The sound of heavy footfalls stuffed a studio at Abrons Arts Center on a current afternoon, as the choreographer Mariana Valencia and her younger collaborator, Heera Gandhu, walked decisively round the room. With their arms raised to at least one aspect and fingers gnarled into claws, they referred to as to thoughts the basic transfer from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” however their faces betrayed little emotion. The recognizable gesture, mixed with their even-keeled power, managed to say “horror movie” and “postmodern dance” at the identical time, a becoming encapsulation of their pursuits.
Later in the rehearsal, reclining on the flooring, they requested one another: “What was it like when you were 12?”
“When I was 12, I would decorate my room with magazine pages,” Valencia stated.
“Magazines — who has those?” Heera replied incredulously. “When I was 12, I started dancing, through my rehearsals with you.”
Heera is now 13 — as of two weeks in the past — and for the final six months he and Valencia, 38, have been collaborating throughout their 25-year age distinction. Their present, “Heera,” opens at Abrons, on the Lower East Side, on Friday. Created in the playfully autobiographical and genre-mixing fashion for which Valencia, a celebrated solo performer, is understood, the undertaking has turn out to be an train in working collectively as equals regardless of a generational divide.
Layering understated motion with conversational textual content, in obliquely humorous and surreal methods, “Heera” prods at themes of reminiscence, creativeness, getting old and coming-of-age. At its core is the relationship between the two individuals onstage, who resist typical hierarchies of instructor and scholar, choreographer and dancer, establishing one thing nearer to a friendship. Valencia describes the work as “abstracted getting-to-know-each-other, in front of an audience.”
The thought for an intergenerational work got here from Ali Rosa-Salas, the inventive director of Abrons, who grew up in New York and took half in related collaborations as an adolescent by means of the Brooklyn group Dancewave. Since arriving at Abrons in 2017, she has been trying to deepen connections between its inventive and academic packages, which embody performing and visible arts lessons for college students 3 to 19. She wasn’t ranging from scratch; since the mid-Nineteen Nineties, the heart has been residence to Urban Youth Theater — Heera is a member — the place younger performers can take their coaching to the subsequent stage in productions directed by professionals.
Rosa-Salas, 31, approached Valencia earlier than the pandemic to gauge her curiosity in working with college students. In the previous couple of years, the want for strong artistic retailers for youngsters and teenagers — the place they’re taken severely as artists — has solely grown extra pressing, Rosa-Salas stated. She famous that Abrons will not be alone in offering such areas, citing, as only one different instance, the Young Dancemakers Company, a summer time program for public highschool college students, whose alumni just lately carried out with the choreographer Oona Doherty at the Irish Arts Center.
“This has been a really hard two-and-a-half years of remote school, of anxiety around Covid, of anxieties around how to interact and engage with people, let alone share how you feel,” Rosa-Salas stated in a cellphone interview. “I think artistic practice and this kind of devising process, it sounds corny, but it really has the potential to heal a lot of trauma.”
“That’s my meta hope for this work,” she added, “even if it’s operating on a micro level.”
Along the identical strains, Rosa-Salas labored with the choreographer Marguerite Hemmings and the new media artist LaJuné McMillian, who developed a video and performance piece for native highschool college students, offered at Abrons final yr. Rosa-Salas stated she was drawn to artists who see this type of course of as a mutual instructing and studying change, somewhat than “reinforcing that hierarchy of ‘you are learning from me as the adult professional.’” Embarking on her work with Heera, Valencia introduced simply that outlook.
“It didn’t feel interesting to me to be like, ‘Now I’m just going to make you do what I say,’” Valencia stated in a cellphone interview. “I think I was recalling my experience of being that age and being told what to do for a stage practice, whether it was singing or an instrument or acting” — she got here to bounce later — “and I remember feeling, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m being given this because I’m a kid.’ I wasn’t interested in being that adult to a younger person.”
When they started rehearsing in January, Valencia and Heera, who attends Tompkins Square Middle School in the East Village, barely knew one another. Much of their time in the studio has been spent unearthing shared pursuits. Among their discoveries: Both love Caesar salads, “soft clothes” (like sweatpants) and horror films, which have turn out to be a central topic of the work.
Speaking with Valencia in the courtyard of Abrons on a breezy June day, Heera, who lives together with his household in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, stated that the present “is a lot of things, so it would be hard to summarize in a couple of sentences.” He described his favourite half, a passage of exact unison motion identified as “dolphin” — it incorporates a sweep of the arms harking back to a dolphin’s tail — as “probably a perfect dance. It goes along with our play.”
Originally Valencia had envisioned a bigger forged, however when solely 4 college students confirmed as much as the audition in October, she took that as an indication to scale right down to a duet.
“There was something about the way Heera moved,” Valencia stated as they sat collectively in the courtyard, recalling the motion improv video games they performed at the audition. “I was like, ‘Oh, this kid can dance! And I’m not sure he knows that.’” She remembers pondering: “As long as someone can riff and feel comfortable in their body, that’s what I’m looking for.”
Before assembly Valencia, Heera had no formal dance expertise; performing has all the time been his major curiosity. (He additionally directs horror films at residence starring his two brothers, ages 10 and 14.) But Randy Luna, the director of schooling at Abrons, had observed his distinctive physicality as a performer. When Luna choreographed a Zoom model of “The Wiz” for Urban Youth Theater, he noticed “this lightness” in Heera, a “graceful and very peaceful” approach of shifting, Luna stated.
Reflecting on his position with Valencia, Heera noticed: “It’s not really like we’re dancing. It’s more just like we’re moving, and we do it in a way where you’re not really self-conscious about how you’re dancing.”
His dad and mom, Dale Gandhu and Monica Varma, stated in a cellphone interview that Heera — who, Varma stated, is known as “after a beloved Bollywood character” — had revealed few particulars about his coming efficiency, wanting to maintain it a shock. But his mom might sense, even from the little he had shared, that Valencia had drawn out a extra confident aspect of him.
“Naturally he’s sort of an introvert,” Varma stated. “I think this opportunity has given him the platform to express himself, because Mariana is actually trying to ask him what he thinks.”
Just a couple of days after his skilled debut in New York, Heera will transfer to Dallas together with his household. (Gandhu, who works in market analysis for PepsiCo, stated he was taking a work-related alternative there.) Heera doesn’t appear too dissatisfied.
“I like New York City,” he stated, “but I don’t really like the city hustle and the trains or getting anywhere. It’s not that easy.” He added that he’s excited “to be able to drive around in a car” and have his personal bed room in an even bigger home (in Brooklyn he shares a room together with his brothers).
In “Heera,” Valencia has made area for him to dream additional into the future. Without giving an excessive amount of away: Twenty-five years from now, he’s an actor, and they’re nonetheless pals.