After showcasing her performance piece, Morir Sonañdo at the Blue Elephant Theatre recently, I speak with Stephanie Peña on cultural identity, the exploration of the history behind the Merengue and her future plans for this performance piece and other creative projects.
For those that may not have heard of you, tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
My name is Stephanie Peña, born in New York City to Dominican parents. I grew up learning different dance genres for fun such as hip-hop, ballet, belly dance, flamenco and salsa. As I got older, I realised how much I enjoyed dancing and decided to take it more serious in university. I graduated with a bachelor in dance at the City University of New York Hunter College. I was the first person from the dance program who took my first group choreography “What Am I Doing Here?” abroad and many different venues in New York and Baltimore. After I felt the need of a challenge to stimulate my choreographic practice, in 2014 I moved to London to pursue my masters in Choreography at the University of Roehampton. Throughout the two years in the program, I choreographed a durational piece in a gallery like space, created an interactive performance incorporating technology, collaborated with a composer and three musicians and lastly choreographed my first 45 minute dance piece about Dominican identity.
Your new performance piece Morir Sonañdo is an exploration of Dominican identity – what inspired you to focus around this?
In New York City, my parents always showed me the importance of knowing my Dominican heritage by listening to the music, dancing, knowing the language, eating the food and surrounding myself with Dominicans. I took great pride in it. Once I moved to London, I noticed the lack of a Dominican community. It was very difficult to find the traditional foods; music and even hearing someone speak Spanish. It was out of the norm for me, which inspired me to create something that felt as though I was home.
In a society where the meaning behind identity is become broader and the claiming of culture has become of importance, what avenues did you explore to ensure that the Dominican culture was captivated in this performance?
I explored the music, language, hip movements; class and race. The rhythm of the music and the language tackles the sensation to move the hips side to side without overthinking it. It is something that comes naturally and what one does when the music is playing. As for class and race, the dictator Rafael Trujillo reconstructed the music Merengue by slowing it down to cater only for the upper class, who were mostly white. The fast Merengue was classified as something for the lower class. This created a huge divide between the classes. These avenues I explored; captivated the understanding of Dominican culture in the performance.
How were you able to incorporate the Merengue to translate your message in your performance?
I observed how this form of dance Merengue translates to the bodies of non-Caribbean dancers and noticed the dancer who is from Nigeria embodied the movement much quicker than the other dancers who are from England. This created a separation between the Nigerian dancer and the other three dancers, which translated the message of class and race.
Is your performance based on aspects of your family life, and if so, how did it feel to delve into your roots and build a story around it?
It felt overwhelming delving into my roots being that I grew up thinking Merengue was such a joyful and celebratory type of dance but it really isn’t, which makes the message so powerful in the performance when it starts to reveal itself through the interactions of the dancers.
Who did this performance resonate the most with in regards to the audience?
I believe the performance resonated the most to the Caribbean and African community being that we have similar cultural elements when it comes to music and dance. We live and breathe music. The dance is in our blood. Not Merengue in particular, but rhythmically we feel the hardship and struggle our ancestors have been through in the past.
What have you learnt from creating this piece and will this be a running theme in your future performances?
I have learnt that it is not easy teaching a group of non-Caribbean dancers how to dance Merengue especially when they felt uncomfortable and sexualised moving their hips in a performance space. For them, this was done in a club environment. I had to slowly change their mindset throughout the process for the comfortably of the movement to come natural. I am not too sure if it’ll be a running theme in my future performances but I am open to see what new ideas and inspiration would I come up next.
As a choreographer, is your aim to bring dance to the forefront of theatre performances and if so, what advice would you give to those in this part of the industry?
As a choreographer, I believe dance is very broad and I wouldn’t want to categorize my choreography into something specific as theatre performance being that my choreography is constantly changing.
Stephanie will continue to showcase her amazing choreography to the world and will be taking Morir Sonado further through showcases at dance festivals and events.
For more information on Stephanie and her future performances, check out her the below social media: