help kids succeed in school and later on succeed in life. They show up and they work hard.”
Nevarez, or Paco, his nickname among the children, is a tough taskmaster. The children rehearse from 3:30 to 7:00 p.m. twice weekly and meet on Saturdays when a performance nears. The day report cards arrive, the students must line up to show Paco their grades. And if he’s not happy, they don’t dance again until their grades come up. He’s been known, he admits, to call a teacher to get the full report on a slacking student.
Iris Flores, 12, is in her fifth year with Folklorico Mexicano. A seventh-grader born in Veracruz, Mexico, but living in Aspen, she relishes the time spent dancing with friends. “It keeps me connected to my culture,” she says. “I want to keeping dancing at least until I finish high school.”
Tivo Loya, from Carbondale, has two children in the program, Andy and Ivan. “I think it’s a really good program for kids to do after school,” he says. “It keeps them away from the video games.” As a youth Loya too was a dancer in a folkloric company back in his native Mexico. Today he drives his kids 15 miles, some days across snowy passes, for rehearsals. A painter, he pointed to a recent graduate of the Aspen Santa Fe program who used his experience performing with the award-winning dance troupe to enhance his college application. It’s something he hopes will help his children one day as well.
Malaty is proud of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s growing prominence and increasing critical acclaim on stages across the country, but he believes in his heart that Folklorico Mexicano may ultimately be his company’s most important contribution. “We have zero crossover in our folklorico program and our ballet program,” he notes, “which shows us we were right in our approach.” Folklorico Mexicano wasn’t intended to create ballet dancers, and since its founding in 2000 it hasn’t.
Nevarez appreciates the way the children from different towns across the valley and different cultures across the border can dance so easily together in school cafeterias and gymnasiums and onstage. “When we have a performance,” he says, “I tell them, ‘You’re not from Basalt; you’re not from Carbondale; you’re not from Aspen. You’re not Americans; you’re not Mexicans; you’re not Salvadorans. You’re all Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklorico Mexicano.” And they are.