Sonia Sanoja (Caracas, 1932-2017) represents the iconic female figure of contemporary dance in Venezuela. Her pioneering work as a dancer and choreographer, author of sixty-six works, made her a reference not only nationally, but also in Latin America and worldwide. Her ancestral gesture combined with vigorous modernity and her proximity to the sculptural and kinetic body, filled her artistic practice with a solid sense of identity. Sonia’s territory was a remote one. Her bodily expression emerged from deep levels. The viscerality of her movement reflected, at the same time, a particular state of emotional balance, of imperturbable inner serenity and harmonious coexistence of her intimate being with her surroundings. Her dance, uncontaminated, did not proclaim, however, an aseptic abstraction. She would convey us to original stages, bearer of a powerful energy. The telluric condition that arose from her with an irrepressible renewing intention was praised and exalted by critics. Her dance is both essential and experimental. She found her expressive and natural language in the dense, pure and bare movement. Eloquent silences, revealing poetic voices, suggestive sounds, surprising textures, together with her intense gestures, made up a complex and demanding universe. Her works are staged testimonies of high conceptual and aesthetic values.
Her initiation into the art of movement took place towards the end of the 1940’s while she studied academic ballet at school, the Liceo Andrés Bello. She was taught by Irish dancers David and Eva Gray, former dancers of the Original Ballet Russe who had moved to Venezuela at the end of World War II.
Sanoja graduated in Philosophy at the Central University in Venezuela (UCV). Literature, and especially poetry, occupied a particular field of interest. She shared this vocation with her husband Alfredo Silva Estrada, renowned poet and translator. Sonia’s passion for the letters was crystallized in her three books, Duraciones visuales, A través de la danza and Bajo el signo de la danza, 3 publications that became fundamental works in dance theory.
By the end of the 1950’s, Caracas was a display of remarkable urban development, typified by a series of major infrastructure projects of great significance. Venezuelan arts and culture flourished in tune with the creative processes taking place in the major developed centers of the western hemisphere. An air of modernity reached the fine arts as they progressively abandoned traditional landscape and figuratism towards the labyrinth of abstraction. Literature and the performing arts geared up for profound transformations by joining the avant-garde tendencies of the time. The Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas, campus of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), where Sanoja studied Philosophy became the centre of a visionary project for the integration of the arts. A space later declared World Heritage by UNESCO.
Within this creative and stimulating environment, Sanoja joined the Teatro de la Danza, the first modern dance group in the country founded by Mexican dancer Grishka Holguin, her initial mentor with whom she shared seminal creative experiences.
After completing her studies, she travelled to Paris with Alfredo Silva Estrada, a decisive period that markex her as an interpreter and creator. Responding to an invitation by the French Association of Dance and Culture, Sonia performed at the Festival of Young Choreographers in 1960. There, she presented Duración Uno y Cuatro, which was considered by the critics “a small masterpiece”.
Upon her return to Caracas, she joined Danzas Venezuela as a dancer, choreographer and teacher under the direction of Mexican dancer Evelia Beristain. Between 1961 and 1964, Sonia joined Grishka Holguin as co-director, choreographer and interpreter of Fundacion Danza Contemporanea, a modern dance group based at the Museum of Fines Arts of Caracas, an exhibition space that embraced the most innovative tendencies in the arts of the time under the direction of visionary Miguel Arroyo.
In the mid-sixties, she travelled back to Paris with a grant from the Fina Gómez Foundation. Having become a soloist, Sanoja started a dynamic artistic projection in Europe. She performed in Germany, France and Belgium with remarkable acknowledgement. During May and June 1966, she joined the corps de danse of Maurice Béjart’s Ninth Symphony as a guest dancer, performing in Berlin, Paris and Lyon with his company the Ballet of the 20th Century. Later in 1967, Sonia performed at the Denise René gallery in Paris, interacting with Jesus Soto’s sculpture Penetrables.
Back in Caracas in the 1970 ‘s, she created the company Sonia Sanoja Danza Contemporanea and Arte Coreográfico Sonia Sanoja. She performed in the USA, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, where she was praised and acknowledged as a key representative of the new Latin-American dance movement.
From the early stages of her creative practice, Sanoja established ties with Venezuelan visual artists artists such as Jesus Soto, Oscar Sjöstrand, Mercedes Pardo,French artist Colette Delozanne, German artists Luisa Richter and Gego with whom she kept close personal and professional ties; photographers such as Barbara Brändli, Miguel Gracia, Miró Anton just to name a few, exemplify her encounters with the universe of fine arts. These collaborations would also extend into the realms of music, graphic design and stage-light design.
The lifelong relationship between Sonia and Gego was rooted, as Sonia described it “from a mutual understanding in the creative realm”.
Possibly, the most elevated point of Sonia and Gego’s creative relationship can be found in Cuerda Simple Medida (Coreogego), a coinciding moment of close creative ideals. Initially, the piece was a dance performance featured at the opening of Gego’s exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas in October 1977. This event was considered a landmark within the fine arts movement in Venezuela.
