Interview: Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez
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Q: How did you begin dancing?

JM: I was born and raised in San Francisco, California, and me, my older sister, and younger brother are the first generation in America. My parents grew up in the Philippines. They were not very wealthy, but they were okay, and I think when they came to America, they wanted us to have all the opportunities we could have. They put my siblings and I in a lot of extracurricular activities. When I was 5, I did ballet and trained at City Ballet School - San Francisco.

DG: My mother is a teacher, when I was young, she was teaching and working at the time, doing shows and commercial work. She would bring me to the classes she taught. By the time I got old enough to not just be running around the studios, she had me join class. I was about 3 years old. I was with my mom wherever she was teaching.

Q: What has dance taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?

DG: Part of why this is hard to answer is because my identity is a dancer. I don't know any other way. The way my brain works is all basically for dance, so anything else I do is either directly inspired or to get my mind off dance. Dance has made it easy to express myself through movement. I have been good at expressing myself with words for the most part, so I think it helps with expression and being comfortable to articulate different things. 

JM: I am kind of the same. It is a way to express myself. If I didn't have dance, I would be way more of an introvert than I am. It helps me interact with people. I don't know how it helps me be this way, but with dance, I am more empathetic with people in my everyday life.

DG: All dancers have high standards, too. From a young age, we are told to always do and be better. It sounds corny, but in order to master or get good at a discipline, you must continue to improve. I think that gives both of us high standards in all my interactions. 

Q: Has dance helped you overcome any hardships in your life?

JM: Definitely. The biggest — I guess the first — hardship in my life was when my grandma died and I was 17 years old. She lived with me, I was so close to her. I remember I couldn’t stop crying, up until when I got into my first ballet class back, and then I stopped crying. I think as much as I love it, it's also a release, where I forget about everything that is happening in my life and concentrate on ballet. It's a nice escape.

DG: For me, it has helped me with my anxiety. I have had terrible anxiety for most of my life. I have had to conquer a lot of that anxiety to succeed as a dancer and take the risks that were needed to get where I wanted to be. Also, moving your body that way and performing and playing different roles like that gives you an outlet to get out your anxiety and demons, in a way.

Q: What other interests and passions do you have outside or inside of dance that influence and inspire your artistry?

JM: I am kind of obsessed with interior design. I have always had a natural eye for aesthetically beautiful things. I love it.

DG: She just knows what looks good for some reason — the way she dresses and designs our home. I think that contributes to her dancing and vice versa. She is very particular.

JM: I am very particular and want to make sure things are correct all the time. It's a pro and con for me.

DG: For me, I liked sports growing up, and I feel like that helps with my competitiveness. Ballet, even though a performing art, can be very competitive, because we're all trying to be as good as possible and get cast in the roles we want to feel like our career is successful. I also really like music. I played drums growing up. I also make and program hip-hop beats through my computer. I think I have good musicality in dance and can always find things in the music. I can help contribute to choreography in this way. Music has played a huge part in my life. My dad is a musician and always had music playing in the house. My love of music feeds into my love for dance for sure. 

Q: What have been some challenges in your pre professional and professional career?

JM: For me, one of my biggest challenges is — well, I guess I have two — the first is nerves. In the early part of my career, I struggled with my nerves and anxiety before I got on stage, leading up to a big performance. I have learned how to trust what I can do and have done to prepare and trust that it is going to be fine. I still deal with nervousness, but I am much better at it now. Also, early on in my career, maybe I was misunderstood. I grew up in a house where my parents are very down to earth and they don't like to have little things affect them, so I have adopted that. I feel like people misunderstood me early on in my career and thought that I didn't need to be supported. I struggled with that. It looked externally like I was okay, I was often lonely. That has changed because people got to know me better. 

DG: Early in my career at Joffrey, Joffrey was evolving a lot at that time. I was getting a lot of early opportunities — while that was very exciting and everything you dream of when you are  young, when you are the one with stuff being put on your shoulders to do and do well, with not many people to look up to, that was hard. There were injuries with other dancers that were meant to be doing the big roles and I was getting put in, which was exciting, but a lot of pressure when you are young. It is also a lot of pressure when you are working with a new director. I also lost my first job at San Francisco Ballet and didn't get renewed, and for a guy, that was big. Guys don't experience a ton of rejection in ballet at a younger age. Growing up, boys got scholarships because they needed boys for ballet back when I was in school. I experienced my first taste of real rejection when I was let go from my first job — it was hard for me to get back on my feet after that happened… Once you get into a company, you do deal with rejection. I have to put it in perspective, because women in this profession deal with it growing up a lot more. 

Q: How can dance be a platform for social justice issues?

DG: I think art can always be a platform for social justice issues. I do think it's hard sometimes, because you don't want to pander or come off as insincere. I have the perspective that I am a dancer and I get to do what I love for a living, and me explaining the hardships of someone else needs to be done in a careful way so it doesn’t seem like we are profiteering off the hardships of others to make something to perform. It's so important to do — every story needs to be told — but the best way to do it is by involving the people immersed in the issues to consult with and work on it with you. I think companies should do that.

JM: Ballet is a way to tell someone’s story, and I feel like that is how we can address social justice issues.

DG: Also, it shows people what is going on in certain places and expresses it in a beautiful and respectful way that brings light to it.

JM: Yes, in an eye-opening way.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist? (community, financially, initial reactions, company shift, online class, emotions, initial cancellation reaction)

JM: Our season has been canceled, the rest of it, and we have had meetings with Joffrey Ballet and nothing is set in stone, because we take every day as it comes. The news is different every day, and that’s so scary for us both financially and artistically, because it is our livelihood — it’s what we do, it's who we are. We are dancers. And it's hard to be confined as dancers in a 1000 square foot apartment.

