After more than a decade of running his own dance company, becoming a success on his terms, far from his upbringing on the streets of Los Angeles, Victor Quijada wondered what else there was.
“Did I create this tomb I’m going to die in?” he thought. “When you’re young, you want it all and I had made a big list. A lot of it had come true. But I was stalling out and thinking about how change happens. Sometimes it happens to you, sometimes you choose it. Sometimes, you have to figure out how to live in a new normal or you get swept up in it.”
His soul-searching, fueled by a broken leg that required surgery, the rise of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and by his Montreal-based Rubberband dance troupe outgrowing his early ambitions, led to the creation of Ever So Slightly.
Premiering in 2018 after more than two years of development, the evening-length work will be performed in Dallas next weekend, presented by TITAS/Dance Unbound. It represents a return to the choreographer’s roots as a fierce hip-hop dancer.
Up until that point, Quijada’s work had been made for smaller venues with no more than seven dancers.
“Sharing something intimate with an audience was where my curiosity was,” he says. “When we got popular, we had to get bigger. I made a conscious decision to make a show that could inhabit bigger venues. I wanted to make more of a spectacle. I was throwing my hat in the ring with the big kids.”
The son of Mexican immigrants “who worked their asses off” to realize the American dream, Quijada grew up in the Baldwin Park suburb of L.A., where the affluent co-existed with people who lived in public housing and everything in-between, including Latino gangs and his middle-class family, he says.
While still in elementary school, young Victor began battling in the competitive gatherings of rappers, beatboxers and breakdancers called “cyphers.” It was the mid-1980s, and hip-hop culture was raging on the West Coast. His skills earned him the nickname Rubberband.
By his mid-teens, he was dancing at car shows and for name rappers like Coolio in music videos. “Not paying to get into clubs — that was the top,” Quijada says.
Then his view widened when he started attending Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. It opened him up to the world of painters and novelists. There he met the legendary Rudy Perez, who had relocated from New York where he had been part of the pioneering postmodern Judson Dance Theater in the early ‘60s.
“The way he approached dance, it wasn’t dancey-dance. It wasn’t ballet,” Quijada says. “It was very athletic, his own system. It didn’t set off my alarms that this is too weird. It was incremental, the universe pushing you forward. I started taking it into the cyphers.”
In 1996, at age 20, he decided to go to New York to audition for Twyla Tharp. One of the best American choreographers of all time, she was putting together a group of young dancers to learn and tour a trio of new pieces. Credentials weren’t required. Tharp was looking for raw talent, he says.
Quijada had it and was signed to a two-year contract, later extended by six months twice. His world expanded again, but it was also a difficult time. He danced to Beethoven and David Bowie but also stood out because of his lack of formal training. He was from a different culture.
“I felt like it was happening to me,” he says. “What did she see? I never had that conversation with her.”
He believes it was the breakdancing power moves he made during a two-minute freestyle portion of the audition “when I was in my identity, what hip hop gave me, cultivated in me. I thank God, I thank the universe for that. My attitude was: take no prisoners. I was a raw beast. But I felt low, and they were letting me know. I decided to battle and become the best at what they’re good at. I had my parents’ work ethic. ‘Eat it and show your teeth. Rip it to shreds.’ “
By the time he joined Elliot Feld’s company in 1999, Quijada was already freelancing, choreographing and performing with what he calls a proto-Rubberband. Then he landed another unlikely gig in 2000 as a member of the prestigious Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal.
In 2002, he formed Rubberband and began exploring the nexus between classical ballet, contemporary dance and the street moves he had been doing all his life. He even created the Rubberband Method, which has now been taught to thousands of dance students around the world.
He has choreographed 14 full-length productions for his company, toured extensively and made works for outside groups such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Yet in 2014, Quijada thought he might be through. A dramaturge helped him come up with a plan to essentially start over by letting go of movement vocabulary he had come to rely on.
“I trained the crew to know everything of my past so we could turn a new page, and I burned a bridge behind it,” he says. “I wanted to get back to what I was trying to make when I first started. Could I re-create the cyphers? In Ever So Slightly, there’s a wildness, like in the cyphers.”
The radical shift included his longtime musical collaborator, Jasper Gahunia, who had been creating scores for Quijada’s dances hip-hop style, including scratching on classical music records. For Ever So Slightly, Quijada set limits. “There’s no sampling, no turntables, no recorded music.”
He says that in L.A. in the early ‘90s, the lines were blurred between punk, grunge, surf and hip-hop. “It was like a mosh pit the way we would try to fight our way into the cyphers.”
The score by Gahunia and William Lamoureux, which they will play live in Dallas on guitar, bass, violin, keyboards, guitalele and drum pads, wound up sounding like rock ‘n’ roll or punk, Quijada says.
In conceiving Ever So Slightly, “every class ended with a cypher to Black Sabbath or Ozzy Osbourne. We broke to Def Leppard. The moves and the music found their way into the piece. The live music is almost like a rock show. There are hip-hop beats and some bad-ass guitar shredding,” he says.
Quijada believes it’s the perfect way to bounce back after COVID-19, which sidelined live performances by his company for 18 months.
“There’s something about Ever So Slightly that feels right about saying these things after COVID — the rage, the vulnerability, the feeling of isolation, the fight against each other, the fight out of it. After COVID, they have no extra coating.”