Mark Travis Rivera On Breaking Barriers in Dance

Rivera's choreography for Ballet Hispánico’s prestigious Instituto Coreográfico explores the experience of what it means to be seen but not truly understood.

“Growing up in my neighborhood, you didn’t make it out just by being an artist,” Mark Travis Rivera tells me as he applies his makeup before heading to rehearsal at the Arnold Center in NYC. “You had to be either a rapper or an athlete to make it out, and I was neither of those things, obviously. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to break barriers.”

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Mark Travis Rivera is changing dance, one piece of choreography at a time. Courtesy

Rivera may not be a rapper or an athlete, but he is an award-winning writer and choreographer, and has been breaking barriers his entire life. He is a queer, gender-nonconforming Puerto Rican man with cerebral palsy, a first-generation high school and college graduate, the youngest person in the country to have founded an integrated dance company, one of just a handful of artistic directors of color in the disability dance field, and is now the first physically disabled choreographer to be a part of Ballet Hispánico’s prestigious Instituto Coreográfico, a choreographic institute (launched in 2010 by Artistic Director & CEO Eduardo Vilaro) for Latinx artists to create culturally specific work.

On June 29, two days after our conversation, Rivera would present excerpts from his latest work-in-progress titled Witness at Instituto’s public showing. But let’s pause for a moment, imagining Rivera holding his eyeliner above a lid, and rewind to the beginning.

“Witness,” a new work-in-progress produced by Ballet Hispánico as part of their Instituto Coreográfico program, funded partly by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Choreographed by Rivera featuring music by AMYRA. Choreographic & Rehearsal Assistant: Jenny Hegarty. Rehearsal Director: Johan Rivera. Performed by Ballet Hispanico Company Dancers: Amir Baldwin, Ana Estrada, Cori Lewis, Hugo Pizano Orozco, Isabel Robles, Isabella Vergara, & Paulo Hernandez-Farella. Nina Wurtzel

The Beginning

Rivera was born in Miami at five and a half months, weighing in at one pound, to a mother who “wanted me so badly she would have taken me in pieces,” Rivera says. Carmen Rivera loved her son fiercely and became his biggest advocate. When he was five, they moved up to Paterson, New Jersey, to be closer to her family. “It was there,” he says, “that I started to realize my disability made me different.” In Miami, he had been in an integrated preschool but in Paterson, his mother pushed for him to be in a mainstream classroom.

In elementary school, Rivera often couldn’t participate in gym class and had to sit out. “I remember feeling really lonely,” he tells me. “And it was in that loneliness that I found comfort in my journal. And it was through that that I realized writing was going to be my savior. Education was going to be my way out of the ‘hood.”

Rivera won his first poetry contest in third grade. He went on to attend a leadership academy for middle school where he deepened his love for writing and was later accepted into the Rosa L. Parks School of Fine & Performing Arts as a Creative Writing major—the only male in a cohort of twelve students.

High school was difficult for Rivera. The bullying he’d dealt with his whole life continued, and then during his freshman year, his brother was murdered. “His death propelled me forward in life with such urgency,” he explains, “because the fear was, I may not make it out. That kind of urgency got me out of the closet. I came out shortly after his funeral. I decided I was going to pursue my life and my education wholeheartedly.”

One day while still processing his grief, Rivera was sitting in the back of the school’s theater watching the dance majors rehearse and thought, “I want to do that. I want to be on stage. I want to choreograph. I want to dance.” But, as a disabled person, no one in his life had ever told him that was an option.

Fast-forward to Rivera’s senior year of high school, when he became a dance minor but was struggling to put his leg on the ballet barre. Ms. Sally Kane put a chair in front of him and said, “Use this as your barre until you get strong enough to put your leg up.”

By the end of that school year, both of Rivera’s legs would reach the barre.

Horlando Galloza (Rivera’s mother’s cousin and his father figure) stepped up to support Rivera in his new endeavor. He bought all his dance supplies—the tights, the shoes, the costumes—and pushed Rivera to “do it right”, to not give up. “He came into my life at a time when I could have been easily swayed into bad trouble and he kept me accountable to my purpose and to my dreams. He made my career possible.”

There were others who Rivera credits with supporting career possible early on, too: his mother, of course; his godmother Rosie Hernandez who insisted he do the physical therapy exercises daily to improve his mobility; his first dance teacher and mentor Erin Pompa who helped him form his integrated dance company in 2009; his best friend and founding company dancer Jennifer Florentino; and Liz Matejka Grossman who provided free studio space for Rivera’s company to rehearse.

