This article was originally published in the November 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
Heidi Cruz-Austin is channeling her years of ballet training and performance as she calmly molds her dancers’ arms and legs into 19th-century shapes to complement the soaring Brahms lieder in the background.
Cruz-Austin, whose Trenton-based company DanceSpora is known for its contemporary works, trained at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City and danced for 13 years with Pennsylvania Ballet before founding DanceSpora with her husband, dancer David Austin.
Both continue family traditions of dance — and music-making — and have chosen to base their company in Trenton, Austin’s home since childhood.
Fittingly DanceSpora will partner with Westminster Choir College in performances on Friday, November 3, and Sunday, November 5, in the George Washington Ballroom at the Trenton War Memorial. The performance features new choreography by Cruz-Austin to Johannes Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Walzer.”
With the November performances, the company of artists will help return the room to its original function — the coming together of members of a community to enjoy music and dancing. The ballroom, built in 1932, is now used as a large meeting room, a convention display room, or a giant dressing room for dance students on their recital day. But when it was built the entire building was conceived as a community center with the aim “to combine beauty, dignity, and civic utility.”
The event is part of the Transforming Spaces project begun last year with a performance of Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields” at the former Roebling Wire Works. Westminster Choir College choral director Joe Miller calls the project “an experience where music, poetry, and the arts are put inside a space outside a typical performance hall or church that takes on completely new meaning.”
Miller wanted to center this second showcase around “Liebeslieder Walzer,” a 19th-century classic. The work features two things very emblematic of its time: songs of romantic love, and piano accompaniment.
He was also eager to engage performers with roots in the community. In addition to the six DanceSpora dancers, the program will feature WCC faculty members and pianists James Goldsworthy and Ena Bronstein-Barton. The Westminster Chapel Choir, composed of freshmen, will be conducted by Amanda Quist, and the Westminster Schola Cantorum, sophomores, will be led by James Jordan.
Both David Austin and Heidi Cruz-Austin had professional dance careers that took them far from their geographic and family roots, but both are committed to building their company in Trenton. “Having a dance company in Trenton feels like important work to me. I want to inspire students (particularly minority students) through dance, and hope that they see that they can also be a ballerina if they work hard at it,” says Cruz-Austin.
The couple named their company DanceSpora not only in reference to the dispersal of spores in nature and the similar effect that they would like their efforts to have on the local community, but also in the larger sense of the diaspora of African and Afro-Caribbean culture. Austin’s mother, Wanda Austin, a dancer and teacher of African and modern dance forms, co-founded Capitol City Dance Company of Trenton.
Cruz-Austin’s father, Claudio Cruz, was a professional dancer in the Dominican Republic before moving to the United States with his wife, Marianela. His mother (Heidi Cruz-Austin’s grandmother), Thelma Cruz, and Thelma’s sister Celeste were recording artists in the Dominican Republic, famous merengue singers known as Las Hermanas Cruz.
Cruz-Austin started her dance training at the suggestion of her father and his best friend, both dancers. The family had settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Cruz-Austin began her training there at the well-respected Dolly Haltzman Dance Academy. “The moment when I realized dancing was my passion was when I started pointe. After that I was hooked.”
Serious young dancers all work to attend one of the elite summer schools. Cruz-Austin was admitted to the oldest and most famous — School of American Ballet (SAB), founded by George Balanchine in 1934 to train dancers for his company, New York City Ballet.
After her post-senior year summer, she was invited to stay on as a full-year student, an honor extended to few. During this time in New York, she says she finally found a role model: “Early on I didn’t have a person to draw inspiration from. I didn’t know any other black dancers. It wasn’t until I went to SAB and saw Andrea Long perform with NYCB that I saw that it was possible for me if I worked hard enough.”
SAB graduates fill the ranks of many of the top ballet companies in the U.S. and Western Europe. Cruz-Austin found her niche at Pennsylvania Ballet, where she was the only African-American female dancer at that time. She started as an apprentice in 1994 and gained a corps de ballet contract the following year. She appeared in many dances by contemporary choreographers, including a prominent solo in Alvin Ailey’s “The Vortex,” and also excelled in the demanding Balanchine repertory.
