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Boston artist in residence Marsha Parrilla choreographs empathy, community

Marsha Parrilla cannot remember precisely when she began dancing, but some of her earliest memories include impromptu salsa lessons in her childhood home and dancing around San Juan, where she grew up.

Decades later and thousands of miles away, Parrilla, 42, has been appointed to Boston’s artists-in-residence program, which annually selects local artists to create work that recontextualizes social issues. This year’s cohort will focus on resilience and racial equality in Boston.

For Parrilla, the founding artistic director and choreographer at Danza Orgánica, a social justice-oriented dance company, examining social issues is central to creating art. In recent years, her company has performed pieces about mass incarceration’s impact on American families and the devastation Hurricane Maria wrought on Puerto Rico.

Parrilla has explored many creative disciplines, including theater, ceramics and photography. But dance, Parrilla said, is her body’s most natural form of expression.

“My body favors movement,” Parrilla said. “Different artists have different responses when they see something or when they want to express something. Their brain or their body automatically sees it in a specific way … When I want to create, I immediately see movement.”

As a medium that transcends language barriers, dance lends itself to universality, Parrilla said.

“I love working with bodies,” she said. “The human body is universal, so people from different cultures can read the movement and whatever they take in, they take in.”

In both Puerto Rico and the United States, Parrilla has experienced gender and racial discrimination. Consequently, her life and work champions the underdog, she said.

“I’ve always been a person that identifies with the underdog and the injustices that I see around me,” Parrilla said. “I see them very clearly and I’m very empathetic, so when I see them I feel them, and that’s where the vibe comes out.”

Vanessa Ly, a co-organizer at Sisters Unchained, a collective dedicated to young women with incarcerated family members, said Parrilla is deeply empathetic. When they collaborated on Running in Stillness, a dance performance which explored mass incarceration’s effects on women, Parrilla wanted to understand the experience of incarceration first-hand, Ly said.

“She wants to know everything,” Ly said. “I think the only thing that she was missing was that we couldn’t get her into a correctional facility to be there first-hand, like she wanted to.”

Parrilla considers empathy essential to good art.

“I think that when you can feel the experience of the other, you can transmit that experience with more accuracy and in a more genuine way, and the audience can perceive it that way,” she said.

When she’s not working, Parrilla spends time with her husband and four-year-old son, striving to be present in those moments. Even in her downtime, Parrilla said, she enjoys going out dancing. Her life is entirely oriented around dance, and has been for decades.

At 22, Parrilla sustained a potentially career-ending knee injury, which required surgery. It was then, she said, that she fully dedicated herself to dance.

“The doctor said, ‘What is your goal with this surgery?’ And I said, ‘Well, I want to be able to dance again,’” she said. “Since that moment, everything around me revolved around that goal.”

This year, during her residency, Parrilla will collaborate with Boston Centers for Youth & Families, which provide young Bostonians with recreational, educational programming. Her work, she said, will center around climate change.

With many family members still living in Puerto Rico, Parrilla was deeply affected by the damage Hurricane Maria inflicted last September. Since then, she’s thought a lot about the aftermath of natural disasters.

“I want to work with people here in Boston who have also either moved due to natural disasters, or, for whatever reason, have had to migrate and see what lessons we can learn from what has happened in other countries … envisioning that things like that will begin to happen more and more,” Parrilla said.

The area of East Boston where Parrilla will conduct her residency is expected to experience increased flooding in the future. Working with East Boston residents, Parrilla said she hopes to foster shared experience within a diverse community.

“The population is very, very diverse, people from everywhere in the world, and I can’t wait. I’m very excited,” Parrilla said. “Because there are people from so many different parts of the world, we want to figure out also how to build bridges and bring the community together.”

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