Narrative and Interview by Bennett Casey
Rosely Conz is a dancer, choreographer, and professor, originally from Brazil. She grew up in a small town in Brazil named Americana. At six years old she began taking ballet classes at a local studio; she would create shows for her family to watch, as well as choreographing for her sisters and cousins. Even after Rosely’s shows, she did not consider herself a choreographer, since her focus was on performing. She dreamed of being a ballerina and put a lot of time and dedication into her training. While in college, she continued to focus on ballet and contemporary. Although Afro-Brazilian dance classes were offered, Rosely did not consider them important. She now accredits this dismissal to the fact that ballet and contemporary were the only styles of dance that were seen onstage at the time.
After college, she immigrated to the United States, where she would continue to perform with several US dance companies. Rosely’s work has been supported by many prestigious grants, including Pine River Arts in Michigan, FICC (Fund for Cultural Investments), and Capes (Federal Agency for the Improvement of Higher Education). Within the United States, she is a Center of Humanities and Arts Fellow, as well as a recipient of the Gail Pokoik Scholarship in Boulder, Colorado.
Throughout her well-recognized career, she has choreographed pieces both for the stage and for the camera. Many of Rosely’s pieces center around themes of Immigration and finding identity, while her choreography is often done in an Afro-Brazilian dance style. Her choreography has been displayed around the world, in festivals and conferences done both in the US as well as Mexico, Brazil, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, and Barbados.
Rosley is now an Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She has previously taught at Michigan State University, Alma College, and the Federal University of Uberlândia in Brazil. She holds a BA in Dance and a MA in Performing Arts from the State University of Campas (Unicamp, Brazil) and an MFA in Dance from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Rosely has also been a part of several residencies, including LLEAP (Laboratory for Laptop and Electronic Audio Performance Practice) with Arizona State University, Merge Dance Company at Texas State University, and Orchesis Dance Company from Michigan State University. She places a high value on collaboration in choreography, and has partnered with artists such as Bailey Anderson, Alexis Bacon, Ana Baer, Adam Sekuler, Julia Ziviani, amongst other incredible artists.
How long have you been choreographing and or producing dance, and what led you to this career path?
Conz: I started teaching when I was 18 and, with teaching, came choreographing as well-mostly, in the beginning, for studios where I started learning dance and teaching and young students in ballet. Then I entered a dance program in Brazil as an undergrad at State University of Campinas, and it was there that I started learning more about research and choreography, and started to develop more works in contemporary and Afro-Brazilian dances as well. I went to do my MA in Brazil and a Masters in Theatre, Dance, and Performing Arts and choreographed a solo for myself, which was part of my thesis. Then my MFA, and choreographing professionally for some dance companies in Brazil. In Brazil, the model of choreography for groups that I participated in it was mostly collaboration. This meant there was a facilitator in the room, and everybody was contributing all the time. So maybe [I had] the role of director, and would do the camera work as well. Producing and choreographing, walking hand in hand; thinking also that choreography is education, as well.
Going back to the collaborative ideas you touched on: Do the performers have input into the choreography within the collaboration?
Conz: I have experienced both sides: being the performer, as well as being more of the director or facilitator. I danced for a group that is called Dança Aberta, which means “open dance” in Portuguese, and that was a very collaborative process. We had a director who would bring a prompt, theme, or an idea, and everybody would improvise. Then she would act almost like an editor. She would say “This part, everyone should learn this part” and then organize everything according to the dynamics she was looking for. As an educator, I’ve provided that for some students. I’ve brought an idea or a prompt and they would generate some material. It’s not always what I do, especially when I’m using Afro-Brazilian dances. My students need to learn the vocabulary first before they can choreograph. In that case, it’s usually me teaching them in the more traditional form of choreography that they observe in my body and then imitate. But whenever I can, I bring some input from my dancers as well.
That’s great! How or where do you find inspiration?
Conz: I joke with my students that I cannot escape myself, my creative process. Usually it’s something that I’m living in at that moment, or thinking about. I’ve done works about immigration and migration and the issues associated with them because I am an immigrant from Brazil. I am a very privileged immigrant, but I know many situations where others are not. Sometimes I use props, they help me generate new responses to movement. There is a piece that I did that uses wax, and the dancers wax themselves and that made them need to find other responses to movement. Not just pirouettes, or codified technique. I’ve used bricks before too. Right now I’m working on a screendance that is about motherhood, so I’m making these bricks that are made with breastmilk that I had left from when I had my daughter. I’m mixing plaster with breastmilk and creating bricks that I perform with. That’s one source of inspiration. But as I look to recognize myself more as a Brazilian in the United States, I’m looking into these pieces and drawing inspiration from them as well.
