Texas Studio: Gabriela Estrada brings dance history into motion

Choreographer and University of Houston Assistant Professor M. Gabriela Estrada has always looked to the past to inspire her work. Now she is embarking on two major choreographic undertakings that draw on history to commemorate pioneers of Spanish and Latin dance.

Estrada, a native of the city of Hermosillo, Mexico, joined the University of Houston Dance Program faculty in 2022, bringing with her years of historical research and choreographic work that unravel the intertwined histories of Spanish and Latin Americans dance form and ballet. Her research, including her dissertation and a later documentary, brought to life the mysterious figure of Félix Fernández García, who was hired by the legendary impresario and founder of the Ballet Russes Sergei Diaghilev to teach the company flamenco but was later arrested while on tour with the company in London—and abandoned in asylum where he died two decades later.

While the story of Fernández is relatively obscure outside of specific dance circles, Estrada was surprised to discover that legendary American choreographer Doris Humphrey had created a dance for José Limón and his company in 1954 inspired by Fernández. The work and musical score have since been lost. Now Estrada is following a trail of historical clues to create a new piece inspired by Humphrey’s dance Felipe “El Loco.”

Estrada has created a challenge for herself. “We have no footage of Doris Humphrey doing flamenco,” she says. “There’s no video [of the original dance], no footage, no notation….No information on the music except the three guitarists whose records Humphrey used.”

In that sense, it is not a reconstruction, Estrada notes. Too much has been lost from the original work. After hours digging through archival material, Estrada found a collection of rehearsal images. She is now combining her vast knowledge of flamenco, research on Humphrey’s unique style of dance, and the archival material to create the new piece inspired by the Humphrey original.

But in the process of bringing this project to life, Estrada has been able to explore a treasure trove of interwoven histories and artistic memories, including a recorded interview of Pauline Koner, who was cast alongside José Limón in the Humphrey original, and conversations with dancers and historians who worked with Humphrey, Limón, and Koner. And while the music that accompanied the 1954 dance has been lost, Estrada studied dozens of works by the three musicians who were part of the performance to understand what the score might have sounded like. She is now working with acclaimed Spanish composer Juan Parrilla, to create a new score.

Estrada describes the collaboration with Parrilla as one of the most engaging parts of the process: “[Parrilla] would be trying to convey how Félix would be arriving by boat on a foggy afternoon and how cold it was by using, [for example,] an Irish flute. We would listen to this, and then I would get up and match how it would work on stage….That has been a fascinating project!”

For Estrada, this project pulls together diverse histories, geographies, and styles of dance that have interested her throughout her career. Indeed, even the fact that the work was originally choreographed on Mexican-born dancer and choreographer José Limón is meaningful to Estrada as she works to create bridges between the University of Houston and dance communities in Hermosillo.

As she moves forward with the Humphrey-inspired work, Estrada has also begun another major project that weaves together the past and the future in honor of her mentor and friend, the late Héctor Zaraspe.

“When I finished my Ph.D. and submitted my work for the defense on October 28, 2016 and I was flying to New York to visit my daughter for four weeks,” explains Estrada. “I was also going to apply for work at Ballet Hispánico and I looked down through the window and I made two wishes: one that I would get the job at Ballet Hispánico and that I would teach every child I could see in the landscape below. And guess what—I got that! And the second was that I would meet Maestro Zaraspe and that he would take me under his wing.”

Shortly thereafter, Estrada’s dream became reality.

Héctor Zaraspe is a unique figure in the dance world. Born in Argentina in 1930, he trained in ballet in Argentina and Spain and eventually became a renowned ballet master to legends like Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, as well as a choreographer and proponent of Latin American and Spanish dance. Estrada had seen countless references to Zaraspe through her work, and she eventually reached out to him directly after arriving in New York in 2016.

Fast forward some years later, and Zaraspe had become Estrada’s closest dance mentor and an extremely close friend to boot. Estrada was a lifeline for Zaraspe during the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing him food deliveries and often speaking for hours on the phone or at lunch as Zaraspe would “talk about everyone from Hitchcock to Balanchine to Limón, when they were together at Juilliard, the way they said ‘hi,’…anything and everything about almost every artist….” Zaraspe passed away early in 2023.

In collaboration with the University of Houston and The Juilliard School, Estrada is now working on a tribute to her beloved mentor, including a new work by Estrada that incorporates both biographical elements of Zaraspe’s life and homages to his legacy as a teacher and choreographer.

She recently premiered a shorter version of the larger work. Entitled Zaraspeando (which translates to “Zaraspe-ing” in English), the first version was performed by UH students as part of the Texas Latino/a/x Contemporary Dance Festival in March. Now she is working to preserve Zaraspe’s papers, gather memories from his students and friends, and present part of her work at the upcoming Dance Studies Association conference in Buenos Aires. In 2025 she hopes to organize the full tribute production at Juilliard.

In both her current projects, Estrada remains committed to the belief that knowledge of the past is important for the future of dance—vital, even. As she works to bridge dance styles and national traditions, Estrada concludes, “Understanding the past teaches us values like resilience, patience, persistence, bravery, and commitment to the arts and humanity.”