Tabula Rasa Dance Theater Presents “Border of Lights”

Members of The 2023 Tabula Rasa Dance Theater at a rehearsal – Photos by Marilyn Kirschner

You know the joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? “Practice.” The same can be said about getting to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, the venue for the world premiere of Tabula Rasa Dance Theater’s “Border of Lights” – NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL, on June 15th and June 16th.

Tabula Rasa Dance Theater, the subject of my article written in 2020, was founded by Felipe Escalante in 2018. It is a local dance company that uses art to shed light on societal issues. Escalante’s goal is to transform, inspire, and enlighten.

“We are not ballet, and we are not contemporary dance. We are creating a new dance company with immigrants, people of all colors, and people of all ages. We don’t fit into any preconceived idea of dance. Hence, the name Tabula Rasa, Latin for “blank slate”an absence of predetermined goals or preconceived ideas.”

Felipe Escalante, Founder, Tabula Rasa Dance Theater

Felipe Escalante, Amy Fine Collins, & Wes Gordon attend the YAGP Gala at Lincoln Center

Before the opening, Escalante and Amy Fine Collins, on the Board of Directors, invited me to sit in on one of the many daily rehearsals open to the media, held at different studios throughout the city. It was a gratifyingly eye-opening experience. I could feel the joy and exhilaration and see the hard work that goes into creating a dance production. “We really have to love what we’re doing to keep going,” admits Escalante.

In 2018, Escalante, who began his career at 6 and choreographed his first piece at 16, received a grant from The Ford Foundation to create “From the Shadow Into the Light,” which addressed the global refugee crises. “Inside Our Skins” 2019 focused on the injustices of mass incarceration.

During the 2020 pandemic, Escalante presented “Liquidus,” a virtual piece about the psychological toll of shelter-in-place. Then, in the summer of 2021, he brought “One of Four,” a work examining gender-based violence, to four boroughs of NYC.

The exhalation of dance

The Mexican born 32-year-old conceived of his latest theme, which addresses the immigration crisis and xenophobia, over a year and a half ago. In fact, they were planning to perform this show in May 2020, just before everything started closing due to the pandemic. It’s fitting that the 2023 Tabula Rasa Dance troupe is a veritable melting pot comprising 20 diverse performers from 9 countries: Russia, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, South Korea, Jamaica, Ecuador, the U.S., and Mexico. The youngest is 21, and the oldest is 48.

“What is so admirable about these dancers (among many other things) is that they dance because they must. Felipe creates because that is literally the meaning of life for him – and unlike with fashion design, singing, music, painting, acting, writing and really any other art form, there is almost zero chance of them ever making any real money. In that respect, it is so pure.”

Amy Fine Collins, Director, Board of Directors, Tabula Rasa Dance Theater

Felipe Escalante reviewing his notes

For the entire three hours, Felipe, who says that the concepts for his dances are in his head, was deep in concentration, going over notes on his phone and observing the dancers bring his vision to life, making suggestions as needed. I asked Felipe if he dreams about choreography at night, and he joked that he has nightmares about what can go wrong.

Felipe Escalante showing the dancers how its done

Escalante began performing the Mexican folk dances of his natural region as a little boy and has subsequently mastered and performed other dance styles, including flamenco, Modern Dance, and Jazz. He has also studied cross-training methods to obtain the tools for optimum performance and body art. Naturally, Felipe was often active during rehearsals, assisting his dancers, illustrating how certain moves or lifts should be executed, and often making alterations and modifications.

Higher and higher

During the rehearsals, Felipe is supportive yet firm. He admittedly pushes his dancers and even admits to being harsh on them at times. “I expect a lot from my dancers and want them to shine.” He continually emphasizes the importance of using their eyes and, most importantly, practice. “Instead of looking at your phone or Instagram, practice,” he urged. “If you have problems come to me. That is what I’m here for.”

Don’t Try This At Home

At one point, Escalante shows the dancers how he wants them to stomp on the floor and make loud noises with their feet, imitating the way horses do. Felipe’s performances are rife with symbolism; in this case, it’s the idea of an army, symbolic of colonialism. Felipe wanted the dancers to think about the Spanish when they came to Mexico to colonize the indigenous people and how they might have looked on their horses.

DIY Army & Navy Jackets Felipe decorated with flowers

The dancers practiced with and without music and without costumes until the end when Escalante had the group put on the DIY jackets he created for the performance. Felipe purchased the army and navy jackets at an East Village thrift shop and then decorated them with daisy patches he found on Amazon. It’s the contrast between war and peace, says Felipe.

“Border Of Lights” is not only about immigration but about all the walls that divide us. There’s an army fighting at many locations with dividing walls, hence the military jackets. The flowers are meant to symbolize peace. Moreover, all the dancers will be wearing a replica of an ankle brace ICE uses to monitor the whereabouts of immigrants.

Even Felipe’s ticket pricing has a social message. Tickets for the upcoming performances, available here, are priced from 63 cents to $65: $35 (Immigrant Collateral), $50 (Dreamers), $65 (Illegal Aliens). These are the terms the Department of Homeland Security uses to describe the level of immigrants.

Why 63 cents? Incarcerated people in New York State earn 63 cents an hour. Their 2019 performance, “Inside Our Skins,” called attention to the ongoing and still legal practice of forced labor, permitted under the 13th Amendment’s exception allowing slavery as a “punishment for a crime.”

Other social issues Felipe hopes to address in the future: mental illness, gun violence, climate change, and ageism.

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Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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