Rutgers Dance Student from San Juan has Choreography Recognized on the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts stage

Winning Moves, By Patti Verbanas/Rutgers Today

Rutgers dance student Javier Padilla’s highly personal choreography is recognized on the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts stage

Javier Padilla has come a long way since he first danced on stage at age 10 dressed as a squirrel in his native San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The third-year bachelor of fine arts dance major at Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Jersey saw his original choreography, “A Cønversation on Drowning,” performed June 9 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., at the 2016 National College Dance Festival.

Set against the haunting music and spoken word composition “Sea” by Deliah Derbyshire, the nearly nine-minute dance represents a personal journey for Padilla, who started thinking of the concept on a visit to North Carolina after his uncle’s death. “It was a family tragedy; we found out later that he had committed suicide,” he says. “I contemplated the feeling of loss and how it can affect those who are left behind, washing over us. ‘Sea’ resonated with everything I was feeling.”

The piece, performed at the JFK Center by 13 Mason Gross BFA dancers with Padilla watching in the audience, was among 31 dance works from colleges and universities nationwide chosen for presentation at the festival. Padilla is one of only eight undergraduate choreographers whose dances were selected.

Padilla, who remembers entertaining neighbors by dancing in his driveway at age 7, has long been fascinated by the movements of the dancers in musical theater. “I knew back then I wanted to dance for the rest of my life,” he says.

In his youth, he trained at the School for the Performing Arts in San Juan, studying contemporary, modern, ballet, tap, musical theater and jazz. “One of my biggest mentors was my dance instructor, Olaya Muentes, who guided me through everything – from how to choreograph a dance, how to audition professionally and how to select a college,” he says.

Rutgers, the first stop on Padilla’s college audition tour, “just felt right,” he says. “It was a great choice since it afforded me a lot of opportunities I couldn’t have imagined.”

After enrolling, he realized he enjoyed choreography as much as dancing. And his talent matched his passion. In his first year, one of his pieces was selected for the spring concert – a distinction typically granted to junior-year students and above. He has had a piece accepted for the concert each year since.

After his second piece was selected for the 2015 concert, Padilla formed The Movement Playground, a contemporary dance collective that allows him to create, collaborate and perform with other dancers. “I wanted to have a troupe that I could record and send to festivals,” he says. The collective has performed in the New York City metropolitan area ever since.

When working with his collective, Padilla takes a collaborative approach. “The dance is 70 percent me, 30 percent my dancers,” he explains. “A big part is talking to them about the dance’s meaning and where it is going.”

He starts by teaching the movement so that the dancers can learn the piece’s aesthetic. Then, he breaks them into solos, duets and larger groups and gives them choreographic tasks with a detailed rubric of what he wants for a certain section. He analyzes the movement again in these configurations to find ways to integrate it into other variations such as trios and quartets.

“I’m interested in dance-theater, so there’s a narrative to each piece,” he says. “It’s not too concrete, though. I want to involve the audience and allow them to define narratives they see themselves.”

For “A Cønversation on Drowning,” he began every rehearsal by explaining the piece and asking the dancers to relate to it. “As the process went on, the dance shifted a lot from the idea of loss to an exploration of the inevitable feeling of loss and trying to not drown,” says Padilla, who also designed costumes to fit the tone.

“A Cønversation on Drowning” can next be seen at “Inside/Out: American College Dance Association Gala Highlights” on August 25 at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts.

In addition to the festivals, Padilla is also focusing attention on choreographing a music video and performing solo dances. Upon graduation, he plans to expand The Movement Playground.

For now, though, Padilla is looking forward to whatever his senior year will bring and says, “College has been a really fun ride.”