Interview: Elena Valls Garcia
Edited by: 
Alicia Samson

Q: How did you begin dancing and what has been your artistic journey?

My story has shifted because I had a pivotal talk with my mom last summer. I am originally from Madrid, and last year I was in Spain with my mom. She told me that when she was pregnant with me she went and saw a fortune teller in Brazil, where she’s from. The woman told my mom, “the child inside of you is a dancer.” I've always been super in love with dance. Dance is my first love, my first relationship. Even when I was young, my mom said I was always moving and bouncing around. She put me in a class with little children when I was 2, and I would stay at the theater and watch the adults rehearse after. I was also fascinated with the idea of the human body and how we access the human body. We started traveling a lot and later moved to the United States. Finding a dance studio was always the one priority for me. I also played piano, violin, and soccer, but dance was the one thing I stuck to. My first class was in Madrid in a theater. I don't think I took it seriously until I was 15, and when I was 15 I remember this moment where I was at my dance studio and I saw a woman do a coupé jeté jump. I was in awe. I thought it was the most beautiful thing. My dance teacher would teach the little kids, and I would ask if I could come and copy her. I got into ballet which helped my technique profoundly. Most of my training was in Arizona, and I was exposed to musical theater and hip hop. I had amazing house and breakdancing teachers, ballet teachers as well. I believe that when you have a good teacher, you can become the best at your craft. There was a choreographer who came to me and told me that I should try modern dance. I was a competition dancer at the time. I always gravitated towards artists and people who associate themselves with movement. Dance is a universal language. I always was fascinated with the human body and the way that it has no limitations.

It wasn't until I went to SUNY Purchase that I felt as though I walked in as a dancer and came out a performing artist. Then, throughout my life it became this research of “why am I doing this?” and “why is it important to me?” and how it is the base of society and culture. I enjoy surrounding myself with people that enjoy art and new ideas. I am a very passionate, expressive person and dance has always been the best format for me. Now, to go into this place of acting and coming to Europe has really opened my eyes. The United States has one format to view dance which was nice to train in, but in Europe there is something more raw here. I have enjoyed seeing the freelance side of dance out here and their nuances. The technique isn't great, but there is something here that is more experimental than is expected, more than what the United States is ready for.

It was cool hearing my mom tell me this last summer. Every artist goes through “why am I doing this? This career has no money. There is no funding. It is always the lowest thing people support” But when you think of it, our field is entertainment and allows the audience to step out of reality and escape. Like actors when we see a movie. Now in quarantine we are all watching movies and art online and it allows you to escape from your reality. As an artist, we reflect on and represent humanity, and to me dance is a full expression of being human. What is important to me as an artist is to find truth through movement, whether through improvisation or technique. I love embodying gymnasts, athletes, and runners. It's all in the same realm. It’s allowing your body to go to the full extreme, but we dont make money like NFL stars. I can't imagine my life without dance. It's what I breathe and it’s what I do.

I also love immersing myself with people that don’t dance because I love their perspective and seeing how they view it. I think dance can become selfish, but I do appreciate that when audience members or my family come to see something from the perspective of a nondancer. I love to see people feeling something or helping them grow, it is this sense of delving into something so deeply.

I do believe when we talk about lack of funding that it is still so important for our generation to continue creating art. I have freelanced my full career and have been part of three full time companies. It is so funny because every time I’m in a full time company I think to myself, “yes, I will have consistent money and benefits.” The goal is never to become rich in the arts, but to be able to pay my rent. It's funny how I got this full time job in Marcé and I am making less money here than in New York City. I am fighting and struggling with this now. I am so fortunate because our company is paying us our normal salary, but it is not the number I know we deserve as artists. I think of people with desk jobs or billionaires and I know I am putting in the same amount of work and effort. It is hard knowing that funding for the arts is not there from the government. The arts are appreciated but not funded. When or if I have a child and if they want to be a dancer, I don't know how I would feel about it because I know how hard it is in terms of money.

Q: How has the COVID19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?

I am learning a lot because the French system is very different. I am very fortunate to be getting paid right now but there is this weird line. I am still getting paid but the money is coming from the government so technically I'm under unemployment. The directors of the company Zoom called us and we were informed that we are not obliged to do anything with the company. It is voluntary. I am frustrated by this because I have always been my own manager, and now there is no creativity during this time, but I understand that everyone is dealing with this differently. The first week of quarantine I had some time to process. The company directors asked me if I wanted to teach company class, but I was not fully ready. I couldn't be involved with dance at first because for me it is about the connection and the touch of energy. So, this action or idea of not being able to touch and connect physically really affected me. I needed to give myself time to adjust to finding ways to connect without physical contact. I think I meditated on that and now I am ready.

