Benefits and Challenges of Interdisciplinary Artistic Collaboration

Connecting Streams:  A Study of the Benefits and Challenges of Interdisciplinary Artistic Collaboration (an excerpt)

Andrea Vázquez Aguirre

(College at Brockport, July 2011)

Case Study One: Latina Dance Theatre Project


In search of connections between dance, music, theater, visual art and multimedia, Latina Dance Theatre Project (LDTP) is a collaborative circle, an interdisciplinary ensemble of artists who shared a vision to explore “through performances–physical, musical, and visual–controversial issues impacting the global community,”[1] especially Latin-American contemporary communities.

A collaborative circle is a primary group consisting of peers who share similar occupational goals and who, through long periods of dialogue and collaboration, negotiate a common vision that guides their work. The vision consists of a shared set of assumptions about their discipline, including what constitutes good work, how to work, what subjects are worth working on, and how to think about them. For a group of artists, the shared vision might be a new style. For a group of scientists, it might be a new theoretical paradigm. Each member comes to play an informal role in the circle, and each role may have a history as the group develops over time. Even while working alone, the individual members are affected by the group and the roles they play in it. As C. S. Lewis observed, the group vision and the roles each participant plays in the group continue to guide and sustain the members, “even when… Friends are far away.” For members of the collaborative circle, each person’s work is an expression of the circle’s shared vision filtered through his or her own personality.[2]

LDTP is a one of a kind group that through the practice of interdisciplinary collaboration is engaging audiences on issues of social relevance. In the words of performance critic Benn Widdey:

“These and other Latina/o voices haven’t been heard nearly enough in the performing arts. As political theater and in front of mainly white audiences, the work might easily open some eyes to a coexistent experience of contemporary life in the Southwestern U.S., which fails to be appropriately represented in mainstream media-work that should be heard.” [3]

Individual versus collective work

In an interview[4] with Juanita Suarez,[i] a co-founding member of LDTP, issues of individual versus collaborative practice and work dynamics were discussed. Addressing the nature of interdisciplinary collaboration, the following questions with corresponding answers were posed.

Does your individual inquiry interconnect your collaborative work as well?

Not quite as much, I mean there are opportunities to do so once we are producing performances on the road, but my personal form of inquiry takes two different routes, one is the choreographic route that I do engage in with LDTP and I am always dedicated to create a section within the original works that we are creating together. But there is a side of me too, the improvisational side that I do not tend to draw from, except sporadically throughout the work but is not the focus of the work. I pretty much reserve that for my own work, which is very different.

Are there things you do in your creative practice that have to be done collaboratively, that could not be done by you as an individual artist?

Yes. The work with LDTP, the beauty of that work is the largeness of ideas that are quite possible when you bring people together who come from different disciplines, different dispositions and different locations in the country.  One, the different disciplines make what is created richer, deeper and more thought out because you have five or six people thinking about this versus one. The process is slower because you are not just creating something but maintaining a community throughout that process, so sometimes you have disagreements but everyone goes into the project with the idea that it is not about us but about what we are trying to say through the project, what the project is trying to say, actually. So we sometimes have to take two steps forward and then one step back.  It is also great because everyone has a very different disposition; some people are more leaders, like leading with the organizational aspects; some are more the creative thinker person; some are more the performer but they all balance because we share skills and over time it starts to elevate the general operation because everyone is learning from everybody else. I am learning about grant writing through Licia[ii]. And I think that I learn a lot from Eva[iii] , from her ability to think in terms of concepts and José, he just joined the group, José Garcia Davis[iv]. He is Licia’s husband. He is a media person, and an actor and a singer. He brings another set of skills and he kind of balances the group out.  And we have Gabriela, Gabo, who is Eva’s daughter. She is a fourteen year old, who is just brilliant. She brings her ballet, very strong ballet background to it. So we have an age balance there too, which is very nice. That is something I have thought about in terms of collaboration, which has to be looked at as a very open venue for participation, not just grouping of people of specific disciplines. So, we also have Lulu, Eluza Santos[v] inBrazil who is a part of LDTP and she is setting up a gig getting ready for us to go there. So we are in the process of establishing a relationship, because this is not going to be a onetime thing; we see ourselves constantly going back there to do work with Lulu because she has her own company, one she had before she came to the United States. She has gone back toBrazil but would like her company and our company to perform together. So that would be another level of collaboration.

