KIANI DEL VALLE: BODY LANGUAGE
“A lot of life can only be expressed through movement. Dance might seem intangible, but it’s eternal and visceral, and that’s powerful.”
A revealing statement from Puerto Rican, conceptual dance artist, Kiani Del Valle, and one that’s reinforced by her rich body of work as a dancer, choreographer, director, and movement coach. Whether crafting performances for the stage, silver screen, nightclub, or gallery—Del Valle’s medium is the human form, her messages resonating through its motion.
“I'm really interested in non-verbal communication,” she offers. “Years ago, I used to [teach] children and older people, which helped me understand that movement is a really potent tool. When I visited Japan as a dancer, even though [we didn’t share language], people would approach me excitedly—we cannot not ‘speak’, but we're hugging and crying.”
Yet while Del Valle’s devotion to manipulating bodies remains constant, on zooming out, her canvases are forever in flux, from grimy industrial loft to pristine white cube; intricate, period film set to vast, natural wilderness—luckily, as that professional moniker underscores, she’s as adept at transforming space as human flesh, as much artist as dancer.
“Visual art is still a big part of my work … I bumped into my [undergraduate] painting teacher when I was back in Puerto Rico in January,” she says over the phone from her adopted home, Berlin, “and he reminded me of my first university project, which I'd completely forgotten about—I threw a canvas across the school grounds, and I was dancing on it, and painting. Everybody was like: ‘Why is she in the painting school? Send her to dance already!’ But I also love painting … I spent most of my childhood painting and my parents collected art, so I [originally] thought I was going to be a painter.”
Regardless, having initially spurned ballet as a hyperactive (if preternaturally graceful) tomboy, once a tiny Del Valle was cajoled into a class, “there was no turning back”. These twin passions: dance and art, persisted through her youth, her choice of an Experimental Painting degree coming by way of default, there being no dance equivalent in Puerto Rico. Still, despite the protestations of her mother, and the palpable pressure of hailing from a long line of women intellectuals—“I was on another planet compared to the rest of the family”—she dropped out and wound up in New York, where she was welcomed as a student by the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Del Valle was dancing, daily, intensively, but somehow, unfulfilled.
“I was learning a lot, but when I started examining the work artistically, it seemed outdated,” she recalls. “I didn't like the syllabus. In some weird way, my painting mindset was already translating into what I later understood as my choreographic foundations. It was really confusing!” She applied to further dance schools, the best the US has to offer, and what with her exceptional technique and abundant talent, was accepted, then thwarted by the outrageous tuition fees.
Serendipitously, a musician friend told Del Valle of an avant-garde, contemporary programme at Montreal’s Concordia University. She hopped on a cross-border bus, and her predicament was resolved. “As soon as I arrived [because] the professors told me: ‘You'll be a great choreographer!’ I was the only student that had already worked as a dancer, so they were a bit weirded out too, but I was really hungry to create dance.”
KIANI DEL VALLE WEARING DITA SILICA
The intimate, artistically progressive and professionally-geared atmosphere proved the perfect incubator for Del Valle. “I definitely became a choreographer,” she says. “I developed technique that most peers I meet today [still] don't possess. That’s the cool thing about choreography school, everyone has to find their voice then the professors assist in shaping that. Also, college generally doesn’t teach you how to hustle, but they gave us the responsibility of being [accountable] creators really early on.” Duly empowered, on graduating, Del Valle committed to a freelance career as both dancer and choreographer:
People want you to believe that you need to dance for a company until you get injured, then you can start choreographing, but these [goals can be realised] together … It was tough, but I learned to trust myself, and somehow it worked out.
An understatement perhaps, for Del Valle’s portfolio is abidingly impressive, taking in the choreographing of performances such as ‘Neotype’, a ‘broken ballet’ duet for two soloists of the Berliner Staatsballett, and music videos for renowned, experimental artists, including Dirty Projectors and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, as well as directing captivating promos for the likes of Floating Points and Simian Mobile Disco.
CHOREOGRAPHY & PERFORMANCE KIANI DEL VALLE
Del Valle occasionally performs a central role in these video projects too, enabling an online audience to also engage with her as a compelling, dance artist. In Floating Points’ ‘Nespole’, she’s cleft in two: entrapped in mechanical motion as a white clad, android-like character, belying her extreme control and precision, as she engages with a seemingly emancipated, quicksilver-limbed doppelganger. The resulting three minutes neatly showcasing her ability to imbue even simple action with deep emotion.
