A Santa Monica artist’s vision for creating constructive and meaningful dialogue in divided times has earned her a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant. The money from the grant — which she must match with her own fundraising — will go toward furthering her mission of exploring what being American really means.

For choreographer and dancer Christine Suarez, artistic inspiration struck during a heated moment arguing with a virtual stranger on Facebook in 2016.

“I was like: ‘What am I doing? I am fighting this woman I do not know,’” Suarez recalled. “She was, like, someone who went to high school with my stepfather. You know what I mean? I had no clue who this person was.

“Eventually, I calmed myself down and she just couldn’t, and she just kept after me, and I was like, ‘Wow, how can we have some real conversations?’” Suarez continued. “I thought, perhaps through gathering these stories of these different lived experiences—and you’re in a theater, you’re with people, you’re not online, you’re not anonymous, you’re just with people—perhaps new points of view can be brought to life outside of your own limited experience.”

So, Suarez, who has spent the last 13 years as a choreographer and artist in Santa Monica, began creating what she calls an interactive dance experience — “a real exchange in the space with an audience” — entitled “On Being American.”

She interviewed community members, from refugees and immigrants to retirees and school teachers, asking each of them what it means to be an American and what their experience as an American signifies to them.

Suarez, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and raised in Baton Rouge, La., said she has thought a lot about those questions herself.

“We used these interviews, we recorded them and then these interviews became the score of this piece,” Suarez described. She and her performance partner Shelby Williams-Gonzalez also share their own stories and create dances that they perform as the stories are told.

“We create, really, the physical landscapes of these stories,” Suarez said. “Sometimes we do it really literally and sometimes it’s an abstract painting of the physical life of this story.”

First premiering at Miles Memorial Playhouse, Suarez and Williams-Gonzalez have taken the interactive experience to community members including students at SMASH, Turning Point transitional housing, the Veterans Administration hospital and WISE & Healthy Aging.

“At each site, we do more interviews with people so the piece evolves as we continue to perform it,” Suarez described.

Now, thanks to the $10,000 NEA grant that Suarez is working to match, the performance will continue to evolve with the addition of indigenous and farm worker voices. When Suarez applied for the grant, she detailed her goals of encompassing the stories of these two marginalized communities.

When asked if the grant would push her outside her comfort zone, Suarez said, “100 percent, yes.”

“I feel like it’s a pretty ambitious grant because these two communities, I have no connection to,” Suarez continued. “I’m also very aware that I don’t want to enter into the relationship in a post-colonial way—that I’m kind of coming in like, ‘Oh, I’m the artist and you want me here and I’m providing great service to you,’ rather than it really truly be an exchange of culture. So, yeah, I am uncomfortable.”

While reflecting on the project as it has evolved thus far, Suarez said she was especially grateful to the City of Santa Monica, which has helped fund her earlier work through a Community Access and Participation Grant from Santa Monica Cultural Affairs.

“What’s exciting is, this work wouldn’t exist without funding through the City of Santa Monica, so that project that started with local funding through the City of Santa Monica is now receiving a national award to expand the scope of the project and further connect communities that honestly aren’t normally connected,” Suarez said. “That’s what’s exciting to me, as someone who works super locally … most of my work is really closely connected with the community of Los Angeles and community of Santa Monica.”