Collaborative ‘organisms’ have more potential, a lot of power; I would say stronger than just one person. You have two kinds of artistic collaboration, like Balanchine, he collaborated with artists but he was the director, so it was kind of autocratic, I am sure there was discussion between artists but the credit came to Balanchine. With LDTP, there is more of a democratic look at collaboration.

Collaboration requires a different kind of artist too, because I do not think collaboration is for everybody. There are some people that do not collaborate because they cannot let go of something and I think there is something to say about that. With collaboration you walk into the process with ‘I wonder what is going to happen…’ you may come with an idea but by the moment you have left that meeting it has morphed into maybe four or five different directions. Sometimes you catch onto an idea. Sometimes it takes a little while to kind of get used to it, because it may be moving you in a direction that went too far into something different or unexpected.

Are there any particular benefits for you in working collaboratively?

 I think friendships, really deep friendships. There are differences between being a friend and being a creative friend. Deeper connections come out of that because in a creative friendship you can have serious disagreements about something but still know that you are doing it because you love the work that you are doing more than your concern about always trying to be nice and you have to have that strength and commitment not just as an artist but as a friend to say ‘I know if I say this….’ but really the point is once we step back and look at it.

How did it come out, ‘this still needs work…’ but I think there is something to be said about collaboration, not all people that go into collaboration come out friends and I do think it takes more of a certain kind of personality to be willing to go into that kind of fire.

Disciplines intersecting

        Dr. Suarez’s reflections on interdisciplinary collaboration bring up crucial considerations. To begin with, what kind of personality is necessary in order to engage in collaborative work?  Diego Rodriguez, an associate consulting professor at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at StanfordUniversity(the d. school) in his blog metacool: thoughts on the art & science of bringing cool stuff to life shares an interesting point of view in relation to the question above:

Teams and organizations engaged in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life need to live at the intersection, too.  A team of experts (“I-shaped people”) with no means of communicating will get nowhere, fast.  A team of generalists (“hyphen-shaped people”) with no means of building and executing will suffer the same fate.  Diverse teams of T-shaped people are uniquely able to communicate in ways that support the generative application.[5]

Build it out of T-shaped peoplean effective innovation team is composed of people who are really good at what they were put on earth to do, but also share a common way of getting things done in the world.  We want depth: an engineer needs to be an engineer’s engineer, and we want the MBA to be capable of unlevering a beta in her sleep.  But we want breadth, too.  We need them both to not only get along, but to thrive in a symbiotic relationship centered on getting stuff done.  In my experience, what adds that breadth to a team is a group of individuals who are versed in the ways of design thinking.[vi][6]

Considering Rodriguez’s point of view, to work in a collaborative group, it is imperative to have certain attributes including: action drive, interdisciplinary communication and motivation for building community. These are characteristics that The Latina Dance Theatre Project fosters with a network of national and international artist-scholars. LDTP is not only generating remarkable interdisciplinary projects like their most recent work Slumber of Reason[vii] based on “Los Caprichos” from the Spanish romantic painter Francisco de Goya, but also engaging in unique methods of creative and critical thinking, and problem solving through collective commitment. When sharing about how LDTP plans meetings and establishes working strategies, Dr Suarez responded:

“We rehearse during the day and then the evenings when we can. We always try to schedule a meeting where we talk about board business. Right now we are trying to develop a board. We are working with a group called Help Desk L.A. We have to collectively through e-mail communicate since Lulu is out of town. We do conference calls. I think that our board in the future will be working a lot virtually. We want people who appreciate interdisciplinarity; people that appreciate cultural exchanges such as ours who` are interested in Latinaculture or are Latinas (os) who want to promote their culture. We need to have people who believe in our mission which deals with social issues and sometimes brings delicate issues out, to be open to talk about.” [7]

Using information technology to create networks and facilitate group collaboration is a common tool of today’s world and LDTP is taking that step in order to expand the scale and diversity of participation involved in their group.

