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Here Today ...

Choreographer Sharon Marroquín lets go through dance in order to live

By Jonelle Seitz, Fri., March 23, 2012

Here Today ...
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

"I'm not afraid of dying," says dancer and choreographer Sharon Marroquín. "We like to think that things are fixed, that situations, especially the good ones, are going to last forever. But when you're hit with something like a cancer diagnosis, you realize that it doesn't last. Nothing lasts; it's just a matter of time. Not the good, not the bad."

The fact of impermanence – perhaps life's overarching rule, yet one so railed against and denied – is the crux of Marroquín's newest and biggest-ever dance project, the full-length The Materiality of Impermanence, a response to her breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survival. Her diagnosis in January 2010 was the Mack truck in a collision of loss that involved the death of her father from cancer in July 2009 and the accidental death of her friend and colleague Lucia Rodriguez in August, as well her concurrent divorce, the dissolution of a relationship of 24 years. "I understood, soon after my diagnosis, that in order to not collapse that I needed desperately to let go of what I had wanted my life to be like," says Marroquín. "That I was suddenly on this path that was not the path that I had envisioned."

Though today Marroquín, 44, is rid of the cancer to which she lost a breast and her lymph nodes, the cancer that – either because of her estrogen blocker-medication or her chemotherapy port – was responsible for a blood clot in her neck that required weeks of twice-daily blood-thinning shots and continued blood-thinning medication; the cancer that made medical procedures and medications unimaginable to her previously healthy dancer self her day-to-day reality, she knows it could come back. Or despite the efforts to reduce it, the blood clot, which she says sits in her neck like a little reminder of death's possibility, could dislodge and travel to her lungs or brain.

Context: A Life

Marroquín crafted Materiality during a period of nearly two years, developing, rehearsing, and securing funding for the production in between surgeries, treatments, and taking care of her son, Dalí, now 7 years old, not to mention teaching dance classes and maintaining her day job as a bilingual teacher at a public elementary school. The work, says Marroquín, is not exactly about breast cancer. Rather, the breast cancer experience is a lens through which she explores impermanence, mortality, and attachment. The patterns, vignettes, and movements within, she says, "appeared to me as I was trying to process everything that was happening to me, physically and emotionally and spiritually. So the three parts of who we are are intimately interwoven in the dances."

Marroquín, who danced in her native Mexico, as well as New York and Boston, before landing in Austin in 2000, is as independent in practice as she is in spirit. She has regularly created and staged work for Ballet East and collaborated on projects responding to environmental and global humanitarian issues with Toni Bravo's Diverse Space Dance Theatre. Until Materiality required it, she had no website, no marketing, and virtually no budget for her work. In the manner of a true artist and despite her multiple awards from the Austin Critics Table, recognition doesn't seem to be important to her – although she does want Materiality to be recognized because of its ability to help people. She only began choreographing, she has said, to have work to dance. The jobs that she's taken to make ends meet, in nonprofits and education, are those that value human connection and need over glamour and pay.

In her choreography and performance, Marroquín is strikingly direct and honest. She seems unable to accept cliché, but her movement nevertheless speaks clearly. "I don't ever want to be fake," she has said. In Materiality, she looks at the starkest of universal truths: We're beings doomed to become nonbeings, with our experiences constantly giving way to memories eventually forgotten. For cancer survivors, the reality of impermanence is especially insistent, and its mark on the psyche is indelible. And that's why Marroquín doesn't like to use the phrase "battling cancer," because "it conjures up images of kicking, fighting, and screaming against something that's happening to you. And if you do that, you're going to suffer a lot. And the way to find peace and bliss and joy is to find the way to be OK with death."

Dealing with baggage: The cast rehearses <i>The Materiality of Impermanence </i>
Dealing with baggage: The cast rehearses The Materiality of Impermanence
Photo courtesy of Chithra Jeyaram

And though audience members should be armed with tissues (I've needed them while viewing rehearsals and Marroquín's past work), the peace and joy, Marroquín wants you to know, are not forgotten in this work. "It's not 90 minutes of pain and suffering. There's a lot of joy and light in this journey, also. And I try to bring that forth through the choreography and the dancers."