The Middle

“I did it because I had to create my own opportunity,” Rivera said of founding marked dance project at age 17. “In 2009 there wasn’t a lot of visibility in the field. There weren’t a lot of programs teaching children with disabilities how to dance. I had to be that person to make my own opportunity.”

Rivera continued to run his dance company, first in New Jersey and then in New York City, while attending college. He also began to build his career as a creative entrepreneur, writing professionally and speaking on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“At some point, I had to start skipping classes to go lecture at other people’s classes at other universities,” he jokes, though it really isn’t a joke. When he was invited to give a TEDx Talk in 2014 (“Embracing Yourself, Embracing Your Potential”), he got a stern talking-to from his professor for having to miss her seminar.

Rivera earned a bachelor’s degree in Women’s & Gender Studies and a minor in Public Relations from William Paterson University of New Jersey, making great contributions to the campus. In 2013, he received both the Student Government Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his commitment to the William Paterson community and the Campus Pride Voice & Action Award for his work with the LGBTQ community.

After graduating, Rivera made his way to the Bay Area to work with Judith Smith and AXIS Dance Company (the leading integrated dance company in the country) which solidified his role in the disability dance field.

In 2019, Rivera decided to dissolve his dance company and work as an independent choreographer. Around the same time, Dr. AnaMaria Correa invited him to join the first Ballet Hispánico Latinx Convening. This was where he first met Vilaro.

Fast forward again to Rivera applying his eyeliner and telling me about when Vilaro called to invite him to be part of Instituto. He remembers sitting in his new home in Atlanta crying while talking to the Artistic Director, because his goal had always been to become “a conduit, a bridge” between the disability dance world and the mainstream dance world. “And this is my introduction to being able to do that. Being able to show to the dance world at large that a disabled choreographer can create beautiful work.”

Ballet Hispanico company dancers at a showing of ‘Witness’. Photography by Nina Wurtzel | @wurtzelphotos

The Work

Witness, a beautiful work indeed, has been three years in the making. Rivera was inspired by a support group he attended in the Bay Area for those with depression and bipolar disorder. “What does it look like,” he wondered, “to do a whole dance in a support group setting where the dancers are surrounded only by each other and dancing within the circle of the chairs?” That idea later became the second section of his three-section piece that explores the experience of what it means to be seen but not truly understood, something Rivera has struggled with his whole life.

Another inspiration for Witness was Afro-Latina poet and singer-songwriter Amyra León’s album of the same name, which she calls her “love letter to Harlem.” Rivera uses five tracks from the album in his piece. As someone who grew up in New Jersey, and as a light-skinned Latino, he wanted to make sure he was honoring Amyra and honoring his friends and relatives of the African Diaspora, so he had a friend (also Afro-Latina, also from Harlem) come to one of the rehearsals. When he asked her, “Am I doing your people justice?” she said, “I feel so seen.”

Rivera’s dance tackles heavy topics: suicide, mental health and gun violence. As someone who has dealt with these issues firsthand, he knew he couldn’t shy away from them, and wanted to do them justice.

Vilaro describes the piece as “very powerful and athletic,” noting that Rivera has a poetic voice. “His images are extremely deep and powerful and of the moment. They speak about very delicate subject matters… but it doesn’t knock you over the head. It’s really beautifully crafted.”

While Witness doesn’t seem to be about disability on the surface, and while all seven Company dancers are able-bodied, Rivera embedded a disability justice framework into the entire creative process.  Part of that framework, Rivera explains, is caring for the whole humanity of a person. He started every rehearsal with a mind/body/spirit check-in and brought in a mental health specialist to discuss trauma and self-care due to the potentially triggering subject matter. He wanted the dancers to feel empowered throughout the process and to tap into their own humanity and artistry.

(Not) The End

While Rivera is thrilled with his experience at Instituto Coreográfico, he is already looking ahead and thinking of others. “I know that it’s such a privilege to be able to be the first,” he tells me. “And what I’m hoping is that this ongoing relationship with Ballet Hispánico not only continues to expand what is possible for Latinx disabled choreographers but for all disabled choreographers. Nondisabled choreographers get to set work on integrated companies all the time…. How can we do the same in reverse? How can we make it easier for disabled artists to choreograph for non-integrated companies?”

These are essential questions to ponder, but let’s pause and imagine Rivera right after he finished talking to me. Let’s zoom in on him doing one final check in the mirror and seeing there everyone who has helped make him who he is, then walking toward Studio 10 in the Arnold Center where he would finish choreographing the last two minutes of his piece, where he would show that piece to the public two days later, and where he would accomplish something that few choreographers—disabled or not—ever have, and let’s remember that he had to do it all, just like Ginger Rogers, backward and in high heels.

This is just the beginning.

Mark Travis Rivera On Breaking Barriers in Dance