ALUMNI IN ACTION
Dancing Out of the Shadows
By Julia Halprin Jackson
For his first full minute onstage, Gabriel Mata, ’15 BFA Dance, doesn’t move. His back is to the audience, light cutting across his green shirt and black pants. His body is still and silent for a full minute until he walks to stage right, face in and out of shadow until he spreads his arms and says, “You enter. Bienvenido (welcome).”
This is the first minute of “This is Where / I Begin,” a 15-minute performance choreographed and performed for the first time by Mata at sjDANCEco, a company founded by San José State University Professor Emeritus of Dance Gary Masters, in October 2019.
The piece is a storytelling tour de force, complete with a narrated reenactment of his childhood home. Mata describes the essentials in his family’s cabinet — “frijoles, tortillas, cerveza y queso” (beans, tortillas, beer and cheese) — and shows the audience where he slept, played, ate and grew. A few minutes in, he pulls a roll of blue packing tape from his pocket and begins to partition the stage floor, creating boundaries between time, space and perhaps even identity.
“My junior year of high school, I took a beginning dance class, and it was around the same time that I understood that I was undocumented,” says Mata. “I also was understanding that I was gay and growing up Catholic; that created an interesting trifecta. Dance was a way of removing myself from my environment and getting lost in the internal sense, getting lost in movement.”
"This is Where I Begin" by Gabriel Mata.
Movement as freedom
Mata arrived at San José State in 2012, a dreamer in every sense of the word. He says immigration status alternately felt like a limitation and an opportunity, and he looked to choreographers like Joel Smith, who inspired him to explore the answers to unasked questions in movement.
“Growing up undocumented, you’re not allowed many resources,” he says. “It wasn’t until I became a permanent resident that I felt that sense of security that has helped me realize I don’t have to be a model minority. I can negotiate how American I want to be.”
But immigration status, like sexuality or religion, is not a binary, Mata adds. For years he lived in limbo, finding solace in the outlet that dance provided. One of his first evening-length pieces that he choreographed as a student, “Out of the Shadows,” explored the vulnerability it takes to reveal one’s truth.
“I connected with the dance and the performance because I felt so hyper-aware of every part of my body,” he remembers. “Then I made the connection to my undocumented upbringing. It’s intentionally called ‘Out of the Shadows’ as a part of exposing my body and also my undocumented identity.”
“I want to hold space for others to speak and move.”
— Gabriel Mata
Since graduating from SJSU, Mata’s work has resonated with audiences in venues across Minnesota, California, New York, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as in Washington, D.C. at the famed John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. An eight-year veteran of sjDANCEco, Mata has also danced for haus of bambi, Post:Ballet, Zenon Dance Company, Mark Foehringer Dance Projects, and Pearson Widrig Dance Company.
His dance compositions have been commissioned and presented by sjDANCEco, the Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers, the Luna Dance Institute, Joy of Motion, Dance Place, Silicon Valley Pride, the Hispanic National Bar Association, and the Caroline Calouche Dance Co/Charlotte Dance Festival.
Mata supports fellow artists as part of his own professional growth, taking advantage of opportunities offered by places like the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Kennedy Center REACH Campus Office Hours Residency.
In 2018, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he received a fellowship to complete an MFA in dance at the University of Maryland, College Park. He graduated during the pandemic, which meant he had to adapt his performances and teaching to an online format, inspiring him to create a trio of dance films. He returned to sjDANCEco in fall 2022 to perform a duet, “Off White,” with dancer and choreographer Gary Champi.
“I needed dance to ground my existence,” he says, mentioning his permanent residency status was relatively recent. “My practice is grounded in narratives that help communities that don’t often have access to dance.”
His long-term goals? To create art and support undocumented artists.
“As a choreographer, I want to understand my relationships to dancers — not just how they move, but also how they contribute to the world,” he adds. “Because I have prioritized my own identity, I want to hold space for others to speak and move.”
Want to learn more?
Visit Gabriel Mata Movement to learn more about his life and work.
Top Photo: Keay Edwards
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