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Rosie Herrera: Faith, Magic and Make Believe

October 3, 2023

By Jordan Levin

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The title of Rosie Herrera’s dance theater piece "Make Believe" captures a child’s faith in imagination as magic. Let’s make believe the back yard is Peter Pan’s Neverland. That our Barbies can have fabulous pink fantasy adventures.

Herrera has a similar faith in the power of her artistic imagination, which in Make Believe she focuses on how her Catholic upbringing, and the experiential extravagance of growing up in Hialeah and Miami, shaped her worldview.

“I’m thinking of all the ways I’m shaped by growing up in the church, that life is filled with magical forces that are bigger and more powerful than me,” Herrera said recently. “All the ways that has shaped me, liberated me, oppressed me, opened my world and closed my world. Make Believe is about all the constructions of that reality, that the world is magical.”

The piece, which Miami Light Project presents October 13 and 14 at Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores, also embodies Herrera’s faith in, well, faith as the engine of human endeavor. “Another thing I love about the phrase is it denotes the effort that goes into believing something,” she says. “Make Believe is about the ways we construct reality with our lives, or our art or our family or our found family.”

The piece, part of a trilogy on faith that has been Herrera’s major project of the last decade, also represents Miami Light Project’s faith in Herrera the artist. MLP launched Herrera’s career in 2009 when it commissioned and presented her first significant work, the dreamily surreal Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret, as part of the annual Here & Now festival. When the director of the American Dance Festival, one of the country’s most important dance events, saw Drowning, he promptly invited Herrera to stage it at ADF that summer. ADF, held in Durham, North Carolina, became one of Herrera’s major supporters, regularly commissioning and staging her work, and playing a significant role in legitimizing her on the national dance stage.

“She has a very original way of bringing all kinds of human expressions and experiences to the stage that draws me in deeply,” says current ADF director Jodee Nimerichter. “A distinctive way of creating work that is original and important… that we want to invest in.”

But Miami Light Project remained Herrera’s home base. She’s continued to rehearse in MLP spaces (“they’ve got the glitter to prove it,” she jokes) and been an integral part of the organization’s artistic family. But there were many years where her troupe was absent from Miami stages.

“I would see Rosie all the time, she was always rehearsing, but rehearsing things she would go perform or set elsewhere,” says Beth Boone, MLP’s artistic and executive director. She began to change that when MLP presented Carne Viva, the first part of Herrera’s faith trilogy, in 2019. Boone’s plans to present Make Believe in 2020 were derailed by the pandemic. As the world began emerging from lockdown in 2021, Herrera told Boone how much she longed to be seen in her hometown. Boone determined to make that wish come true. Now Boone plans to present Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre regularly in Miami, part of a stronger focus on commissioning and presenting Miami artists in full-length works – like Sol Ruiz’s performance opera Positive Vibration Nation next April.

“What Rosie embodies is so uniquely Miami that it’s hard to put into words for people not from here,” says Boone. “People from Miami who see her work they go oh my god that’s so Miami. It’s just uncanny. It’s whimsical and spectacle and poignant and visually stunning, the pathos and the hilarity. I think she is a singular choreographic voice in this country. And that should be celebrated at home and discovered outside of Miami.”

Herrera’s work has been commissioned by dance mainstays Ballet Hispanico and the Jose Limon Dance Company. Her company has toured to major arts centers around the county, and she’s been awarded multiple prestigious fellowships and residencies.

Herrera says Boone and Nimerichter’s backing has been crucial, not just practically, but for more ineffable but still crucial emotional and creative support.

“It’s knowing someone who knows what they’re doing believes in you that has been the most significant to me,” Herrera says. “Beth and Jodee have been amazing. It’s the unique soft power of women. I can take risks and trust my process because I have these powerhouses behind me. That’s clearly changed my life.”

Make Believe is the second work in Herrera’s ‘faith’ trilogy, a years-long exploration of the emotional extravagance and melodramatic imagery of Catholicism, Afro-Cuban spiritual traditions, transcendence, ritual, the pain of love, and more. (In the time it took MLP to get Make Believe back on the schedule this month, Herrera ended up presenting Devotion, the third piece in the trilogy, at Miami-Dade County Auditorium this past August. It drew robust, enthusiastic audiences.)

But the dances don’t need to be seen sequentially to resonate. Herrera says her work evolves organically out of personal, intellectual and aesthetic areas of interest. In Make Believe, she says, the personal focus is on crisis and questions of faith, while her intellectual interest is in how faith shapes us. And the aesthetic? “I was thinking of the iconography of my youth,” she says. “Not just Catholicism, but all the things that made the world feel magical. Colors, sequins, the ocean. The McDonald’s playhouse – ‘wow, this is how rich people live’. It’s an homage to little girls – or this little girl.”

You could say that Drowning and the works that followed, Pity Party and Dining Alone, marked Herrera’s first artistic stage. Their imagery was often rooted in her history performing in a Little Havana cabaret and with the subversive club troupe Circ X; her immersion in drag, hiphop and club dance worlds, her innate Miami Latinidad. They were glamorous and kitsch, sensual and bizarre, with ironic takes on pop culture and a way of shifting absurdity into disturbing darkness.

With the faith trilogy, Herrera moved into deeper territory that has proved to be richly all-encompassing. In August, she told ArtburstMiami writer Guillermo Perez “There’s so much in the subject matter of these works, I’m beginning to feel that it’ll never end.”

And yet, Herrera is beginning to feel the nudge of new inspiration. “I feel ready to explore something else,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in big iconographic images. But I will say I’m ready to do my Cuban cabaret show. I would like to wear more fringe and so some more celebrating. I’m an image-based person. I feel like the images coming to me now are from a different world.”

She’s counting on Miami to accompany her into that new world. “My best audiences are in Miami. They know the references. I’m like the Pitbull of the modern dance scene – I couldn’t love Miami more.”

Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre performs Make Believe at 8 p.m. Friday October 13 and Saturday October 14 at Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE 2nd Ave., Miami Shores.

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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.