Touching on the Brazilian dance you mentioned, are there any ways you try to bring this style of dance to your students in higher education?
Conz: I feel that in the dances I have been doing and working on, I didn’t start with Brazilian dance. I had Afro-Brazilian dances as part of my curriculum as an undergrad, and I worked with dances of a Brazilian religion. Then I went on to dance professionally and didn’t touch on that subject anymore. I came to the United States, and, since I’m Brazilian, people would say, “Oh, you must know how to samba.” And I kind of knew, but it’s not the main focus of my research. Yet more and more, I was thinking, “What exists in these dances that defines me as Brazilian?” As I started to think about providing my students with opportunities that were not just inside the western dance code, such as ballet and modern dance, I realized that there is something inside these dances that challenges what is normally accepted as dance. There are some Afro- Brazilian dances that are only performed by elderly women, for example, and some that are performed in phallocentric ways-things that are not normally involved in western dance. I started researching it more and began teaching it in the United States. I thought it was a great way for my students to experience a different way of posture, of rhythm, music, and tradition. We talk about slavery and oppression as roots of these dances, and I think it’s very enlightening for them. Then one thing that I usually question is what happens when you take these dances, that are traditionally social dances and born in a context that isn’t the concert stage-what happens when you take them to the concert stage? How do you do that without whitewashing them? Because I’ve been here in the United States for the past eight years, I’ve been working mostly with students in higher ed. I have also been bringing these dances to my students so they can perform in a show. I’ve used samba and principles of dance as well as movements from different styles that I’ve learned. Some of these dances, such as samba, are born out of daily activities. The enslaved people would cut the sugar cane, and so [we think about] what movement can be taken from there and translated into dance. That’s what I’m looking for when I’m bringing these dances to my students.
What are some of the steps you take to create new dances, such as your motherhood piece?
Conz: I usually start with research. In higher ed, and being a scholar, that’s my scholarly side. I wanted to do something with the breastmilk that I had from my daughter. I moved, and the milk unfroze and went bad, but I didn’t want to just throw it away. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I’m the kind of person who keeps an idea marinating. I began talking to other people about my ideas. One thing about this piece is that my neighbor across the street has a shop, and he makes art with clay, pottery, and plaster. So, he has all the knowledge that I needed to make this happen, and he lives right across the street. There are definitely some serendipitous moments in these pieces! Then I move, and I experiment with movement and the bricks themselves and, because this is a dance for camera, I also have a collaborator who is filming the dance and she gives me ideas as well. For one of my immigration pieces, I had a collaborator in Michigan, and she was really involved in her community and had participated in a documentary previously about immigration. Because of that, I thought she would be a great resource, and through collaborating on this piece we became close friends. Movement and collaboration with my dancers are also very important, since I like to see them moving and performing something, which gives me ideas as well.
What are some steps you take when choosing dancers, or strategies for working with dancers for a piece?
Conz: I think it can work differently for different people. When I worked professionally in Brazil, with professional dancers, they were selected prior to me getting there. They were members of the company, and I was hired to work with whoever was there. Even here in the United States, if you’re a professional dancer, usually the director of the company will select you through an audition process. I also worked with a lot of independent groups, people who gathered to make something and got grant funding to do works going project by project; so that was almost self-selected. I have never had a company of my own that I actually envision. So, when I choreograph, or collaborate with companies and other people, the dancers were usually already there. In higher ed, I want dancers who are interested in the work, who want to take risks with me. Dancers who are open to improvise and play with the props that I bring, or to learn a new style of dance. I’m also interested in having dancers who are not the traditional stereotype of dancers. I want people who maybe don’t fit the traditional slim, fit, and white dancer mold, but can still move and are interested in the work. In the work about immigration that I made, I tried to cast people who had some relation to immigration, even though some of them were not dancers in the traditional way. I had a lacrosse player, who was a first-generation student in the United States, while another student was born in Mexico. Students of color, non-conforming in terms of gender and body type . . . I’m very interested in those dancers.
Are there any differences in selecting dancers for a stage piece or a film piece?
