Conversations with dancers: Pulga Muchochoma

This is the first in the series of conversations about dance on DtO.  I met a Toronto Dance Theatre company dancer Pulga Muchochoma at their offices on Winchester St. in Cabbagetown.

DtO: There’s a skeleton hanging out in that corner.

PM: This one belongs to the company I believe, but the TDT school also has one. It helps in the anatomy lessons. And outside school work, as a professional dancer, it’s important for you to know exactly where each movement comes from.

What is a typical day at the TDT?

Normally, you are here Monday to Friday from 10:15-6pm. The first hour we do a company class, which is open to any professional dancer outside the school – they can come and see what we’re doing, get to know the dancers. Then after a short break we rehearse, depends on what we’re working on, there’s something different each month. Currently we’re working on Four at the Winch Quebec. Lunch hour is at 1:3o, then from 2:30 to 6 the work continues. It’s a full day of dancing.

Do you have to watch what you eat?

Depends on the individual. I eat what I feel like eating and I don’t watch my weight.

Do dancers eat a lot of protein and meat?

Yes, especially modern dancers. We do more heavy physical stuff, and the ballet dancers less so… They control their weight more than we do. Modern dancers dance according to where they’re at, where their bodies are at…

Do you notice a change in your movement if your weight goes up or down?

As a male, though, it’s hard to tell because we mostly lift other people. So you can notice the change in the person you’re lifting. If you spend some time in a company unit, you will have danced with everybody and will know how each of them moves, and you notice even the small changes.

Last time I saw the TDT dancers was during the Culture Days, when you held an open rehearsal for Rivers. It was amazing, as usual. I also kept thinking: dancers can live really comfortably in the world because they’ve overcome awkwardness with their peers, because they know human bodies, and when they enter a roomful of strangers or walk down the street, they belong.

There are limits to this ease, but the limits change depending on who I’m with. If I’m meeting someone who’s not a dancer, I know my limits; if I’m with someone who’s a dancer but who doesn’t work with me, those limits shift; and if it’s a dancer that I know who works with me, then there’s much freedom. But yes: dancers are probably more open to people than many other professions. We spend hours dancing with someone, feeling the skin, and it’s something that comes with the job. It can expand outside dance. It can become second nature.

Should modern dancers bother studying classical ballet?

I would recommend it. A modern dancer can improve their technique by studying ballet. But some choreographers will intentionally try to avoid the language of ballet in their work. Nowadays, Christopher would say, You know, forget about dance, just let it be what it is. Or, This jump looks so balletic, but how can you make it your own, something that feels like it’s you giving me something.

Christopher allows freedom to improvise?

Yes, but it’s improvisation with the details, not of the You’re-on-your-own kind. He sees it, likes it, suggests something else, then “cooks it”. Then it becomes both your way and his way, and everybody’s happy.

During that open rehearsal, he talked a bit about his choreographing process. I remember him explaining the role of the recording and replaying of the recorded. It sounded like a complex process.

It can be for us who are learning it. But actually it saves a lot of time. Rather than spend hours with you teaching you every single step, he gives you the details, says think about this, and that and that other thing, and make something of it. Then come to me and we’ll work together. Then when it’s time to learn, it takes 30 minutes learning it, five minutes improvising it, and then you just go to your studio you do your thing and you work with another dancer. You save a lot of time. It’s a very good process.

Do you easily learn a sequence of movements? An hour-long performance can’t be easy to memorize. Do you ever write anything down or make drawings?

Some people do it, but it doesn’t work for me. Some people would make notes for themselves: kick here, jump on three.

So they do write notes sometimes! I am being privy to important secrets here.

Some are really good with it. Me, if I write it down, tomorrow I’m thinking, Hmmm… I don’t know about this. For me it’s more: I learn today, then don’t think too much about it. Tomorrow I come and rely on the body to remember. And I will repeat as many times as I feel I need, I want to make sure that I know the combination and not go in doubting anything. And Christopher is always open to questions from us.

Mirroring can also be important in the learning process. Sometimes it’s enough for a dancer to see another dancer do something, and they’ll get up and do the same thing immediately.

Do you ever look for narration in a dance sequence? I know we as spectators do that too often, Ah, this is about that couple, and they’re having difficulties now, and so on…

In rehearsals you may hear directions like, Here, think about water, or Think about wind… It can be abstract, it depends on the piece. Once I was given a solo in which I was supposed to be a bear. And every night it would be different as Christopher would suggest different things. Every choreographer follows their own ideas. If they think of their choreography as a picture, they’ll ask: what is that picture telling me? What can I tell people that I’m working with about it? And how are they going to translate that into what I am trying to make visible?

Why is dance above other arts?

Originally I didn’t plan to become a dancer, I started dancing about 8 years ago. I’m from Africa, Mozambique, and used to play soccer professionally. We had a final game and I saw a team dancing in the field as a preparation for the ceremony and my eyes went like this [O-O]; I forgot about the game, the warm up – it was love at first sight. The moment I really noticed dance, I knew I wanted to do it. I went to speak to the dancers there and they told me, this is how it is, we don’t get paid, we love it, if you want to,  you can join. So I did, and one month later I said to myself, I could see this becoming my life. There’s no way out now. Even my teacher would get upset at me because at that age 15-16-17 you have to become responsible and help your family. I had to go to school, do the dance classes, do the soccer things, and wasn’t able to make enough money for my family. When my dance company from Mozambique visited Canada, I stayed. I went to the TDT school, and a few years later, here I am, dancer with the company.

If you had to describe Mozambique in four words, what would those be?

Happiness. Family. Beauty. Struggle.

Photo by David Leyes

One thought on “Conversations with dancers: Pulga Muchochoma

  1. Good to see someone achieving their dreams and speaking about his past with such pride as you Pulga Muchochoma. I’m very proud of you, wish you much success in life and always forward. de Mwanabwa!…

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