Acceptance and Creation

When Marroquín, on her lunch break in the teachers' lounge at Widen Elementary, received the phone call that said she had cancer, she was just a few weeks from performing her piece "So Far Ago." In shock, she had to decide whether to cancel the performance – both she and her partner, Frank Yezer, knew that no one else could fill the personal role she'd created with him. She considered delaying her mastectomy until afterward, even though one doctor, she remembers, said, "Nobody is going to tell you to wait." But she did wait. The performances of the dance, for which Marroquín paired herself with septuagenarian and former ballet dancer Yezer, evoked memory and the fleeting quality of youth, and took on special significance. They became, she says, "a kind of good-bye to my body and to my life as it had been." Soon after the last performance, she had back-to-back surgeries and spent the next 14 months in and out of chemotherapy and radiation treatments followed by reconstructive surgeries.

"For the first few months," Marroquín recalls of the period after her diagnosis, "I didn't want to know anything about other people who had experienced the same thing. I didn't want to do research on the Internet. I did not want to talk to any survivors." Though the dance community rallied around her – choreographer Caroline Sutton Clark set up a meal delivery calendar, which came to look like a who's who of Austin dance, as well as a dance-movie fundraiser to help Marroquín with medical expenses – Marroquín had stepped back from choreography. But eventually, she knew that she had to find a way to come to terms with her changed body. Because Todd Wolfson, who had previously photographed her for the Chronicle, "seemed someone who saw things in a different light," Marroquín sent him an email. Soon after, she was looking into his camera lens.

"When I saw the photographs, I was blown away with how beautiful they were. Beautiful in a very nontraditional way, because of the photograph of a woman with only one breast and a big scar across the chest. And yet, in the pictures, I could see in my eyes my own spirit. And as I looked at these photographs, tears were running down my face. I thought to myself, something has to be done with these photographs. They're just going to live on his hard drive? Is that it? That's the end?"

Marroquín's dances generally don't shy away from dark or difficult topics. She's confronted a terrible mining disaster ("Crandall Canyon Mine," 2008), issues of aging and remembrance ("So Far Ago," 2010), the death of her Rodriguez, her colleague ("For You Lucia," 2009), and even her father's journey toward death ("Desprendimiento," 2009). But it wasn't until six months after her diagnosis, after seeing the photographs, that she realized she needed to make a dance about her own illness. In the summer of 2010, "the images started to come."

Foreign Puzzle

Around the time Marroquín began jotting down images in a notebook, she realized she was ready to meet other survivors. At a luncheon of the Pink Ribbon Cowgirls, a group of young breast cancer survivors, someone suggested she find someone to film her process and the final dance project. Having a video record of a dance is never a bad idea, so Marroquín sent an email to the University of Texas's film department in search of a student who might document her project.

She did not suspect that email would result in her being filmed at home, doing the dishes, and reading Dalí his bedtime stories; losing consciousness after receiving an emergency blood-thinning shot at the hospital; and in the studio, blocking Dalí's runaway toy cars before they reached her students' feet while creating and rehearsing. Chithra Jeyaram, the film M.F.A. candidate and maker of social documentaries who answered Marroquín's query, wasn't interested in simply documenting the dance. She wanted to document Marroquín's life.

Never fake: Marroquín in the studio
Never fake: Marroquín in the studio
Photo courtesy of Chithra Jeyaram

The resulting film-in-progress is called Foreign Puzzle, which is how Marroquín has described her post-cancer body, and a short, "Mijo," which focuses on the cancer's effects on Marroquín's relationship with Dalí, has garnered attention at several festivals (most recently, "Mijo" was part of Austin Film Society's ShortCase at South by Southwest). Jeyaram says she was interested to show what happens after treatment and how Marroquín as an artist deals with cancer's lingering "assault on your emotions and mind." By breaking emotions down to physical movements, Jeyaram has observed over countless hours that Marroquín seems to externalize them in a therapeutic way.

I Do, We Do, You Do

It was a year after jotting down her first ideas that Marroquín hired her first dancer: student Ciara Walsh, then 11 years old. In the section Ciara dances with Marroquín, she represents both Marroquín's child and her child self. In the duet, which they performed at last year's Big Range Austin Dance Festival, the adult and child gently lay their limbs over each other as they sleep. Once they rise, they move through a pedagogical structure – I do, we do, you do – suggesting the passing on of knowledge, of methods for enjoying life.

Ciara's character also represents the considerable number of students whose lives Marroquín touches, both as a second-grade bilingual teacher for the Austin Independent School District and as a dance instructor at Tapestry Dance Company's academy. In this role, she feels – and accepts – a fierce responsibility for her students, and she compares teaching to motherhood. During several combined hours of conversation with Marroquín, the only time I saw her really tear up was when she admitted the probability that one in every eight of her female students will develop breast cancer.

