Dancing in the Trees

Choreographer Gathers Tribe of 50 for Dance Installation

Choreographer Monica Robles Lopez rehearses with dancers at Cabrillo Boulevard in preparation for a dance installation at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
Paul Wellman

If you can jump one foot high and move to a beat, you’re a dancer. At least, in the eyes of Monica Robles Lopez, you’re a dancer, and one she wants to get to know. The 29-year-old, Puerto Rico-born choreographer is looking for 50 adults of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to take part in a large-scale outdoor dance performance. As long as you’re 18 or over and you can make it to rehearsals, you’re in.

“If you want your community represented, if you have an opinion, if you want to interact with people you might not usually interact with; you’ll want to be in this dance,” Robles Lopez explained over smoothies at Lazy Acres last week. “I’m looking for a wide range of people in terms of age, nationality, experience, and religious background-the only thing I will not accept is intolerance.” The group she has gathered so far includes a carpenter, a doctor, and a ballerina; teachers and students; travelers and retirees. They range in age from their twenties to their sixties, and most of them have little or no formal dance training. Yet they’re rehearsing twice a week, memorizing complex sequences of movement, contributing ideas, and preparing for two public performances: one in September as part of the 1st Thursday festivities downtown, and one in October at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

It all started when Robles Lopez saw an image in the newspaper of Herb Parker’s nature-based sculpture planned for the Garden’s upper meadow. Something about the labyrinthine structure built from redwood trunks sparked the choreographer’s imagination. To her, it called for a dance, and she envisioned a large group of people interacting in the space. “The first time I saw pictures of the labyrinth, I started going like this,” Robles Lopez said, rolling her head in a circle, bouncing up and down in her chair, and pumping the air with her fists, oblivious to the way the women seated a few tables away stared at her. “It was just so inspiring,” she continued. “I’m not a person of a lot of words; I use movement.”

Having recently moved to Santa Barbara from New York City, Robles Lopez had been looking for ways to collaborate with other artists, and she seized the opportunity to meet Parker and discuss the possibility of creating a dance event that would take place inside and around the sculpture. With his approval and the official go-ahead of the Botanic Garden, she was on her way. Despite the fact that she does not own a car, Robles Lopez has been traveling to and from the Garden and to rehearsal spaces around town to meet with collaborators. When she can afford it, they rent studio space at Santa Barbara Dance Arts in the funk zone. When she can’t, they dance on the grass along Cabrillo Boulevard, using the palm trees as stand-ins for the redwood structure. “The space is so important,” she explained. “It really affects the way you move.”

Though she is trained as a modern dancer and has studied with companies including American Ballet Theatre, Doug Varone and Dancers, and Keigwin and Company, Robles Lopez is interested in getting away from the modern dance concepts of “gestural” and “pedestrian” movement and finding out how people move instinctually. Some sections of the dance-in-progress consist simply of walking in formation to a beat-a task that’s not as easy as it may seem. “The rehearsal process is challenging, but we have the greatest time,” she said. “The dancers are so open to the experience. I’m kind of saying. ‘Follow me blindly; who knows what will happen?'”

Robles Lopez hopes to grow her group of dancers over the summer, and encourages anyone who’s interested to attend a rehearsal, no strings attached. “If you like it, keep coming back,” she said. With this project, she hopes to send a message to the community. “Instead of being afraid of not going with the traditional, it’s worth going with something new,” she said. “Let’s see what’s possible and how much we can grow.”


To learn more about the project or to get involved, visit monicadances.webs.com, email monicarobleslopez@hotmail.com, or call (917) 584-8243. More information is also available at sbbg.org.


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