“The floor is not a floor,” the choreographer Judith Sánchez Ruíz said during a recent rehearsal with the Trisha Brown Dance Company. “It’s a place where you bounce up and you continue feeling up.”
Physicality meets sensation in a vivid way for Sánchez Ruíz, the first choreographer in this company’s 53-year history, other than Brown herself, to create a new work for it. In a scene from “Let’s Talk About Bleeding,” which premieres at the Joyce Theater on May 2, six dancers are caught in a swirl of momentum, in which agitation gives way to slipperiness and weight finds a sense of air. At that rehearsal, the floor of the studio suddenly seemed to feel softer, warmer, more pliant.
Sánchez Ruíz, a youthful 51, bounced a bit as she spoke, befitting her charged presence. “Movements just fly out of her,” said Carolyn Lucas, the company’s associate artistic director.
Commissioning Sánchez Ruíz, who was born in Cuba and is based in Berlin, was no random decision. As a member of the company from 2006 to 2009, Sánchez Ruíz worked with Brown, who died in 2017, before striking out on her own — forming a group, continuing to dance and developing teaching methodologies.
As a child, Sánchez Ruíz studied gymnastics, then ballet, before finding modern dance and ending up, at age 11, at the National School of Arts in Havana. Like her dance history, “Bleeding” contains more than one point of departure and is, in her mind, pictorial. In the piece, which features musical direction and composition by the Cuban composer Adonis Gonzalez, she has created what she referred to as “a symphony of layers,” she said in a video interview from Switzerland, where she was teaching.
“I put a lot of subjects in different layers,” she continued. “It’s like a cake. Inside that, we find narratives that create a meaning or create a poetic constellation. We say it is like” — her hands zipped through the air — “an orgasm of constellations.”
When she was approached by the Trisha Brown company to be its first guest choreographer, she was shocked, she said, even though she knew that Lucas was a fan of her work. After seeing her solo “Encaje,” Lucas said: “I had this feeling — it’s not a creepy feeling — but as I was experiencing it, I felt so pulled into it, and I was also simultaneously feeling that Trisha would just be really overjoyed and proud of Judith. That she would be really enjoying this as much as I was.”
Lucas thought back to a 2003 meeting that the company had about its future, when the idea of commissioning new choreography was introduced. “Trisha was talking about how she would consider alumni making new work, but she was also very clear that the alumni had to be dedicated, have invested time, energy and building knowledge as a choreographer,” Lucas said. “That was important to her. And then she said ‘or a bright-minded young choreographer’ who is not necessarily an alumni.”
For Lucas, Sánchez Ruíz, whose time in the company was relatively short, seemed to encompass both sides of Brown’s desire. “There was sort of a beautiful marriage of this idea of Judith being an alumni, but the time passing has put her in this category of a bright-minded choreographer,” she said. “Judith has really worked so hard to create her work, her voice, her vision — just relentlessly.”
The work’s title says it all. “Because I’m still bleeding,” Sánchez Ruíz said. “My friend said, ‘Everybody left contemporary dance, and you are still moving.’ It’s very hard, but that’s not in my mind. I keep going. It’s like I keep solving situations and obstacles. I’m no materialist. I’m really an artist from the core. I don’t need a house with a swimming pool to be happy. I dance and I am happy. I create art and I am happy.”
Last September, she asked the Trisha Brown dancers, many of them new, to show her what they had in their bodies. It was a squeezing process. How ingrained, if at all, was Brown’s movement and repertoire? “I said, ‘Squeeze many pieces and improvise on it,’” Sánchez Ruíz recalled. “From there I started to transform it in my vision.”
Sánchez Ruíz’s dances are physical and fast, and informed by years of research. Since she left the Trisha Brown company, she has developed two key training methods, which figure into her choreographic approach. One is based on technique, allowing for an off-kilter body to be grounded yet visceral; the other, titled “Your Own God,” is an improvisational workshop.
Throughout the process for “Bleeding,” which at the Joyce will be performed alongside two of Brown’s works — “For M.G.: The Movie” (1991) and “Rogues” (2011) — she has incorporated both methods to create an episodic, impressionistic, almost fantastical world. Men scoot on their elbows. A woman emerges from the floor — as if it were soil, Sánchez Ruíz said — while another dancer stands in relevé.
“It is like two kinds of women in different times,” she said. “One is just still on the ground trying to grow and find something to feed herself. And the other one is already in a position, but she’s so fragile that she can fall at any time.”
“Bleeding” doesn’t directly reference Brown’s work, but there is an important moment, which Sánchez Ruíz calls “the bridge,” that touches on her legacy. “I kept one scene from the squeezing,” she said, referring to her experiment with the dancers last September. “I transformed it, but you can see some vocabulary underneath. Now it’s like a disturbance. It creates some obstacles.”
Jennifer Payán, a dancer in “Bleeding,” said that the Sánchez Ruíz-Brown connection was, for her, in “trying to find this improvisational impulse and rhythm that lives inside, also, of Trisha’s work.”
“Of course, it’s not the same, but its funkiness kind of brings a familiarity to her work,” she added. “The feeling of it still being alive, like an improvisation, is important in the piece.”
When Sánchez Ruíz left the company in 2009, she said, “Trisha was a little bit like: ‘Why? Do you need a solo? What do you need?’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t need a solo.’ I actually had very good roles, and I loved it.”
When she joined the company, she was 35 with a 2-year-old child. Traveling put a strain on her marriage, which led to divorce. By the time she left, there was interest in her own work, which she was excited to pursue. In 2010, she formed her company and a year later moved to Berlin to dance with Sasha Waltz. But that wasn’t the right fit; she wasn’t dancing enough. “There were so many dancers,” she said. “I came from companies where we were nine. Everybody was important. Everybody was a soloist.”
Being an independent choreographer hasn’t been easy. But because of all that Sánchez Ruíz has been through, and because of her intense choreographic research, she doesn’t feel an exceptional amount of pressure at the prospect of creating a dance for the Trisha Brown company. “In a way, the bigger pressure is, What are you saying?” she said. “Who are you as an artist?”
She recalled a conversation she had with Brown while still a member of the company, in which she was told: “Judi, it’s very hard to be a female choreographer. You are going to learn this, because you are also a choreographer.”
“And that was very beautiful,” Sánchez Ruíz said, “because I think from all the companies that I have ever worked with, the only company that has been supporting me as a choreographer after I left many years ago has been Trisha Brown.”
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