"I've always felt like a Miami girl," says dancer and choreographer Rosie Herrera, who's talking with New Times over the phone from New York City.
Born and bred in the 305, Herrera got a late start in the world of professional dancing. "I'm Cuban, so I was born dancing. I was a street dancer, a hip-hop dancer," she explains. "I embarrassed my older sisters by trying to be a break dancer, but I had no formal training until I was 18."
She was accepted to the New World School of Arts at 18 — a hindrance to anyone wanting to make a career out of dancing. But that's exactly what set her apart. Herrera's relatively late start informed her dancing and choreography style, which feels organic and approachable, even to someone who does necessarily "get" what contemporary dance is all about.
"I always felt like an outsider," she says. "My perspective as a choreographer is from an audience member. Sometimes, dancers make dances only for other dancers; I want everyone to enjoy movement. I want the movements to feel justified and to have no agenda."
Before starting her dance company, Herrera cut her teeth as a showgirl in a Cuban cabaret and performed burlesque as part of the avant-garde troupe Circ X. However, even with those opportunities, she felt if she really wanted to express herself, she'd have to start her own company.
"I wasn't getting picked for anything. I became a choreographer because I wanted to perform," Herrera notes.
Founded in 2009, Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre quickly put together its first commission, Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret, that same year when Charles Reinhart of the American Dance Festival endorsed and supported the company's work. The work and the Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre are very representative of Miami, according to Herrera.
"There were the tropical aesthetics, but Miami showed up in more subtle ways," she adds. "When I started the company, everyone in it was first-generation or an immigrant. That wasn't planned for diversity reasons — that's just how Miami is."
With the help of the Miami Light Project, she's excited to present for the first time in her hometown, Make Believe, which will be performed at Miami Theater Center on October 13 and 14.
"Miami always shows up in a big, beautiful way. They understand my work in a deep, profound way like nowhere else does."
Make Believe is the second part of a trilogy that she describes as related to religious iconography and faith.
"It's an abstract exploration of faith. How it can both liberate and oppress. Does the way we engage in rituals presuppose your attitude toward romantic love?" Beyond asking all these heady questions, Make Believe, Herrera says, is also an homage to little girls and what they think is beautiful. "As a dancer, I am living a little girl's dream."
Before Make Believe premiered in 2018, Herrera says she did a couple of years of research, consulting with Catholic historians and religious scholars. The religious aspects came from a crisis of faith, one that is ongoing. But while the inspiration might be intellectual, the ideas have to become physical for it to be a dance. She adds, "I'll use my body as a tuning fork. Sometimes, I'll see images in my head like what if a guy eats a girl's head like it was spaghetti?"
The choreography also can come from collaboration with other dancers, where it can take years to realize what she wants to say. Then she'll have a eureka moment where she realizes she wants the dancers' limbs to look like scissors in the middle of a dissection. Other times, creating a dance is more abstract, like one section in Make Believe.
"I was telling someone, 'I wish I could fall for seven minutes and never catch my balance.' We worked on how to fall," Herrera explains. "Later, I realized the whole thing was about doubt. With faith, you're never standing firmly on two feet."
Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre: Make Believe. 8 p.m. Friday, October 13, and Saturday, October 14, at Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores; miamilightproject.com. Tickets cost $20 to $100 via eventbrite.com.