Sonia Sanoja engaged with Gego’s sculptural realm with 3 solo performances entitled Coreogegos. The dancer included musical compositions by electronic music pioneers such as Alfredo del Monaco (Venezuelan), Vladimir Ussachevsky (Russian /US based) and Yannis Ioannidis (Greek/Venezuela based).
This dance intervention would go through a series of revisions and transformations. As a result, emerged Coreogego, a choreography with fixed structure accompanied by a musical composition by Del Mónaco; and therefore Cuerdas Simple Medida (Coreogego), name issued from Alfredo Silva Estrada’s poem Variaciones sobre Reticuláreas: Homenaje a Gego, published by Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Caracas and Monte Avila editores.
Cuerdas Simple Medida (Coreogego) stems from a fundamental element of Gego’s work: the reticulate concept inspired by the weaving actions of joining wefts. A craftsman’s insight merges with the visions of a dense and captivating concept. The slow motion of a meticulous craft meets the solemnity of a scenic ritual. The white ropes become a meaningful object in contact with the ceremonial actions of the body; the electro-acoustic sounds influence each of the movements and gestures of the dancer in the space.
As an aesthetic installation and dance piece, Cuerdas Simple Medida (Coreogego) transcended its own time becoming an emblem of Venezuelan modernity. New interpreters and bodies of the younger generation in the 21st century restated its presence under a careful revision of the author. The exhibition Gego, open works. Testimonies and Validity at the Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas in 2012 welcomed back the piece in the same space of its genesis. A similar experience was repeated in 2022 at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart as part of the exhibition Gego. The architecture of an artist.
Sonia Sanoja and Gego represent an indissoluble bond. A tie that became harmonic through body actions and the construction of objectual shapes. Artistic inter-disciplinarity born from the spontaneity and mutual recognition between the two practitioners.
In 2016, Sonia appeared in stage for the last time. Invited and directed by choreographer Leyson Ponce, she performed in Amor Amargo next to Graciela Henriquez, renowned Venezuelan dancer based in Mexico.
“Dance is an aesthetic phenomenon, as within it, the body functions in the same manner as volume, color and spatial reality”.
Sonia Sanoja not only danced. She also spent immeasurable time reflecting on her views on movement and turning those thoughts into strikingly simple literature. Her books constitute a high reference in dance theory, in her case of special value since they arise from a double dimension: the revealing creator on stage and the writer of rigorous craft.
Duraciones visuales (1963), a sort of aesthetic memoire of Fundación de Danza Contemporánea, published by the Neumann Foundation, combines Sonia’s writing with the solid conceptualizations of Alfredo Silva Estrada, the avant-garde photography of Barbara Brändli and the fine graphic quality of John Lange.
A través de la danza (1971) and Bajo el signo de la danza (1992), both published by Monte Avila Editores, contain the decalogue of the internal and genuine movement of its creator. The author offers us her constant deliberation on the fact of dancing and its necessary conversion into illustrated words.
A través de la danza was translated into French by belgian poet Fernand Verhesen, published in Brussels in 1974. Monte Avila Editores dedicated a second edition with a prologue by Juan Liscano and photographs by Miguel Gracia. It was considered “the book of the year”. This edition also included the essay Tiempo Secreto de Sonia Sanoja by anthropologist Miguel Acosta Saignes.
Danza vertigo consciente. Annotations for a philosophy of dance (1999), an essay presented by Sonia Sanoja as part of the conference inaugurating the Instituto Universitario de Danza, Caracas. It is an enlightened essay on dance and its essential elements, approached from her very personal perspective, turned into revealing critical thought.
The poetic voice of Sonia Sanoja ha been fostered through the various editions of La danza y la Palabra (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) edited by Instituto Universitario de Danza, Caracas. Each one of the texts featured on these editions share a common ideal: to make movement and writing a joined exercise.
Sonia Sanoja’s remarkable teaching, carried out silently and tenaciously in many parts of Venezuela is remembered dearly among the younger generation of dancers. During the 1970s and 1980s, she founded and directed the Choreographic Center of the Simon Bolivar University, among others in smaller universities. During the following two decades, having retired from the stage, she carried out her formative practice at the Instituto Superior de Danza and the Instituto Universitario de Danza, of which she was a founding professor and honorary member of its Board of Directors. She drafted and lectured courses such as Social History of Art, La Danza y la Palabra (Dance and Word) as part of the postgraduate program Las Fronteras del Cuerpo (Body Frontiers). After the creation of the National Experimental University of the Arts (UNEARTE), she joined this new higher education project in which she created and taught the Philosophy of Art curricular unit. In 2009 she was awarded the Emeritus title.
1982. National award for Culture
1983. Order Andres Bello
1983. Order Francisco de Miranda.
1983. Order for Work Merit in its 1st Clase
1998. National award for Danza
2000. Order Francisco Fajardo in its 1st Clase
The lucid voice of Sonia Sanoja guides us through the intricate paths of movement. “Dance manifests itself before the eyes of the spectator. But it is inside the artist where the dance begins. When dancing, the dancer does not see with his own eyes, he feels the dance that runs through him and moves him within a necessary order ” Sonia Sanoja.