David Zambrano

It’s a blessing: Soul Project has a second life.

When you see a talented dancer from, say, Mozambique, how do you know that they’re a good fit for contemporary dance? Is it that they have the mind for it along with the body? In other words, the openness?
From my trips—teaching, performing and working very deeply with the dance communities in different countries—what I have learned is there are some dance cultures where it is already in the genes or in life. Everything is celebrated by dancing, and dance is taken for granted; you just do it. Sometimes in those cultures, you run into people who are a little more curious, like, I wonder what else I can do with all of this rich movement vocabulary? When I am teaching and run into people with a little more curiosity like that—when the head or the rationalization starts questioning: How can I use this body knowledge?—I get stimulated. What I have learned a lot, for example, about dancers in Africa is that their bodies are fantastic, but the moment you ask them to compose or to use their life experiences in a spontaneous way, it’s very difficult. So I look for intelligence, an academic culture somewhere in the North. [Laughs] So that the intellect is strong, and they can say, “Yes, we can help you to use this movement.” But many times in other cultures where education is so high, the body hardly moves. You rationalize everything so deeply that you don’t need to move anymore. You just talk about it. So for me, it’s a very strong question. I think both are needed. I really need my head and I really need my body. The two of them together need to constantly pass through each other and constantly learn from each other. I like to play like this in my life. The papa head is always judging and saying, “This is not right,” and the mama body always wants to go. “Why not? Just go for it.” So I like very much when these constant interconnections with the rationalization and the body/animal instincts go through each other. This is fantastic, and it’s very seldom that I see it. In Africa, if you want to become an artist—or in Italy, or in Latin America, too—people look at where the festivals are happening and where the money is. What is the work there? I need to make work like that. It’s almost like selling your soul to the devil. You let go of all the other things that are so fantastic in order to get into that system.

Do you direct all the solos in Soul Project?
I direct everybody, yes. And I direct them until the point when every time, every day, every moment they can perform it [as] spontaneously hot. Like caliente. You get touched by their heat, and then you go, Ah! I would like to perform like that. And I was thinking, How can I transmit that to different individuals from different countries?

Who chooses the music?
I select most of it, but I also brought a lot of different pieces of music to them. They also give their input.

What do you look for in terms of music?
For Soul Project, I want it to be very focused on the way the singers are singing. The power of the voices—the power of that sound coming from their bodies. Sometimes it makes us tremble or shake or gives us tension or electricity. And sometimes it knocks us down into the floor like Tina Turner did when she was younger or James Brown. And then also, the voice of Patti LaBelle when she goes so far, and it moves beyond the ceiling of the theater, and she stays there and takes us through all of these places where we hardly go. It’s like a fantastic trip. When I listen to these singers singing, it’s like one of the best ways to get in touch with whatever we call God. Whatever we call something more powerful than us.

It’s interesting that these singers are also great dancers—that when they sing, they know how to move.
Exactly. Sometimes when I watch them on videos, it’s like the whole body is singing. This is amazing. I would love if Patti LaBelle would come to watch our show at Danspace. [Laughs] Just to see what she would say! I think she would like it.

What do you dance to?
I selected Bettye LaVette. I love her comeback. Her timing, the way that she plays with the music. I selected her also—well, to tell you the truth because the others had already selected some of my favorite pieces of music. So I said, “Okay, I’ll take that one,” but then I liked it a lot. For Obama’s inauguration, he invited her to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and she was hot. We have that piece of music in the show. And also, when we were making Soul Project, James Brown died. It was a little bit touching for us, because we were playing his music all the time and some of the dancers had never heard of him, because they come from different cultures. They fell in love with this guy, and all of a sudden he was dead. And then we have “At Last,” but it’s not Etta James singing. Still, it’s her song somehow. She died this year.

Who sings the version that you use?
It’s Stevie Nicks. I like her a lot. Why not?

Why do you want this piece to be so intimate? What does it create when you have the audience onstage with the performers?
One of the reasons is the movement vocabulary. There are very meticulous and small particles that you have to watch closely. It is very difficult to see it from far away. I was also interested that the performers be able to express themselves from every angle of their bodies. We made the piece and, in the studio, we were the public for each other. Everyday, we made a circle for each dancer to practice how to spread themselves for more global space than just frontal space. The other reason is because of the composition I had before, Twelve Flies, where the dancers were going through the room all the time, through pathways. I thought it would be great to have the public go through the room while we stayed in one center.

How set are the solos?
You need to stay in the center of the circle that the audience makes around you, so the space is limited, and we work with five different movement qualities: shaking or vibrating; floating like a feather, very light; out of control emotionally and physically without losing your feet; and tension in many layers. The last one is a little bit like break dancing. The body moves in parts.

Like popping and locking?
Yes. A little bit like that. Then the dancers always need to go somewhere, and that means that they need to arrive in the middle of nowhere in order to continue to another place. [Laughs] There are certain rules that we all respect, but at the same time, they are very spontaneous.

Soul Project is at Danspace Project Apr 19–21.

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