Interview: Ron de Jesus
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Q: How did you begin dancing?

My mother was schizophrenic and I was the eldest of my siblings still living at home, so when everyone would go to school; my mother would make me stay and not let me go to school because she didn't like being alone. She would sit me in front of the TV and turn on MGM. They would have a double feature of MGM movies starting at ten, so she would smoke her cigarettes at the table and stare at me, while I dove in and lost myself in the dance. I loved the big productions with people like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly — I used to dance with the coat rack and mimicked the umbrella, always dancing around in the living room. I went to high school at Robert Clemente in Chicago which was 80% Puerto Rican, 20% African American. During the day from 2-4 p.m. — study period — they turned the lobby into a discotheque and we would have a live DJ and we’d just dance. It was a way to keep us active and get us tired so we wouldn't be on the streets. Little did we know, amongst us we were trying to make new moves with hustling, salsa, and break dancing, making up new tricks. We didn't realize we were becoming choreographers. We had to come up with new material every week to win the dance floor. Also while we were at school, one of our English teachers — she created a Puerto Rican dance group called the Lasting Impressions, and we would dance the mambo, chacha, and salsa. Every regional dance of Puerto Rico, we were doing. We would do it for Puerto Rican parades and senior housing clinics, in gyms, for our community. I dropped out of high school and followed the girl I was dating at the time to Columbia College. It was very white and a little esoteric, very strange for us because all we did was latin dance. I was not a student there — I just observed. She actually transferred and went to Northeastern Illinois University and I followed. One of her courses was flamenco and I would sit with her in that class, and then she joined Ensemble Español which was a flamenco company at the university. I was just sitting around one day, and then the professor came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ She said, ‘Do you think you can do this?’ and I said yes. She said, ‘If you can get your GED, I will give you a scholarship to the college.’ So I got my GED, she gave me the scholarship, and I started studying modern dance and different techniques, along with doing flamenco with the company. For part of my modern training, they sent me off to A Chorus Line auditions. I failed horribly and learned a lot. People were doing ‘time steps' and I didnt know what tap was but I could memorize the rhythms because of flamenco. Another colleague and I went to Joseph Holmes Dance company, which was a mimic of Alvin Ailey. We did our own spiritual piece, like Revelations, and danced to all the Aretha Franklin songs. It was very diverse. I got my merge of Martha Graham and got my first training in Cecchetti ballet and ‘bastardized jazz’, learned how to teach jazz, and then that led me to Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble. We did Lar Lubovitch and various other American choreographers, and from there I learned Paul Taylor structure. Then from there, I choreographed and got into the Lou Conte Dance Studio. Lou Conte asked if I would substitute teach for his dancers while they were away on tour. I didn't know what Hubbard Street Dance Company was at the time, but I needed the job. I taught at Lou Conte for a year and then Lou came up to me and he said, ‘Audition for my company.’ And so I went to the audition and I got the job. I was with Hubbard Street for seventeen and a half seasons, and there I was exposed to every choreographer possible at the time, including Twayla Tharp. It was a repertory company so I learned so much from so many different artists. From there Twyla called me up and said she was doing Movin’ Out and asked if I would be interested. I was under new leadership at Hubbard after Lou Conte left and it wasn't the same dynamic within the company, so I felt it was time to leave. So then when the opportunity with Twyla came up, I jumped at it. I was older and terrified of uprooting and moving to NYC at that time in my life, but I packed up my whole life and moved anyway. I was with Movin’ Out from beginning to end, and then became a liaison for Twyla to set her ballets in different places internationally and nationally. Then I freelanced for a while before getting the job at University of Michigan. I also started my company at one point. Now I am at Michigan in the musical theater department, teaching dance.

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)

It has affected me in that I cannot do my job without other people. Dance is so interactive, and now I am cut off from those outlets. I cannot work on a body. There is stress in the community across the board with lack of funding, projects folding, and events being cancelled. Everything has been shut down, and that is our bread and butter to sustain us. So now we have to find ways to modify everything. We have to find new revenues for giving back to the community, on top of finding new ways to just survive. This has forced us to go internal and back to creative mode. We have the benefits of social media and technology to communicate, and now we actually have the time to tap into creative components that we often push to the sidelines because we are on such a fast, driven path. Sometimes you lose yourself in chasing pavement scenarios as an artist. This gives us an opportunity to slow down, just like the world is slowing down. We are finding all of these creative outlets, like you — you created this incredible platform to give back.

Q: Can you talk about your Chat Box Series talks online?