I am frustrated with my directors and their lack of transparency during this time. Communication is limited right now. There are 20 of us in the company that feel this way. I talk to Rena everyday and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is still getting paid and they have rehearsal everyday. I think that is the difference between the United States and France. In the United States, we are innovators and always ambitious. While in France it is very easy going, and if there is no show we don't need to create. I am always creating, even without a finished product I enjoy the process. I realize that my directors here are not dancers; they are wonderful people and I love them, but they are not dancers. My directors' English is limited, so I have to find better ways to communicate. In the company, I am learning that because there are no shows or a given reason to do something, there is no “point” to create and that is so against who I am. That is the act of being an artist. We are constantly searching for betterment of mind and creativity. I love to challenge myself from where I was last week to where I am today. I am always raising the bar and surrounding myself with artists who do the same. France is dealing with COVID-19 very slowly, but I still think it is important to engage your employers. My directors are open to hearing our ideas and they say they’re great but nothing gets moving. We suggested doing improvisation tasks to keep working and to keep the mind active. We have only been working for a short period of time and we are still learning the directors’ vision. Their vision is a non dancer way. I am someone who wants to read and do research. I want to communicate to them how I can be a better artist. It is important for me to find pleasure in what I do, so I asked the directors if they could give us Zoom workshops. They have a lot of experience with cinematic work. The dancers asked them to talk about cinematic properties and find creative ways to do things through film.

It is so gratifying to see how the dance community has reacted to COVID-19. Super famous choreographers in Europe are posting full length works online. I love having this access.  I love seeing the work, sharing the classes, and learning other views. My directors have their own way, which I respect, but they are not moving forward in the way that the rest of the dance community is. They are trying to find their own format. It warms my heart to see other companies posting videos of artists dancing in their house, but it’s hard because my company is not doing the same. I don't think training is about staying in shape right now, but it is about keeping the mind active and gaining internal strength. I am battling with the frustration of the lack of ideas and communication from my directors and I know it is partially due to the language barrier.

I haven't been to the United States in two years. It was funny knowing that I would not be able to work in a studio for four months, but if I am going to be working from my computer I would want to do that in my parents home and make memories with my family. I decided to be selfish and move away from my family, though I talk to my mom everyday. They are so important to me. It is hard because France is taking COVID-19 two weeks at a time. They are not trying to panic the citizens so they say we will only be in quarantine until May 15. My boyfriend and his two friends are nurses, and the World Health Organization told French employers that we will be quarantined until May 15, but I am preparing myself to not go back to work until September. My directors think we will be able to go back to work in June, and yesterday we had a meeting discussing conditions of when we go back to work. It will be a gradual process. There are 19 dancers but they may only let 3 to 4 dancers into the studio at a time, which I think is intelligent. It will take time to come back to life and make sure the virus refrains from spreading.

I guess it is interesting to be in a full time company and still receiving a normal salary. I remember when I first learned I had to be in quarantine, I was excited. I have been freelancing for so long and there were months when I'd be out of work. I would go home and train myself. I didn't have money to take classes so I would be active at home. So, I already knew how to quarantine myself.

We were just in Paris for three weeks with a premiere, and that's when Paris was becoming a danger zone. We were performing at a prestigious theater. The first week was fine. The second week there were 2,000 people in the audience giving a standing ovation every night. But the second week was also emotionally exhausting because we were watching the world shut down. It took time for France to get there. It was hard focusing on performing  in Paris and knowing that Paris was becoming an epicenter of the virus. Every show was being cancelled except for ours. So, we were like, “what the heck is going on? Why are we still performing?” They didn't want to cancel the show. Instead of 2,000 people in the audience it became 1,000 people and they added two shows.

The show was extremely physical with lots of lifts. The dancing is very demanding and we had 12 shows in a row. We were seeing COVID-19 take over the world at the same time we were performing in two shows a day. On Friday, they finally cancelled and we were crying but we were also relieved. At that moment, France really began to take this seriously. As artists, you live in the moment of doing these shows and then it becomes so much bigger than that. They cancelled our shows and told us to go home. At the time, my parents were in Paris to see the shows. It was so stressful. I have such a good relationship with my parents and they couldn't even hug me due to the virus. It was hard knowing that my parents took a risk to see me dance. The four nights my parents were in Paris, we did not sleep. The night they got to Paris, Trump talked about closing the borders to the United States. My brother called me and told me to get out of France, and to come quarantine with the rest of the family. My first thought was, “I want to be with my boyfriend” and the second was, “my job has not been cancelled yet.” It was hard for my parents to have to go back to the United States and leave me in France. It was also scary for my brother who is not a United States citizen. My parents live in Washington. I know the fear of Trump closing the borders and being able to find immigrants who don't have full citizenship. My brother is in Washington now. He has a green card, but Trump is going around trying to kick people out. My brother moved to the United States when he was two. Out of all of us, he is basically the most American. My job in France hasn't been fully cancelled so I can't leave, otherwise I would leave.

It wasn't until March 16th that France finally took initiative. We told our directors that we needed to return to our country. In Australia, you had to be quarantined in a hotel, not even with your family. One of my company friends is from Australia and her grandparents tested positive for COVID-19. It was so hard to see the lack of transparency and communication with foreigners being stuck in France. Their response took so long. We had so many questions and it took us two weeks to get answers. By then it was too late. We were all in this weird limbo because France is dealing with this situation two weeks at a time. One of the Canadian dancers is quarantined by himself, he wanted to be quarantined with his parents but it was too late.

I am in Marcé right now and I live a block from the beach. People are not staying away from one another. Some people aren't wearing a mask. People are outside a lot. There were a lot of people running outside today. The lines are crazy for supermarkets. Today, I waited an hour at a local farmer market. Also, in France, when you go outside you need to have a form and you are only allowed to be outside for one hour. There are certain reasons to be outside. If you need to buy something, to help an elder, or to exercise due if it is job related. And because I am a dancer, I am allowed to run. Police check and you must fill out what time you go out of your house.

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