Pioneer Winter: Embracing Everyone, Expanding Everything

December 8, 2021

By Jordan Levin

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Dance theater maker and cultural transformer Pioneer Winter seems to live by the words ‘why not?’ Why not make pieces with people with all different kinds of bodies, experiences, identities, beauty, power? A woman in a wheelchair, a senior citizen gogo dancer, a drag queen, a trans woman, a 13-year-old boy? Why not dance on film? In a bathroom stall? Why not make dance that intersects with life?

Pioneer Winter
Pioneer Winter

“I make dance in order to explore in a way I can’t in real life,” says Winter, sitting in a meeting room at Miami Light Project’s Light Box. “It’s all about access and visibility. Let’s stop pretending art is over here and life is over here. It’s pushing the boundaries, the definitions of what these [art] forms are.”

Winter has expanded possibilities not just for himself, but for Miami’s dance and performance scene: both as an artist who’s fostered a profoundly inclusive philosophy and as director of projects such as Screendance Miami for MLP and Grass Stains, which gives choreographers mentoring and money to create site-specific pieces. He reached new prominence in October, when his company Pioneer Winter Collective premiered Birds of Paradise at the Adrienne Arsht Center, a gorgeous mix of film and immersive performance commissioned by the Arsht that is his most ambitious production to date.

Now Miami Light Project has commissioned Winter’s next piece, DJ Apollo, an idea he’s been nursing since 2014. Instead of portraying a gleaming young Sun God at the height of his powers, Winter, who is 33, is musing on mortality, the stages of life, and an aging deity. “He’s no longer spinning at Mt. Olympus, no longer in his prime, his music is no longer in everyone’s ears,” Winter says. “He’s DJing in a leather bar in Hades. Why is he there?”

That radically different take on a cultural touchstone is one reason MLP Artistic and Executive Director Beth Boone is excited that Winter, whom she’s known for over a decade and who’s now a MLP resident artist, is joining their extended creative family. “His work has exceeded our wildest dreams,” Boone says. “He is truly focused on inclusivity in every action he makes. He is completely authentic in his democratizing approach to dance, whether through various bodies or perspectives or whatever the layer may be.”

It was Winter who approached Boone about MLP commissioning and presenting DJ Apollo. “He’s so organized and methodical and strategic,” she says. “Everything is well crafted and well planned.”

Like so many of the artists working with Miami Light Project, Winter is utterly a product of the city, where he has lived all his life, where he’s invented himself.

“I love Miami,” he says. “There’s so many gaps, so much missing, so much has to be done. But not a lot of people telling you how to do it. That’s paralyzing at times. I wish I had had more help along the way. But the thing about not having people tell you how to do it is you don’t have people telling you you can’t do it.”

Pioneer Winter's Birds of Paradise Mitchell Zachs
Pioneer Winter's Birds of Paradise Mitchell Zachs

Winter discovered dance going with his mother to her recreational tap dance classes when he was so small he could barely reach the barre. “All the ladies would laugh at this three-year-old who wanted to dance with them,” he remembers. Over the next six years, his mother, a midwife, became increasingly ill with lupus, the autoimmune disease, which took her life when Winter was 9. The two of them were very close. Even as she became so weak she had to use a walker, her son insisted that this shouldn’t limit her. “I was like ‘that’s silly, you can still tap’,” he says. “Now I think of course you can dance, no matter what your capacity is.”

That comment makes it sound as if the experience sparked his belief in everyone’s ability to dance. But Winter says his relationship with his mother affected him in a different way. “My connection with my mom is more an awareness of time passing, and the memory, the trauma that is stored in our body,” he says. “My first love for dance is that awareness of time.”

His father, a chiropractor, raised him. Strict and relentlessly demanding, he was the kind of parent who, when his son got an A on a test, asked about his other grades; who always expected more. When Winter came out at in his late teens, his father, who equated being gay with promiscuity, drug use and AIDS, was “very cold for a while.”

And yet Winter gets much of his drive, his need to give back, do more, collaborate, from his father. “I’m very careful about patting myself on the back,” he says. “It was always ‘take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.’ Smaller ego. You need to be the listener.”

But that attitude also seems to have shaded his ambition with anxiety. “People get an award and for months they’re on Cloud 9,” he says. “I wish I could have that.”

“It’s not that I’m not grateful for what I’m given. But if you don’t say ‘how can I use this award for something good?’ then it’s just a paperweight.”

Winter kept dancing through Michael Krop Senior High School in North Miami-Dade, and then with multiple local companies, including the earliest incarnation of Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre, which was an influence. But he didn’t think of dance as a career. Instead he got a BA in psychology, then a Masters in public health and epidemiology, both at FIU, by the time he was 20.

