CINCO PREGUNTAS WITH VIOLETA DE LEON DAVILA: CONTEMPORARY DANCE CHOREOGRAPHER AND TEACHER
Violeta De Leon Davila is a contemporary dance teacher, choreographer, and community dance organizer based in San Antonio, Texas. Although she was active long before, we first noticed her when she was a participant in the evening arts festival, Luminaria, in San Antonio in 2021. She has also been the recipient of grants from the City of San Antonio Department of Arts & Culture.
Violeta is from Monterrey, Mexico, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Contemporary Dance from the ‘Escuela Superior de Música y Danza de Monterrey’ and a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations from the Autonomous University of Nuevo León. She is currently fully immersed in pursuing a master's degree in arts and cultural management. Through her final research, she is dedicated to developing strategies and initiatives that will foster greater appreciation, funding, and recognition for contemporary dance as a vital cultural asset in our city.
Violeta was also recently selected as one of the distinguished participants for the Instituto de los Mexicanos en el Exterior (IME)'s "Jornada de Artistas 2023." This esteemed initiative supports female Mexican artists worldwide in the entertainment sphere. The organization will hold a conference in December 2024 where Violeta will represent her community.
We sat down with her to discuss the origins of contemporary dance, her take on dance and the performing arts, and her upcoming projects.
MiSA: What and who influenced you to dedicate your life to contemporary dance?
VDLD: I think it all started with my mom. She has always been committed to involving us with art. She found this amazing school that has the setup of a conservatory of performing arts, and it hit the nail on the head for me. It just fit like a glove. At that school, we were surrounded by music, opera, ballet, and folklorico, but none of them were as appealing to me as contemporary dance. I fell in love with it, I think, because it was different, unique, and edgy. What captivated me was the freedom to let my brain run with creativity. In contemporary dance, there is always a place for you to express yourself and do it the way you want. I think that was what made me keep going and keep bouncing back to it. The school was very intense and strict, and, at that time, it was a long, 7-year career. But the experience of being able to use my creativity all the time and express myself—I think that's what captured me.
My strongest influences were my teachers and all the local companies that I was able to see perform. In those years, there was no other way; there was no internet, no YouTube, and not a lot of access to videos, but there was a big movement of local and national contemporary dance companies that were creating so many new things, and I was there to witness almost all of them! That inspired me to visualize myself wanting, one day, to be able to create something too.
MiSA: What are some things you find interesting about the origins of contemporary dance?
VDLD: To me, it's fascinating to witness the evolution in the perception of contemporary dance since its origins. Initially, contemporary dance emerged as a rebellious response to ballet, breaking away from established paradigms. Almost everything between ballet and contemporary dance was opposite: the lines, symmetry, the use or lack of ballet shoes, tutu, etc. All of it was about looking for another way to express themselves with the body. When I was starting my dance education, that perception was still similar, and that is how it passed on to us; we were taught indirectly that ballet was our opponent and were not encouraged to appreciate it. Today, it's not like that. Everyone in the field is aware that a professional dancer has to have at least some knowledge and training experience in both of these two dance techniques, ballet and contemporary dance. So, without a doubt, this is a good step forward. I believe we do better in harmony and by respecting the beauty of each style. Now I am able to really enjoy ballet and to see the good things about it, and a lot of people who were just focused on ballet are
now also able to experience and appreciate contemporary dance, so I think that's very good. I like that I've been able to experience that change and evolution.
MiSA: Tell us about some of your recent and current dance projects.
VDLD: My new project is called "Wander Dance: Beyond the Race". This project was made possible with the artist grant received in 2023 from the City of San Antonio's Department of Arts and Culture. It is a participatory performance that intertwines contemporary dance with improvisation and encourages participants to release their fixation on the destination and fully immerse themselves in the journey. It's a celebration of curiosity, community, and the rare art of genuine human connection. Hopefully, it would be an extraordinary opportunity to engage with movement, explore, and dance.