What's harder than letting go of one's own expectations in life? Letting go of people. "In particular," Marroquín says, with measured pacing, "my son." In "Mijo" (the trailer can be viewed at www.vimeo.com/27631896), Dalí stands on her bed as Marroquín tries to take a nap after a chemotherapy treatment. Dalí, a fresh cast on his arm, twirls and jumps in the dark dance studio parking lot as they're leaving to go home. Dalí, cocooned in a hammock, tells us quite clearly his beautiful, perfect understanding of death: "You're like going to bed, but you can't wake up. You never wake up."

In Marroquín's duet with Ciara, as they seem to sleep, the adult suddenly holds the child tightly, lifting her atop her own body as if to protect her from everything. Later, in their playful dance together, Marroquín's character takes advantage of moments when she's able to hold onto the child, clasping her waist for an extra moment before Ciara breaks free. But, Marroquín says, she has been able to loosen even this clasp. It happened in a yoga class, she says. "In the relaxation time, I was thinking about my son and clinging in a way, not wanting to let him go and not wanting to die because I don't want to let him go," she says. "And then suddenly, I had an image or a certainty that his spirit is strong and that he would be OK without me. I breathed a sigh of relief. And ever since that moment, I am even more OK with dying, because I know that he will be OK."

Collaboration and Solitude

The decision to work with Ciara, her student for several years, was an easy one. "I spent a lot of time thinking about who I wanted to work with," remembers Marroquín. It was important to her that everyone involved – not just the dancers but also the design and production crew – understood the personal significance of the project. Although everyone involved in the professional project is getting paid thanks to Marroquín's tireless Kickstarter campaigning and grant-chasing (and the help of sponsoring organizations such as Women & Their Work and VSA Texas), she didn't want to work with anyone who saw the project as just another gig. "I told everyone, 'Only say yes to this project if you would do it for free'," she says. Among those who said yes are lighting designer Stephen Pruitt and scenic designer Ia Ensterä. Costumes are by Jamie Rhodes, and Jessi Clayton is working with Todd Wolfson on video elements. The music is recorded; many tracks, like the ones from an album her sister sent her when she was in the midst of chemotherapy, have special significance for Marroquín.

Besides Ciara and Marroquín, seven local dancers chosen for their depth, passion, and intelligence comprise the core cast of Materiality. But they will be joined at various points in the work by an aerialist from Seattle, several local breast cancer survivors, and Marroquín's sister, a dancer who lives in Massachusetts. The absence of men in the cast is intentional, Marroquín notes on her blog, www.thematerialityofimpermanence.wordpress.com. In the blog post, she explains how she dropped the idea for a male-female duet when she realized it didn't parallel her life, and she refers to a larger phenomenon, known as "the cancer kiss-off," in which some women witness the men in their life scattering when they hear the C-word.

And while it's true that trying to accept the fact of impermanence might benefit us all, and while the impressive assembly of performers will no doubt support progress in empathy, making connections, and destigmatizing cancer, Marroquín acknowledges that the journey to acceptance is inevitably solitary. In one section of Materiality, a solo that Marroquín has excerpted for recent performances, her burden is made concrete with an impossibly heavy and inconvenient piece of vintage luggage. Video by Wolfson renders Marroquín a Chaplin-esque silent-film character as she engages in a Sisyphean struggle to move the suitcase. A heavier theatrical hand might have chained the suitcase to her. But though the tie between the suitcase and Marroquín remains unseen, it is indissoluble, the object's presence leaden.

The suitcase metaphor is characteristic of Marroquín's devices: simple, direct, and brilliant. And the section is not without lightness and humor. At one point in her attempts to manage the suitcase, Marro­quín's character upends it, straddles it, and begins to circle her legs as if she were pedaling a bicycle. While it's not a permanent solution for the heavy burden – is there one? – her face brightens, her chin juts forward, her eyes alight, and for a moment, there she remains.


The Materiality of Impermanence will be performed March 23-25, Friday, 8pm, Saturday, 2 & 8pm, and Sunday, 2pm, in the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. The Saturday matinee is free for cancer survivors and will be followed by a panel on art and healing. For more info, call 474-5664 or visit www.longcenter.org.

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