Growing up in El Paso, Texas, Juan Castaño never thought he’d run a dance company in New York City. He never even thought he’d study dance.
“I didn’t want to come out as a gay man,” he said. “Dancing, to me, was the fastest way to be outed, sadly.”
But his freshman year at Grinnell College, a friend begged him to join her student-run ballet folklórico company – she needed a male dancer.
Castaño was willing to help, and was soon hooked on the art form. He went on to major in chemistry, but never stopped dancing.
Today, more than 20 years later, he is the executive director of the Calpulli Mexican Dance company, which he co-founded in 2003 with Alberto Lopez Herrera.
Calpulli’s annual holiday show, “Navidad,” is back this weekend at the Queens Theatre. It features a variety of dance and live music: ballet, folklórico, a Rockettes-style number. It may be the only Christmas show in town with mariachi and Tchaikovsky.
It’s also really fun to dance in, says Castaño, who is part of this year’s ensemble. “You do it all,” he said.
“Navidad” tells the story of a young New Yorker, Clarita, raised by immigrant parents from Mexico. She feels torn between her two identities as a first-generation American and a child of Mexican heritage. At home, her family doesn’t understand the culture she learns at school, and vice versa. A mischievous, impish character named Diablo keeps telling her she has to choose a side – he wants the worlds to be separate.
Though the story borrows elements from “The Nutcracker” – including some of the music, a dream sequence and a lead named “Clarita” (Clara is the lead in “The Nutcracker”) – Castaño says the two are “very, very different.”
“Navidad” was written by Castaño and Lopez Herrera in 2016, and workshopped at the Thalia Spanish Theatre in Sunnyside, Queens. Much of the story is inspired by their lives. Elements of the Mexican traditions and celebrations in the show are pulled from Lopez Herrera’s childhood.
Castaño brought in some of the challenges he faced growing up in Texas, the son of Mexican immigrants. He was born in El Paso, a border town where his Mexican-American identity felt ordinary: teachers spoke Spanish and people pronounced his name correctly However, when his family moved to Houston, he felt othered for the first time in his life. He began asking himself: “What are you, what are you not?”
“There were moments where I thought, well, I should just be American, whatever that means,” he said.
“Navidad” attempts to explore that conflict through dance. It’s the show Castaño and Lopez Herrera wished they could have seen as kids. And it’s one they think will resonate with audiences from all cultures — not just Mexican Americans – who have ever grappled with identity and assimilation.
It’s something the show’s lead, 14-year-old Kate Flores, said resonated with her as a New Yorker with parents from Mexico. She started taking folklórico classes at age 4 with Calpulli, and has been dancing with them ever since.
“Sometimes it does get kind of hard to embrace both cultures at the same time,” she said. “You have to sort of blend both together.”
Castaño said the show’s message is simple, though he acknowledged it can be complicated to navigate in real life.
“It really is embracing all of the aspects of somebody’s identity that leads to strength and into celebration.”
“Navidad: A Mexican-American Christmas” is on at the Queens Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 10 and Sunday, Dec. 11, with several performances during the weekend. Tickets start at $25 and you learn more here. The show is approximately 80 minutes, including intermission.