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Andrea Peña’s research-driven choreography merges dance and design

Concordia grad’s latest work, Bogotá, premiered at the Venice Biennale’s 17th International Festival of Contemporary Dance
December 1, 2023
By Julie Barlow, MA 94

Heap of dancers' bodies with limbs draped over one another, against a black background Andrea Peña’s Bogotá, performed by AP&A, 2023 | Credit: Felix Delavaud

Choreographer Andrea Peña, BFA 17, MDes 23, recently spent a month working with partners in Italy, Norway and Sweden to develop her latest work, Replica. It’s a whole other sort of legwork that Peña’s approach to dance requires.

The Montreal-based choreographer founded her own company, Andrea Peña & Artists (AP&A) in 2014. “We do two to three years of research to develop a show,” she explains. “The new work is about digital representations of the body. We are looking at how the body is represented in the Nordic countries, which is completely different than how it’s represented in Italy.”

Her research-intensive process is not the only thing that makes Peña unique. She is both a professional dancer — after growing up in Colombia, she moved to Montreal to dance with Ballets Jazz Montréal in 2013 — and a designer. Her latest multi-media installation, States of Transmutation, presenting a choreographic machine, is exhibited at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory until the end of 2024.

Merging design and choreography

It was Peña’s interest in design that led her to Concordia’s undergraduate program in design. “I was fascinated with the metal shop at Concordia and just sort of having this possibility to dive into materiality. I ended up applying for the program and I very quickly found mediums that I really felt aligned with,” she says.

Portrait of a woman with dark hair, wearing silver earring and black-rimmed glasses, leather jacket and pants Andrea Peña

“A lot of my work is really trying to merge the universe of design and choreography,” explains Peña, who also worked as head stylist for Montreal’s luxury outerwear brand Rudsak and returned to Concordia to pursue her Master of Design after founding AP&A, which has performed in Canada, as well as in Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Mexico, India, and beyond.

At AP&A, Peña empowers her team to have the tools and agency to bring their own perspectives, values and visions to the choreographic worlds they create. When describing her process, she likens it to making a gingerbread cookie.

“I propose a container, a frame, but then the dancers fill it with their own point of view. The container, my choreographic proposition, is like the cookie mold, it’s still recognizable, but it’s being affected by the negotiation of what that human being and artist is bringing or interpreting.”

The objective, she says, is to show chaos in dance — as opposed to “streamlining” things.

“When I started design school, I became really fascinated with how design is made for efficiency and simplicity. We don’t design for complexity — we design for minimalism and simplicity. So, I became really interested in how, through my work, I could create an aesthetic of complexity.”

Encouraging ‘research within the dance practice’

Peña also invites the public to participate in rehearsals. “We open our creative process to the public that comes to visit the museum, or the studio, no matter what space we are creating in. They can ask us questions as ways of putting the research in dialogue,” says Peña, whose most recent large-scale work, Bogotá, made its world premiere at this year’s Venice Biennale International Festival of Contemporary Dance, where it won the call for new choreographic work by an artist under the age of 35.

BOGOTA - La Biennale di Venezia 2023 from Andrea Peña & Artists on Vimeo.

Peña, who submitted her Concordia master’s thesis in September, feels grateful for the “spirit of incubation” at the university. “I felt that the professors and the program directors let us find our individuality. They asked, ‘What are your questions? How do you situate what is urgent in the world, but from your lens?’ And I feel that that’s something that was really nurtured over the 10 years I spent at Concordia.”       

To carry on that spirit of incubation, Peña dreams of creating an AP&P institute that would combine research and dance. “You see this approach in Europe, but we have very little in Canada. My idea would be a place outside of academia that really encourages research within the dance practice.”

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