When Yvonne Montoya climbs all over the piano while her 12-year-old son Buddy tries to practice on it, we might guess that she is either having a parental meltdown or making a dance. Turns out, it's both. "It's been wild, and completely overwhelming," says Montoya from her Tucson, Arizona home, where she lives with Buddy and her husband.
Montoya, a 23rd-generation Nuevomexicana and founding director of Safos Dance Theatre, is one of many dance artists navigating motherhood during COVID-19. Choreographers, educators, artistic directors and dancers are not only trying to keep their careers afloat by creating digital work, but some have also been dealing with their now homebound children in the wobbly world of the Zoom school room, which is about to crank up again in most of the U.S. Doing that while managing a company, a studio or a freelance career can sometimes generate a type of artful chaos.
Yvonne Montoya: Finding Creativity in Constraints
Montoya is not one to let a good meltdown go to waste, which is exactly what she has done with Stories from Home: COVID-19 Addendum. She is releasing a new episode every Wednesday on Instagram Live and Patreon for a nominal fee through September 16.
The original version of Stories from Home was slated for a September show on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, where Montoya was a 2019–20 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow. She has expanded the piece for today's digital world with longtime collaborator and filmmaker Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.
Montoya and Buddy
Dominic A. Bonuccelli, Courtesy Montoya
In addition to his regular classes, Montoya's son Buddy gets speech therapy, occupational therapy and counseling. "Suddenly, I am all those people, while trying to deal with canceling my upcoming shows," she says.
She had a revelation while throwing a ball back and forth to Buddy in an OT exercise. "I realized that my new circumstance was rich with creative energy, and I asked myself what I could do with that," recalls Montoya. "I wondered if dance and the choreographic process could provide a different way of experiencing and moving through the pandemic."
The first episode of Stories from Home chronicles the shenanigans she had to do to capture Buddy's piano playing for his lesson, which involved so much movement it made a great dance. (Buddy is a natural showbiz kid, and seems quite comfortable on camera. They might be an unlikely duo, but they are a charming one.)
This wasn't her first adventure sourcing her life as a mother in her work: a 2016 piece Motherhood and the Performing Arts also explores the joys and challenges of parenthood.
"I was stressed and I needed an outlet," says Montoya. "Buddy is fine with it, except for when my foot goes on the piano; he's not used to that." She has structured the piece so that Act 1 focuses on the challenges of homeschooling and parenting during the pandemic, while Act 2 features stories from her all-Latinx company dancers. "Act 2 will touch upon ideas of loneliness, isolation and missing family/relatives during COVID-19, as well as the evolution of family traditions/cultural practices over time and a connection to land and place."
Ana Maria Alvarez: Hosting Conversations With “Mama Artivists”
When Jacob's Pillow director Pamela Tatge asked CONTRA-TIEMPO artistic director Ana Maria Alvarez what she was up to during a digital catchup with some of the 2020-season artists, Alvarez replied, "I am mothering," with her beaming smile.
Before the pandemic, CONTRA-TIEMPO was poised to make its Doris Duke Theatre debut at the Pillow, along with a full summer of touring. A bright spot on the Los Angeles dance scene, CONTRA-TIEMPO recently celebrated its 15th year of presenting salsa, Afro-Cuban, hip hop, dance theater and contemporary dance with a social justice message.
These days, Alvarez is home with her 3-year-old and 9-year-old sons, while trying to stay active as a creative artist and connected to her company.
Alvarez with her oldest son
Brandt Brogan, Courtesy Alvarez
"My older son was just not willing to do remote learning, and I thought, I can't be in this battle and keep us healthy. It was just too much anxiety." Luckily for Alvarez, his school and teacher were very understanding. "I had to slow down and just be present, or we were not gonna make it."
What constitutes a good day has really changed. "If no one has a meltdown, that's good," she sighs. "I have lowered my standards of what is acceptable."
Like Montoya, Alvarez has kept working to advocate for families. "Mothering is critical, essential work that often gets invisibilized, leaving working mamas feeling exhausted and alone," she says. She continues to offer Dancing Familias, a family-friendly virtual class on Wednesdays, and on Tuesdays she hosts "A Place at the Table" on Instagram Live, where she chats with a fellow "mama artivist" each week about how they work as mothers, activists and artists.
Pre-COVID: Alvarez teaching a class while on tour with CONTRA-TIEMPO and holding her youngest son
"These women have been my lifeline since April," says Alvarez. "I've learned so much through these conversations, and it has shifted my own thinking. I leave every Tuesday feeling expanded and held, with this incredible sense that I'm not alone and that we are all going to be okay."
Throughout it all, Alvarez keeps her focus on what's truly important. "Let's lean into the opportunity that this is. Let's come back changed, with more equality, more justice. What a gift it has been to have this time with them."
Toni Valle: Juggling Classes, Films and Parents While Creating the World She Wants for Her Son
Toni Valle is a Houston dance legend, known for her advocacy, blending politics and aerial dance, and her production wizardry in her job as a professor of practice at the University of Houston. She had a hunch that the virus was worse than people thought, so she took her 16-year-old son Dante out of school before it officially closed. With five days to put her own classes online, she's the first to say those were some hectic days. A bit later, in April, she began retooling her dance company, 6 Degrees, for dance film projects. On top of that, she is the primary helper for her elderly parents, who both have preexisting conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
"The first thing I did was get a stronger internet," says Valle. Once her son's Zoom classroom was up and running, she found that he needed some coaxing to get his schedule together. "Normally, he would go to school and bring home good grades, but this is different, really more like college in the way the time is structured," she says. "I definitely had to micromanage his day in the beginning."
With Dante soon heading into his junior year, she wants him to consider his options in the arts. "He sees my life as an artist, so it's not like he doesn't know how hard it is." Plus, Dante is a singer, the most problematic of the arts when it comes to virus spread.
Toni Valle with her son Dante
Mark Valle, Courtesy Valle
Valle realizes she's one of the lucky ones. "I still have my job, my son learns well from a computer, we have multiple computers at home so that I can teach from home while he does in-home learning; I am keenly aware of families that do not have all the necessities and are living under incredibly stressful situations."
With the virus spiking in Texas and no signs of slowing down, Valle has been working with other Houston artists to get refurbished electronics in the hands of families who have no way to learn at home.
To stay connected to 6 Degrees and her own artistic vision, she's started a video series, Human Re/Con/Struct. Once her portable rigging is up, she will be able to rehearse the company in her backyard. "While trying to use my voice to create the world I want my son to have is exhausting, using that same voice to inform and sculpt a dance is exhilarating. I walk away from any rehearsal revitalized, in touch with myself and others, and alive."