Many of the new approaches to collaborative leadership and innovation are enabled by a foundation of Internet and Web technologies and offerings. These help people come together across time and space, at an extremely low cost.  Critically, they allow for the aggregation of like-minded people, who may be geographically or politically dispersed, to find each other and engage in discussions and transactions of many various types. [8]

However, the benefits of sharing the same geographical space are noted by composer James J. Kaufmann[viii]:

“Artists may have strong convictions about the medium of communication chosen.  It is important for me to be in the same space with my co-collaborators throughout a great deal of the process, because the infinite resolution of real-space reality allows for the exchange of subconscious nuanced information, like the degree of dynamic shading through a musical phrase.  Other artists may prefer to work with people selected from across the globe, content that a majority of their communications will be executed through virtual means.”

Another aspect LDTP emphasizes is education through different activities offered such as lecture demonstrations, research presentations and panels. Flexibility and an open group structure allow LDTP to engage in diverse scholarship and creative work strategies. They appreciate the importance of integrating their abilities and knowledge to facilitate the integration of multiple perspectives into their work.

In October of 2008, I had the opportunity to attend one of the three performances of Coyolxauhqui Remembers[ix] at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. When Dr. Suarez shared the process of creating Coyolxauhqui Remembers she mentioned[9]:

Everyone came in with their section. This was our first chance to come up front with our values and where our focus was as individuals and learning that our focus was not far off from each other. We just chose different kinds of stories.

Over the years, the juxtaposition of perspectives and diverse disciplines created a rich convergence of experiences from learning together and integrating a community of Latin-American artists-scholars, each committed to illuminating and reflecting on aspects of their culture. When I asked Dr. Suarez about the motivations to create the Latina Dance Theater Project, she responded:[10]

I was doing my research for my dissertation –Spectres of the Dark: Embodying Borders Through Chicana DanceMakingI focused my research on Eva Tessler’s and Licia Perea’s work. It was a precursor of LDTP.

She continued:

We were choreographers who had worked in isolation for 30 some years and had finally come to a cross road with the same kind of direction.  We were all interdisciplinary. We were all Latinas. We all came from different countries or locations in theUnited States. We knew we had a lot potential towards where these ideas could go. It was not restricted to culture but could be something with more broad universal applications.

The cumulative, mutual and interactive process of shaping and expanding a creative vision appears to be one process of constant goal re-evaluation and sustainability, with an eye on the scope of the project. When embarking on collaboration one needs to look for people “who have skills that will enhance your work and you feel comfortable working with, that you feel that you can talk to and have an exchange with. Someone whose work you will also enhance” (Suarez, 2011)

Interdisciplinary collaboration implies adherence to collective standards, treating all viewpoints alike, without reference to one’s interests in order to achieve deeper insights.  This process can take time and patience with the ebb and flow of communication among passionate and invested collaborators. As final advice Rodriguez says: “be friendly, because the networked world is your oyster: imagine how powerful your small team could be if it were part of a vast network of experts and people wanting to contribute to your success.” [11]

[1]Latina Dance Theatre Project, under  “Artistic Vision”, (accessed  March 20, 2011)

[2] Collaborative Arts: Conversations on Collaborative Arts Practise, under “Essays: Collaborative Circles and Creative Work by Michael P. Farrel”, (accessed March 5, 2011)

[3] Latina Dance Theatre Project, under  “What the critics say”, (accessed  March 27, 2011)

[4] Suarez, Juanita. 2011. Interview by the author.Brockport,NY. February 11.

[5] metacool: thoughts on the art & science of bringing cool stuff to life, under “Live life at the intersection”, (accessed, March 9, 2011)

[6] Ibid, under “Grok the gestalt of teams”.

[7] Suarez, Juanita. 2011. Interview by the author.Brockport,NY. February 11.

[8]Diego Rodriguez and Doug Salomon, Leadership and Innovation in a Networked World (Cambridge,Mass. MIT Press, 2006), 6

[9] Suarez, Juanita. 2011. Interview by the author.Brockport,NY. February 11.

[10]Suarez, Juanita. 2011. Interview by the author.Brockport,NY. February 11.

