Student choreographer dances to cope with her mother’s death

Nathalie Contreras, 25, is both a dancer and choreographer in the Contemporary Dance Ensemble, “Moving Through the Static” opening Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Fresno State. (Courtesy of Miguel A. Gastelum)

Nathalie Contreras, 25, is both a dancer and choreographer in this year’s Contemporary Dance Ensemble (CDE) titled “Moving Through the Static.”

She’s dancing in four of the six pieces. Dance is her life, but her journey to where she is today was not like many others.

Contreras was born in Miami, FL but moved to the small, coastal city of Parrita, Costa Rica when she was young.

Costa Rica doesn’t have as many dance opportunities as the U.S., Contreras said. In Parrita, she was mostly self-taught until a teacher found her and started training her in modern and contemporary dance forms.

When she decided to move back to the U.S. her senior year, it allowed her to brush up on her English and offered her the chance to have a typical American high school experience.

“I definitely missed [the U.S.] from living in a third world country,” Contreras said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! I can go to prom. I can go to rallies.’ So I sold everything I had in sight and came with one luggage to Fresno.”

Moving to Fresno also afforded Contreras the opportunity to major in dance versus getting a degree in something she was less interested in. She received her AA at Fresno City College. She is finishing her BA and has applied for graduate school to get her master’s of fine arts at Fresno State as well.

She says Spanish is her first language, but feels more comfortable moving than speaking. Dance is a way for Contreras to express herself. This was never more true than when her mother died September of last year.

“That was really, really rough,” Contreras said. “I was taking 23 units… She’s been part of my whole dance life. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be in it.”

Because her mother’s death was in the middle of last semester, when preparation for the CDE begins, her choreography was heavily influenced by her mother’s passing. She tried to keep the piece abstract and not too personal, Contreras said.

“Emotionally it’s been very draining, but it’s very satisfying to just know that I finally kind of coped with it, even in my own piece,” she said.

She was a student choreographer at Fresno City College in 2013 and at Fresno State for the past two years.

She is thankful for the opportunity to be involved with one last CDE, Contreras said.

CDE is a dance course that meets for two semesters. Some of the dancers in the upcoming show had little or no experience coming into the class last fall.

However, she wasn’t challenged by leading new dancers, but composing the piece so close to her mother’s death, Contreras said. She’s looking forward to finally seeing her finished work on the stage opening night.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Contreras said. “It’s my last semester. It’s unreal. I really hope I get to be in my professor’s shoes one day. I’d love to be an artistic director. That’s why I’m pursuing my MFA.”

Her biggest challenge may be yet to come.

“What I’m definitely dreading is ending the show and not seeing my mom in the lobby. That’s rough because she would come every performance. If I had 8 performances she would come to 7 at least. And if she couldn’t make that last performance she would feel really bad,” she said.

“Moving Through the Static” opens this Friday at 7:30 p.m.

“I hope that the show in general gives the audience time to appreciate dance more,” Contreras said. “As a choreographer I always try to create something different for the viewer. I get bored easily seeing the same thing in dance. I think what keeps me on the edge of my seat is seeing something new and interesting.”

Performances will run through Saturday, Feb. 23. For more information, contact the box office at 559.278.2216 or email

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