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Puerto Rico: Dancing through the Lens of Heriberto Castro

Dancing is not only one of the most ancient art forms, it is also one of the most transitory. A dance only exists in the moment it is being danced; once it is over, there is no trace left of it. This aspect of dance is what makes the work of people like Heriberto Castro so important in the effort to support the cultural and artistic activities of a country. Thanks to people like him, a dance which would only usually exist in a certain time and place can be captured in a tangible way and so continue to exist.

Heriberto Castro is a photographer who is fascinated by the possibilities of movement of the human body. Talking to him, I noticed such an effervescent enthusiasm for what he does that it was like talking to one of those fortunate people who have retained that child-like ability to be amazed, which we too often lose. He met up with me to discuss the blog he has dedicated to the world of dance, En la punta del pie [es].

GV: How did the blog emerge?

Heriberto Castro

Heriberto Castro (HC): Viene originalmente de mi necesidad de cubrir baile. Fascinado por la estética de los cuerpos en movimiento desplazándose en un espacio. Luego el qué hacer con las imágenes me mueve a escribir, pues el quehacer cultural está dominado por otras disciplinas. Comencé a escribir de baile en Claridad en el '93. Era una forma de ver mis imágenes publicadas y a la vez honrar a los artistas del movimiento y darme a conocer como fotógrafo.

Heriberto Castro (HC): It originally comes from my need to cover dance: a fascination of the aesthetics of bodies in movement, travelling through space. Wondering what to do with the images propels me to write, because cultural activity is controlled by other disciplines. I started writing about dance in the newspaper Claridad [es] in '93. It was a way of seeing my pictures published whilst at the same time honouring the artists of the movement and getting myself known as a photographer.

GV: Is the name of your blog a play with words? Does it come from the expression “en la punta de la lengua” [on the tip of one's tongue]?

HC: Viene, precisamente, de la plena “En la punta del pie”. Es una plena de Puerto Rico, tiene que ver con baile y la idea es que estás abarcando diferentes géneros. […] Así surge el espacio e inmediatamente que empiezo a escribir, vi la acogida, por la necesidad de la documentación.

HC: It comes precisely from the saying “en la punta del pie” [on the tip of one's toes]. It's a Puerto Rican saying that has to do with dancing and the idea is that you are embracing different genres. [...] That's how the blog came about, and as soon as I started to write I saw a gap, realised that documentation was necessary.

GV: Apart from photos, your blog has some excellent pieces about the activities that you photograph. Have you had any dance training?

Performance of “El amor brujo”, choreography by Thierry Malandin, for the Malandain Ballet Biarritz company in the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Centre in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as part of the 2011 Casals Festival. © Heriberto Castro. Used with permission.

HC: No, no tengo formación académica en baile. Sin embargo comencé a fotografiar baile a finales de los ‘70 para la época de los Juegos Panamericanos del ‘79, produciendo varios viajes a Rincón para capturar fotos de los ensayos de COPANI [Comité Organizador Panamericanos Instrucción Pública]. Estas imágenes provocaron la cobertura de bailes folklóricos de forma tal que la compañía Gíbaro de Puerto Rico me lleva a documentarlos en una de sus participaciones a un Festival de Bailes Folklóricos en España por espacio de un mes. Aquí no solo documenté a Puerto Rico, sino a diferentes países y regiones de España.

Esta diversidad cultural me lleva a sumergirme en la lectura de baile. Provocando el querer saber de otras modalidades, géneros, hasta su historia, llego a lo contemporáneo, lo cuál me apasiona continuando en su documentación. Esto logró que varias compañías me comisionaran para retratarlos. No son los géneros, sino cuando descubres los procesos que pasa el bailarín para interpretar a un coreógrafo, o en lo contemporáneo cuando lanzan propuestas a través del baile, o improvisaciones estructuradas para que el espectador piense y reflexione lo que me cautiva a escribir hoy en día.

HC: No, I haven't had any formal dance training. However, I began to photograph dance at the end of the 70s for the period of the 1979 Pan American Games, making various journeys to Rincón to take photos of the COPANI trials [Panamerican Organising Committee of Public Instruction]. These images led to the coverage of folkloric dances; the Puerto Rican company Gíbaro took me to Spain for about a month to document their performances in a Festival of Folkloric Dance. I didn't only document it for Puerto Rico, but other countries and regions of Spain as well.

This cultural diversity leads me to submerge myself in dance literature. It provokes a desire to know other forms and genres, as well as their history. Even contemporary, which still thrills me to document. This led to several companies commissioning me to photograph them. They aren't genres, but when you discover the processes a dancer goes through to interpret a choreographer, or in contemporary dance when they make proposals through dance, or structured improvisations to make the spectator think about and reflect on that same thing that captivates me to write today.

