Moving in Harmony

A world of motion and dance revolves around professor of theater, acting and movement.

                                                                                                                  Video by Katy Hennig   Photos by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez

USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 16, 2014) – Soon after USF Assistant Professor Dora Arreola’s arrival in Equatorial Guinea to work with the Bocamandja Theatre Company, dozens of children were peeking through and over fences, windows and doorways at the rehearsal hall until she finally asked, “Who would like to take a dance class?” Hands went up everywhere as big smiles broke out on all the curious faces.

What better question from a theater director, choreographer and movement teacher to children who grew up in a culture much like her own with respect to dance. It's just part of life from an early age.

Dance and move they did on the small island of Annobon, to everyone’s delight. But that’s nothing new for the agile and graceful performer. She's used to getting people to follow her moves.

Moving with effortless grace and seemingly born to dance, Arreola is hard-pressed to remember exactly when she started. In fact, she can’t recall a time when she wasn’t dancing in her home town in rural northern Mexico. Her parents had a little difficulty imagining her pursuing a career in something that was, and is, so woven into the daily life of their culture – especially after Arreola majored in marine science in college.

Nonetheless, with dance and theatre as her minors, she kept that creative part of her life alive until she could step out on her own – something she did in a big way by adding expertise in theater to her dance skills.

“I think that all my life, but especially in high school, I was comparing where I was feeling happier and I think it was in the studio,” she said. “So I decided to go hear this little voice that was there talking to you about how you feel in different areas and I picked theatre and dance. I was very interested in the ceremonies and rituals in Mexico. It’s when I found out that dance and theatre are connected.”

Now her family understands. Earning an MFA in directing from the University of Massachusetts, founding a successful dance company, receiving grants and commissions, traveling around the world and teaching movement and directing at universities in the United States have helped a lot to win them over to the idea that theatre and dance are to be taken seriously.

Diverse skills for a diverse world

Arreola has become known for her teaching of body expression, physical training for actors, acting, directing and dance in diverse cultural and academic institutions, including California State University, San Marcos, University of Baja California, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Amherst College, Smith College, University of Minnesota and the California Center for the Arts. Today she is teaching theater, acting and movement at USF in the School of Theatre and Dance.

Teaching is still only part of her life. She also continues to work as a director, choreographer and performer – all of which have taken her a long way from home over the years. She has traveled throughout México and the United States including Baja California, San Diego, Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver as well as Poland, Spain, Italy, Nicaragua and Canada.

Arreola moves into leadership roles with ease. She was co-founder of Centro de Artes Escénicas del Noroeste/CAEN (Northwest Center for the Performing Arts), the academic branch of Centro Cultural Tijuana, where she taught for ten years. She also established the all-women experimental dance Theater Company, Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro based in Tijuana, Mexico, where she created several dance-theatre pieces, including “Mujeres en Ritual,” “Rios de Ofelia,” “De Granadas Mi Vida” and “Perfecto Luna.” She still serves as artistic director and lead artist and travels there several times a year.

This year will be a busy one for Arreola. She is coordinating the events and programs in connection with the 15th anniversary of Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro. Both a documentary and a book on the company’s work will be released as well.

Crediting the late Jerzy Grotowski and the Workcenter he founded in Pontedera, Italy, with introducing her to theatre as ritual, she went on to use some of his methods to help empower young women. Rituals connected to Commedia dell’Arte, hunting and death have also played a role in helping her help actors develop their roles. In addition, Arreola has training in Suzuki and Butoh – two modern approaches to acting and movement that originated in Japan.

Participation in the international seminar Meetings with Remarkable Women, where she taught a workshop called Objective Drama Project and Art as Vehicle, was an experience that she says helped her clarify “what I’m doing in the theater, and who I am as an artist.”

Arreola is particularly proud of her key contributions as part of the artistic team that brought the world the Animating Democracy Lab project, “Nuestro Pueblo,” a bi-national project about the U.S.−Mexico border, with San Diego Repertory Theatre and Centro Cultural Tijuana. She was also the choreographer and a performer in its final production, Nuevo California.

Moving between Florida, Mexico and the world

Now that she's based in Florida, Arreola finds herself in the ideal place to do what she does. She has discovered, as many have, that Tampa Bay is perfectly situated between Latin America, the rest of the United States and the world when it comes to culture as well as commerce. USF has been the jumping off point for more trips, most recently to Italy and Guinea, her first visit to the African continent.

One of her favorite projects at USF was the production of “Blood Wedding / Bodas de Sangre.” She envisioned mounting it in two languages – something that was a first for USF. Would it be possible for actors who were not fluent in Spanish to take on such a task, she wondered? To her surprise, not only were they up to the challenge, they surpassed her expectations.

“The students did a fabulous job participating in this play,” she said. “Since the play was bilingual, it helped students to improve their Spanish skills. There were around 25 students acting plus there were dozens of students working in the production aspects. All together we created a very collaborative environment and a successful production.”

In Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking nation, nearly 100 children attended Arreola’s class where she also worked with a troupe of actors teaching them what she learned from Growtowski.

“I am positive that the children’s impulse to join the workshop in Annobon was an urgent, collective reaction to a need for creative participation, in a public space,” Arreola said.“They wanted to be seen and heard.And I simply facilitated that.At a certain point, the audience became the actors.That is extremely important, to take action on a personal level and community level. I created a safe space of expression and freedom.Also, I shared some tools that they can use to explore in whatever way that they wished to,” – just as she does at USF.

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563