I always find inspiration in what I see, feel, learn, or advocate for. For example, in my recent choreographies, I've tackled pressing societal issues through dance: 'Final Destination: Atacama Desert' emerged as an urgent response to the alarming environmental and social crisis unfolding in the Atacama Desert, a dumping ground for millions of tons of discarded clothing from fast fashion industries around the world. This choreography, featured at the Grand Performance of the San Antonio Dance Festival 2023, served as an invitation for reflection upon our consumption habits and the relentless pursuit of material possessions.
'They Taught You Wrong: Metanoia – A Transformative Change' is a video dance that sheds light on the disturbing reality of femicide in México. This piece aimed to ignite a collective outcry against domestic violence. It urged a reevaluation of traditional gender roles, advocating for a transformative shift in societal perceptions.
My love and determination to offer tools to bring more people to enjoy dance and contemporary dance inspires me to create too, as I did in my latest work and a very recent matinee performance that I co-created and reconceptualized called 'Welcome to Planet Dance' in collaboration with the San Antonio Dance Organization. This participatory dance performance sought to explain, in an artistic and fun way, the voice of the body and the communicative power of dance. While my passion lies in contemporary dance, I also recognize the necessity of addressing broader issues within the dance sphere, irrespective of the style or type of dance. These issues include the appreciation of dance as an art form, efforts toward audience development, and fostering collaborations between dance organizations. I firmly believe that our success and progress can only be achieved as a group, working together towards common goals. This is why I'm passionate about working, volunteering, and being part of a non-profit organization called “San Antonio Dance.”
In December 2023, San Antonio Dance produced the Nutcracker, a magnificent and amazing production. We are proud to say that this is also our biggest opportunity to give back to the community. Every year, thanks to our supporters, we continue to fulfill our strong commitment to outreach by providing complimentary tickets to underprivileged children and families throughout San Antonio and neighboring communities. To date, we have generously donated over 1,000 tickets to past performances, ensuring that dance remains accessible to all.
On April 19 & 20, 2024 is our San Antonio Dance Festival. Another pillar of our organization. The festival includes a showcase: which serves as a platform for artists to exhibit their creativity, talent, and cultural heritage, allowing dancers to share their artistry with a broader audience. A Grand Performance: designed to inspire dancers, develop artists, and showcase professional talent from local, national, and international artists, companies, and choreographers, and our exciting collaboration with the Carver Community Cultural Center: “Welcome to Planet Dance." This coming festival, we are creating a new piece with me as one of the group of choreographers and in collaboration with the San Antonio Dance Company. "Birds Reverie: A Plumage Trilogy," to be premiered at the Grand Performance of the San Antonio Dance Festival on April 20th, represents another exciting endeavor for me. This collaborative production, featuring original music by Federico Chávez-Blanco and two other guest choreographers, promises to captivate audiences with its dynamic fusion of neo-classic, contemporary movement, and mesmerizing soundscapes.
In addition, I'm preparing for two collaborative performances. "Vision Fugitives," to be presented on March 23, 2024 at the International Arts Festival of the University of the Incarnate Word. A multidisciplinary project commissioned by the Department of Music. This contemporary dance performance, set to the captivating composition of Prokofiev, reflects a forward-thinking approach from the Music Department when commissioning this live music performance fusioned with contemporary dance. It features the renowned pianist, Dr. Ara Koh, and is coordinated by Kevin Salfen, Professor of Music at U.I.W.
MiSA: What are some things that many people don't realize about contemporary dance?
VDLD: This is a great question because I'm always eager to convey this message. The best thing, to me, about contemporary dance (and it probably applies to all contemporary arts) is that the limits of what you can create or expect from it are almost nonexistent. What you might see in one performance might be totally different from another. Whatever you witness with one choreographer or even within one choreography doesn't necessarily represent the entirety of contemporary dance. Thus, I encourage everyone to attend numerous performances; you'll find some that you love or a choreographer that resonates with you. Sometimes, we may see something we don’t like, but it's important not to dismiss it completely because there's always a chance you'll discover a piece of work that surprises and captivates you.
