Roberto Villanueva: Dancing through lifeBy Momar G. Visaya
Even at a very young age, Roberto Villanueva has always liked to dance. In fact, he used to imitate dancers that he sees on television, mainly through variety shows and music videos.
The love for dancing remained in his heart as he grew up and went to school. Back then, he didn’t realize that dancers actually go through formal training. He thought they just came up with movement or imitated each other.
Then when he was in college, things changed when he discovered the art of dance while taking a gym class as a university requirement. The class was called “Introduction to Movement.”
“The instructor told me I had a natural sense of movement and encouraged me to look into the university’s dance department to get formal training in dance. I visited the dance department and watched a couple of classes (ballet and jazz). I immediately fell in love with the art form,” Roberto shared.
Although he was planning to pursue a degree in Accounting, he decided at that time that he wanted to pursue dance instead. After a couple of years of intensive training (seven days a week), he started performing in the university’s dance company and with two local dance companies. This life changing discovery eventually led to a degree in Dance Performance, a special scholarship from the school of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the national title “Mr. Dance of America 1993″ from Dance Masters of America.
When he was 22, he moved to New York City to pursue a career as a concert dance performer. That was in 1992.
Two decades later, Roberto would proudly stage his one-man show called “Pieces Of Me: An Inside Look At A Dance Artist’s Journey” at the renowned Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater, The Joan Weill Center for Dance.
“Pieces of Me: An Inside Look at a Dance Artist’s Journey,” is a program of six solos choreographed and performed by Roberto himself, juxtaposed with his personal commentaries to give the audience members a glimpse inside his life as a dance artist in New York City, his perspective on the challenges and imbalances in the field of concert dance, and his inspiration for the show and each solo.
The dance numbers were all well-choreographed, and the packed audience appreciated the descriptions Roberto had before each number. Each one was different in terms of range, theme, music and movement.
The entire one-man show was an idea that Roberto had back in 2007.
“I wasn’t sure if I would continue to perform and if I would ever get the opportunity to actually produce it, so I just wrote the idea down and placed it inside a folder. In 2010, I found out about Harlem Stage’s Fund for New Work Program, which awards grants to emerging artists who want to develop and present their creative works,” he said.
At that point, he was reminded that he had a folder with a work that he wanted to develop and produce.
“Then I reworked the idea and came up with a one-man show consisting of six self-choreographed solos that showcased my artistry and commentaries that expressed my journey as a dance artist. I applied for the grant and was awarded funding for this one-man show,” he said.
The audience members had a unique dance concert experience as they witnessed Roberto prepare for the show, change from one piece to another, and interact with the audience through his commentaries. This show revealed not only Roberto’s strengths as an artist, but also his vulnerabilities as a person.
Among these vulnerabilities were his height (then) and his age (now).
Performing before fellow dance artists (Roberto asked a show of hands before the show), he apologized intermittently for not being too technical in his movements and leaps as his body has been giving him signs to slow down.
“I should have done this when I was in my 30s, not when I’m already 42,” Roberto quipped in between numbers, laughing. His age however, was betrayed by his youthful, physical looks. Yes, he can still move like crazy and I believe he can very well do this even when he is in his 50s already.
Coming alongside his youthful looks is his short stature, a bane to a professional dancer like him. He wasn’t considered for roles many times just because he was short. Never mind if he was one heck of a great dancer.
Roberto received his formal dance training from the University at Buffalo. He has performed, conducted dance residencies, judged dance competitions, and taught master classes in U.S., Europe, and Asia. He has also worked with dance companies such as Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company, Steeledance, Marie-Christine Giordano Dance, Pick of the Crop Dance, and Buffalo City Ballet.
Today, he works as a dance performer, choreographer, teacher, and administrator.
He founded BalaSole Dance Company in February 2010, where he is now Executive/Artistic Director.
“BalaSole was birthed from my desire to do something I’m passionate about, which is to dance and address the imbalances in the field of concert dance,” he shared.
These imbalances include limited artistic freedom given to artists, insufficient multiethnic representation, inadequate mentoring, limited opportunities for artistic collaboration, typecasting restrictions that marginalize dance artists, below average compensation, limited opportunities for dance artists to become soloists, and just one style of dance in a company’s repertoire.
“When I moved to NYC, I faced many heartbreaking rejections at auditions because of my small physique. As someone who has been marginalized and has entered a demographic of maturing artists (in their 40s), I decided to establish a multi-genre and all-inclusive dance company that provides visibility, mentoring, and artistic freedom to artists of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, and styles,” Roberto revealed.
The word BalaSole was derived from two words: Balance and Solo. The inspiration for these two words came from the company’s vision statement: “To promote a balance in the field of concert dance where the general public can experience a dance concert filled with diversity and where artists are able to fully demonstrate their individual artistry.”
BalaSole Dance Company is the only dance organization in the United States today that is solely dedicated to bridging the gaps in the field of concert dance. Not bad for an organization whose founder faced multiple rejections at dance auditions because of his size, but refused to give up his dream of becoming a professional concert dance artist.
In less than 20 months, BalaSole and Roberto successfully produced 7 major educational concert seasons showcasing (and mentoring) 73 underrepresented dance artists. During the same period, he also succeeded in implementing the organization’s Emerging Artist Program and Access2Dance Program. The former provides technical training and performance opportunities for emerging dance artists, and the latter provides free dance classes to financially disadvantaged children and youth.
Roberto and his family left the Philippines when he was 14. Roberto’s late father, Manuel Villanueva, was born in Ilocos Sur and his mother, Ester Villanueva, was born in Manila.
“I’ve gone back several times in the last five years. I wish I had gone back sooner. I miss the authentic Filipino food and my friends from primary and secondary schools. And, I’m quite delighted that I have been able to reconnect with many friends from childhood years,” he said.
Living in New York, Roberto has also learned to balance his life accordingly. He believes the city’s diversity and dynamism sometimes exposes its residents to many life distractions and challenges.
“You really need to be focused in order to succeed in this competitive city. Nonetheless, in order to take advantage of the benefits of being in New York City, one has to find a balance between work and life. While it is important to have a professional career and build financial security for yourself, I learned that it is also important to spend time with families and close friends as well as do something that helps other people,” Roberto said.
“I learned that I, and many others from different fields, have to work very hard in order to survive in one of the world’s most expensive cities. While there are a lot of opportunities in New York City, there are also a lot of competitions,” he added.
As far as challenges were concerned, Roberto knew that he had to obtain an appropriate level of financial security that allows you to sleep well at night because you are able to fulfill your financial obligations, live your passion, and build a good retirement.
One of his biggest challenges involves him running the dance company and connecting with the Filipino community here.
“Despite the city’s huge number of Filipino/Filipino-Americans residents, only about 2% of the people who come to support my work as a Filipino-American artist are from our community. What I’ve observed is that our community only supports prominent Filipino/Filipino-American figures in the film and music industries,” he lamented.
He is hoping to change that in the years to come.
While the world of dance may not be financially rewarding (and yet takes a heavy physical toll on one’s body), Roberto believes that he is in it for the long haul.
“I’m very happy with choosing a profession where I’m doing what I’m passionate about, which is dancing and helping those who are passionate about dance,” he said, explaining that the good things trump the bad. Always.