Rogelio Lopez’s “Empty Spaces”: Dance as an Art of Redemption

Berkeley’s Shawl-Anderson Dance Center has been incubating modern dancers and choreographers since 1958. Lately it’s been especially fertile ground, nurturing resident artists like Tanya Chianese and Stranger Lover Dreamer, whose recent performances garnered critical and audience raves. Dancers and dance makers thrive in SADC’s open-minded atmosphere, where intimate studios provide safe harbor for creativity, and performances often include familiar faces.

One of those is Rogelio Lopez, familiar from Berkeley to Los Angeles as a modern-dance teacher, performer and, now, as a choreographer. His new work, Empty Spaces, premieres at SADC March 27–29 through the studio’s Dance Up Close/East Bay series, and though the 38-year-old Lopez has a decade of choreography to his credit, Empty Spaces is his first evening-length piece.

Rogelio Lopez's "Empty Spaces."
Rogelio Lopez’s “Empty Spaces.”

Spare and abstract, Lopez’s choreography is also layered with feeling. Empty Spaces is especially rich in subtext drawn from Lopez’s difficult childhood in Mexico and Southern California, with themes of tenderness and grief, abuse and anodyne, fractured memories and the trade-off of forgetting the past—self-preservation exchanged for irretrievable loss.

One needn’t know Lopez’s history to fully experience Empty Spaces; the movement has its own identity, embodied by the gifted dancers Tanya Chianese, Ann DiFruscia, Sarah Genta, Leah Hendrix-Smith, Abigail Hosein, Rebecca Johnson, Erin Kohout, Katie Kruger, Jeni Leary, Laura Marlin, Andrew Merrell, Mo Miner, Chantal Sampogna and Shaunna Vella (familiar faces all). The show yields only fragmentary glimpses anyway—no one in the audience will see more than seven of the fifteen pieces it comprises.

Here, Lopez opens up about his origins and how they inform Empty Spaces, and about dance as an art of redemption. Please be aware that this interview contains sensitive and extremely personal subject matter.

—Claudia Bauer

{Empty Spaces runs Friday through Sunday, March 27–29. Fri. & Sat. at 8 p.m. & 9:30 p.m., Sunday at 8 p.m. only. At Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, 2704 Alcatraz Ave., Berkeley. Buy tickets here.}

Speaking of Dance: You describe Empty Spaces as an exploration of memories, and a way to bring them to light. Where do those memories come from?
Rogelio Lopez: It’s mostly different memories that I had in my childhood. I grew up on a ranch where the population was about two hundred, three hundred people. My dad owned the land and he had workers working for him. But he would be gone and then would come back. My mom would do everything that she could to make money. My dad would milk the cows, my mom would make the cheese. My dad will kill the animals, my mom would sell the meat. It was that type of a family business.

I was raped from age eight until I was ten at the ranch. Everybody knew everyone, but nobody knew what was going on. I thought that it was all my fault, because I grew up with Catholic beliefs. As I grew older, I suppressed all these memories. I really detached myself from that kid. So I am constantly using dance as therapy to find out if I can attach myself to my past. After I moved from the ranch we went into the city, which wasn’t a very happy thing. I kept getting raped until I was thirteen. So there are vivid memories that happened then, but also other memories that I don’t want to think past right now.

SoD: Is that why you structured the show so that the audience in each room sees only part of it, because it echoes that sense that you know that things happened but you don’t have access to memories of them?
RL: If the audience gets frustrated because they can’t see the full movement or they can’t see the full show, because it’s four different shows and they only get to see one, I want them to feel that urge that they want something but not the instant gratification of getting everything all at once. I want them to feel that emptiness that I feel sometimes when I think about this stuff.

Rogelio Lopez
Rogelio Lopez

SoD: How much of your history have you explained to the dancers?
RL: They know everything. Some of the pieces, they ask me what it is about, and I tell them. I also tell them not to try to replicate what I’m feeling, just to feel the movement and feel each other when they’re dancing. But not trying to re-create what happened to me, because I want it to be abstract enough for the audience to relate to.

SoD: Yes, your story is very specific, but the movement is abstract. You could come into this as an audience member and know nothing of the context, but still see it as a rich and complete piece of art. Is that something you strive for as a choreographer?
RL: Every piece that I have made has something to do with my life and my own experience, because I honestly feel like I can’t really say things in words. And when I say it in movement, even though people don’t know what I’m literally talking about, I feel like I actually said it out loud with my body. So I feel like I am a storyteller, but I also use movement as therapy. But I think it comes from within, versus trying to do the hops and kicks.

