Danza Orgánica artistic director Marsha Parrilla brings her classical training and dance theater expertise to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on June 28 and July 12 for Vessel, an hourlong performance that draws a parallel between a sarcophagus and transatlantic slave trade and is inspired by the museum’s Life, Death & Revelry exhibit. We chatted with Parrilla to discuss her inspirations, influences and choreographic process.

When did you first know you wanted to be a dancer? I’ve always danced since I was little. I would recognize how much I loved movement. I grew up in a very religious family, so they forbid me to dance, but I would always find ways to learn choreography, create choreography and create movement on my own.

How would you describe your dance style? It’s organic movement that has influences from the Caribbean and contemporary dance, and it uses movement as a form of healing to represent underrepresented voices. It’s movement that comes from within.

What is your process when developing choreography? I spend time doing extensive research before I start thinking about a piece, so I can soak in all the information I can get and hold. I go to museums, listen to music and watch documentaries. All of that information has to get stored in my body. Once I have those things in place, I go to the studio and the movement comes out.

What can you share about Vessel? Vessel is a piece that uses a sarcophagus as a sacred way toward another life in conjunction with the Middle Passage. [I’m] taking both passages and thinking about life, death and rivalry at the point of departure to explore a narrative and bring forth a new outlook. When I looked at the sarcophagus, the first thing that came to mind was that these were naked bodies. … I thought about the fact that someone was affluent enough to pay for this to be their vehicle to another life. I thought about the time that was spent on this sarcophagus and the money that was put into it. I thought about how it belonged to someone of a higher socioeconomic background and, because of my own background as a Puerto Rican woman, I thought about how my ancestors arrived in Puerto Rico. They also came in a vessel, but the conditions were completely opposite. They were just seen as objects. They were hidden; they were piled up on top of each other; there was no regard for the value of life. I went and thought about the value of life and the value of the body through these two separate cultures and journeys that essentially go from one life to another life and that was the point of departure. We have a narrative that pertains to the Middle Passage and we also have the narrative of reconstruction. Once the Africans of the slave trade are transported to a new place, they have this dance of resistance. I thought it was important to include that in the narrative because there is joy embedded in the sarcophagus and the way that the enslaved Africans found joy was very different. I wanted to bring those two things together.


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