He didn’t start taking dance seriously until he made his first piece, in 2010, when he was 22. He was working as a grant writer and project director at Alert Health clinic, which did HIV and STD testing and counseling, and got funding to create Reaching the Surface, to raise awareness of HIV. During rehearsal, one of the FIU student performers tested positive.

The emotion and shared sense of mission which infused that experience set Winter on a new path. He would use dance and performance to explore profound, intimate areas such as gender, sexuality, and body perception; changing lives and challenging how people can reduce others to stereotypical roles or images – and changing the Miami art scene at the same time.

His pieces have included 2011’s Glory Tap, a combination of film and performance with Winter tap dancing in a bathroom stall – a reference to a system of signaling used by gay men in public bathrooms (as well as by Republican Senator Larry Craig, famously outed for using the system to pick up men in airport bathrooms.) In 2016 Winter joined with Marjorie Burnett, who has cerebral palsy and is a member of the longtime mixed ability troupe Karen Peterson and Dancers (which commissioned), for Gimp Gait, where the muscular Pioneer and the frail Burnett unite in a startlingly intimate and challenging duet; the film version played at over 20 festivals. In Dov Winter worked with 13-year-old basketball prodigy Izzi LieberPerson as he prepared for his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony of passage to manhood, for a raw, moving glimpse into the psyche of a boy wrestling with what it means to grow up.

The performers he works with mean that Winter’s pieces intersect with life in ways that amplify their meaning. In 2017’s Forced Entry and Other Love Stories, Winter turned the experiences and emotions of transgender actor June Raven Romero, bodybuilder Katrina Petrarca, and elderly former ballet dancer Frank Campisano, among others, into material and inspiration. And his own – Forced Entry included a segment on his mother’s death.

By exploring the ways that his collaborators have come to terms with who they are, he’s able to do the same for himself.

“Dance is a way for me to express myself emotionally because I handle things differently than other people do,” Winter told writer Catherine Annie Hollingsworth for as he was working on Forced Entry. “I can talk about anything on stage. A friend of mine’s mother passed away recently and I should have been the first one to comfort him. I didn’t know how to handle that. But I can create a work about it and talk really freely with an audience about it.”

His passion for exploring personal experience, and his profound respect for and interest in all types of lives, inspires trust.

“A lot of us feel very closely connected to [Winter] because the work we do is so personal,” says Josue Garcia, who’s renowned locally as innovative drag queen Karla Croqueta. “I would do anything for him.”

Garcia met Winter through Werqshop, a program Winter created which pays queer performers to experiment and collaborate on material that’s not viable for the commercial drag shows they do to make a living. Garcia spent months rehearsing with Winter for Birds of Paradise, resulting in a wrenching, expressionistic performance excavated from his personal history.

“He has such a way of pulling it out of us in terms of making us go into really dark spaces,” Garcia says. “This was something so personal, creating art through movement and my voice. The whole process is cathartic. Going through an uncomfortable process to create something beautiful.”

Collaborating with performers outside mainstream dance and culture is crucial to Winter. “In order to shakeout these real life thoughts it always felt weird to get dancers who all looked alike or were alike,” he says. “That’s the scientist in me: if I’m going to model the real world, the sample population needs to reflect the real population.”

“I’ve been able to discover things my body alone cannot discover,” he says. “In order to have a healthy community there need to be elders, there need to be young people, there need to be different backgrounds and experiences. The more perspectives, the more we have to work with, the better.”

Pioneer Winter's Hephaestus by Lisa Nalven
Pioneer Winter's Hephaestus by Lisa Nalven

He’s also constantly exploring new forms and media. Since 2016 he’s directed ScreenDance Miami, which has put Miami on the map in the expanding field of dance on film, first for founder Tigtertail Productions and now for Miami Light Project. He’s been director of the live performance series for the multimedia Filmgate Miami festival. In 2016 he launched the bi-annual Grass Stains series, which commissions and mentors local choreographers in making site-specific pieces. He runs Project LEAP, which helps LGBTQ teens use the arts for social change. He’s earned an MFA at Jacksonville University, and teaches at FIU Honors College, where he runs a dance symposium series. He shrugs off this dizzying roster as freelance life. A stable personal life helps; he lives in Biscayne Park (near his childhood home, where his father still lives) with his partner, Karloz Torres, and three huskies.

He raises money for all his projects. Birds of Paradise, for which Winter got grants from prestigious national funders the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project and from the MAP Fund, had a $150,000 budget, with the Arsht contributing $35,000 (as well as rehearsal space, production resources, and mentorship on producing a complex project in a vast union theater.)

Jairo Ontiveros, the Arsht’s vice president of education and community engagement, says he was impressed by Winter’s commitment to the integrity of his creative process despite the difficulties created by the pandemic, which meant that Birds took two years instead of one, forcing changes to rehearsal strategy and concept.

