For Hispanic & Latinx Heritage Month, I decided to look at one of the major figures of Puerto Rican dance, theater, and pantomime, Gilda Navarra (1921–2015). She hasn’t had as much attention in New York City as other prominent Hispanic performers of the same era like Tina Ramirez, founder of Ballet Hispánico, who recently passed away at age 92, or Graciela Daniele, choreographer for various theater productions. Still, her work was just as significant because she pushed the boundaries of movement in performance. Rosabel Otón and Miguel Concepción were former students in Navarra’s Pantomime and Commedia dell’ Arte classes in the Department of Drama at the University of Puerto Rico and had been researching the Gilda Navarra archives at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. I spoke to them recently about Navarra and their findings.
Rosabel Otón is a performer, professor at the University of Puerto Rico, and graduate student at the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Miguel Concepción is a performing artist and professor at CUNY in New York. The actress Isabel Arraiza, a friend of theirs, also joined them and had some comments on the continued importance of Navarra on younger generations of Puerto Ricans in the performing arts.
Can you tell me about how Gilda Navarra developed her artistic voice?
Otón: Gilda Navarra was one of our greatest theatre artists and professors. During the 1940s she studied in New York at the School of American Ballet and afterward she trained and performed under the choreographers and dancers Pilar López and José Greco.
In 1950 she founded, with her sister Ana García, the Ana García and Gilda Navarra Ballet and Spanish Dance Academy. This dance school became the forerunner of Ballets de San Juan, the first professional ballet company in Puerto Rico, founded by both sisters and in which they danced as well as choreographed all its repertory.
During the 1960s Gilda Navarra received a scholarship to study Pantomime with Étienne Decroux in New York and Modern Dance with the American choreographer Martha Graham.
Concepción: When she returned to Puerto Rico in 1963, she began to teach Pantomime and Commedia dell’arte in the Drama Department of the University of Puerto Rico, where she helped to conceive and develop its curriculum, integrating the courses of movement for actors she learned from her teachers.
Otón: She helped establish this training method as a requirement for the bachelor’s degree in Drama. Her courses were based on the study and domain of the body from early Greek and Roman comedy, through the jugglers from the Middle Ages and the actor’s theatre of the Commedia dell’arte, finishing with contemporary trends of corporal movement proposed by her mentors Martha Graham, José Limón, Étienne Decroux, and Jacques Lecoq.
Concepción: Gilda worked at the University of Puerto Rico from 1963 till 1993, educating generations on how to move and express throughout the body. She taught us discipline. She always said that the soul needs the whole body to express its feelings, worries, happiness, sorrow.
Otón: In 1971, she founded Taller de Histriones, a movement theatre group that developed an artistic work never seen in Puerto Rico. With Histriones, Navarra developed a repertory of exquisite movement pieces where the visual elements, the sound, and the bodies of the performers were crucial to create unforgettable spectacles. The group lasted until 1985.
I found it interesting how she became involved in much more than dance in her career, especially after this period.
Concepción: Yes, she was influenced by the modern dance pioneer, Jose Limón, who has expressed that one can do more than dance with the body on stage. Limón also integrates the natural movements of the body in his works. She became interested in mime, pantomime, and movement.
Otón: She was interested in something more than steps and movements; she wanted the body of the performer to tell a story or create images inspired by music, written text, paintings, and mythology. This doesn’t mean that she underestimated dance, but she was looking for something more. And she discovered onstage that she could create movement pieces without dancing, but at the same time she “used” all her knowledge of dance in her works.
Concepción: Gilda Navarra believed that you could express yourself with your trained body without speaking. She directed herself to look for something that was more than dance. Gilda did something in Puerto Rico that didn’t exist. With Taller de Histriones she did theatrical pieces with a mixture of dance and drama. Her work is considered a bridge between theatre and contemporary dance in Puerto Rico. She influenced many artists in Puerto Rico.
I know you both were her students at the University of Puerto Rico. How did she influence your work?
Otón: We all got that training in our body from her. The way we see the body and theatre comes from her teachings.
Concepción: We all were influenced by her. For example, when I act or perform I use what I learned from her: rhythm, tension, and weight, which is the “Lecoq technique.” She was influential in terms of movement, good taste, and discipline. Gilda brought the rigor of the ballet dancer to the actor’s work on stage. Some of her students didn’t like her because they thought she was too strict and too serious. But others, like us, learned from her the commitment and seriousness you need to pursue excellence. She came from the old school of dancing which is why she was like that in her methods, but she was also trying to break that in her work with pantomime.
Arraiza: As you talk, I’m thinking about this as an actor that also trained in Puerto Rico. Rosabel Otón was my movement teacher. When I auditioned for Julliard, they knew English was not my first language, so my dialogue wasn’t great, but my movement was beyond. And it’s what got me into the school. That’s all in my body from what I learned. She’s always there in the presence and training in Puerto Rico.
Concepción: Yes, many people in Puerto Rico have been influenced by her. And her students have taught many others.
What makes the Dance Division’s collection different from what you can access in Puerto Rico?
Otón: Here, I’m very pleased to be able to access the well-organized and preserved collections of The New York Public Library; to see this very valuable material. Navarra’s collection is well organized and accessible. Moreover, it is one of many important collections here, in one of the most important libraries. There is a copy of Navarra’s materials at the University of Puerto Rico, but it has not been cataloged yet, unfortunately. There doesn’t seem to be sufficient economic resources there to fully organize all the materials now. But I’m sure that the people in charge of it will do everything they can to successfully catalog the material and make it available for those who want to research her work.
The Gilda Navarra archives at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division include various materials such as audiovisual recordings, books, scrapbooks, and slides. In addition, the scrapbooks have numerous photographs, clippings, programs, and posters from throughout Navarra’s career, which are very valuable for researchers. Below are some images of the types of materials present within this collection.