DG: There’s a lot of uncertainty. We both have the perspective that we are lucky, first and foremost. We get down sometimes, but we both then end up remembering we are healthy, our families are healthy, and we just have to stay in. I know that in about a month or two, things will start to move again and people will be allowed out and industries will start moving again, but the issues with our industry is that it takes more than 50 people in a show to come and watch. It is not financially viable for a company to have a show for 50 people or less. We also have to fit more than 50 people backstage. What worries me is when will we get to start up our performances again? I don't know when they will start up big gatherings again. I worry for our company. I don't want anything bad to happen to the Joffrey, and I don't think it will because we have a great infrastructure, but I worry about that aspect — could we make it an entire year with no shows and be able to keep going?

Q: Can you guys talk about when everything started to shut down?

JM: We got shut down around March 13th. We had just come back from a tour in Berkeley, California, and we had about four rehearsal days. On that Friday, we were told that our building would be sanitized, so we thought we would come back to work the following Wednesday. By Saturday, we were told the next two weeks were canceled, and then it was like a tumbleweed. Two weeks canceled, and then three weeks canceled, and then the whole season canceled, and now we don't know when we will start back to work in June.

DG: Once we got canceled for two weeks, everyone was like, “There is no way things are coming back in two weeks.” We knew where things were going. We understood they didn't want to pull the trigger yet, because of the financial aspect. It was still tentative at that point.

JM: Then again, both our families are from California. My family is in San Francisco and his family is in L.A. We started to realize early on that what was happening in California was happening in Chicago, Illinois two or three days later. They told us that Governor Gavin Newsom had a shelter-in-place, so we figured it would happen in Chicago soon after, which it did. 

Q: Do you still take company class, and how have the company members supported each other during this time?

DG: The company offers class Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for us. Then also friends of ours started a worldwide ballet class. They set up a Zoom class for anyone who goes to the page on Facebook. They got a lot of master teachers to teach — it starts at 11:30 a.m. in San Francisco. We did that every day this week. It is nice because it's dancers from everywhere — you get a bit of a sense of community. We are all going through the same thing.

JM: Last week, we ordered and got a shower pan liner, which is the same texture as marley flooring, and it's been nice to have that. We rearranged the furniture to properly take class. To be honest, we are the type of people where if we don't move for long periods of time, we get a more anxious and stuck feeling. We like to move at least four days a week. We use our kitchen counter as a barre. (It’s a little low for me, but that’s the times.)

Q: Have you been staying in touch with the company members?

JM: All company members are in the same boat. We are all dealing with it day by day. I do feel more badly for the company members who are here on visas. We are staying at home but we would rather be in California with our families, but that is not an option right now. Having the option [to go home to our family] is nice. There is some sort of relief. But knowing these people who are on working visas and literally can not go anywhere is hard. 

DG: We have done some happy hours with people. A lot of our friends downloaded House Party. We watch movies together online. We do video chats to try to stay sane and in touch.

JM: For the most part, everyone is doing okay. The people with visas do have a place to stay and are staying safe, which is good.

Q: What is a message you would like to say to health workers on the front lines if you could?

JM: First and foremost, thank you. Thank you for all you do. And I know it's been said, but you guys are our everyday heroes. Without you, everyone would be dead.

DG: This has put so much into perspective. We follow these Instagram people we admire, but they are false idols in a way. We tend to value things that aren't as valuable as they seemed to be back when things are normal. The people bringing true value and care are healthcare workers and everyone on the front line. Even people delivering your food — anyone taking a risk for our wellbeing. Anyone working right now. We have to thank them and acknowledge the fact that the essential workers need to be held in higher regards. We can not look down on people who work at the grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, waiters; we need to not take those people for granted. They are the ones in harm’s way for us, for us who are not alway appreciative.

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen the dance community making during the pandemic?

DG: Everyone has canceled the seasons, which is as socially responsible as we can be right now. They sent everyone home and told everyone to stay inside. No major companies are trying to operate or do anything in person. I know some have tried to send out Marley flooring to company members, but honestly every ballet company right now is trying to do damage control on lost seasons and seasons to come. A lot of people are trying to adapt and survive without their big money makers. Ballet companies are losing millions of dollars and they are not the richest; they are the arts and this is the U.S. I do know our colleagues and everyone is really doing their part to stay inside and stay away from one another. We have not seen anyone in five weeks and that is as socially conscious as you can be right now.

JM: What is amazing through this is the ballet community is really strong and putting themselves out there. Whenever I go on Instagram, I see a live ballet class. There is a strong sense of community online. I have probably been more social now than I usually am in my normal life. 

DG: Now you don't even have to leave the house to be social, which is great for you!

JM: I know!

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)

JM: In my world? More government funding for the arts.

DG: Everyone says we want more diversity and more female directors, and I think it's all very well to say that, but we have to acknowledge that that starts at the bottom. The more we include people from lower-income areas, the more we make it possible for people that don’t have money to get involved and other cultural backgrounds to feel included, the better our art form will be in the future. You can’t change everything in a snap. We need to start at the foundation. The Joffrey does a lot of outreach and is really trying to feed our diversity from the beginning. It would be great to have a worldwide dance investment into those kinds of initiatives and not just try to put a bandaid on the situation. Not to say that is what everyone is doing, but some people get rushed to make a change right away. I think we need to keep the integrity and level of the art form and make it more accessible to other people to make it even greater in the future. We need more diversity and change, but in the best way possible. 

Transcription courtesy of