BWW Interviews: Roberto Villanueva
ROBERTO VILLANUEVA, born in the Philippines, is the Executive/Artistic Director and Founder of BalaSole Dance Company. He trained briefly at SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance and received his BA in Dance Performance from University at Buffalo. Acclaimed nationally and internationally for his abilities as a dance artist, Roberto has performed, conducted dance residencies, judged dance competitions, and taught master classes in U.S., Europe, and Asia. He has worked with renowned choreographers such as Dwight Rhoden, Kevin Wynn, Milton Myers, and Eleo Pomare and performed with dance companies such as Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company, Steeledance, Marie-Christine Giordano Dance, Pick of the Crop Dance, and Buffalo City Ballet. Roberto has mentored/worked with artists from renowned companies such as the Limón Dance Company, Elisa Monte Dance, Lucinda Childs Dance, Parsons Dance, Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, Joffrey Ballet, Donald Byrd/The Group, Ballet Frankfurt, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Twyla Tharp Dance, Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble, The Isadora Duncan Dance Company, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and Rockettes.
Villanueva founded BalaSole Dance Company in 2010 as a multi-genre and all inclusive Dance Company. Since its official incorporation in July 2010 as an educational non-profit dance organization, the company has presented informational sessions and performances for the general public at prominent New York City dance venues such as the Baryshnikov Arts Center's Jerome Robbins Theater, The Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater, Dance Theater Workshop, and Tribeca Performing Arts Center. In June 2012, BalaSole Dance Company officially became the resident Dance Company of the College of Mount Saint Vincent.
BalaSole Dance Company is the only dance organization in the United States that is solely dedicated to bridging the gaps in the field of concert dance. BalaSole Dance Company's roster includes artists from renowned companies such Limón Dance Company, Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Parsons Dance, Lucinda Childs Dance, Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble, Philadanco, The Isadora Duncan Dance Company, Tulsa Ballet, Cirque du Soleil, as well as students/graduates from The Julliard School, New York University, SUNY Purchase, The Boston Conservatory, Columbia University, Harvard University, Long Island University, Rutgers University, University at Buffalo, Muhlenberg College, North Carolina University, East Carolina University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Marymount Manhattan College, University of the Arts, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, George Mason University, and University of Oklahoma. Many have received undergraduate/graduate degrees in Dance, Education, Neuroscience and Behavior, Exercise Science, Business Management, English Literature, and American Studies.
Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to interview Mr. Villanueva.
Q. You were originally going to pursue accounting. How did you become interested in dance?
A. During my junior or senior year in high school, I realized I was good in accounting, so I decided to pursue accounting in college at SUNY Buffalo. At SUNY we were required to complete a few credits within the athletics department, so I took a gym class called "Introduction to Movement," which was taught by Tressa Gorman Crehan, a faculty member from the dance department. She told me I had a natural sense of movement, and to visit the dance department. I didn't know what a dance department was! She told me that the department offered a special major degree in dance and a performing opportunity through their Dance Company. I asked myself if people could really major in dance. Tressa encouraged me to watch some of the classes offered by the department, so I visited the department the next day and watched a ballet class in the morning. I was so taken by the whole experience; I ended up watching various dances classes offered by the department all week long. Then I decided I wanted to be dancer--not an accountant--and registered for all beginner level dance classes the department offered the following semester. After about a year, I was accepted to the University's Dance Company. I also started choreographing and performing for other small dance productions offered by the department. It was around this time that I invited my parents to come see me perform. I didn't tell them anything about the performance. They had no idea it even involved dance. The performance was in a small theater. Unbeknownst to me, my parents sat in the front row. I can still remember the shocked look on their faces. After the show, the first things they said to me were "Why are you doing this? It's a waste of your time. There is no future in dancing. What is happening with accounting?" So I replied, "I'm still going to pursue accounting. This is just a pastime." But I lied. I knew I wanted to dance. That was also the first and only time my father saw me perform.
Q. You won a scholarship to Alvin Ailey and the national title "Mr. Dance of America" from the Dance Masters of America. That must have been a great accomplishment.
A. About two years after I started dancing, Thomas Ralabate, one of the faculty members at SUNY Buffalo, asked me if I would be interested in competing for the Mr. Dance of America competition. I thought he was being funny. I asked him how I could compete in a dance competition when I just started learning how to dance. He said he was willing to coach and train me for the local "Mr. Dance of Western New York" competition that was to take place in six months. So I humored him and agreed to it. I ended up winning the competition, which qualified me to compete in the national "Mr. Dance of America" competition a few months later. To my surprise, I also won the national title. I just didn't think it was possible. I was very happy, but very sad as well, because my parents weren't there to witness my accomplishment. They didn't even know I won the local title and that I was competing for the nationals in New York City. I just knew they wouldn't approve. Anyway, I told them about it when I went back home after the nationals. At that point, they weren't sure how to feel. I knew they were proud because they shared the news with everyone they knew in the United States and in the Philippines. However, they kept asking me about accounting and telling me how important it was for me to get my accounting degree so that I could have a good future. To not upset them, I told them I was still pursuing accounting and kept them out of the loop in terms of my college education. Winning the competition gave me the confidence to move to New York City a year later and audition for the summer intensive program at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I was very grateful to receive a special scholarship from this world-renowned dance institution. The scholarship reaffirmed my decision to pursue a career in concert dance. I have to add that Mr. Ralabate still serves as my mentor and as a friend today.