GV: When I read the blog, I loved it because there were some articles which made me think, “this should be in a newspaper”, as currently newspapers do not have the type of coverage in which a deeper commentary is made about cultural activities.

HC: Antes lo había; lamentablemente, se ha ido perdiendo.

HC: There used to be; unfortunately, we see them less and less.

GV: What did you want to achieve with the blog?

New World School of the Arts interpreting Robert Battle's “Battlefield” choreography. © Heriberto Castro. Used with permission.

HC: Mi intención con el blog, cuando lo hice, […] era simplemente documentar y de alguna manera aglutinar la comunidad de baile. En estos momentos deseo se convierta en una revista que contenga la historia y el acontecer del baile en Puerto Rico, incluyendo los intercambios culturales con otros países y sentir haber contribuido con el quehacer cultural de mi patria. De alguna forma he tenido feedback de muchos bailarines que agradecen la cobertura que he logrado, porque ellos a veces no tienen tiempo de ver algunas funciones por ensayos y esto me satisface.

HC: My intention with the blog when I made it [...] was simply to document dance and somehow unite the dancing community. Now I want to turn it into a magazine containing the history and current goings-on related to dance in Puerto Rico, including cultural exchanges with other countries and feeling like I've contributed to the cultural activities of my country. I've had feedback from a lot of dancers who appreciate my coverage, because they sometimes don't have time to see performances because of rehearsals. I like that.

GV: How would you like the blog to develop in the future?

HC: A mí me gustaría en el futuro poder cubrir funciones de danza, movimiento en todas las comunidades donde hayan puertorriqueños, en Nueva York, California… Eso me encantaría, poder hacer eso, expandirme a esa zona y con la cobertura servir de puente a la comunidad de baile en Puerto Rico […] Es increíble, porque, igual que en teatro: hay gente de teatro en Nueva York y se conocen, pero ¿qué está haciendo cada cual? Porque estamos aparte, nadie sabe; y lo mismo en baile.

HC: In the future I would like to cover dance performances, movement in all the communities where there are Puerto Ricans, like New York, California… I would love it, to be able to do that: branch out into that area and with the coverage serve as a way of connecting the dance community in Puerto Rico [...] It's just like in theatre. It's incredible because there are people in theatre in New York and they know each other, but what is everyone doing? Because we are all apart, nobody knows. It's the same in dance.

GV: Do you use any other platforms online to make the blog more widely known?

Lyulma Rivera and Omar Nieves in Jesús Miranda's piece “Reflejo”, before the performance of “El amor brujo” in the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Centre. © Heriberto Castro. Used with permission.

HC: Lo estoy haciendo a través de Facebook, cuando me encuentro con gente de baile fuera de Puerto Rico, que son hispanos, o que veo que son puertorriqueños, les envío el blog. De esta forma mucha gente de allá lo han estado siguiendo. Pero muchos de ellos no sé si son puertorriqueños o no; algunos sí sé que lo son. […] Ya hice la página en YouTube para vídeos y en estos días tengo que hacer la de Facebook. Y qué interesante, ¿verdad? que ahora hay esos medios, que podemos hacer esto. […] Lo más interesante para mí ha sido también conectarme con compañías de baile, que tú dices “Esa gente no me van a responder a mí” […] y te responden, y se hacen miembros del blog y tú dices “¡Ea, diache! ¡Qué chévere!” Porque, volvemos, el Internet se está convirtiendo realmente en un medio importante para todo el mundo que tiene un espacio, y eso ha sido chévere porque de la manera más sencilla nos comunicamos con gente de forma insospechada. Qué yo iba a pensar que me iba a comunicar con la primera bailarina de tal compañía; no hay manera de llegar a ella. Sin embargo a través de Facebook, tú te comunicas, le mandas el site, ella te responde agradecida. […] Y cuando vienes a ver, se abre una puerta.

HC: I'm doing it through Facebook. When I meet dance people outside Puerto Rico who are Hispanic, or I recognise that they're Puerto Rican, I send them the blog. A lot of people have been following it from that. But I don't know if they're all Puerto Rican; I know that at least some of them are. [...] I've already made a YouTube page for videos and in the next few days I need to do the Facebook page. And it's so interesting- isn't it?- that we now have these methods, that we can do that. [...] The most interesting thing for me has also been to connect with dance companies. You think, “These people aren't going to reply to me” [...] and they reply and become members of your blog and you say, “Wow! That's great!” We come back to the fact that the internet is really becoming an important medium for everybody who has a website, and that has been great because we communicate simply with people in an unforeseen way. Did I think I would be in touch with the first dancer of whichever company? There's no way of getting to her. However, through Facebook, you can get in touch, you can send her the link, she thanks you. [...] And before you know it, a door has been opened.

