A new ballet production made its debut July 9-10 at the Navy Pier Lake Stage. “Rita Finds Home” is a family-friendly production resulting from a collaboration between the Joffrey Ballet and Miami City Ballet telling the story of a young artist who is swept from her tropical island home by a hurricane and must make a new life for herself in a big city.
The all-woman creative team included choreographer Amy Hall Garner, children’s book author Elisa Chavarri, and Chicago-based author and theatre director Karla Estela Rivera.
Latino Voices: How did this project get started, and what was the inspiration behind Rita’s story?
Funny enough, this project started percolating in 2019 when the community engagement manager at the Joffrey, Erica Lynette Edwards, and I met at a conference in Galesburg, Illinois. As we got to know each other she discovered that I was a writer/performer with a background in arts education and asked me if I would be interested in writing a piece for young audiences. I said, “Sure, but just so you know I know nothing about ballet.” To which she replied, “But you’re a storyteller, aren’t you? That's all you need.”
So when I began the process of writing this story, I dug deep into the different facets of my own experience and the experiences of my community, and thought a lot about what it meant to be an island child growing up in Chicago. Also, in 2019, two years had passed since Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, where I was born and still have family. It was a moment that mobilized the Puerto Rican community here in the United States, as so many families were displaced in the wake of its destruction. Chicago was one of the welcoming cities where many families arrived. I knew that I wanted in some way to pay homage to that experience, and do so through the lens of a child.
I also wanted to celebrate Chicago. One of the wonderful things about growing up in this city, and particularly growing up in the Albany Park community, was that I was able to experience the world within a two-mile radius of my front door. Being immersed in this upbringing allowed me to find my people, my chosen family. Together, we learned what it meant to grow up in this country in its most beautiful and most frustrating ways. To this day we lean on each other, we debate, we raise our kids, pets, and plants together. Their moms are my moms. I think my life is forever richer because of the gifts we bring and the different lenses in which we process the world around us. Also… the FOOD.
This is part love letter to Puerto Ricans, immigrants, and migrant folks traversing new realities, part celebration of the gifts we all bring, and to anyone that is struggling to find themselves and their people.
LV: What was it like working as part of an all-woman team?
From the beginning of this process, working with Amy and Elisa was truly a lovely and organic experience. We meet at many personal life intersections as cis-gender women of color in the arts. We share similar challenges and struggles within our own artistic disciplines in the sector, and we all juggle our careers, parenthood, the pandemic, navigating the challenges of this country in the skin and bodies we are in, and all of the things that our personal lives bring us. These shared experiences helped provide levels of understanding and bonded us as human beings in addition to the fact that we respected each other’s individual expertise as artists.
We went in trusting each other since day one, and included each other in every step of the process. There was great care. Is that unique to an all-woman team? Not necessarily. But, I think I can speak for the three of us when I say that we all knew we wanted to create work that affirmed every single part of what we represent and how we show up in the world. What emerged was something beautiful.
LV: Why make this performance free to the public and bring it out to the parks?
I am a product of free, open to the public, artistic programming in the city of Chicago. Park District field houses were places of convening, summer camps, dance parties, and refuge. As a teen I was among the first Gallery 37 cohorts, being paid to write plays with artists from Pegasus Theater and news articles for New Expression (a teen-led publication where I eventually served as the north side bureau chief in the mid-90’s). These experiences provided foundational opportunities that my single mother (who at the time was working full-time as a social worker while pursuing her doctorate) could not afford.
It is also important for audiences to see themselves in the work being presented. And while the locations are non-specific, “Rita Finds Home” is an island girl story, told by an island girl who grew up in the city over 3,000 miles away, and the creative team is also reflective of the many experiences our collective communities face. I remember feeling seen in artistic work. It feels good. It is healing. It signals belonging, and our sector needs to ensure that we are creating as many avenues as possible for people to belong, no matter your race, gender, sexuality, abilities, cultural background, or zip code.