“Pioneer has a fundamental need to speak on the moment in time,” Ontiveros says. “That drives his want, his need to be a giver. Here’s this artist confronting a big challenge during a time when touching and being together is not ok. But he flipped it and used it as an opportunity to tap into the concept of isolation, loneliness – things he knew.”

Ontiveros was also impressed by Winter’s administrative chops. “He’s so highly organized in his concept, in how he works with people, and how he gets there,” he says. “It makes it easier for us as a partner, because he has thought through every step. In writing and verbally he’s able to translate his artistic vision. And he’s able to do that so efficiently that it’s a pleasure for us. Not every artist has that.”

Ontiveros and the Arsht Center are helping Winter, and his new booking manager Loris Bradley, with a tour of Birds. Ontiveros says presenters in at least eight cities are interested in staging the piece during the 22-23 season; they hope to announce the tour in late spring.

Winter is already moving forward. He’ll be part of an innovative multi-year arts administration mentoring program at the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron. He’s thinking about DJ Apollo, and about how Birds will change as he adapts it to new theaters and new audiences, to a new moment. His need to keep doing more and better; his instinct to react to right now, are both kicking in. He’s feeling that awareness of time passing that he learned from his mother’s passing; as his body and his psyche absorb what’s happened and prepare to reflect it back out.

“It’s what now? What happens now?” he says. “I’m restless to get back into the studio.”





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Kristina Villaverde

Special Projects Manager

A native of Miami, Kristina Villaverde became Miami Light Project’s Technical Director in 2014. Kristina is also the director of Miami Light Project’s Technical Fellowship, a program designed to train emerging theater technicians and prepares them for professional work. A long time staple in the South Florida theater community, Kristina has worked as the Head Electrician at Byron Carlyle Theater, The Colony Theater and the Olympia Theater. Additionally, she has built her theater skills as Light Designer and Stage Manager for numerous productions, and worked for local arts organizations as Young Arts and Miami Lyric Opera. Kristina has been a member of I.A.T.S.E. Local 500 and had the opportunity to work as a stagehand for a variety of productions from Broadway, Comedy Central, CBS, Telemundo to Live Nation at a great number of venues in South Florida.
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Terrence Brunn

Marketing & Communications Manager

A native of St. Thomas, US Virgin Island, Terrence Brunn is an arts administrator and designer with a B.A. in Business Management from the University of Miami. Terrence Brunn joined MLP in 2012 as part of the Miami Light Project’s Technical Fellowship Program inaugural class where he explored all aspects of stagecraft. Now Terrence is the communications manager for Miami Light Project and the program coordinator for Miami Theater Center. Terrence currently resides in Miami and enjoys traveling when not working.
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Regina Moore

Director of Planning & Development

Regina Moore joined Miami Light Project in October 2012. Previously, Regina worked as an independent consultant and grant writer for nonprofits in South Florida. Since 2003, Regina has worked with cultural & arts and community services organizations on projects that have generated more than $4 million in grants. She has 18 years of experience in grant proposal development, strategic planning, building collaborations and program evaluation for small/mid-size nonprofits. Regina holds a master degree in business administration from the University of Miami (Coral Gables, FL) and bachelor’s degree in business from Pontificia Universidade Católica (Sao Paulo, Brazil). A native of Brazil, Regina currently resides in Boca Raton with her husband, John, and two children, Thomas and Emilie.
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Eventz Paul

Technical Director & Facilities Manager

Eventz Paul is currently the Technical Director and Productions Manager at Miami Light Project. He has been a part of this organization since 2011. He participated in Miami Light Project’s first class of the Technical Fellowship Program held at The Light Box. He joined this program hoping to improve his existing theater skills. He received training from experts in the industry that mentored and further his theater technical skills. Now, he has successfully used his professional knowledge and has had the opportunity to work with various arts organizations and venues throughout Miami including Miami Theater Center, National Young Arts Foundation, the Colony Theatre and many more. He has become an instructor and conducts audiovisual classes to incoming technical fellows.

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Elizabeth Boone

Artistic & Executive Director

Beth Boone has been the Artistic & Executive Director of Miami Light Project since 1998, developing critically acclaimed artistic programs that have asserted the organization as one of the leading cultural institutions in South Florida. These programs include: the establishment of Here & Now, South Florida’s most respected commission and presenting program for community-based artists; premiere presentations of internationally acclaimed; pioneering historic international cultural exchange with Cuba; and the creation of The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, a multi-use performance and visual art space in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. She previously served as Associate Director of Development for Florida Grand Opera, Deputy Director for the Department of Cultural Affairs at Miami Dade Community College, Wolfson Campus, co-founded an Off Broadway theater company (New York Rep), and served for six years as a Program Associate in the Arts & Culture Program of the AT&T Foundation. She received a B.A. in Fine Arts from the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and a MFA in Theater Arts from Brandeis University in Boston, MA.