PODCAST: Fabiola Ochoa Torralba on Decolonizing Dance

Embodied research notes toward a bird movement vocabulary.

Marisol Cortez

I met Fabiola Ochoa Torralba years ago, helping plan the International Women’s Day march. Around San Antonio she’s known for community-embedded dance projects that use movement to draw people into a variety of issues—from migration to the preservation of public spaces to gentrification and displacement. A few years ago, she left San Antonio to complete an MFA in Dance up at the University of Michigan, then returned home to launch several overlapping projects. There’s the East to West Project, focused on recovering Afro-Mexicanx identities and cultivating interconnections between Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities in San Antonio (view the first installment, “Return to Sun and Wind,” here). There’s her work as Community Engagement Coordinator for a local/national collaborative called For Everyone Home, for which she spent the last year collecting residents’ direct experiences of displacement so as to inform the city’s displacement prevention policies. There are community classes and her own choreography work. And, she mentioned this past January at our house, she’s also doing research on “bird movement vocabulary,” to be incorporated into a dance response to the displacement of Westsiders—egrets and public housing residents alike.

As someone who also works in the spaces between academic/artistic/activist worlds, I was intrigued by this latest project. But I knew it would be awhile before either of us could sit down again for a more in-depth conversation, so I simply earmarked that phrase—bird movement vocabulary—for a later date.

Several months and one pandemic later, Fabiola and I finally had the chance to talk more at length about her various projects within the broader scope of decolonizing dance. Along the way, we discussed what it means to do embodied research, how to build an artistic practice that is accountable to community needs, and how movement can function as language, entering into dialogue with land and more-than-human worlds—a responsivity that opens onto responsibility.

As she says, “The practice for me is, are you responsive? … I feel the need to create work that is in dialogue and in response to something that we are questioning, experiencing, asking—or should be … whether it’s [for] stage, solo, or community.”

Across dance, anti-displacement organizing, and explorations of Afro-Latinx diaspora, the overarching goal is ultimately to inquire how we “share space”:

What is movement? What is migration? What is displacement? What are the forces that impede movement? What does the color of displacement look like at the moment? … What are the forces and conditions that move other beings? Bird Island for me is about migration, is about how do we treat other bodies when we’re competing for space. … I think that in some ways, maybe what I’m trying to understand is, is there a relationship between how we treat these birds, these species, and how we treat land, how we relate to land and each other.

I feel like—a lot of my thinking right now is on trying to find ways of expressing and understanding and communicating my relationship, [my] affiliation, to kinship with Afro-Mexicanos, as an immigrant who was born in an Afro-Mexican region, and who has family, and is of Afro-Mexican descent. What is my relationship, what is our relationship to this diaspora, and to other migrating bodies and masses? If we think about the environment at the moment … there are people in islands and edges who are being moved and shifted and displaced. And bodies of people who are also being relocated and detained and forced to flee on foot.

So there’s a lot of migration that is taking place at the moment, and [in my work] I’m asking, what is that? What are those waves? Where do people come from? What are these islands? What is the relationship between environmental degradation and human and other species’ displacement?

I think what is happening at Bird Island is, you know…I think it’s a reflection of colonialism. And how we invade or colonize or monopolize environments. It’s interesting, because the contention around these birds is also [about] their overpopulation of this space. And yet their overpopulation is a result of our disruptions to their ecosystems. So we’re all fighting for space. … [And] I think it’s about … how do we share space? And I think that that’s … one of the central kind of questions of Indigenous praxis, is to think about how we share, how we co-habitate. How we live together.

Like What You’re Seeing? Become a patron for as little as $1 per month. Sign up for our newsletter (for nothing!). Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes or Sticher. Share this story with others. Or just hang out. It’s always good to kick it together.