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BWW Interview: Enrique Cruz DeJesus Paints The Future and Honors The Past

Enrique Cruz DeJesus and Shauntée Henry
Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company
Photo Credit: Joe Bly

There may be "no second acts in American lives" - thank you, Fitzgerald - and yet Enrique Cruz DeJesus has lived so many exciting chapters that seven or eight books could be devoted to his journey. Mr. DeJesus has been the Artistic Director and Choreographer of Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company since 1998, inheriting directorship of this nearly 45 year old company from Andy Torres during a time when the future was anything but certain. Having led a successful concert dance career - that saw him working with Eleo Pomare, Talley Beatty, Gary Deloatch, Martial Roumain and George Faison - Mr. DeJesus transitioned into a highly successful theater career with his stage debut at Shakespeare in the Park's production of "Measure for Measure" under the direction of George C. Wolfe. Through choreographing and directing, Mr. DeJesus found his way back home to take on directorship of Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company and to secure its future. Under his leadership, AOTC has not only continued its mission of supporting the community and providing opportunities to minority dancers, it has also developed new masterpieces, preserved historical works, and secured a permanent home from which to continue educating youth with programs that serve as a positive social outlet as well as a forum for those interested in a professional career.

This coming Saturday, July 30th, 2016, AOTC celebrates its return to the historical 4th Street block with a concert at Peridance Dance Center's Salvatore Capezio Theater. In anticipation of that concert, I spoke with Mr. DeJesus about his personal journey, reminisced about the three years that I danced with the company, and learned about what he wants for the future.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
It was always interesting to me... When I came up I was never the "better dancer". I was a hard working dancer. I would see the dancers that I admired and I wanted to borrow whatever they did well. I wanted to have that in my body and I learned that by taking pieces from people that I respected that I was creating the person who I was going to be. Yes, my leg went up but it wasn't like the leg that I saw of other people. Yes, I could jump and turn but it was not as good as other people. What I did was find the medium and find that person in me. That was what Andy (Andy Torres, the second Artistic Director of AOTDC) used to tell me: "One of the things that's good about you is that you look like a man onstage. You dance like a man. And that's very rare. When you go out, you swell; you exude that." And I played up on that; throughout my dance career I played on that sort of machismo. One of my favorite dancers was Gary Deloatch. When you saw Gary he always had his mustache or his beard. He was completely different from everybody else. Everyone else was a tall, beautiful, thin guy. He was the shorter, hairy, powerful guy and I said, "Yeah! I wanna be like that!" You know.

We both chuckle.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Obviously things have changed since then. You borrow these things and you learn from those things. What I always try to tell my dancers is that no one is unique to their time but there are contributors that you can learn from. But you have to find those things. You have to find what's good about those things and what you're going to do with them. Everybody has to share a common ground and a sort of competitive...

Juan Michael Porter II
Camaraderie.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Camaraderie. Right. Some competitiveness that is still working together but that's bringing the best out of each other. And these kids- I always say they don't want to work hard. As you know, the older ballets are ten times as hard.

JMPII
Yeah.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Ten times harder than these things that- I go like this: "I didn't quite get that but... I liked the costume."

JMPII
Hahaha!

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Or I say I liked the dancers because, you know. I believe that you have to like something about it. If they didn't screw up or the dancers didn't do something to mess up their ballet; you have to find something to like about it.

JMPII
Appreciate it.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Yeah. And it doesn't mean that you're going to like everything. When you like it you say, "D-mn. I need to see this company again. I need to go there." In these last few weeks I went to see Ron K. Brown and RIOULT and I found things that I liked. I said, "WOW". I always encourage my dancers to see these companies of mature dancers because you sit down and you say, "What could I learn from him?" And what I learned as an artistic director and choreographer is that "Wow. The artistic director did his gig and the dancers did their gig." Now it doesn't mean that I liked everything but I appreciate that they made me feel like it was worth seeing it. This is what I do or this is what I try to find. I've seen- Back in my day when people didn't like something they used to get up and leave. They would be quiet about it; they wouldn't say anything; I can't do that. There are things that I learned from my time; there are things that I just won't do because I don't think they are right. In my time I've seen choreographers make people very competitive against each other to find the characters that they all are playing on. But I also found that was not good because it set that-

JMPII
For the rest of the time they're working together that's who they are-

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Yeah. Tension, and yes, everybody brought the best out of each other but if you move forward twenty five years later, you're sitting down with one of your comrades and someone else will come up to you and say, "I remember you. You was always a favorite- blah, blah, blah." And it's like, "I ain't no d-mn favorite. I was doing my gig."

JMPII
Hahaha!

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
And you start finding that these choreographers that we were brought up by were bringing this sort of ugliness out of us and unknowingly we were acting out on it. I've said, I can't do that and I don't wanna do that with my dancers; I really don't. I hope that if I can keep building this, that Alpha becomes a full salary company. I'm not trying to be a major institution. I want Alpha to hold its main philosophy. I want Alpha to never be shy to say something about the time that we're living. Because if we don't do that then we can't create art; we can't make honest art. And I want Alpha to be- I don't want it to be this "thing", but if we can find 15-20 weeks of touring every year, and have enough arts and education performances, and the dancers are on a decent salary, and then they can subsidize by teaching or doing whatever, that's fine with me. And if I can keep them for a long time, that's even better. Because then you're grooming one after another; the way that it was done to me. I know that people get married, people get pregnant, and people go through health crises; you know: life. But I think that's the way an arts or dance company should run; passing it on because the person earned their keep to be the next thing. Who could be the person to become the next administrator of the company?

