Heidi Cruz-Austin is channeling her years of ballet training and performance as she calmly molds her dancers’ arms and legs into 19th-century shapes to complement the soaring Brahms lieder in the background.
Cruz-Austin, whose Trenton-based company DanceSpora is known for its contemporary works, trained at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City and danced for 13 years with Pennsylvania Ballet before founding DanceSpora with her husband, dancer David Austin.
Both of them continue family traditions of dance and music-making, and they have chosen to base their company in Trenton, David Austin’s home since childhood. DanceSpora will partner with Westminster Choir College in performances on Friday and Sunday, November 3 and 5, at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, featuring new choreography by Cruz-Austin to Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Walzer.”
With the November performances in the ballroom of the Patriots Theater they will help return the ballroom to its original function — the gathering of members of a community to enjoy music and dancing.
The ballroom, built in 1932, is now used as a large meeting room, convention display room, or dressing room for dance students on recital day. But when it was built the entire building was conceived as, above all, a community center with the aim “to combine beauty, dignity, and civic utility.” The building is owned by the State of New Jersey and operated by the Department of State. It is both a State and National Historic Site, and the ballroom is 4,000 square feet of Art Deco elegance.
A few years ago Joe Miller, director of choral activities for Westminster Choir College, had an idea for a series of performances re-imagining formerly important spaces in Trenton, re-purposing them as settings for the singers of WCC to engage in multi-disciplinary performances, and to open up their art to a new community.
With funding from the Dresser Foundation, the Transforming Spaces project began last year with a performance of Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields” at the former Roebling Wire Works. “An experience where music, poetry and the arts are put inside a space outside a typical performance hall or church and take on completely new meaning,” says Miller. “It’s unexpected, and then all of a sudden it’s there, that change of perspective, and it hits you.”
Miller wanted to center this second showcase on Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Walzer,” a more traditional 19th-century work featuring two things emblematic of its time: songs of romantic love and piano accompaniment.
Composed long past the era when only church music could be taken seriously, this work springs from a time when the rising middle class began to allow its children to choose marriage partners for love instead of just alliances of “houses.” The intimacy of the two-piano accompaniment is also reminiscent of its era, when much music-making took place in large rooms in private homes and public ballrooms. Through the dance, plus special lighting and set design, Miller hopes to transport the audience back in time and “share some insight into the role that the ballroom and dance played in 19th-century society.”
Miller was keen to engage performers with roots in the Trenton community. In addition to the six DanceSpora dancers, the program will feature James Goldsworthy and Ena Bronstein-Barton, both WCC faculty members, as pianists. The Westminster Chapel Choir, composed of freshmen, will be conducted by Amanda Quist, and the Westminster Schola Cantorum, sophomores, will be led by James Jordan.
A projected third event, focusing on immigration, is on hold until Rider University’s planned sale of Westminster Choir College has been finalized.
While David Austin and Heidi Cruz-Austin had professional dance careers that took them far from their geographic and family roots, they are committed to building their company in Trenton. “Having a dance company in Trenton feels like important work to me,” says Cruz-Austin. “I want to inspire students (particularly minority students) through dance, and hope that they see that they can also be a ballerina if they work hard at it.”
The couple named their company DanceSpora not only in reference to the dispersal of spores in nature and the similar effect that they would like their efforts to have on the local community, but also in the larger sense of the diaspora of African and Afro-Caribbean culture.
Austin’s mother, Wanda Austin, a dancer and teacher of African and modern dance forms, co-founded Capitol City Dance Company of Trenton. Cruz-Austin’s father, Claudio Cruz, was a professional dancer in the Dominican Republic before moving to the United States with his wife, Marianela. His mother (Heidi Cruz-Austin’s grandmother), Thelma Cruz, and Thelma’s sister, Celeste, were recording artists in the Dominican Republic, famous merengue singers known as Las Hermanas Cruz.
Cruz-Austin started her dance training at the suggestion of her father and his best friend, both dancers. The family had settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Cruz-Austin began her training there at the well-respected Dolly Haltzman Dance Academy. “The moment when I realized dancing was my passion was when I started pointe. After that I was hooked.”
Serious young dancers all work to attend one of the elite summer schools, and Cruz-Austin was admitted to the oldest and most famous, School of American Ballet, founded by George Balanchine in 1934 to train dancers for his company, New York City Ballet. “Miss Dolly would select a few of her top students to audition for SAB each year. It was a huge deal even to be chosen to go audition. She would take us to New York in the bus and lecture us on our hair and make-up on the bus ride. For weeks before, she would go over the combinations that are normally given in the audition so that we would be ready.”