While on the near horizon lies the release of major, Hollywood biopic, ‘Why Not Choose Love—A Mary Pickford Manifesto’ that Del Valle coached movement for under director, Jennifer DeLia, and producer, Julie Pacino. “I work in a lot of different mediums, with lots of different artists,” she says.
I’m interested in character development, but also in performance art, in film and in theatre … I’m obsessed with cinema, and the moments I connect with the most are those where words or text aren’t needed to feel emotion.
At present, she’s part-way through a trio of performance pieces that respond to notable Swiss interdisciplinary installation artist, Claudia Comte’s Copenhagen Contemporary show: ‘I Have Grown Taller from Standing with Trees’. “The first chapter featured myself as a being that becomes different animals in this artificial forest in another dimension, it's super futuristic. It’s been great to work with Claudia Comte. She’s amazing and, given my art background, we totally vibe with each other. The second stage will involve non-dancers, who I’ll teach simplified choreography to that they’ll then perform in full costume. And the closing segment, which we want to make a film for, is in August, and I’ll be working with professional dancers.”
Not only does Del Valle deftly channel the profound effect that one body can have on another for public view, the bodies she works with assist her in her studio practice, too. “While [movement coaching and choreographing] non-dancers, including singers, I discovered there are motions that come from an untrained body that can be worked into a performance by specialised bodies,” she says. “And I also realised that most of those I train then feel better in themselves—these positive things start happening, for example, the dance classes somehow cure their insomnia.” A happy side effect of embodying ones creativity. "It’s fantastic to physicalise these things. If you’re a singer, I’ll ask for your different intentions for each song in your set, so I develop [movement] out of you—your concept, your music.”
All the while, between working with other talents, Del Valle utilises her body to explore concepts as a solo artist. Her latest piece, ‘Catacoustic Flesh', which premiered at cutting-edge, Williamsburg venue, National Sawdust, saw her conspire with music producer, Leo Luchini, to investigate the symbiotic ties between sonics and flesh, and the role of the unconscious in forging identities, promising to transport the audience to: “a new dimension where sound and movement is the predominant language of communication”.KIANI DEL VALLE WEARING DITA ERASUR
The show’s digital trailers serve as fine snapshots of Del Valle’s idiosyncratic dance style as she seamlessly parlays fragments of classical, contemporary and social dance, quotidien interaction, martial art and pop culture references into a mesmeric singular language. Apparently toying with time during dynamic phrases that juxtapose large, lightspeed full-body gestures such as spins, dives and jumps; barely-there (but-so-very-there) poses; angular yet melting upper-body undulations, and treacle-slow glide transitions.
Having recently been invited to present the piece in Puerto Rico, she balked on discovering that local choreographers had been denied similar opportunities since Hurricane Maria wrought its dire ruinations, opting instead to curate a dance festival: ‘Cuerpo en Ecos’ (‘Body of Echoes’), so that they could share the stage. “I conceptualised the event, theming it upon ‘Metamorphoses’ and further texts by Kafka,” Del Valle says. “It was amazing. We had three sold out shows, and we’re aiming to do it every year. I’m starting my own festival back home! It’s wonderful.”
Back in Berlin, in the very studio where DITA’s shoot took place, she just held auditions for new additions to her nascent dance company, Kiani Del Valle Ensemble, an offshoot of which has already performed at Los Angeles’ Getty Museum. To succeed, the candidates had to absorb some of Del Valle’s unique movement style. “I selected a long sequence to show: ‘this is the way Kiani moves’,” she explains, “They need to understand a little of my language, but then the rest of the audition was about improvisation and choreographic tasks.”
I need a dancer that has technique, but is equally creative. I can't work with people who don’t take risks, or surprise themselves … It's really important to take a chance and throw yourself into the abyss.
And it’s with these fellow fearless souls that her long-term ambitions lie: “I wish that we could find a permanent headquarters for the ensemble, while touring internationally. The dream is that I can eventually focus on that.” Until then, her extraordinary career will keep unfurling along unexpected and entrancing, corporeal avenues, for as she says: “Everybody thinks they need to fit themselves into a mould, but you don't have to do that—you can create your own mould.”
Talent: @kianidelvalle at @boxartistmanagement
Text: Suze Olbrich
Photos: Arcin Sagdic @arcinsagdic
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