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Dancer uses illness as creative muse

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

In January 2010, choreographer and dancer Sharon Marroquín was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The three surgeries, months of body-ravaging chemotherapy, radiation and painful recovery that Marroquín endured would have derailed anyone from an expected life course. But Marroquín also took on what is arguably the biggest artistic challenge of her life, channeling her experience into a full-length contemporary dance.

With 11 dancers, Marroquín will perform "The Materiality of Impermanence" March 23-25 at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

"There's not a way to really explain the experience of cancer," Marroquín says. "Inside, I don't feel like the same person even though now I look like I did before (the chemotherapy). I see with different eyes now."

Marroquín's diagnosis came just eight months after her father died of cancer. "I had just seen how this disease ravages the body," she says. "But you can't really understand until you undergo it yourself."

As a dancer and choreographer, Marroquín's sense of her body is both acute and nuanced. Her body is her instrument, her means of creative expressive. "Physically, I felt like my body was being torn apart, shattered into pieces."

Slender with a sinewy yet graceful frame, Marroquín has an uncommonly expressive and beautiful face. At 44, she has been dancing since she was a child in Mexico City, where she grew up.

Three times she's been award the Austin Critics' Table Award for outstanding choreographer.

Marroquín's life is full. She teaches at Tapestry Dance Company school and is also a bilingual elementary school teacher in Southeast Austin. And she is mother to a 7-year-old son.

As an entirely independent dancemaker, Marroquín has no regular company of dancers, no board of trustees to raise money for her endeavors. Each production she creates is of her own making. For "Materiality," she had to raise $24,000, netting support from some private foundations, the city's cultural arts program and a Kickstarter campaign online.

Using her art to cope with her struggle to manage life with cancer was an imperative, not an option.

"I needed to accept mortality," she says. "I need to be OK with it."

The lack of a holistic approach to the emotional and creative repercussions of illness in our modern society, Marroquín says, left her feeling objectified.

After her first two surgeries, Marroquín contacted a friend, photographer Todd V. Wolfson, who began to document Marroquín and the changes that happened to her body.

Seeing Wolfson's stunning portraits of her bald from chemotherapy and permanently altered by a mastectomy made Marroquín realize that art could be made from devastating illness.

"I realized I could do something with this horrible thing that was happening to me. And I started to think maybe I could make a dance out of this," she says.

"The Materiality of Impermanence" unfolds in several chapters over 90 minutes with solo dances, duets, trios and group pieces against the music of Philip Glass and also Spanish singer Bebe, among others. Video elements accent Marroquín's choreography. And she has added moments of aerial dance.

"I imagined an aerial dancer who climbs up a silk slowly, and not wanting to let go, then she unwinds and unfurls and she floats."

Marroquín also welcomed filmmaker Chithra Jeyaram, who has been documenting Marroquín's life and creative process since the cancer diagnosis. Jeyaram's film, "Foreign Puzzle" will complete filming with the performance of "The Materiality of Impermanence." A 10-minute short version of the documentary, "Mijo (My Son)," is screening at the South by Southwest Film Festival.

"This is not a dance just about cancer, or just my experience with it," she adds. "It's about transcending, finding joy with the groundlessness and uncertainty of life. You can let go and surrender, and come to peace with it."

Marroquín hopes her production illuminates the importance of creativity and art in any healing process and to further that she has has organized a panel discussion with local cancer survivors and a psychotherapist.

"Creativity is and should be an essential part of any healing process, regardless of whether you're an artist or not. Creativity heals. "

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

‘The Materiality of Impermanence'