After her post-senior year summer, she was invited to stay on as a full-year student. During this time in New York she finally found a role model. “Early on I didn’t have a person to draw inspiration from. I didn’t know any other black dancers. It wasn’t until I went to SAB and saw Andrea Long perform with NYCB that I saw that it was possible for me if I worked hard enough,” she says.
Today Cruz-Austin is a member of the School of American Ballet’s Alumni Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. “It’s not enough to accept (dancers of color) if you’re not going to give them the push they need,” she says. “The challenge is not just finding and developing the talent, but retaining the talent. Casting is an issue —dancers of color don’t seem to get the same push or nurturing. But SAB has been very good about trying to change the culture.”
Since SAB graduates fill the ranks of many of the top U.S. and Western European ballet companies, Cruz-Austin found her niche at Pennsylvania Ballet, where she was the only African-American female dancer at that time. She started as an apprentice in 1994 and quickly gained a corps de ballet contract the following year. She appeared in many dances by contemporary choreographers, including a prominent solo in Alvin Ailey’s “The Vortex.” She also excelled in the demanding Balanchine repertory.
By 2003 Cruz-Austin wanted to exercise her own creative voice, and she entered and won a choreographic competition in New York called Ballet Builders. The following year she was awarded the New Edge Choreographic Residency at the Community Center in Philadelphia, which gave her access to free rehearsal space and other support systems essential to a choreographic career. By 2008 she had left Pennsylvania Ballet, received a choreographic fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, married David Austin, and started DanceSpora with him.
Austin had been achieving equal success in the less conservative side of the dance world. Although his mother was a dancer and company director, Austin was not interested, and his mother didn’t push the issue.
His moment of inspiration came when he first saw break dancing in his junior high school talent show. “It was older guys from our neighborhood — cool guys who had been going to New York and been influenced by New York street dance culture.” He and his next-door neighbor started practicing in the neighbor’s basement. “There were crews all over Trenton suddenly — ours was called The BreakForce, and we were pretty well-known.”
Several years later, as break dancing was falling into decline, Austin moved on to a different form of dance, frequenting the underground clubs of the 1990s and dancing to “soul and disco music, house (music) from Chicago, re-mixed pop songs. This was a totally different dance form than break – dancing, combining elements of many different dance forms including jazz, disco, and salsa. It came as a surprise to these dancers later to see hip-hop, house, and breaking become the dominant dance styles in mainstream music and dance culture.”
Later Austin danced with Rennie Harris Puremovement of Philadelphia, a pioneer of hip-hop dance theater. Austin performed in their “Facing Mekka” project, a wildly popular event that toured nationally and internationally for upwards of four years.
The Austins met in Philadelphia. “I invited him to come see me dance in Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker,’” says Cruz-Austin, “and the rest is history.” The couple lives in Franklin Park section of Trenton with their four children, ages eight to 20.
Their other child is DanceSpora. Founded in 2008, the company — the resident dance company at Passage Theater in the Mill Hill Playhouse — has performed at Jacob’s Pillow, Philadelphia Fringe Festival, NYC 10 Festival, and the “Come Together” festival in Philadelphia, and participated in the Independence Seaport Museum’s “Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River” and the D & R Greenway sponsored Dancescapes NJ in Cadwalader Park in Trenton.
During a recent rehearsal there is a moment when Cruz-Austin demonstrates her sense of musicality and ability to choose dancers who share it. It occurs as she is blocking two lifts for a long-legged couple, Felicia Cruz (her sister, and assistant artistic director) and Will Rhem. As the music begins the two fit the lifts and elegant arm gestures into its framework and, on the first try, finish as the final chord resolves.
Though all the dancers in the company have strong classical training, DanceSpora’s usual focus is on more contemporary work, set to correspondingly contemporary music. Cruz-Austin says, “I have to really connect with the music. When I choreograph, I have to love the music, then I work from there. I made an issue to myself out of this being 19th-century classical music, which I haven’t ever used before for my choreography, but it wasn’t an issue.”
In many ways the Transforming Spaces commission allowed her to return to the deeply ingrained habits of academic ballet, not only in its use of music, but also in its strict conventions of gesture and movement. “I’ve been doing contemporary work for so long, I had to remember to keep my manners,” she says. “In other words, when the girls are lifted, I had to remember to remind them to make a more old-fashioned, modest shape — cross those legs!”
Liebeslieder Walzer, DanceSpora and Westminster Choir College, Trenton War Memorial, George Washington Ballroom. Friday, November 3, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 5, 3 p.m. $15 to $20. 609-921-2663 or www.rider.edu/arts.