The World At Her Feet

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Annabella Gonzalez celebrates 35th anniversary

By Adam Rathe

Despite being best known for her feet, Annabella Gonzalez first came to New York City on a Greyhound bus.

The Mexican-born founder of Annabella Gonzalez Dance Theater, which is celebrating its 35th year with a weekend-long program March 16 and 17 at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, came to New York one summer ostensibly to study theater, but left-returning to the University of Minnesota to finish a degree in art history-with a new creative obsession.

"I was taking classes at HB Studios and one of the theater classes was called Movement for Actors," she said. "When I came out of that class, I knew that I was in the wrong school. I knew that what I wanted was dance."

And it wasn't just dance that Gonzalez fell for.

"I knew this was the city I would love for the rest of my life," she said. "There was an immediate bond between us. Not only because of the arts, but because it's so international."

After completing her undergraduate degree, Gonzalez jumped at the chance to earn another degree in the city, where she could follow her less academic dreams as well. She moved to New York to work on a master's degree in art history at Columbia and continued to study dance on the side. Eventually, having a taste for the international, Gonzalez moved to Europe.

"I danced with a modern dance company in Geneva-it was very interesting," she explained. "I was there for seven years and we performed in Switzerland and in Eastern France. I got to know the European dance scene, which is very different from the American."

Still, she couldn't stay away. After nine years in Europe, Gonzalez moved back to New York determined to form her very own dance company, dancing as well as choreographing.

"I've always wanted to choreograph more than dance," she said. "Dancing, for me technically, is a big challenge. But I hear Mozart, who is my god, and I thought, do what you love. Do what comes easily rather than auditioning all over the place."

Starting a brand new company, however, was not a simple task.

"It was really difficult," Gonzalez said with a sigh. "I had a couple of friends in a ballet class-most of my dancers have strong ballet training-and in these classes I would do whatever I could to ask these other dancers to work for nothing at first. In exchange I would offer them dinner after a rehearsal or I would give them little gifts. I started out wherever I could, in crummy little studios that I could afford. There were dozens of those studios. I also worked out of my apartment, which has a mini-studio."

Gonzalez's tactics worked. She managed to cobble together a team that worked for her until 1977, when she was able to gain nonprofit status for the group and began auditioning dancers and working on fundraising.

She also began staging public performances, no small feat.

"If you want to do that, you need to have material-at least 90 minutes' worth," she explained. "Our first series, in 1977, was really the beginning of solid work. And then we performed a great deal in schools and senior centers and libraries-everywhere. We also tour nationally and I had the privilege of teaching on a U.S. State Department-sponsored trip in the Dominican Republic-and we have been performing in Mexico for four years now."

Since that initial performance, Gonzalez and her troupe, who are based out of her Upper East Side home, have stayed active in New York, performing everywhere from Lincoln Center's Out of Doors Festival to Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And while she's earned fans along the way, Gonzalez says that developing relationships with her dancers has been the most rewarding part of her job.

"I have helped many dancers, giving them a push," she says. "I've gotten some into teaching dance in public schools, one because of her presentation, [one who] joined Cirque du Soleil. Another subsequently moved upstate and started a new company. Another named his only daughter in my honor! Looking back, the human contact has been the most rewarding. I was moved when a stranger said to me last year, 'Are you people all friends? I could feel that.'"

To celebrate those relationships, the program Gonzalez is offering in celebration of her company's anniversary is fittingly unique, including a Gonzalez-choreographed piece for six dancers called Pastoral Latino, a solo piece called Days of Sunshine by guest artist Mazine Steinman, a revival of Gonzalez' Adam and Eve-themed piece, The Fall? and more.

It's a program that the choreographer hopes encourages participation from longtime fans as well as new ones. "I'm discouraged to see people staying home instead of attending live music and dance," she said. "It's a challenge to attract young people and get them to enjoy live dance. That's really something I want to get involved with and overcome."

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