It is clear that Mr. DeJesus is speaking of legacy.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
That person would have to respect everything we do. And if you can't respect what we do then... We can't have you in a situation where you're going to bump heads with someone. No. And it's weird to me Juan, because in my time I respected everything that- Even when I didn't like a ballet, I did the sh-t out of that ballet. Or even when they coached me and I didn't feel like they were coaching me right; it didn't matter. I would say, "I'm going to be onstage." Then I would come into the studio and rehearse myself. I didn't know why I was doing that naturally, but later on I realized that I didn't want to look bad just because someone didn't want to coach me. So I would go in and do it and come back. There was never going to be a time in their eyes that I was going to do it right, but I said, "Someone's going to remember me." And sure enough, that became my career. My career became, "Who's that guy with the long hair? Who's that macho guy? Who's this?" And I found that was- what do you call that? My signature.

JMPII
Your calling card; your trademark! Like, "Enrique's the guy".

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
He's the guy. "Call him. He can pick up a girl. He can lift her over his head."

From here we speak about Mr. DeJesus' leaving the stage and being on the other side of the table.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Falling into theater and taking the same step to be an artistic director and going through the same motion that every other artistic director goes through. Those times when you go, "What do I do now? I'm broke. I'm blah", and then you start realizing that there's something beautiful about this thing. It's not about becoming anything great; everything's about becoming the person that you want to be. I think my journey's just beginning. My journey is only now just starting. And I'll remind you that I'm going 31 years in this business. That's what it is and that's how I feel. I still have more to learn and I'm willing to learn and am willing to humble myself to learn to become more a part of this community. If it brings success, great. If it doesn't but I'm still involved, then that's successful for me. It's just that. Even talking to you is not just talking to you; I'm talking to one of my dancers and I'm talking to a writer who is an artist in his own right. I kind of wish we had this conversation before we got into everything else because we would have found that we have a common sense of what we do- that we share what we do.

Mr. DeJesus and I frequently butted heads during my tenure with the company. We always had respect for each other but neither of us was always the easiest person. Hot-headed men love hard and fight hard when they believe in each other. Graciously, Mr. DeJesus has always had the policy that "What's in the past is past; we're here for today".

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
I would like all of my dancers and all of my choreographers who come through - who lend their talents or lend their works - to feel the same way. That this isn't something about "titles"; it's really about a collaborative journey and a sharing of the arts. Like- You can't get me onstage to do a concert cause I'm old as hell.

JMPII
Hahah! Why not?

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Because I'm not- I'm 200 pounds, I'm not- I feel what I do now. And I'm like- "No. No." Who wants to see this big massive man trying to do turns and jumps and-.

JMPII
You do it in rehearsal. You turn it out.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Yeah, but then I go home and I say, "Why is this hurting?"

JMPII
You left the stage before it left you.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Yeah. Completely. And it's weird because when I gave up concert dance, I didn't look back. Although I was doing some stuff in between- but when I started doing theater I really did not want to do anymore concert work. When I started choreographing, I realized that it could suck me back in. Some people called me and I was like, "Nuh-uh!" I did try it one time and was like, "Wow. How hard was it to lose 20 pounds to be in shape for a five minute piece?" I was like, " I will never be 160 pounds again." Never. That was my dance weight back then, which at that time was considered big.

JMPII
Now they'd say, "You need to gain about 20 pounds."

We discuss what having this new building means for the company.

JMPII
Where do you see yourself... with the building being here-? Because this took time to happen.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Mmm-hmm.

JMPII
How many years?

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
Fifteen years. It's a little over 15 because it started with advocacy with 13 organizations trying to get a home. And Margarita Lopez, she was the council-person of this area, was the one that wanted to be part of that movement. She was going to help us see how we could organize it and see how we could get those buildings. Well in that process they paired us with Downtown Art. And when that became a reality then it became a funding thing. How are we going to get the money to renovate? This building was the worst out of all the buildings. Everyone else's buildings got renovated but this one kept on getting stalled. Because it was just- the walls couldn't even hold each other. And because it was a historical building, they had to secure it; we had to get that whole designation thing from the historical society. Once we got past that they realized that the whole building had to be gutted. The walls had to be secured; they had to put metal beams in; all the systems got stripped out and every year it kept getting stalled. We were stalled for nearly three years. It is what it is. I felt that what I want to bring in the classes that we offer here is sort of that old school mentality where you get ballet from a ballet teacher who was a ballet dancer who was a ballet master who was a choreographer. A Graham teacher who was a Graham student, who was a Graham dancer who is now a soloist. I want to bring in that experience from a teacher who also was a performer. I want students to understand that knowledge because sometimes when they speak about technique and then speak about a role or the way the technique was used for a role, they have more to say. They have more to gain.

JMPII
You know why you're doing it.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus
You know why you're doing it. And you know why you're taking a class, or what we call "master teachers". Although we only have one studio where we can do all of these things, I want to do it in a way that both the ones that don't know will come and the ones that do come know why they're here. And so far I've managed to have experienced performers and amazing teachers who not only teach the technique but teach the background of the music, the background of the historical significance of the technique. For instance, I was having a conversation with Frank (Latin Dance Teacher) and he said, "That is salsa. This is mambo. Although they're both the same thing, rhythmically, a lot of the salsa stripped that away. There is no clavé in salsa although there is supposed to be." And that's when things become more contemporized or more pop and it loses its quality. Historically he knows what it is.

JMPII

He knows why it is.

Enrique Cruz DeJesus

And what the differences are.

Clearly Mr. DeJesus knows what the differences are and is making a huge difference. This is one of the reasons that 45 years later, Alpha Omega Dance Company is still here and going strong. Join them on Saturday, July 30th, 2016 at Peridance as they celebrate their return to the block and then join them at their gorgeous new space at 70 East 4th Street as part of their post show reception. Tickets for their Saturday performance are available at: alphaomegadance.bpt.me

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