Life so far for Domingo Estrada, 35, reads like a movie script filled with inspirational, funny and challenging moments met with an enormous amount of skill, determination and hard work.
Estrada started dancing about age 10 with Our Lady of Sorrows Ballet Folklorico, but formal training in ballet and modern dance did not begin until he was a junior in high school. Despite the late start, Estrada has managed to establish a career as a full-time professional dancer for the past decade with the internationally renowned Mark Morris Dance Group based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I have my parents to thank so much for always being so extremely supportive with everything, knowing that I wanted to challenge myself and try something different and find a career out of it,” Estrada said. “They have been in my corner 1,000%.”
Jan. 30 and 31, Estrada and the group will perform “Pepperland” at 8 p.m. at the Cullen Theater in the Wortham Center in Houston.
Estrada played football for Memorial High School in Victoria in the early 2000s and dreamed of playing for the University of Texas, and later, the Dallas Cowboys. However, he remained open to other possibilities.
He and his friends formed a hip-hop dance group called Emulate the summer after their freshman year. The following school year, they performed one of their tightly synchronized routines to an NSYNC hit at the school’s talent show. Young women dancing to a Britney Spear’s tune during the same show perked up and took notice. Ultimately, the young men auditioned in front of the entire high school drill team and its directors, became members of the group and danced in competitions.
Before long, Estrada also was dancing in the party scene of the Victoria Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker.” Watching the lead male dancers in the performance, he became interested in bettering his dance technique. With their encouragement, he enrolled in classes with the local ballet company.
“I started taking baby ballet, which is little girls – 3, 4 and 5 years old – and they would snicker and laugh that a grown man was in their ballet class,” he said. “But I had to start somewhere, so I started there. It was a fun experience.”
Estrada also began taking modern and jazz dance classes with the older students in the company. With more encouragement, he began revising his college ambitions from football and mechanical engineering to dance.
“I was encouraged to continue performing and dancing by my guidance counselor, who suggested I pursue career in dance,” he said. “At the time, that was foreign information. I didn’t know what that meant. To me, it meant being a backup dancer for Janet Jackson or being in a music video. I didn’t realize a career meant having proficiency in technique and going on to be with a dance company.”
Estrada was accepted at both the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Christian University, so he auditioned for both dance programs. A scholarship and the fact that he “felt right at home” pushed him in the direction of TCU.
Because he had just started dancing, he was required to take an elective physical education ballet class to help refine his beginner skills during his freshman year.
“My skills were still very novice. I needed it,” he said. “But I had a wonderful teacher who knew I was in the dance program and paid a little extra attention to help me catch up.”
For three summers, he attended the American Dance Festival, where he absorbed as much of the dance history and technical information as possible to find where he might land a career. In 2005, he auditioned for Pilobolus of Connecticut, which is known for partnering athleticism with earthy and grounded movement, he said. Although the auditions went well, the company selected dancers with degrees and Estrada returned to Fort Worth to complete his.
He realized that he wanted to dance for a San Francisco company, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, when King taught a workshop at TCU.
“I really enjoyed his teaching – the movement and the materials in his lectures,” he said. “It was all in line with what I wanted to be doing and with whom I wanted to be working, so I set out to audition for his company.”
However, a bad landing injured his ankle one week before auditions and put him out of commission for more than two months.
Without a definite plan for his career, he earned his bachelor’s degree in ballet and modern dance. He joined a friend in Maryland briefly as a backup dancer for a magician but quickly realized that was not the path for him.
The following summer, at the American Dance Festival, Estrada asked peers and instructors who had seen him practicing over the course of previous festivals where they saw him establishing a career. Most of them answered the Mark Morris Dance Group.
“I fell in love with what I was seeing. The dancers onstage had a presence and joy about their dancing,” he said. “They were thoroughly enjoying the choreography they were performing, the music was captivating, everything about the performance was excellent, and I thought I had to be dancing with those dancers and with that company.”
Estrada took a bus at the end of July 2007 to New York to audition for the company’s Christmas show, “The Hard Nut.” He got the job and began securing freelance dancing jobs through choreographers he knew to pay the bills in the meantime. In October, he received a call to work on a new project, “Romeo and Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare,” choreographed by Morris. Another project followed in March, and he joined the company as an apprentice in 2008. He became an official full-time company member in 2009.
The Mark Morris Dance Group is a modern dance company that will turn 40 in 2020 and all of its dance performances are accompanied by live music performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble, Estrada said.
“It wouldn’t be anything without music … it has to be a music show as well as performing a physical show,” he said. “And we all rehearse together, perform together, it’s incredible and all live, which always makes it so fresh.”
The group is composed of 19 members, and it’s competitive because Morris has a knack for physicalizing music and the choreography is “wonderful,” Estrada said. He uses many techniques, including folk movements from different cultures and natural movements like walking and running. For those who appreciate it, everything about the choreography as it relates to the music just makes sense, he continued.
“There are hundreds of thousands of extremely excellent and beautiful dancers, and at least 500 dancers show up at Mark Morris Dance Group auditions for six or seven spots,” he said. “It’s a huge blessing to work with the company I want to be working with. In general, it’s hard to have a full-time job as a dancer, and they take care of us extremely well.”
And Estrada and the other company members make the job look easy.
“It looks easy, but it’s not at all,” he said. “Once you’re in the groove of his work for a while, an ease comes with performing, but it’s really complicated in terms of how we relate to the music rhythmically, arhythmically and geometrically in spatiality onstage. There are so many moving parts and working bodies through space that it’s so dense in quality that sometimes it’s sort of fumbling to try to describe. You have to see it sometimes more than 100 times, and it doesn’t necessarily tell a story unless it’s specifically an opera story-based composition, so it’s always up to interpretation, which I think is pretty marvelous.”
“Pepperland” is “funky, fresh, dense, entertaining and short and sweet” at one hour long, Estrada said. The performance was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the debut of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and tells many stories. The music is composed by Ethan Iverson based on four tracks from the album with six additional original compositions in the same vein.
“I’m a Christian man, and I believe God has a path and a plan for all of us. He has guided me through all these experiences to where I am today, the interests and challenges that led me to become the dancer I am and the person that I am,” he said. “It definitely takes a lot of discipline and drive and, in my case, a lot of faith.”