Cracked but Not Broken: Toni Valle on her new work at DiverseWorks

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Toni Valle in Cracked
Photo by David Brown

Toni Valle is Houston’s do everything dance girl. She’s the woman sitting behind the Dance Source Houston table, promoting concerts and making sure the media gets everything in time. She’s also a choreographer and has landed a prestigious DiverseWorks (DW) residency. Cracked is her opus for and about the slippery slope we modern babes find ourselves sliding down. Somewhere in the middle she is also raising her 2-year old son, Dante. She took the time to fill us in all things Cracked.

Cracked? Is something broken?

TV: Yes, in our society, there is something wrong in the dual-standards we set on women. Even though we’ve been through the sexual revolution and women’s rights, I still feel hit over the head with what to wear, how to act, how to behave. Parents, teachers, friends, siblings, and – more forcefully – the media, scream at me what is feminine and sexy, yet I am to behave with a submissive character and high moral standards regarding sexual behavior. It’s very confusing and causes severe consequences.

You call Cracked “a painful but tender exploration of nakedness, self-image, sex and surrender.” That’s a mouthful. Why should a woman, who’s fighting this fight, come to this performance?

TV: To know she’s not alone. To realize it’s time to turn away from the outside forces telling us how to look and act and find the natural force within to guide us. Society’s views on women are still screwed up. I’ll never be thin enough or pretty enough. For me, the way out was to not try winning the battle, but to walk away from the fight.

Works for me. But, don’t you worry just a tiny bit that by making this dance you are showing that something is still getting to you. Can we ever really walk away?

TV: Yes, but not in the sense that I think I can ever ignore the fact that when I look in the mirror, I’m not satisfied. What I can do is recognize that the voice inside my head telling me, “If I could just lose 5 more pounds” is not my voice. It’s an implant from years of hearing media, my mother and society tell me what an “appropriate” size for all women is.

What still gets to me is that many women have not labeled that voice yet. They believe that the critic in their heads is themselves. We weren’t born critiquing ourselves. When I realized that, I could walk away from the fight because I realized there is no fight.

What made you want to bite the evening-length bullet? Is it a daunting project or does the time frame feel right for the subject?

TV: This project has been percolating since the birth of my son so there was a lot of material to think about before I ever hit the studio (or the computer – I wrote all the dialogue.) It also covers body image and sexual issues I’ve been dealing with through 3 decades. My problem was what to cut out so that I don’t have to have an intermission.

Donna Walker-Kuhne at Dance USA On Tour talked about dance needing a little help for people to get it. She mentioned leaving some bread crumbs for audiences. Give us some crumbs for Cracked.

TV: I have a very sexy cast that starts the show in black cocktail dresses and high heels. This is a world where women are interviewed before they can get a date, thinner is always better, and life is for the young. Media has taken over our thinking; there are half-naked women, drinking, and drugs. I feel like I’m in that old movie, Logan’s Run, and my number has come up. All the stories are my own crazy personal thoughts and experiences, yet over and over, I am hearing, “that’s mine. That has happened to me. I’ve felt that way. I didn’t know other women felt like me.” What’s wrong with this picture?

You have described yourself as a storyteller. Is there a tradition of storytelling in your family?

TV: I grew up with my mother explaining my life to me – where my family came from, how I fit into the big picture, and so on. She is also a painter and has that exact eye for the details. My mother doesn’t miss a thing. I’ve inherited that eye—the ability to stop in the moment and mentally record every detail to pull out for later use. It’s a good storytelling device. I also just like talking a lot.

How ever did you get this fabulous (and fabulously busy) group of dancers, John Box, Allyson Giesen, Erica Lewis, Jennifer Magill, Maria Montes de Oca, Priscilla Nathan-Murphy, and Rebecca Valls to dance with you?

TV: There was a master rehearsal plan. There were no huge dance numbers with nightmare rehearsal schedules. There are sections everyone is in, but we literally set them in one rehearsal. I tried setting rehearsals around people’s lives. Each dancer seemed very excited to be working with me. That could be my imagination.

A DW residency is a big deal in my mind. It’s a bit of a rite of passage for local artists. Eyes are on you. Do you feel the pressure?

TV: Yes – not the pressure to create a fabulous work of art, but the pressure that I am laying myself on the line here with some very vivid personal stories of my life. Taking my dress off and displaying my not-perfect body in “I Take My Clothes Off” was only the beginning – I’ve opened a can of worms from my past that I’m not sure I am ready to put onstage. For instance, I didn’t know until lately that my out-of-hand drinking experience as a young adult was going to be incorporated into the show. Then I realized that getting drunk was a direct consequence of poor body and self image. I couldn’t leave it out. Many of my family, friends and colleagues know these stories about me, but to actually witness someone degrade themselves and beat themselves up is scary. It’s intense. Opening night is going to be fun.

Cracked premieres December 7-9, and 14-16, 2006, 8:00PM, at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway. For tickets, contact DiverseWorks’ Box Office: 713/335-3445. For more information, call 713/409-2838 or email toni@houstondance.org

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