The sound of heavy footsteps filled a studio at the Abrons Arts Center one recent afternoon as choreographer Mariana Valencia and her young collaborator, Heera Gandhu, walked resolutely across the room. With their arms raised to the side and their hands clenched, they were reminiscent of the classic movement from Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, but their faces showed little emotion. The recognizable gesture, combined with their even energy, managed to say “horror film” and “postmodern dance” at the same time, a fitting encapsulation of their interests.
Later during rehearsal, lying on the floor, they asked each other, “How was it when you were 12?”
“When I was 12, I would decorate my room with magazine pages,” said Valencia.
“Magazines – who has them?” Heera answered incredulously. “When I was 12 I started dancing, through my rehearsals with you.”
Heera is now 13 – as of two weeks ago – and for the past six months he and Valencia, 38, have been working together over their 25-year age difference. Their show, “Heera,” opens Friday in Abrons, on the Lower East Side. Created in the playfully autobiographical and genre-mixing style for which Valencia, a celebrated solo artist, is known, the project has become an exercise in working together as equals, despite a generation gap.
Combining subdued movement with conversational text, in an obliquely funny and surreal way, “Heera” pokes at themes of memory, imagination, aging and maturing. At its core is the relationship between the two people on stage, who resist the typical hierarchies of teacher and student, choreographer and dancer, creating something closer to friendship. Valencia describes the work as “get to know each other in abstraction, in front of an audience.”
The idea for an intergenerational work came from Ali Rosa-Salas, the artistic director of Abrons, who grew up in New York and participated in similar collaborations as a teenager through the Brooklyn organization Dancewave. Since arriving at Abrons in 2017, she has been seeking connections between her artistic and educational programs, including performing and visual arts classes for students aged 3-19. She didn’t start from scratch; Since the mid-1990s, the center has been home to Urban Youth Theater – Heera is a member – where young performers can take their education to the next level in productions directed by professionals.
Rosa-Salas, 31, approached Valencia before the pandemic to gauge her interest in working with students. In recent years, the need for powerful creative outlets for kids and teens — where they’re taken seriously as artists — has only become more urgent, Rosa-Salas said. Noting that Abrons isn’t alone in offering such spaces, she cited, as just another example, the Young Dancemakers Company, a summer program for public high school students, whose alumni recently performed with choreographer Oona Doherty at the Irish Arts Center.
“This has been a really tough two and a half years of distance schooling, of fear around Covid, of worrying about how to interact and interact with people, let alone share how you feel,” said Rosa-Salas. in a phone interview. “I think artistic practice and this kind of design process sounds corny, but it really has the potential to heal a lot of trauma.”
“That’s my meta-hope for this work,” she added, “even if it works on a micro level.”
Along the same lines, Rosa-Salas collaborated with choreographer Marguerite Hemmings and new media artist LaJuné McMillian, who last year developed a video and performance piece for local high school students, which was presented in Abrons last year. Rosa-Salas said she was drawn to artists who see this kind of process as a mutual learning and learning exchange, rather than “strengthening that hierarchy of ‘you learn from me as the mature professional'”. Valencia brought exactly those prospects.
“It didn’t feel interesting for me to say, ‘Now I’m just going to let you do what I say,'” Valencia said in a telephone interview. “I think I remembered my experience when I was that age and was told what to do for a stage practice, whether it was singing, an instrument, or acting” – she came later to dance – “and I remember me that I felt, ‘Oh, yes, ‘I’m getting this because I’m a kid.’ I wasn’t interested in being so mature for a younger person.”
When they started rehearsing in January, Valencia and Heera, who attends Tompkins Square Middle School in the East Village, barely knew each other. Much of their time in the studio has been spent uncovering shared interests. Among their discoveries: Both like Caesar salads, “soft clothes” (such as sweatpants) and horror movies, which have become a central subject of the work.
Speaking to Valencia in the courtyard of Abrons on a windy June day, Heera, who lives with his family in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, said the show is “a lot of things, so it would be hard to put together in a few sentences.” grasp.” He described his favorite part, a passage of precise single-voice movement known as “dolphin” — it has a swing of the arms reminiscent of a dolphin’s tail — as “probably a perfect dance. It fits our game.”
Valencia originally envisioned a larger cast, but when only four students showed up for the audition in October, she took that as a sign to scale back to a duet.
“There was something about the way Heera moved,” Valencia said as they sat together in the courtyard, thinking about the movement improv games they played during the audition. “I was like, ‘Oh, this kid can dance! And I’m not sure he knows that.'” She recalls thinking, “As long as someone can riff and feel comfortable in their body, that’s what I’m looking for.”
Before Heera met Valencia, she had no formal dance experience; acting has always been his main interest. (He also directs horror movies at home starring his two brothers, ages 10 and 14.) But Randy Luna, Abrons’ director of education, had noticed his distinctive physicality as an artist. When Luna choreographed a Zoom version of “The Wiz” for Urban Youth Theater, he saw “this lightness” in Heera, a “graceful and very calm” way of moving, Luna said.
Reflecting on his role at Valencia, Heera commented: “It’s not really like we’re dancing. It’s more like we’re moving, and we’re doing it in a way where you’re not really aware of how you’re dancing.”
His parents, Dale Gandhu and Monica Varma, said in a telephone interview that Heera – who, Varma said is named “after a much-loved Bollywood character” – had revealed few details about his upcoming performance, in order to keep it a surprise. But his mother felt, even from the little he had shared, that Valencia had brought out a more confident side of him.
“Of course he’s quite introverted,” Varma said. “I think this opportunity has given him the platform to express himself because Mariana is actually trying to ask him what he thinks.”
Just days after his professional debut in New York, Heera moves with his family to Dallas. (Gandhu, who works in market research for PepsiCo, said he seized a work-related opportunity there.) Heera doesn’t seem too disappointed.
“I like New York City,” he said, “but I don’t really like the buzz and the trains or going anywhere. It’s not that easy.” He added that he’s excited “to be able to drive around in a car” and have his own bedroom in a bigger house (in Brooklyn, he shares a room with his brothers).
In “Heera”, Valencia has made room for him to dream further into the future. Without giving too much away: in twenty-five years he will be an actor and they are still friends.