Javier Dzul has come a long way.
Born in the jungles of Mexico, he was taught how to dance by his shaman parents of a Mayan tribe. At the age of 15, Dzul was spirited away by an anthropologist to Cuba, where he studied dance, before moving on to New York City to found his own dance company.
Now, Dzul has come to The Banff Centre, invited to choreograph the indigenous dance program. Working with a group of young dancers, his efforts take to the stage, Friday and Sunday (Aug. 26 and 28) with performances of Memory & Desire.
“The group of dancers they have now is a great group, they work really hard,” said Dzul. “It’s nice for me as an aboriginal to come and work with other people who are aboriginal, you don’t find that very often.”
The dance program consists of 10 aboriginal dancers, including six Canadians, three Mexicans and one Australian.
“The people who have come here from Mexico for this program, they’ve never seen anything like this,” said Dzul. “You get food, you get everything you need, it’s here, you just need to focus on your art. That’s pretty hard to find in other places.”
The scenery, though dramatically different from where he lives now, is not a distraction, said Dzul.
“No, actually it gives you ideas – I think it’s nice,” he said. “It brings me back to my childhood and this is good for me.”
The dance piece Dzul has created for his students is based on Mayan culture.
“The dance we are creating is a rite of passage, and is based on Mayan mythology and beliefs,” he said. “It’s about a young male who becomes a man and how the community supports him and teaches him to do that.
“For example, there are a lot of Mayan ideas where for a man to become a shaman he needs to be swallowed by a snake,” he explained. “When the snake swallows you, you have to go through and out the snake, so in the beginning I put the dancers so they look like Mayan paintings and start moving in a way that the man goes under them, and they create with their bodies the ribs of the snake. So you can see the man inside the snake, the idea of the snake moving and his body being processed.”
The choreography is a combination of modern dance, ballet, acrobatics and ritual dance, he said.
“They are young dancers, they are just becoming professional – I think the opportunity to be here and get weeks of work is great for them,” said Dzul. “You can see how they advance day to day, you know when you push them every day there are things that are hard, and when they see it the first time they think they won’t be able to do it, but over the pass of the days they achieve those things.
“They are good dancers; as a choreographer and a teacher, I feel really proud of their progress.”
Aboriginal dancers have less opportunities, he said, and providing this training is important work.
“I’m really interested in working with people that don’t have the opportunity that other people have, and aboriginal people don’t have the opportunity.” he said. “Myself, I feel very lucky the way my career and everything went because things took me to different steps to get to New York. It’s really hard for people like me to get out of the jungle.”
The performances will also have solo segments by Dzul and Lara Kramer, a Quebec-based choreographer.
“In the program I will perform a solo that is based on a Mayan ritual dance of transformation, and that is a shaman,” said Dzul. “A shaman can transform his body into animals, so the body of the dancer will transform into different animals during the length of the dance.”