Dancing About the Drug Wars: A Chat with Kickstartable Choreographer Gabriella Barnstone

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10/26/2010 10:22 AM |

The local choreographer and director Gabriella Barnstone is currently soliciting contributions via Kickstarter to support her dance theater piece Nuevo Laredo, which will debut at Dixon Place next spring. We emailed with her about the piece and the pitch:

In what ways can dance portray current events in general?

I think dance can portray current events in the same way any medium of art can—by bringing something to light and maybe looking at it through a different lens. So whether or not the drug wars in Mexico have been on someone’s radar, by coming to see this piece they will either perk up their ears, or come to think about it in a way that may be different from reading about it in a newspaper or listening on the radio.

How will your piece reflect the Mexican drug wars in particular?

The piece itself is not political, other than the fact that I want people to know about the subject matter. What I am interested in is the atmosphere of this war, and the people behind and inside of it. One of the main characters is a sicario, or assassin, based on a real interview between an assassin and a journalist that was printed in Harper’s in 2009. He is the most interesting character to me because he has this job of being a murderer not by choice, but by being thrown into the system. He started off working for the police, then began working for the cartels, and got to a place where he couldn’t know who he was working for because it became too dangerous.

Santa Muerte
  • Santa Muerte

What kind of research did you do into your subject?

There has been some really thorough reporting on the subject matter in the New Yorker. I listen to NPR constantly, and their coverage has been very good, but it is a difficult subject matter to cover because many journalists have been killed. I got a lot from a documentary about La Santa Muerte, which is titled simply, “La Santa Muerte.” I listened to a lot of current narcocorridas, or drug ballads, many of them about the drug lords. I also wanted to get the perspective of ordinary people living through the drug wars in the border towns, so I travelled to Nuevo Laredo to visit my grandmother. I interviewed her, my uncle (who has moved his family to San Antonio) and some of the people who worked in her store who now no longer have a job.

What artists and schools have thought have influenced your approach?

I have always been inspired, theatrically, by movies. For this piece, The Hurt Locker was a big influence, for reasons I can’t fully articulate yet, but may have something to do with the characters having jobs that deal with death all the time and their relationship to death as a result of that fact. I also just saw Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, which, if you can look beyond the camp is a celebration of Mexican culture and a hard commentary on the border situation.

What did you learn from your initial workshop performance?

Workshops are always so incredibly helpful, and so difficult to do because you’re putting an unfinished work in front of an audience. I think I learned that if you start to introduce characters with some hint of a narrative, then people are going to look for story. This is the real challenge of doing dance theater and making work without a script. You have to both be open to where the piece can take you, but also be very specific about the world you are creating.

And what are your hopes for the full-scale performance, personally and for the audience?

My personal hope for the full scale performance is that I will feel like I finished the piece (a feeling I don’t always get), and that I will in some way be happy with it. I try not to have too many hopes for the audience, because one of the things that I love about making original work is that the audience sometimes finds things in the piece that you had never thought of, at least consciously, so it’s like they are looking into your subconscious. I guess my hope is that they see the subject matter in some way that they had never seen it before. And mostly I hope that my real love of Mexico shines through.