GV: What influence has the internet had on photojournalism?

HC: Facilita la propagación del trabajo que uno hace y no está sujeto a la representación por un medio en particular. Su resultado lo ves cuando tú llamas, y saben quién eres y lo que estas haciendo. Tu trabajo te sostiene. Personalmente, estoy comprometido con mis lectores y seguidores presentando un trabajo con honestidad basado en mis vivencias y documentar la labor de los artistas sin pretensiones. Esto me obliga a continuar educándome.

HC: It facilitates the propagation of one's work and it is not subject to representation through any medium in particular. You see the result when you call someone, and they know who you are and what you're doing. Your work supports you. Personally, I'm committed to presenting work to my readers and followers with an honesty based on my experiences and to documenting the work of the artists without pretension. This forces me to continue educating myself.

GV: Why photograph the world of dance in Puerto Rico? What was it about this world that attracted you?

CoDa 21 in “El orden de las cosas” at the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Centre, choreographed by Roberto Oliván. © Heriberto Castro. Used with permission.

HC: Es que realmente el fotógrafo es visual; y como todas las artes visuales ocurre un proceso, igual que el artista plástico, el escultor, el bailarín… existe un sentimiento que te hace trazar una línea, esculpir con cierta fuerza, exigir un desplazamiento de tu cuerpo en un espacio y mi proceso de determinar en qué momento capto una imagen, qué luz enciende mi estética, y es aquí dónde me conecto con el baile. Por eso a pesar de formas distintas, hay una conexión. Uno visualmente responde a unas líneas, a unos diseños. […] El interés siempre en fotografía, de cierta manera, el mayor interés es la parte humana, lo que me dice tal o cual cosa del otro, y tú lo quieres tener ahí en una foto. Qué pasa: en baile hay líneas, hay diseño, hay… una energía, un qué se yo, cuando alguien viene y hace una extensión con el pie y la falda hace ¡shhhhm! y crea un visual, dices “¡Wow!”, es una cosa como “¡Wow!” Y qué pasa: el visual, a nivel de ojo, que tú lo estás mirando, pasa bien rápido, pero si tú lo detienes y tú ves exactamente ahí, ¡pap! la forma y la línea. Y tan pronto tú lo tienes ahí paralizado, y lo ves en una imagen, ¡pap! te comunica algo. […] Algunas coreografías corresponden a lo que está pasando en la actualidad.

Usualmente en mi opinión, hay coreógrafos que están más conectados que otros. […] El coreógrafo tiene la intención de llevar un mensaje contemporáneo con lo que está pasando en la actualidad o con sus procesos. Yo creo que todo el que está en las artes, Dios, el Universo, dentro de todo esto hay una conexión. Esta fuerza sirve para que la civilización evolucione. Cuando detengo ese instante, en ese momento me conecto con el que baila y con el que coreografía y mi imagen representa esa conexión, y aquí siento, todos evolucionamos.

HC: Photography is visual, and like all visual arts there's a process. It's the same for the artist, the sculptor, the dancer… there is a feeling that makes you draw a line, sculpt with some force, demand a displacement from your body in a space. My process is determining in which moment to capture the image, what light is best for the aesthetics, and it's here that I connect with dance. That's why, in spite of different forms, there is a connection. One visually responds to lines, to designs. [...] The interest in photography is always, in a certain way, the human part: what tells me such and such a thing about the other, and what you want to have there in a photo. What happens: in dance there are lines, there are designs, there is… an energy, something I can't put my finger on, when someone comes and extends their foot and the skirt goes shhhhm! and creates a visual, you say, “Wow!”, it's something like “Wow!” And what happens? The visual that you're looking at, at eye level, passes really quickly, but if you stop and see it there exactly, pap! the form and the line. And as soon as you have it stopped there, and you see it in an image, pap! it communicates something to you. Some dances correspond to what is currently happening in the world.

Usually, in my opinion, there are choreographers who are more connected than others. [...] The choreographer intends to carry a contemporary message with what's currently happening or with their processes. I think that all there is in the arts, God, the Universe; in between them all there's a connection. This strength causes civilisation to evolve. When I pause in the moment, I connect with whoever is dancing and whoever choreographed the dance and my image represents that connection, and here I feel it: we all evolve.

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