INTERVIEW: Debra Fernandez

It was the late ’70s. I had heard about my brother’s new girlfriend from a few sources. I remember thinking that she must be pretty outrageous to take on the eccentricity of my big brother, and I was right.

We met at the gala party for the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago, the night her father was crowned as King. Debra schmoozed the costumed crowd with a charm bred from her Cuban roots. I immediately recognized a kindred spirit. The years that followed found us dancing the Jota alongside Jose Molina, living together in a fourth-floor walkup in New York City, watching each other grow into mature women intent on crafting a life out of what we loved. We have been friends for over 40 years, and there are only a handful of these special relationships you will experience in a lifetime.

Currently Debra is a full professor and Chair of Dance at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. What many people don’t know is that Deb is also an accomplished pianist and composer. Plus, tucked away in her life’s resume is a unique short film she co-created with Carlene Bellamy, back in the day. I asked her to share her take on the creative process, and she was happy to oblige.

How would you describe yourself as an artist?

Malleable, confident in my craft, comfortable creating “from the mystery” (as a friend once pointed out), a collaborator, still able to be surprised, musical…and still learning!

My teaching philosophy is along the lines of the quote by Shunryu Suzuki, “Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”

Has it changed over time, and where are you now in your creative process?

Yes, it has definitely changed. As a younger choreographer, I was much more interested in creating movement in specific genres of dance, such as jazz or ballet. I was also very driven by music. As I continued to choreograph over time, which also means the aging process, I began to develop methods of choreography that would not depend on my diminished instrument to generate the movement. I began to rely on my dancers to invent the movement vocabulary through the various prompts and concepts I would assign them. My role would then be to create a kind of “group vocabulary,” whereby we all shared each other’s physical responses.

As this process developed, I began to see that each new creation was a conglomeration of each particular group’s energy and mindset. I found that this enlarged my scope of creativity and allowed me to act as a kind of archeologist that would unearth treasures on each particular excursion. In short, I found myself more comfortable in the role of one who shapes and edits an experience rather than imposes one specific idea, theme, or personal movement style on a group of dancers.

Sometimes it would surprise me that without ever intending it, a compelling personal statement would reveal itself through a movement vocabulary I did not invent or construct. At this moment in my creative process, I am very much at home with not knowing what is coming and whether or not it will be “good.” I enjoy the day to day process of “playing” with bodies in space and in time. It’s like a good crossword puzzle. I’m not looking for the BIG MOMENTS any more.

Or, as Merce Cunningham put it, “Climax is for those who are swept by New Year’s Eve.”

Did you grow up in an artistic family?

I don’t know that I would call them artistic in the sense of the fine arts, but they loved music and dance, and probably each had more artistic yearning than they might have given voice to. I have a sneaking suspicion that I stuck with what I was doing because I never got married or had children. Who knows how that would have impacted my choices. I was able to concentrate on my artistic pursuit in a way that was not an option for my parents. I’ve often been accused of what writer Annie Lamott would say, “I may not be much, but I’m all I think about.”

How did you satisfy your creative nature while working full time?

I was fortunate enough that my jobs were always in my field, and I had the distinct privilege of being able to hone and perfect my craft as part of my daily duties. There is no way I would have become the choreographer I am today without this day to day opportunity. The old saying “Those who can do, those who can’t teach” may be true on some level, but didn’t make sense for me. I never really loved performing and considered teaching a truer vocation. It has informed my artistic work and helped me find a voice that would, no doubt, have remained muted. As I began to develop my interest in choreography, it was instrumental in discovering how to coach, design, and use the physical body to express an emotion or psychological state.

What creative work did you love doing the most, and why?

My most beloved creative projects have been ones that I shared with phenomenal collaborators who enlarged my ideas and allowed me access to levels of creativity I might not have reached on my own. And, by this, I mean, the collaborative designers but also some amazing performers I’ve had the good luck to work with.

How do you share your art today with others?

Again, I’ve been lucky to work in an institution (Skidmore College) that values and encourages the arts. In addition to two regular faculty concerts per year that I take part in, I continue to create works on an ongoing basis for different venues in my area, particularly museums. I’m almost always working on something, and that’s really what matters. I embrace the Zen notion of working without focusing on results. Instead, the processes are what matter. In that way, I am sharing my art with the dancers involved in the rehearsals and not just focusing on an audience. It is a wonderful way to spend time with people, intimate, but without a lot of conversation.

What intrigues you the most about the creative process?

The blank slate. The fact that where there was once nothing, something will manifest and fill the space. I am always surprised that even when I enter into the process without an idea in the world, one will emerge.

The creative process is the mystery that we all live every moment, but we don’t always give ourselves the space to pay attention to it.

It involves listening, choice-making, leading, following, questioning, faith, and many other wonderful aspects of attention. When we enter into a creative act of art-making, we are usually focusing on a specific project, but Life itself is the ultimate creative process.

Looking back, would you have lived your life differently?

Probably not, because I lived it the only way I knew how at each particular moment. Of course, there are things I know now that would have been very helpful in certain situations, but growing and learning as we move through life is the whole point. There’s no way I can retroactively imagine that I could be the 67-year-old woman I am now when I was a young lass in my 20’s. One thing is probably for sure: it wouldn’t have been as much fun!

What would you say today to your younger self?

That I should have bought a house in Saratoga Springs in the early ’90s. I was warned, but commitment-phobe that I was, I never signed on the dotted line. I’d be sitting pretty today. Aside from real estate, I would have urged my younger self to stick up for herself more and not be afraid of ruffling feathers.

What would you say to young artists coming up in the world?

Well, as a teacher, I say things to them all the time. I’m not sure they are listening, and that would be understandable. They are entering a vastly different world than the one we experienced. One piece of advice that will probably always be true is along the lines of “follow your heart” or “follow your passion.”

There is a certain kind of listening that an artist needs to do because who you are going to become is not immediately evident to those around you. It requires a sort of dumb belief in yourself.

Hopefully, as I did, you will meet key people who will point the way, believe in you, and help you find the treasures. And, in that way, teachers can be incredibly valuable; I had an early teacher who said something to me that gave me the juice to believe in myself as a dancer. She probably didn’t even know it was so impactful. So, Carol, wherever you are, thank you.

Presently, I’m reading Adam Gopnik’s book, At The Strangers’ Gate, and it’s about New York in the early ’80s, which is when I was there. With regards to the younger artists of today, I strongly related to this passage: “We tolerated woeful inadequacy in sure and certain hope, as the Anglican prayer for the dead would have it, of eventual deliverance. When I go to the homes of the twenty-somethings now, I sense that they live on higher floors, but have lower ceilings.”

Delia asked me how I wanted to end the interview, and it got me thinking about endings in general; they are such an important and key moment in a dance. Sometimes they are definitive and explosive, sometimes pensively ambiguous so as to allow an audience to form their own conclusions about the piece, but one thing is for sure: they all end. As I begin to think about the ending that is retirement and what a long and rich chapter it will close, I admit to being a bit nervous. But, as the Jungian therapist, James Hollis, tell us,

“there is a will within each of us, quite outside the range of conscious control, a will which knows what is right for us, which is repeatedly reporting to us via our bodies, emotions, and dreams, and is incessantly encouraging our healing and wholeness.”

Not unlike the creative process, …which is where this interview started! To know an artist you must see their art. I suggest you begin with Swan Song, a piece I choreographed in 2010. Music is by Richard Danielpour, with the Hyperion String Quartet. Dancers include Julie Gedalecia and Jacob Goodhart with Rebecca Greenbaum and Angela Cascone. Thank you for taking the time to share my journey.