[11] metacool: thoughts on the art & science of bringing cool stuff to life, under “Grok the gestalt of teams”, (accessed, March 9, 2011)




[i], under  “Biographies for  Licia Perea, Eluza Santos, Eva Tessler and Jose Garcia Davis”. Juanita Suarez received a PhD in Dance and Related Arts from Texas Woman’s University. Suarez is an Associate Professor of Dance at SUNY College at Brockport and serves a joint position in the Department of Dance and Arts for Children Program. Her areas of specialty include dance education, somatics, Latina/Chicana dance making as well as interdisciplinary performance practice. Suarez, as dance scholar, joined the Legends of China Four City Tour, a dance exchange involving forty-five American dance scholars and significant contributors to the field of dance in China. She has established an ongoing teaching internship residency with Guangya School (2008), a private school located in Dujiangyan, China and Peking University (2010). In 2001, she received a Rockefeller Grant US-Map Fund for Culture to study Mexico’s history through dance/music, culminating her research with a theater and dance production Visible Line/Invisible People featuring Mexico City’s Luz y Fuerza. Suarez is co-director of BE HERE NOW, a dance, music and media improvisation ensemble in Rochester, New York. A dance anthology titled Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the Worlds of Dance will be published by Wilfred Laurier Press (August, 2011); featuring the dance research of 19 scholars from around the world. Her dissertation Spectres of the Dark: Embodying Borders Through Chicana DanceMaking is an exploration of the Chicana (Mexican American feminist) concert dance aesthetic.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              [ii], under “Biographies for  Licia Perea, Eluza Santos, Eva Tessler and Jose Garcia Davis”. Licia Perea is a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is of Spanish, Mexican and Native American decent and was born into a family of ranchers in central New Mexico. Licia holds an MA from the University of New Mexico in choreography and performance. She taught at the University of New Mexico for 8 years in the Theater and Dance Department and also taught in the New Mexico Artists in Residence Program. Licia is certified in the Classical Pilates Method and currently teaches in her studio in Los Angeles. She has been awarded two Choreographer’s Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, her second being a two-year award. Before moving to Los Angeles she received numerous grants from the NM Arts Council and private foundation support in New Mexico. She has taught and performed professionally as a soloist and with her company, Danzantes throughout the United States, Germany, Mexico and Russia. Since moving to Los Angeles she has been on the CA Touring Artist Directory, the WESTAF Touring Roster, the International Arts Programming Network and was a member of the Chester Group (national group of choreographers doing research, experimentation and dialoguing in Yellow Springs, PA). Licia is a recipient of a City of Los Angeles Performing Arts Fellowship (COLA) and premiered her solo evening “ORLANDO of a Thousand Years” based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (but with a Spanish focus). LDP has had successful performances and residencies throughout theUnited States,Canada andEurope. LDP has also received funding from the Los Angeles Dept. of Cultural Affairs as well as the Durfee Foundation, Burrows Foundation and The Jewish Community Foundation of CA. She has also served on the Pew Charitable Foundation for the Arts/Dance Advance panel.

[iii], under “Biographies for  Licia Perea, Eluza Santos, Eva Tessler and Jose Garcia Davis”. Eva Tessler, choreographer, director, performer (dancer/actor), and teacher is a native of Mexico City. She holds an MFA in Theatre Arts and an MA in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. During the 80’s Tessler danced, acted, choreographed and taught in Brazil at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas in São Paulo. Coming to Tucson in 1989, Tessler has choreographed modern dance and dance theater works through the Zenith Dance Collective/Body Prints Theatre. Tessler is Artistic Associate of Borderlands Theater where she choreographs, acts and directs. She was a co-founding member of the Latina Dance Project in 2002. Highlights of Tessler’s work include choreography for the World Premiere of Old Matador (Milcha Sanchez Scott, Arizona Theatre Company), and movement for the film Roosters directed by Bob Young. Borderlands credits include: choreography for Blood Wedding and Yerma (Federico Garcia Lorca); Fuenteovejuna (Lope de Vega); A Tucson Pastorela (Max Branscomb); Barrio Hollywood (Elaine Romero). Directing highlights: Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Super Hero Girls like Me (Luis Alfaro), The Sins of Sor Juana (Karen Zacarias), Living Out (Lisa Loomer), El Deseo (Victor Hugo Rascon Banda), School of the Americas (Jose Rivera), Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman (Sabina Berman). Favorite roles: “Marcela” (Arizona: No Roosters in the Desert by Kara Hartzler), “Psychiatrist” (The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Victor Hugo Rascon Banda). Tessler co-wrote the play 13 Days, 13 Dias: How the New Zapatistas Shook the World which toured nationally with the Award winning San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1996.Recently, Tessler was honored with the LULAC “Albert Soto” Award for Individual Artist (2008) and the Tucson Pima Arts Council “Lumie” Life Time Achievement Award in 2009.