Another crucial aspect of contemporary dance is its complexity and constantly evolving definition. For instance, in some countries, there are now two main paths for what is right now called contemporary dance. One is the competition route, often seen on TV, which focuses more on virtuosity and higher levels of technique. The other path is contemporary dance as an art form—a means to express something or explore movement beyond mere technique.
Contemporary dance's complexity is precisely what makes it so interesting and exciting to me!
MiSA: Where are some of your favorite settings to have performances and what are your standards for costuming?
VDLD: One of my favorite settings to create a contemporary dance piece is the theater. I'm drawn to the opportunities it offers to create something truly magical or extraordinary. The theater provides a space where you can transport the audience into a world of imagination, allowing them to forget their surroundings. Utilizing lighting, scenography, props, and perspective, one can achieve truly remarkable things. I find this aspect incredibly appealing, and I think I'm attracted to it immediately.
I also enjoy exploring outdoor settings and collaborating with other art genres. These settings and collaborations push me to think outside the box, even though at times it can be a bit stressful. In hindsight, I'm always pleased to see that these challenges have led to the creation of something unique. Working outdoors introduces unexpected elements that I can't always control, forcing me to adapt and improvise, which adds a thrilling dynamic to the performance. Similarly, collaborating with other art forms brings perspectives and ideas that might not immediately come to mind, and that helps me to be more creative.
When considering costumes, my primary focus is on selecting attire that complements the piece, adding depth to the narrative or the message I'm trying to convey. This aspect holds significant importance for me. I appreciate the use of colors and incorporate them as long as they align with the overall theme of the choreography. However, my foremost consideration is always to ensure that the costume enhances the dancers' movements and bodies while being visually appealing. I lean towards contemporary and modern designs, sometimes embracing minimalist styles. So I'm up to almost everything as long as it goes to what I'm trying to say in the choreography.
MiSA: How can people support your (and the dancers') efforts in the San Antonio contemporary dance community?
VDLD: The simplest way to support contemporary dance in San Antonio is by attending any dance event. Whether it's a live performance, watching a video dance, or sharing and promoting events on social media, each action contributes significantly. Donating to organizations working with contemporary dance or any dance form, even if you're unable to attend events, is immensely helpful. Advocating for cultural organizations to embrace more contemporary dance representation and programs that encourage its creation and inclusion in programming remains crucial. There's ample room to heighten awareness about the manifold benefits contemporary dance offers. It seamlessly integrates into sectors like business, health, and technology, fostering intriguing cross-collaborations.
Supporting dance, or any art, involves nurturing a love for the arts, museums, and theaters in younger generations. Exposing kids to dance performances and allowing them to explore dance classes can have lasting positive effects. Another crucial aspect is showing conscientiousness and respect for dancers' and choreographers' work. It means refraining from expecting dances or choreography under unfavorable conditions. A successful dance performance requires adequate facilities, such as suitable floors, rehearsal spaces, changing areas, and warm-up facilities. Acknowledging and valuing the time invested in rehearsals, planning, exploration, and training is essential.
I've launched a small social media campaign, 'Pledge for Dance', aimed at raising awareness of dance in San Antonio and everywhere, especially considering the challenges faced by this sector post-pandemic. The campaign encourages individuals to make a personal commitment to support dance in any way possible, hoping that this commitment remains within them and influences future choices in favor of dance events.
Lastly, it's important to recognize that many invaluable things in life, like love, respect, faith, and relationships, are intangible. Similarly, the benefits that art and dance bring to our lives can't always be quantified. As artists and art lovers, it's our perpetual responsibility to remind ourselves and others of the immeasurable positive impact of the arts. They make us feel alive, connected, and inspired. My invitation is to let's consciously prioritize the investment of our time into contemporary dance or any art, understanding and believing in its nourishing effects on ourselves and our communities.
MiSA: Here here!
COVER IMAGE: "Those Terrible Ghosts," Choreography: Violeta De Leon Davila in 2004