Conz: I would say no. There is a difference with the camera. I’ve worked with students who are not as comfortable with the camera and that can be a challenge. In those cases, what I do is repeat the process of the piece to the point where everyone involved feels comfortable with the camera. Sometimes the camera can be very close to you, and you don’t have the protected space of the concert stage, and it can be challenging for some students. But again, since I’m talking about students and not professionals, I think being around the camera is a good way for them to learn about choreographing and producing a piece specifically for film. With casting, I think I still uphold the values I mentioned before-finding people who are willing to take risks, who improvise and are interested in other styles of dance outside of the western canon. Bodies of color, non- conforming, etc.
What does success mean to you as a choreographer, teacher, producer, etc.?
Conz: I think it depends on if we’re talking about a professional environment, where people are being paid to perform and need to generate revenue with tickets being sold, or more of an educational environment. For me, success is having people in the room who come to see our work, who support our work, who are interested and give good feedback. As a choreographer, success could also be seeing the image in my head realized on the stage. In educational settings, I feel like it’s seeing my students go from where they started to the end of the process and what they learned, how they progressed, and what they learned about different aspects of dance. In an educational setting, I have less concern over the final product, and more with the process itself. The process is always important-if you have a process and engage with it then you’ll have something-but I feel that in professional settings there is more of a necessity to make the piece something at the end. You need to have a final product to put on the stage or in a venue that people will pay to see. In the educational setting, I’m always a little more focused on the process itself and learning than what the final product will look like. It might not be perfect, it might not be homogeneous, and not everybody may be on the same level. But everybody still learns something and gets to perform something they are proud of. There’s rigor, but there’s also the understanding that this is an educational opportunity.
As we’ve been talking, you’ve been contrasting the educational aspect to the professional world. Since you’ve danced professionally yourself, are there any ways that you try to help your dancers as they go out into the professional world?
Conz: Yes. The professional world of dance is going through many changes right now, with new ways of thinking about what a dancer looks like, as well as how and where a piece can be performed. I try to provide my students with abilities that can be replicated in different settings. For example, if they decide to dance for Poltair, I can help them decide what classes they need to be taking, how many, and how many times a week. If they want to perform for Step Africa, which is another dance company, how they can prepare. Then I need to guide them and help them find those abilities and techniques that will help them get there. One challenge for me as a professional dancer that I tell my students about is a time with a dance company I danced for where we had 40 shows in three weeks. We were doing two shows a day and it was a community project performed in public squares and bus stops. And it was a lot. It was very demanding. But it made me consider how to take care of myself and my body, how to perform in stages that are not ideal, and how to find ways to make sure I was eating well. As I went on tours, I had to find ways to keep the piece fresh, even though I was performing it many times over. Performing professionally can be challenging, not always because of the dancing, but because of everything that comes with it. Sometimes it’s touring, and sometimes it’s whether or not you’ll get the grant needed or being away from your family.
My last question is fairly big-picture: In your mind, why is dance important, and what are some of your hopes for the field in the future?
Conz: There’s a lot being said in the universities about decolonizing the curriculum, and making it more accessible; and I think dance is the way to go. I think telling my students that we have a special kind of knowledge that is embodied, that other disciplines don’t have. Of course, every discipline will have their own claim of why they matter, but I think dance matters because its history translated into movement–there’s nothing that can replace that. As a practitioner of Afro-Brazilian dance, I see dance from people who were oppressed and exposed to aggression and violence, but they still kept dancing. It was a way to find resistance, and their traditions, histories, ancestors, and even their joys. It was a way to feel the ownership of their bodies when everything else was stripped away from them. To me, that sense of empowerment and ownership that dance brings is unique, and the importance of dance as well.
Takeaways: Rosely Conz’s Impact
Talking with Rosely Conz is a surefire way to feel hopeful and excited for the future of dance. She keeps important issues such as racism and immigration woven throughout her pieces, but speaks about these issues with such kindness and hope. Through our time together, I have come to understand the importance of learning non-western dance styles, such as Afro-Brazilian dance. In our interview, Rosely touched on the aspects of Afro-Brazilian dance that set it apart from traditional, western dance. She mentioned that many Afro-Brazilian dances are performed by specific groups of people. For instance, some dances are performed by elderly women and others focusing on the man’s role in the culture. As she is also a professor and scholar. Rosely’s passion for teaching her students about all types of dance and its cultural significance was evident in her words. She has had a wide variety of experiences in the dance world, from training in Brazil and performing with Danca Alberta, to coming to the United States and performing here as well as teaching in several universities. She masterfully combines choreography processes learned in Brazil with subject matter that needs to be heard and discussed to create beautiful works of art. In short, Rosely Conz shows the beauty that can be found when people are willing to have difficult conversations and find reconciliation and unity with one another.