Irma Villafuerte, 2021 Finalist

Villafuerte is a Tkaronto-based dancer and educator, first-generation daughter of refugees from Nahuat Pipil Territory Kuskatan, El Salvador. Graduate of George Brown Dance she serves as an educator at Randolph College for the Performing Arts and Casa Maiz’ Semillas Latinas summer program. She’s been part of Aluna Theatre’s Panamerican Routes Festival, Panamania 2015, 12th Bienal de la Habana’15, and CounterPulse Performing Diaspora. She’s choreographed for Trey Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I love You and is currently incubating a solo nudoDESnudo.

Check out more below about Irma, one of three finalists for the 2021 Emerging Artist Award.

How has being a first-generation child of refugees impacted your creative practice?

My family’s story of displacement has been at the forefront of my personal and creative life. I am the first family member born in Tkaronto. It came a little more than 3 years after my grandmother’s disappearance on September 12th, 1982, during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. My upbringing entailed a daily reminder of the ‘why’ of my being here, and the impact of that ‘why’ on my mother’s life, which subsequently influenced our activist journey in El Salvador and the diaspora. I felt my lived experience was very unique. However, in El Salvador, there are so many missing people from the war and this, sadly, is a common tragedy not only to Salvadorians but also to other Latin American people. Although the social-political context may be different, I grieve in solidarity with the families of stolen and missing indigenous sisters. I do not stand alone in the process of seeking justice and reparations.

My historic and cultural memory has led me to bring together activism, arts and performance. I was involved from an early age, both in El Salvador and Tkaronto, in grassroots organizing and programming that highlighted and facilitating the empowerment of marginalized, migrant and racialized people. This led me to connect to creative people who aligned with my values in art making and storytelling, such as Roshanak Jaberi, Victoria Mata, Alejandro Ronceria, and Santee Smith, to name a few. My story is elemental in the work I create and my contribution in a collaborator role. In El Salvador, I was fortunate to participate in the coordination of the program PIEMA, which served young women in the education of eradicating gender violence and amplifying their civil participation in their communities. This was one of the first experiences in my practice and work in which arts and activism intersected.

As a choreographer, my cultural/political identity and lived experience have shaped my esthetic, the nuances I explore in my movement expression, and the research in my choreographic process and methodology. I desire to continue sharing my story as a method of education, justice seeking and representation. Creating space to honor my story through my artistic work is one component in a larger context of solidarity for all stories of the oppressed.

You are an educator as well as a dancer. Why is dance education so important?

I consider myself an arts educator. I believe in and am passionate about facilitating individuals to discover and honour the unique forms of expression that are woven into their identities and experiences. Arts education can be liberating; we are able to convey and express human realities, stories and emotions. As educators, we hold the responsibility and the gift to inspire and share knowledge with future generations, and to be part of their journeys of self-discovery and expression.

Dance and theatre have been instrumental in my expression and have allowed me to unleash the colourful and intense stories that live in my body. My objective when I work with artists in development is to facilitate the process of self-discovery, introspective research and individuality in the creative process.

It brings me an enormous amount of joy to witness the transformation in the individuals who I facilitate in a workshop or classroom. I truly believe that strong creatives develop by honouring all that encompasses them. Everything else they are exposed to in terms of practice and techniques are bonus tools and resources to carry as they pursue careers stemming from self-celebration, self-acknowledgement, and the cultural/political/personal nuances that are present in their existence.

You have completed several residencies to develop your choreographic skills. Can you tell us about some of the highlights? What inspires your work?

I am very grateful to have been part of residencies with Dancemakers, TDT emerging voices, George Brown Dance and Aluna Theatre. Through these residencies, and in collaboration with my mentor Alejandro Ronceria, I have been able to explore my choreographic methodology, continuously honing my practice which is very much informed by my lived experience as a Salvadorian woman, but also by the land of El Salvador itself. It is a continuous journey and it has required an enormous amount of investigation, tears, curiosity and patience. However, it has been so rewarding to incubate my process, and then to give birth to my ideas and the choreographic desires that are rooted in my story.

Some memorable highlights include sharing desconocida at Aluna Theatre’s Caminos Festival of new works in progress, which I had been researching for about a year after graduating from George Brown Dance, and performing the first iteration of nudoDESnudo in El Salvador, where the Ministry of Heath commemorated my grandmother and two other important health service providers during the International Day of Action for Women’s Health. These two works marked the rebirth of my choreographic journey through the lens of my identity as a Central American woman.

How have you stayed connected to your art form during isolation?

COVID-19 impacted the dance/theatre sector significantly. I felt the impact immensely with the cancelation of projects and the stall of training and creating in person. However, I have found that it has moved me to look introspectively and dig further into my research and intention in the creative process. I am in the early stages of research on a work that digs into intergenerational trauma through the matriarchal narratives of my family. I have been deliciously digging into digital narratives and diving deeper into training in various artistic disciplines. I have also been building an intimate pedagogical approach in order to enrich my students’ experience through this isolation, and have been taking part in necessary conversations about representation, access and equity in the dance sector. Through all of this, I have also nurtured and developed mentorship relationships with senior artists in order to continue on my journey of professional development as an emerging creator and educator. This time has allowed for some space to reimagine, reconstruct and reconnect.

What’s next?

An ensemble work and my solo nudoDESnudo as a full-length work are on the horizon for nurturing and development. I am deep in research mode in hopes for future productions and am hoping to share a work-in-progress in the near future. I plan to curate a self-directed residency in El Salvador in order to continue excavating and to transport my land-based research process to the land itself. Diving into a process that is informed by the environmental and social-political narratives of the land, juxtaposed against the intergenerational trauma and life events of the matriarchs of my family. This also serves, on a personal level, as part of reclaiming my love for El Salvador, and is essential for ancestral healing. Furthering my embodied voice training with Fides Krucker and land-based movement research with Santee Smith are in the immediate future in terms of training, as I prepare my creative process for future works and to expand my pedagogical knowledge.

I am honoured to be part of works by emerging and established art makers. As of late, there is a swell of Salvadorian creatives with whom I will be working in some exciting projects, some of which – fingers crossed – will lead to more land-based research and exploration in El Salvador. I am eager to continue connecting to people in the diaspora in order to further develop relationships and establish space for our voices as Salvadorians.

Congratulations on being a finalist for the Emerging Artist Award, how does it feel to be nominated?

I cried when I got the phone call. It still feels surreal that my unconventional journey is being acknowledged. I carry with me all the folx who have believed in me, supported me, celebrated me and have honoured my grandmother’s memory; the gratitude is overwhelming. Most importantly I am grateful for mother as my most influential mentor, and for her guiding me consistently to be part of social justice commitment. This nomination isn’t mine alone, it is my community’s. I am part of a community that is fearless of breaking boundaries and constantly seeking to create spaces to tell our stories. There is a continued sense of responsibility and commitment to the empowerment of Indigenous, Black and People of Colour and all the intersections of identities and narratives we carry. This commitment is one that has been a priority in my personal and professional life, because it is part of my upbringing and the values that we have always held as a family.