These artists have been gracious enough to donate their time to talk to my musical theater styles class. We were told as faculty there was a possibility of school shutting down, and most classes were designed in a way where they could easily go online or be provided through online video services, such as acting, voice, and other private lessons, but with dance, it’s a kinesthetic thing so people were saying we could just give students a grade and be done. I knew there were six more weeks left of potential learning though, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to find a different way of communicating dance. I didn’t really want to teach dance classes online because almost everyone in the community, from NYC Ballet to Hubbard Street, started giving all these free classes like yoga, ballet, floor barre, and so on. Everyone was already contributing and giving back in that way and I wondered, ‘What other ways can I provide my students with tools for the industry they are going into?’ So I tapped into my Broadway family and asked if they would each be willing to have an hour and a half long conversation with my students, talking about themselves and then opening the floor for questions. I find it fascinating to get this opportunity to call them up and have them agree.This is such an intimate interaction with the students and each artist. The artists will see the students and remember their faces, so all the students have to say for the artist to remember them if they go to an audition is, ‘I was in the UM Broadway Chatbox series.’ It is also an opportunity to get the expertise on the inside tricks of the trade and see everyone has a different approach. The students are getting this broadspectrum, intergenerational knowledge. We have people from A Chorus Line to Hamilton, and if you step back you can see how we are all interconnected. I felt that this has been great in that regard, in that the students have this rapport with the artist and can ask intimate questions, and that they can see themselves in the artists, which reassures them they have the courage to step forward. I have been so grateful that people have been contributing. We had Ann Reinking, who is a legend, talk to the class. The students get this interaction with these legends and they get the inside look at the processes, like little inside stories and their perspectives on working with different artists. Jerry Mitchell is the final person who will speak to the students. He is a Michigander and it will be a kind of coming-home scenario. All of these artists are generous and want to give back to the garden of growing artists and they want to nourish and educate the next generations. Ultimately they can support the students in the future. I am getting great feedback on the class, 98 people chime into the lectures sometimes. I am so excited it is achieving more than I ever imagined.

Q: What other interests have you delved deeper into during this time?

I have a great appreciation for listening to music. I don't usually have a lot of time to just hunt for music, which I love doing. I’ll make different playlists for weeks to find music that I respond to. Or I dive into more yoga lessons online and notice how they word things. As an educator I’ll like how a yoga instructor conveys how to be active, and how to open the body in various ways, so I take note. I am gathering little ways of how you can describe things to incorporate into my teachings and dance. I haven't had a chance to read yet — once the chat box calms down I hope to read more. I was also in Movin’ Out, so it has given our touring companies a chance to interact and reconnect via huge chat lists. This Friday there is a Movin’ Out reunion on Zoom, and it will be amazing because everyone went their own ways, to see everyone come back and hear about their stories will be fascinating. To catch up and see where everyone is at, give respect to those we have lost along the way, and just reflect and bond and rekindle. It will be exciting, like a class reunion. And of course you spend more time in relationships with family and friends online now, too. Especially when they can't be within your household, you reach out and try to connect with them. I feel there is a rebuilding of what has been neglected because everyone's life was in such fast forward mode.

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.)

That is a hard one because I think we will change rapidly, depending how long we stay under. Now we are itching and eventually it will calm and force us to re-design how we live, whether that be through new apps or new technology. I think the theater may even incorporate devices that will come out of this situation and the rebirth of life that comes after. I think theater was slightly moving into a hybrid of technology and live theater already, and it might shift even more. Government subsidized money would be fantastic. Arts are the first thing that gets cut when there's a budgetary factor, and when you cut arts, you deprive a child from learning how to think outside of the box. This could be a great opportunity for companies to re-design and find new ways to get revenue in large components because we are forced to rethink. There will be a different way we ask for and raise money, because we will have perfected it in a different way since we can't be social in the way we’re used to… I don't have a right answer, I’m sure people will find their own different ways. I hope and pray the money will shower every artistic institution and endeavor. I worry we will lose many institutions because of this. It’s hard to watch companies already folding left and right because they did not have enough savings or funding. I think more will be challenged as this goes on. So after this, we will see the survivors, the ones who have the longevity to survive this storm. I think companies will dive in and get closer and tighter, and the brains of these companies will come in and devise different approaches of how to raise money and use this electronic world to their benefit. Unless there is a massive surge of financial lines into dance, it will be a challenge, but dance is always the bottom of the food chain and has still always prevailed. It will find its place and its integrity. Real historians and people that support the art of dance will step forward if they have the financial means, and will feed into the system to create a longer lifespan for the arts.

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