Q. Your next few years were rough and fraught with unhappiness. Could you elaborate on this?
A. After moving to New York City, I started auditioning for dance companies. I was rejected several times. I couldn't understand why initially, but I eventually figured it out when I noticed that taller male dancers were getting the jobs. One day I asked the director before an audition if he was looking for a male dancer taller than 5 foot 3 inches. He said yes, so I said thank you and left before the audition started. I did the same thing for another audition. After that I stopped auditioning and kept my focus on my retail job as a store manager. I did manage to land a few concert dance jobs through word of mouth and by attending master classes.
My father passed away in 1994. In my culture, by the time we reach adolescence we are already conditioned to follow the tradition of taking care of our aging parents. I quickly realized I couldn't rely on the concert dance jobs to financially support my mother and myself. So I gave up my dream of having a career as a professional concert dancer and took a second retail store job. That was a very painful and difficult decision. Then I ended up in the corporate world working for an investment banking firm and, later, for a non-profit organization. While in the corporate world full time, I continued to teach, choreograph, and perform on a limited basis to satisfy my artistic passion. In essence, my corporate job gave me the means to do my art.
Q. You also pursued a graduate degree at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice's Masters of Public Administration Program. I guess it's safe to say that you are well rounded.
A. I mentioned earlier that I discovered I was good in accounting back in high school. That skill helped me get a managerial position in the retail industry, and later led me to my roles as Cash Manager for Wassertein Perella & Co. and as Director of Operations for the American Bible Society. While I was in the corporate world, I realized I also had a talent for administration.
Q. When did you make the choice to break away from business and into dance?
A. I can't really say I broke away from business and into dance when I started BalaSole Dance Company. Running a Dance Company requires business acumen. It involves strategic, business and financial planning, as well as administration, marketing, government compliance, program and partnership development, all of which I do as Executive Director. In my second role as Artistic Director, I serve as a casting director, producer, choreographer, performer, educator, and mentor. What I discovered is that I can actually tap into both sides of my brain and have a blended approach to running the company. This is a skill that I try to pass on to the artists I mentor. I also tell them that dance is not much different from other non-artistic fields. Our work as dance artists involves planning, research, analysis, execution, and evaluation. The only difference is that we have a different instrument, the body, and output, dance presentation.
Q. How did you get the opportunities to perform?
A. Mostly through word of mouth and master classes. Choreographers approached me after receiving a referral or after seeing me dance in their master classes. For instance, choreographer/director Dwight Rhoden asked me to perform in Complexions after seeing me in his master class in the mid-90s.
Q. You've worked as a dancer with so many dance companies. Was this on a contract basis or as a full-time member?
A. They were mainly short-term contracts, some I did over and over for the same companies. For instance, since 1998, I still perform with Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company on an ad hoc basis.
Q. You have mentored many dancers. What exactly does that mean? Were they sent to you for further coaching, or did you advertise yourself as a coach and dancers came to you based on your experience?
A. As the founder of BalaSole Dance Company, I developed the mission statement of the company, and mentoring is part of that mission. In addition to receiving Mr. Ralabate's mentorship in the field of concert dance, I was also lucky enough to receive mentorship in leadership/administration from Maria Martinez, former Vice President at the American Bible Society. I attribute my successes from these two mentors because they helped shape most of who I am today as a leader, administrator, educator, and artist. I want to pay it--the mentorship I received--forward by mentoring artists. As a mentor, you don't just teach what you learned from books or school; you also teach what you learned from experience. My hope is that the artists I mentored will also pay it forward.
Q. You are also a choreographer? How did you get interested in choreography, and is this the next logical step in your career?
A. I started choreographing after one year of dancing in college. I've always enjoyed the challenge of creating a dance composition. I have not stopped being a choreographer.
Q. You've also done a one man show, "Pieces of Me."
A. Pieces of Me: An Inside Look At A Dance Artist's Journey was a concert program of six solos I choreographed and performed. The show was made possible by the Jerome Foundation through the Harlem Stage Fund. Interpolated in the show were my personal commentaries to give the audience members a glimpse inside my life as a dance artist in New York City, my perspective on the challenges and imbalances in the field of concert dance, and my inspiration for the show and each solo. Also, the audience members had a unique concert experience as they witnessed me prepare for the show and change costumes from one piece to another on stage. This show revealed not only my strengths as an artist, but also my vulnerabilities as a person. I produced the show to educate the public about a dance artist's journey, but also to raise money and awareness for BalaSole Dance Company.
Q. In just two years, you've successfully produced 8 major educational concert seasons showcasing and mentoring 82 underrepresented dance artists. During the same period, you also succeeded in implementing the organization's Emerging Artist Program and Access2Dance Program. Tell me more about this.
A. All the artists showcased in a concert receive mentorship on artistry, technique, auditions, career planning, financial planning, injury prevention, and entrepreneurship. I mentor our artists in order to help them succeed in their careers within or outside the field of concert dance. We have, so far, showcased and mentored 100 artists.
To date, the company has provided 7 emerging artists mentorship and opportunity to perform with the company in a professional setting. The goal of this program is to give emerging and re-emerging artists performing opportunities, as well as visibility at one of New York City's prominent dance venues.
We are now in our third year providing free classes to financially disadvantaged children through our Access2Dance program. Through this program we provide economically disadvantaged children and youth with an arts engagement and education experience that promotes cognitive improvement, creative expression, and good health.
Q. What can we expect from you in the future?
A.In the next three years, I plan to increase BalaSole Dance Company's visibility by taking our programmatic activities nationally and internationally, as well as expand our programs by building more partnerships. I hope that by doing these, BalaSole Dance Company can inspire many people to value diversity and individuality, to find their own voices, to appreciate the field of dance, to help those who are being marginalized, and to make positive contributions to their communities. I will also continue teaching, choreographing, and performing until I'm no longer able to do so physically.
Photograph: Joseph Pe