Who starts a new dance company in the middle of a global pandemic? That’s the first question I posed to Stephanie Martinez, who did just that. Para.Mar Dance Theatre (P/M) opens its first-ever performance series this weekend, including four inaugural shows along with four all-abilities, open-to-the-public, pay-what-you-can pre-show classes. “It’s donation-based…all of it,” said Martinez. “I wanted to ensure that no matter what your economic situation, you could join us for a performance.”
The new company’s name is a mash-up of the Spanish word para meaning “for,” as in “for the people”, and the first letters of Martinez’ last name. But, back to the question at hand: Why establish a company now?
“I was sheltered-in-place and saw so many dancers I know and love sitting at home and really questioning whether they were ever going to dance again,” said Martinez. “I felt it was my duty. I was compelled to find a new sense of momentum. It was hard, but I had to just plant a seed when it seemed like everything around me was dying. It sounds dramatic, but that’s what it felt like. So, I made the decision to lean into my uncomfortableness and do something brand new. I felt in my bones it was the right thing to do.”
With COVID restrictions still solidly in place, Martinez and her team of two—an administrative staffer and a rehearsal assistant—got to work. A lot of work. Free auditions were held online with each dancer sending in video of their interpretation of provided source material. They were also given tasks to manipulate said material. Martinez ultimately chose nine dancers out of hundreds of submissions to piece together the first cast of P/M. “I honestly didn’t know if it was going to work, but I was humbled by how many people reached out and wanted to be part of our season,” she said.
Diversity was a top priority. The dancers represent many cultures and come from a wide range of backgrounds with past performance experience with companies like American Repertory Ballet, Ballet BC, Ballet Hispanico, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater and River North Dance Chicago. “I wasn’t interested in a cookie-cutter situation,” Martinez said. The company is really diverse in styles and qualities. I want the entire ecosystem of the company to be equitable and diverse. That means from the dancers all the way through the administration.”
P/M began rehearsing via Zoom from remote locations across the country and eventually migrated to in-studio rehearsals in Chicago. The now standard preparations of testing, temperature-taking, masks, sanitizing and social-distanced dancing began and things started to fall into place. Two couples who had been previously quarantined together (read: they can touch!) and the rest of the company worked on bringing Martinez’ vision for the premiere of “Kiss” to life. “I’ve always had this idea to create a work about kissing and it seemed ever more relevant in a time of social distancing,” said Martinez. “It explores the worlds of fantasy and reality. I move in and out of human romance and intimacy. I really want this piece to reflect living every day fully and wholly, even in a pandemic.”
The process of making dance during COVID also pushed her to a new way of creating and the “highly adaptable artists” who make up P/M were vital. But with the safety of the artists always in mind, Martinez pressed on. “Designing a show that is socially distant is new for me,” she said. “The restrictions changed the way I work, and I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. It made me break a lot of my habits. It eliminated them, actually. I had to lean into something really new and different…borderline scary. I had to trust my imagination. I hope the audience finds moments of enjoyment. If it only lasts for a little while, it’s worth it.”
Para.Mar Dance Theatre makes its debut Oct. 3 and 4 with performances at noon and 4 p.m. (and community classes before each show), at 3319 N. Elston Ave.. Tickets are pay-what-you-can with limited space available (bring-your-own-chair) and social distancing required. For tickets and more information, visit the event page below.