There’s no denying that Covid-19 changed peoples’ lives immensely. And for many, that impact has been devastating—especially for dancers and choreographers. As lockdowns were mandated and studios shut down, the dance community persevered, doing relevés and pirouettes in living rooms and choreographing pieces in narrow kitchens.
Therefore, one might assume that up-and-coming contemporary choreographer Omar Román De Jesús would speak of the immense challenges of producing dance over Zoom and being unable to work with dancers in person. Instead, he described the pandemic as “enlightening”.
This optimistic outlook perfectly represents Jesús, who speaks with an easygoing smile and articulates his experiences with deeply introspective, open-hearted, and honest thoughts. And although Jesús admits Covid “wasn’t good for him,” he seized the opportunity to re-evaluate his priorities as a choreographer and the impact he wants to make in the dance world.
Jesús has an impressive resume from performing internationally in Japan, to creating works for the Joffrey Ballet, and winning multiple choreographic competitions. However, he felt pressure to constantly create groundbreaking works to please his growing audience and gain more recognition as a choreographer.
During the pandemic he’s been using his free time to sit and think about what his company, Boca Tuya, is about and what he stands for. He began to pay less attention to people’s expectations and focus more on the company’s central mission of “spreading sensitivity, kindness, and joy in humanity.” Now, every time he goes into the studio he explores new genres and focuses on bringing lighthearted joy to audiences.
And the driving force for his inspiration is the diverse artistic backgrounds of his dancers. Unlike many choreographers who force their dancers to mold to their creative vision, Jesús prefers to take a freer route, letting his dancers and their unique stylistic backgrounds influence and shape the piece.
Furthermore, Jesús sees this collaboration of experiences and styles as the driving force of the central challenge to “find the world where we exist together.” He believes letting the dancers’ personalities inform what the characters are makes things more genuine, and brings out the best of them. And by watching his works, one can see his philosophy come to life. With dancers leaping into air with exhilaration and traveling through abstract patterns, the viewer can feel freedom and self-expression within the dancers that is only possible with an open-minded choreographer like Jesús.
Not only have Jesús’s dancers been shaping his works, but the themes of his work have begun to shift. When starting out, Jesús, like many young choreographers, tried to make his mark by creating pieces that were profound and about social change. And although he acknowledges dance is a powerful tool to communicate these ideas, he states that “to create social change you have to work with the community directly.” And true to his message, Jesús now works in partnership with a community organization called Red Rhino, to teach dance classes to people with disabilities.
But with recent social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, he feels that the dance world has become oversaturated with artists trying to make bold statements about social justice Therefore, he is beginning to transition into focusing on relaying a much-needed message of hope, and a sense of continuity and joy. For example, his premiering piece for the local dance festival Chop Shop is similar to a soap opera and is a more theater-dance style. The piece is called Los Perros del Barrio Colosal and follows six characters that face unique challenges in an adventure-filled imagination.
This evolving growth of Jesús’s style and content of his works seems to be an eternal journey. “I don’t want to be recognized as the person who does one thing. Like the guy who does Hispanic pieces,” he says.
Instead, during the pandemic Jesús realized that he values quality over quantity. Like many well-known choreographers, he doesn’t want to create a hundred thousand pieces all focused on a similar idea. For the future, Jesús is inspired to create work that is progressive and memorable, that “spark conversations or make people feel something.”
Those in the arts world who are struggling with similar obstacles may find inspiration in Jesús. Even in dark, unprecedented times, people can find time to reflect on our values, and our future. And hopefully that reflection lets people discover their real priorities, in spreading kindness and support. Because when it comes to change in the dance world, Jesús said the constant competition is toxic, and the community should “support each other.” This wise yet simple message isn’t only applicable for dance, but an essential message to remind all people of the power of reflection, community, and kindness.
Learn more about Jesús’s company at bocatuya.com. You can see Omar Román De Jesús's work Los Perros del Barrio Colosal, at CHOP SHOP Dance Festival’s online offering. The dance films are available on their website through March 31, 2021.