SoD: Why did you call the show Empty Spaces?
RL: I keep thinking of the space in my heart, that there are spaces for memory. I always feel like we have metal boxes that we put certain relationships that we had, and we go back and we look at them. Those memories are pretty much empty, and I want to fill them up with positive energy. I completely ignore them most of the time, because I refuse to see myself as a victim. But those memories are still there, and I think that those spaces are empty but they need to be filled out in order for my heart to be a bit lighter than what it is now.

SoD: Has the process of creating this show helped to fill those spaces?
RL: It has. Actually, I have never said these things out loud and to so many people, of what has happened to me. Usually it never comes out, and I was always nervous and scared to say anything to [the dancers] because I felt like they would see me as a broken person. But as I got to know them better, I felt like I could actually say it out loud without being judged. I’m feeling that people don’t see me as a broken person. And I’m starting to feel like I am not as broken as I thought I was.

SoD: You’ve made very personal music selections as well.
RL: “Daughter,” for me, is about a child not knowing where their mother was. “What Happened to the Rain” says that the rain falls all around, but then the grass and the boy are gone and the rain keeps falling like helpless tears. It’s honestly what I feel sometimes, that I was standing in that ranch but I wasn’t a boy anymore even though I was eight years old, but that eight-year-old boy was completely gone by the time he got to be nine. And that’s how I feel. I’m gone, and I want to find that out.

SoD: Everyone in the show is a part of the family at Shawl-Anderson. And the show is at SADC, the home of this family. What does that mean to you?
RL: When I was growing up I didn’t know the concept of people being kind. I didn’t know that people actually can help someone without asking anything in return. That’s what Shawl-Anderson has done for me. They’ve taken me into their family. And all of the dancers have absolutely just taken care of me and showed me what kind people really look like. I feel very, very blessed.

I really want to say that Shawl, Rebecca Johnson especially, has helped me so much with this process. I didn’t know if I ever wanted to do a company. I didn’t know if people would want to dance for me. She kept saying, “Oh yeah, there’s a lot of people who want to work with you.” My husband, Andrew Merrell, kept telling me, “Oh yeah, people will work with you,” and I never believed that. I never believed in myself. I feel very, very grateful and happy to have all of these people supporting me.

SoD: Empty Spaces is about many things, but it seems to me that one of them is the power of dance, and how dancers care for each other. I’m really touched by what you’ve told me, and by everybody coming together for you. It’s clear that they’re giving you their best.
RL: Yes, they are. It’s just unbelievable how giving everyone has been. This piece is also about the connections of love, not from just family, but from everyone. The love that they have given me and the love that I’m constantly looking for nowadays, when I didn’t know it existed. I thought it was everybody for their own, and it’s really not. You might think that as a professional dancer that everybody is out for their own, but in Shawl-Anderson it’s really not. Shawl-Anderson doesn’t have an ego. It’s not ego-driven, and it’s not a factory of dancers. It’s actually a family.

SoD: I think I’m going to need to bring tissues to the show. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with me.
RL: Thank you so much.

Let’s Get Wrecked: Dance Wrecking with Christy Funsch

Contemporary San Francisco dance artist Christy Funsch hosted a special kind of open rehearsal on Saturday, March 7: a Dance Wrecking, in which her colleagues Rowena Richie, Megan Nicely and Keith Hennessy dismantled her work and re-created in their own ways. A courageous move by Funsch, and a fascinating window into contemporary dance making for the rest of us. I explored the experience for DanceTabs.

Courtney Moreno, Peiling Kao, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Aura Fischbeck in Christy Funsch's "Dissolver." Photo by Christy Funsch.
Courtney Moreno, Peiling Kao, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Aura Fischbeck in Christy Funsch’s “Dissolver.” Photo by Christy Funsch.

Ballet Reawakened: ABT’s new Sleeping Beauty

It was a thrill to be at the world premiere of American Ballet Theatre’s new production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” restored from historical documents by Alexei Ratmansky. It was a trip back in time, a glamorous pageant and loads of fun, and I reviewed it for Critical Dance.

American Ballet Theatre's "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Doug Gifford.
American Ballet Theatre’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” Photo by Doug Gifford.

Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa, CA: March 3, 2015

American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie said that he wanted to mark the company’s 75th anniversary season with an iconic new “The Sleeping Beauty”, and he meant it. ABT’s spectacular new production (its fourth since 1976) premiered on March 3 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, with Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes in the lead roles—and the world hasn’t seen anything like it since 1890.

Read the full review here.

Marcelo Gomes and Diana Vishneva in ABT's "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Marcelo Gomes and Diana Vishneva in ABT’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” Photo by Gene Schiavone.