[iv], under “Biographies for  Licia Perea, Eluza Santos, Eva Tessler and Jose Garcia Davis”. José Garcia Davis is an accomplished, award-winning and critically acclaimed multi-media artist with over 25 years of professional experience as an actor, singer, director, writer, producer, designer, visual artist and teacher. He has created many original productions from one-man shows to multi-media operas and has toured nationally and internationally. As well, he has created several original film and video projects and his screenplay “Checkpoint” won first place in the first annual Latin Entertainment Media Institute Screenplay Competition. Garcia Davis is Vice President of the Board of Teatro Nuevo Mexico and a regular collaborator with the company. From 2003 to 2006 he was Director of Theater for Environmental Awareness with U.S. – China Environmental Fund, a non- governmental organization with offices in China and the United States. He traveled to China regularly where he directed and taught theater to Chinese teachers and youth as a means of exploring environmental and social issues. Garcia Davis has been Artistic Director of Evidence Room’s Rampart Youth Theatre Project in Los Angeles, Artistic Director of two New Mexico based theatre companies, Teatro Consejo, and Oso Amarillo Productions, and Associate Director of Latino Chicago Theatre Company and La Compañia de Teatro de Alburquerque. In addition he has been Artist-in-Residence with L.A. Theatre Works Arts & Children Project,HomelandCulturalCenter inLong Beach,CA, and the New Mexico Arts Division. He studied film and TV at UCLA Extension and has a BAFA in Art Studio from theUniversity ofNew Mexico. He is a protege of renowned acting coach Lawrence Parke, has taught Stanislavski and Vahktangov acting methods since 1991, and has also been an Acting Coach Mentor for Scholastic, Inc. In addition, Garcia Davis has studied with world famous directors Augusto Boal and Ronald Neame, studies classical vocal technique with Gualtiero Negrini, and has previously studied with Rita Mosiman, Margaret Morris-Lopez, and Sean Daniel. As a teenager he was apprentice to well-known sculptor Edward Haddaway. His artwork has been exhibited in regional, national and international shows and he has designed sets and created masks and puppets for stage and screen.

[v], under “Biographies for  Licia Perea, Eluza Santos, Eva Tessler and Jose Garcia Davis”. Eluza Santos was born in Brazil and, in 2008, she left her position as Associate Professor of Dance at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, to return to her írito Santo. She holds a degree in Physical Education from Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, B.A and MFA degrees in Dance from Arizona State University, and a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. Her research—exemplified in her dissertation, The Dancing Voice of Culture: An Ethnography of Contemporary Dance in Vitória, Brazil—focuses on the cultural origins of contemporary concert dance styles in her native city. Santos’ artistic and scholarly works have been presented widely inBrazil, theUnited States,South Africa,Portugal,Canada andFinland. She directed the premiere of the Latina Dance Project at UNC-Greensboro in 2002 and has maintained professional activities with the group, even after relocating toBrazil. In addition,Santos has founded a new company in her home state, Companhia de Artes EluzaSantos. For her, it is invigorating to work with two companies, each in a different country, and she often draws from her Brazilian cultural roots in her teaching, choreography, and scholarly work.

