Rosie Herrera – Gorgeous Gesture

By Jordan Levin

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In many ways, choreographer Rosie Herrera is an intrinsically, only-in-Miami artist. There are the emotionally extravagant Latin pop and camp references, simultaneously satirical and sincere, in her vivid dance theater. Her Hialeah upbringing, her experience with Little Havana cabaret, hiphop, and drag.

Naturally, she’s found a home at the Miami Light Project, which debuted the Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre in the 2009 Here & Now festival, in the fantastical, hauntingly original Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret. It captivated Charles Reinhart, director of the American Dance Festival, who made her a favored regular there, launching her nationally. Herrera became the most successful and visible dancemaker to emerge from Miami, receiving major fellowships, residencies and commissions, her company touring widely.

But after an initial few years when her troupe performed at the Adrienne Arsht Center, Herrera’s work mostly went unseen in her hometown.

“I don’t know why,” says Herrera, 37. “I still very much see myself as a Miami artist making work that connects to this community. I can’t wheel out a girl covered in coffee cups anywhere else and have people get it.”

Herrera had continued rehearsing at Miami Light Project, part of an intimate family of formal and informal resident artists. When executive director Beth Boone, chatting with Herrera a few years ago, realized her company wasn’t performing in Miami, she vowed to also give her a home onstage.

“One of the joys of being a home for artists is you get to see your peeps,” says Boone. “It’s probably why I hadn’t realized Rosie hasn’t had a home season, because I see her all the time.”

Meanwhile, Herrera’s work had evolved from the early surreal theatricality of Drowning, Pity Party and Dining Alone to become more intimate, emotionally and internally driven. In 2015 Miami Light Project commissioned and presented Cookie’s Kid, a solo portrait of Herrera’s fraught relationship with her fierce, sometimes abusive mother.

Since then Herrera has gone still deeper, with a trilogy that leaps from Catholic iconography to explore subterranean feelings about her body, sexuality, patriarchy, intimacy, the intersection of symbolism and power. It was propelled by what she has called “a crisis of faith… Faith in a higher being, faith in humanity, faith in myself.” Miami Light Project presented the raw, unsettling first section, Carne Viva (Live Flesh) at The Light Box in 2019.

The second section, Make Believe, drew on Catholicism’s extravagant imagery. “The Catholic church is the most drag place in the world,” Herrera says. “The pageantry, the ritual, the pomp and circumstance are over the top and beautiful. There are aspects… that have always called to me.”

Until the pandemic lockdown, Miami Light Project was slated to present Make Believe (with Miami New Drama) at Miami Beach’s Colony Theater in May. Boone remains committed to presenting the piece when live performance returns, as well as the third section, tentatively titled Devotion.

At first, Herrera was “frozen” by quarantine isolation in her Miami Beach apartment, deeply disappointed at canceling five precious months of touring and premieres, and the loss of work for her six dancers. She hesitated to adapt her intimate rehearsal and creative process, spending hours exploring with her dancers, to a computer screen.

“So many people rushed to have this new working protocol online,” she says. “To me that felt disingenuous. I felt it was important to be present with my anxiety, my empathy for the world. To allow whatever was going to come up creatively to still come from a place of honesty and integrity, not ‘how can I keep us relevant’.”

Devotion pointed her in a new direction. It’s inspired by our obsession with technology and devices, our new belief system and totems. Herrera swears she came up with the idea long before a locked down world became even more internet-fixated. “I should have made [Devotion] last year, when it wasn’t so apropos,” she says. “Everyone’s doing it.” (Two of her dancers, Loren Davidson and Britney Tokumoto, are 2020 Here & Now artists, whose project explores social media and dance interaction.)

But the core idea, of exploring the positive aspects of our online connections, has helped as Herrera figures out rehearsing via Zoom. “It’s to have some sort of reverence for the potential of [technology],” she says. “Seeing it as a new form of communication that speaks to our values as a society. Honoring that. Falling in love with that.”

It’s the kind of multi-faceted insight that speaks to Miami Light Project’s faith in Herrera. “Rosie is profoundly clued into the poignance of the human experience,” says Boone. “Even if it’s cloaked in a Miami reference it translates because it’s tapping into humanity. That is the essence of what makes me respond to her work.”

For her part, Herrera is deeply grateful to have an artistic family in Miami. “To feel like you have a home is so incredibly important,” she says. “If I wanted to convince anyone to move to Miami, I would take them to Miami Light Project. That is the quickest download you can get of our community. Everyone rehearsing, everyone knows each other, they bring their kids, you go get a coffee, there’s wailing in one room, break dancing in another. It’s so important to know I have this commitment to be presented here. It’s hard not to have a connection to the audience that means the most to me. So it means a great deal.”

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(L to R) Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre by George Echevarria; Rosie Herrera by George Echevarria; Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre by George Echevarria

(L to R) Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre by George Echevarria; Rosie Herrera by George Echevarria; Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre by George Echevarria

ABOUT MIAMI LIGHT PROJECT

Founded in 1989, Miami Light Project is a not-for-profit cultural organization which presents live performances by innovative dance, music and theater artists from around the world; supports the development of new work by South Florida-based artists; and offers educational programs for students of every age.

Since our inception, we have reached a diverse cross-section of communities throughout Miami-Dade County with an extensive outreach effort that includes partnerships with other arts organizations, universities and social service agencies. Miami Light Project is a cultural forum to explore some of the issues that define contemporary society.

ABOUT JORDAN LEVIN

A writer and journalist since the early 90’s, Jordan Levin was an influential voice on arts and pop culture at the Miami Herald for over two decades, as both freelancer and staff writer. During her time at the Herald, she wrote and produced numerous radio pieces for WLRN, two of which aired nationally on NPR. As a freelancer, she has written for the New York Times, the L.A. Times, American Theatre Magazine, Dance Magazine, and many other South Florida and national publications. Since leaving the Herald in 2017, she has worked in content marketing and community engagement for Miami cultural organizations including Miami New Drama and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, where she hosts a series of dance talks. She has taught feature writing as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami School of Communications.

Before becoming a journalist, Jordan worked as a presenter and administrator for Miami’s Tigertail Productions and Miami Dade College Cultural Affairs. Previously, she was a dancer/performer in New York’s downtown scene, performing with artists such as Tim Miller and Yoshiko Chuma at venues such as the BAM Next Wave Festival, Performance Space New York and The Kitchen. She is working on a cultural memoir of the East Village in the early 80’s.