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Multi-talented choreographer Rosie Herrera blends skills in St. Paul show

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Miami-based choreographer Rosie Herrera
Miami-based choreographer Rosie Herrera draws on her experiences growing up and living in the city to make her work.
Courtesy Adam Reign

Dancer, actor, choreographer and opera singer Rosie Herrera is a pint-sized pistol of a person. She's loaded with the energy of her native Miami, and the fire of her Cuban heritage. 

She's also pretty blunt. It comes through when she talks about how she came to train as an opera singer. She wanted to change how she sounded. 

"I did kind of have a Minnie Mouse voice my whole life," she said. "So I started taking voice lessons because I sick and tired of being type-casted as a prostitute, as a damsel in distress, as a child."  

 She was mildly distressed when her teacher told her that this was how her voice was meant to sound, and that was perfectly OK. Looking back Herrera said that was an important lesson.

"For me what was great was to know, to accept the type of voice that you have just as you have to accept the type of body that you have, and then do the best that you can with it," she said.  

'Various Stages of Drowning, by Rosie Herrera
Herrera's piece "Various Stages of Drowning" started as an attempt to capture dream states after she had a series of dreams involving water.
Image courtesy Northrop Auditorium

Which Herrera has done. She's danced in music videos, appeared in cabarets and acted in plays. She created a show that includes all of those things and is bringing it to the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul on Thursday night. It's part of St. Catherine University's Women of Substance series  and is now a collaboration with the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

COMPLEX, ACCLAIMED PRODUCTION

 The Northrop's Ben Johnson invited Herrera after learning about the scope and complexity of her work.

 "She crafts these really exquisite both poignant and engaging dance pieces that, sort of, are experiences of her own life in Miami," he said. 

Herrera is becoming acclaimed for her work with her Miami-based dance company. It's an eclectic group.

"It's important for me that the people in my work look like people before they look like dancers," she said.

Miami-based choreographer Rosie Herrera
Miami-based choreographer Rosie Herrera says she wants members of her company to look like real people first and dancers second because she rarely saw people who looked like her when she went to shows as a child.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

It features hip-hop dancers and cabaret stars.

"We have a ballerina from Juilliard. We have an opera singer from Miami," she said.  

There are also modern dancers and extravagantly costumed drag artists.

"They are artists that are all at the height of their performance genres," she said. "Who have reached a level of mastery that kind of puts us all on the same level." 

Herrera's show is as multi-layered as her company, and her hometown. The mood swings from disco comedy to romantic tragedy and back, sometimes in an instant. She's bringing two pieces to St. Paul. The first is based on a series of disturbing dreams she had involving water.

 " 'Various Stages of Drowning' " was my attempt at recreating dream-states onstage, using water as a metaphor for the unconscious," she said.  

The other piece "Dining Alone" opens with dinner plates spinning onstage.

'Various Stages of Drowning,' by Rosie Herrera
"Various Stages of Drowning," by Rosie Herrera. Herrera's company is drawn from the ballet, hip-hop, modern dance and drag worlds. She says they are all at the top level of their genre, but present a challenge to her because together they are raucous bunch.
Image courtesy Northrop Auditorium

As a girl in her father's restaurant in Miami, Herrera was always amazed by people who dined alone. A someone used to huge family feasts she wondered why someone would choose, or be forced, to eat solo. 

"There is something about the voyeurism attached to watching someone dine alone. It's almost like you are embarrassed to look," Herrera said. 

Her piece began as a exploration of food, then old age, and developed from there. 

 "The fragility of old age juxtaposed with the fragility of youth was something that was really important for me," she said. 

CONNECTING WITH TEENS

An important thing about Herrera's show in St. Paul is it's a collaboration with the locally-based Girls in Real Life program. It works with 8th-grade girls facing challenges ranging from self esteem to violence. 

Close to 100 girls will attend the show, to meet Herrera, her company, and other local women leaders who have signed up just to mingle and chat with the girls who often have little positive adult attention. Herrera, who said a 6th-grade field trip to see a staging of  "Of Mice And Men" changed her life, said she is honored.

"I think this Women of Substance is really quite amazing for those girls," she said.  

Herrera said she never thought about 8th-grade girls as an audience for her work, so she's really excited to learn what they think.

• Follow Euan Kerr on Twitter: http://twitter.com/euankerr