[vi], under “Design Thinking”. courses and curriculum are based on the design thinking process. It draws on methods from engineering and design, and combines them with ideas from the arts, tools from the social sciences, and insights from the business world. The process provides a glue that brings teammates from vastly different fields together around a common goal: make the lives of the people they’re designing for better. Design thinking is best learned by doing, and our classes immerse students in an experiential learning environment. It is not a static process, but an approach to creative problem solving. Each team and individual develops their own process as they work on a problem, adapting and adding to it as they go. The key element is being mindful of how you work, not just what your outcome is. Regardless of the steps you take, the elements underlying the process are the mindsets of empathy, an attitude of prototyping, collaboration, iteration and feedback. We focus on the design process because we seek to equip our students with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field. Our focus is on creating innovators rather than any particular innovation.

[vii], under  “Slumber of reason” . Los Caprichos was a passionate declaration of Goya’s political liberalism and his revulsion towards ignorance and intellectual oppression. The Latina Dance Project uses these powerful images to create a new set of modern day “caprichos” exploring contemporary demons that affect our world ranging from the darkest to the most absurdly humorous, including immigration, environmental degradation, racism and technological alienation”

[viii] James Kaufmann grew up in Ames, Iowa in a family that loved to make music together.  One of his earliest memories is dancing to his mother's singing and guitar strumming.  He didn't have a piano until he was eight, but dreamed about pianos, and would play with pianos wherever he could find them.  By the time he was in high school, he was performing at small establishments accompanying his own voice with his piano playing.  Most of his training at this point was through the ear.  Desiring more "technique," he found Dr. Marion Barnum at Iowa State University, who did not focus
 directly on technique but opened him up to the rich world of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Prokofieff, Bartok and Gershwin.  He immersed himself in this universe, spending every spare hour he had listening and practicing.  He auditioned and won a scholarship to study with Howard Aibel at the University of Northern Iowa. Feeling the need to exercise his mind in a different way, he participated in a one-year exchange program at Kansai Gaidai in Japan, near Osaka.  Language and culture were the focus of the school, but he found time to continue his piano studies.  After the year of exchange was over, he alternated between Iowa and Japan.  He worked as a pianist at upscale restaurants and hotels in Japan, studied piano with Japanese composer, Yuki Morimoto, and eventually graduated from the UNI with a BA in piano.  He was accepted into the classical masters program at the Manhattan School and the jazz program at Eastman, and chose the latter.  While in school, he began accompanying ballet for Diane Lewis at the Hochstein School.  He did his best to learn ballet repertoire for those classes, but it was necessary to cut great music to fit combinations, and rarely was a perfect aesthetic fit.  He began improvising for classes, a practice with which Lewis expressed disagreement.  He learned to do his best to improvise in a way that approached written composition, and ended up being highly valued by Lewis as an accompanist. After graduation from the Eastman School, he was called to try accompanying dance at SUNY Brockport.  He was hired as has been working there since.  He also got a job at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Rochester where he absorbed a
rich musical tradition of an African American spiritual community, and with the salsa/merengue group "Fama sin Gafas," where he deepened his internalization of popular Cuban and Dominican grooves. He also continued to write and produce music for special projects, setting poems of
Lucille Clifton and Calvin Forbes for quartet and octet.  He also creates and performs at Brockport for student and faculty choreography.  He has played for the workshops of Limon Dance Company, Bill Evans, Doug Varone, and Tulsa Ballet.

[ix], under  “Coyo ReMembers ”. Coyolxauhqui ReMembers is a full evening piece that blends dance (contemporary, Aztec, Samba and aerial), original music and text to re-interpret the Aztec myth of the Moon Goddess Coyolxauhqui, drawing parallels between her story and stories that serve as an awakening to the condition of contemporary women. Created and performed by Licia Perea, Eluza Santos, Juanita Suárez, and Eva Tessler, directed by José Garcia Davis. Music composed by William Campbell and texts by LDTP and Victor Hugo Rascón Banda. The Latina Dance Project will recast the myth of the Moon Goddess and her brother, theWar God, from a feminist perspective through four stories: Coyolxauhqui as a young woman whose dreams haunt her; a Brazilian professional woman who battles the voice of self-empowerment; an immigrant who re-assembles herself through plastic surgery and fashion; and a young Mexican maquilladora (factory) worker who meets her fate in Juárez, where more than 300 women have been murdered over the last ten years.


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