By 2003 Cruz-Austin wanted to exercise her own creative voice, and she entered and won Ballet Builders, a choreographic competition in New York. The following year she was awarded the New Edge Choreographic Residency at the Community Center in Philadelphia, which gave her access to free rehearsal space and other support systems. By 2008 she had left Pennsylvania Ballet, received a choreographic fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, married David Austin, and started DanceSpora with him.
‘It’s not enough to accept (dancers of color) if you’re not going to give them the push they need.’
Austin had been achieving equal success in the less conservative side of the dance world. Though his mother was a dancer and company director, Austin was not interested, and she didn’t push the issue. His moment of inspiration came when he first saw break dancing in his junior high school talent show. “It was older guys from our neighborhood — cool guys who had been going to New York and been influenced by New York street dance culture.” He and his next-door neighbor started practicing in the neighbor’s basement. “There were crews all over Trenton suddenly — ours was called the BreakForce, and we were pretty well-known.”
Several years later, as breakdancing was falling into decline, Austin moved on to a different form of dance, frequenting the underground clubs of the 1990s. He and his friends particularly liked Zanzibar, a North Jersey club: “They played soul and disco music, house from Chicago, re-mixed pop songs for the club. This was a totally different dance form than break-dancing.
Austin later danced with Rennie Harris Puremovement of Philadelphia, a pioneer of hip-hop dance theater. Austin performed in their “Facing Mekka” project, a wildly popular event that toured nationally and internationally for more than four years.
The Austins met in Philadelphia. “I invited him to come see me dance in Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker,’” says Cruz-Austin, “and the rest is history.” The couple lives in the Franklin Park neighborhood of Trenton with their four children, ranging in age from 8 to 20 years old.
Their other child is DanceSpora, founded in 2008. In 2011 the group became the resident dance company of Passage Theater. In addition to twice yearly shows at Mill Hill Theater through this affiliation, DanceSpora has been successful in competing for places on festival performance rosters, appearing at Jacob’s Pillow and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Watching Cruz-Austin rehearse the dancers, one easily sees her great gift of musicality and her good eye in choosing dancers who share it. Cruz-Austin blocked out two expansive, difficult lifts for a long-legged couple, Felicia Cruz (her sister and assistant artistic director) and Will Rhem. Then she put on the music so that they could fit these lifts and elegant final arm gestures into its framework. On the first try, the dancers finished just as the final chord resolved.
Though all the dancers in the company have strong classical training, DanceSpora’s usual focus is on more contemporary work, set to contemporary music. In many ways this commission allowed her to return to the deeply ingrained habits of academic ballet, not only in its use of music, but also in its strict conventions of gesture and movement. “I’ve been doing contemporary work for so long I had to remember to keep my manners. In other words, when the girls are lifted, I had to remember to remind them to make a more old-fashioned, modest shape — cross those legs!”
Cruz-Austin has a visible love of her ballet roots, and part of that love is evident in her wish to bring that very conservative world into the 21st century. She is a member of the School of American Ballet’s Alumni Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.
“It’s not enough to accept (dancers of color) if you’re not going to give them the push they need,” she says. “The challenge is not just finding and developing the talent, but retaining the talent. Casting is an issue — dancers of color don’t seem to get the same push or nurturing. But SAB has been very good about trying to change the culture.”
Through their efforts to make a professional dance company, diverse both in its dancers and its artistic influences, an integral part of the cultural life of Trenton, the Austins are helping to pass on the gifts of cultural capital they were given by their artistic parents. The up-coming performances with Westminster Choir College bring it to another stage, both literally and figuratively.
Liebeslieder Walzer, Trenton War Memorial. Friday, November 3, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 5, 3 p.m. (sold out). $15 to $20. 609-921-2663 or rider.edu/arts.