For Puerto Rican choreographer and performance curator Kianí del Valle, dance is both the vehicle and the destination. It is the connective tissue to our ancestors’ way of celebrating and engaging in rituals, while also being a site for people to reimagine the possibilities of their personhood in today’s society. This outlook has taken Kianí around the world to choreograph for artists, create her dance company KDV, and showcase visually-arresting choreographies to countless audiences.
With a style of dance, that mixes classical rigor with contemporary expression, Kianí’s movements embrace freedom and prioritize structure, Kianí has crafted a language through movement that compels people to think about who they are in the world, how they inhabit a space, and their bodies as portals into the past, the present, and the future.
This story is part of Movement, a series of profiles, think pieces, and photo essays exploring creative projects that put movement at the center.
An integral aspect of Kianí’s arrival to dancing was her family’s Caribbean roots. “I was brought up in a country where everybody around me was dancing. My grandpa was dancing with literally everybody at the parties. My grandma was dancing and cooking.” While her mother was writing her doctoral thesis, Kianí was raised by her sisters (who are all actresses) and aunt (a theater teacher). Even though now she describes herself as resisting a path towards dance—she was more inclined towards painting and archeology—being surrounded by performative arts set the ground for her career.
By the time she was 12 years old, Kianí took her first formal arts-based classes—theater and painting—at a now-closed performing arts academy in the town of Santurce. It wasn’t until the academy’s owner encouraged her to enroll in its ballet class that she discovered her passion for dance. Nowadays, for Kianí, dance, and the visual arts go hand in hand and have been integral to her multidisciplinary approach as a performer. “To this day, I see dance through the lens of shapes, forms, and colors,” she says.
“The fact that I’m exposing my body, I’m being vulnerable […] it’s an act of bravery and I take that really seriously.”
With her parents involved in political movements fighting for an independent Puerto Rico, coupled with her own development as an artist, Kianí’s sense of pride towards her country blossomed, but still, she had a deep yearning for life outside of the island. Since leaving San Juan, Puerto Rico, she has lived in Montréal, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Berlin, each location allowing her to expand her sensibilities and develop her work.
While moving from place to place, Kianí joined dance companies, as many dancers often do to build their careers. But more importantly, she defined her vision and movement theory, and soon decided to pursue a path more aligned with her desires: to choreograph as an expression of how she carried stories through her body. “By the time I decided to start doing my own work, the resources were already there. I was already dancing for choreographers and thinking, ‘I could make this cooler, why am I doing their steps?’ I had a clear idea on simple decisions like costume or lighting design or things that contribute to the overall final visual aspect of the piece.” KDV Dance Ensemble, the name of Kianí’s own dance company in Berlin, has been a platform to explore a more generative approach to movement—embodying elements of the places she has traveled to, the passions that have sustained her, and the history of her country.
A means of expanding her practice, dance also became an avenue to explore the heritage and history of her people more effectively. “Puerto Ricans are living with ancestral pain. Even though we’re super happy people, there’s such darkness [and] duality to that. Now, I’m getting to a beautiful artistic place. I want to rewrite this history in the way that I see it and the way that it’s coming out is really multidisciplinary,” she shares.
In the 1500s, Boriken—Puerto Rico’s indigenous name—was invaded by Spain. Many of the land’s people, the Taíno, attempted to resist colonial violence leaving their homes by the coast and retreating to the island’s interior caves and mountains. Because of this, bodies of water became sacred sites, and it’s at these locations Kianí feels most connected to her ancestors.
Within Naguabo—a town located in the east coast of the island—is the Río Blanco, home to El Hippie: a small body of water whose large rocks contain petroglyphs. Similarly, a ferry away from Puerto Rico’s mainland on its archipelago Vieques is the Kianí Lagoon and an imponent mountain, Monte Pirata. Locals share the legend that the Taíno often held dancing ceremonies in Monte Pirata. When visiting these sacred spaces, Kianí had a visceral reaction, which would influence her approach to movement and spirituality. “The lagoon was named “Kianí” because Kianí is actually the indigenous name for many goddesses of water, but there’s a theory that Kianí also means moon in Taíno. It’s not clear if it’s water or moon, but the funny thing is that both things are related. I went to the lagoon and I had a crazy emotional experience. I couldn’t stop crying.”
“Puerto Ricans are living with ancestral pain. Even though we’re super happy people, there’s such darkness [and] duality to that.”
This experience is reflected in the cornerstones of how Kianí conceives her movements, which are, first and foremost, driven by a connection to body and spirit. For her, this is how we mediate the repair of intergenerational wounds. “You don’t have to be a dancer to connect your body with your spirituality. You just need to be aware of your physicality and be aware that generational pain is only healed through spirituality, conversations, [and] acknowledging that portals are important for us to understand our history better.”
Her workshop, Expansive Radiant Body, is the incarnation of this belief: a cathartic, three-day creation and improvisation experience that uses multiple mediums to establish healing that works with, as Kianí calls it, “information you have in your own body.” She elaborates, “We are moving, but we’re also writing, we’re drawing, we’re working with imagery. Expansive Radiant Body is a workshop for you to really shake that history in your body and physicalize it, and it’s beautiful. We’re crying, screaming, and laughing while dancing. I finish the three days exhausted because I give a lot. It’s almost like being in therapy.”
Working across disciplines, and sometimes even dimensions, her movement lilts towards a heightened sensorial experience. When she creates, she stays inspired by sound, rhythm, and light. Bringing together a multitude of elements to inform a singular dance sequence, is an ethos that she brings as she collaborates with other artists. “I don’t want you to give me the music and me to make the choreography. I want you to come to the studio, watch me move [and] compose for my movement. That’s how Catacoustic Flesh—my solo—was born. It was actually me rebelling against this practice of the musician giving you the track to choreograph for either their music video or live performances.”
Kianí in Catacoustic Flesh
Kiani’s ability to synthesize seemingly unrelated concepts she’s confronted throughout her life into her choreographic work is intimate and soul-baring. The way it metabolizes into creations that other people are able to find their own grounding in, speaks to its transformative properties that eclipse beyond borders and languages. “I know what dance provokes in people,” she says. “Dance is really powerful, but we’re still at the bottom of the food chain. We’re still not put at the forefront of concepts. I am here to change that. I see it now more clearly than ever. The fact that I’m exposing my body, I’m being vulnerable […] it’s an act of bravery and I take that really seriously.”
Even if we don’t acknowledge it, dance is everywhere. It has enhanced how we engage with new creations and we experience firsthand the ability it has to unite people across the globe. It doesn’t take more than a swipe on any given social channel’s timeline to see the magnitude of its reach, and that same feature of traveling is not foreign to Kianí’s own nomadic journey. In her pursuit of dance, and while using her body as a canvas, she’s able to illustrate her sense of connectivity across time, dimension, and space.
Kianí del Valle is a Puerto Rican, Berlin-based dancer and choreographer showcasing the intersection between colonial history, spirituality and dance. Her work has presented in various institutions such Funkhaus in Berlin, The Barbican in London, and the Getty Museum in LA.
Her work ‘Sangre de mi Sangre’— a choreographic reflection on the painting ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Bosch was recently commissioned by the Julia Stoschek Foundation & the WDR in Berlin.
Writer Sharine Taylor
Photographer Quique Cabanillas