I met Chester Martinez at an opening at Youngblood Africa Arts and Culture center in Cape Town last December. A mesmerizing dancer and performance artist who is also extremely eloquent and insightful, Chester has choreographed works for artists like Angel-Ho and Athi Patra-Ruga and has performed with artists FKA Twigs and MIA (to name a few) in Cape Town, Las Vegas, London, and more. We met at Youngblood to speak about his journey as an artist and other aspects of crafting his identity and his voice.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I am a multi-disciplinary performance artist. I specialize in movement and at the moment movement is my chosen language but I have foundations in acting, singing, and dancing. I spent 12 years of my life in choir when I was in school, so basically half my life. Singing was the first medium of expression in terms of art that I engaged with—singing and sketching. In high school around 10th grade, I started dramatic arts and that gave me the confidence to vocalize who I was. Before that I was quite shy, timid, introverted. I only came out of my shell around people whom I was comfortable with. When I was 12 or 13, I was in a very dark space in my life and that’s when I engaged with movement. That’s when I kind of followed in my mom’s footsteps. She was a championship Latin and Ballroom dancer.
Because I was from a small town, there wasn’t much outside of your very binary sports. The school I was attending at the time only had a single sport for boys and a single sport for girls. Rugby and netball…it was just not my reality at all, and like I said it was a very dark time. I had to move year after year because of circumstance, so I was stripped of everything that was starting to constitute and lay the foundation for my identity. Movement is really what gave me solace from all of that inner turmoil. Movement was my light; it was my path out of it all. And it’s been something of the backdrop and backbone to who I’ve become in the world.
Movement has taken me places I couldn’t have imagined going when I was back in Mamre, which is the town that I’m from. At that point, even Cape Town (the city that I am in now) felt so far removed. I was making that hour and a half journey to come train at this little dance company in the suburbs. It’s just wild. Since then I’ve been able to travel to the States, I’ve been in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, I’ve been in Europe—it’s really been crazy. Movement has given me a medium of self-exploration that has allowed me to develop in ways that not many people my age have been able to develop. I’m speaking about my peers, people I have grown up with.
When I look at the level of self-development that occurred because of my commitment to this art form, this very immersive, physical expression, the journey’s been wild. It’s been therapeutic in so many ways. I’ve had a dark childhood; there were a lot of traumas that happened prior. My mom’s mental illness, a huge part of the backdrop of my life, was a massive influence on my desire to understand myself. It’s a huge motivation for my artistry, to constantly commit to the journey of understanding myself. There’s nothing that scares me more than not knowing what’s going on inside of myself, not knowing who I am, and not knowing whom it is that I’m becoming. We don’t always have a handle on that honestly, in this world. But to have a medium to reconnect with myself every time I get into a space of immense growth and transformation…it’s been really helpful [for] managing my psychological development as well. Again, It’s been a wild journey.
Did you start your training in a dance company here?
There was a small startup community theatre group in my small town. I had always been the odd one. While all the boys were playing rugby, I was doing gymnastics. I was never this ‘masculine boy’ boy so I never had a place. So when my friends started this group that I felt would give me a place in my community, I jumped at it. We put on one little production and actually it ended up being quite a big production. A local jazz artist from Cape Town performed with us. There was a volunteer program for community development that ran every year in my town. Through the connection with those British volunteers, we had a connection to ‘First World’ resources and education; they helped us develop this platform that we had no idea what to do with. We were just a bunch of kids that wanted to sing and dance and make a noise.
It became something really special and that was when I had my awakening as an artist, or as a performer. When I first got to step on the stage and perform for my community, my relatives, my friends, my family, it was an experience that to this day I can’t compare to anything else. Every single time I get on the stage, there’s nothing [else] that makes me feel the way I feel when I’m on the stage, performing for people. I knew in that moment (I think I was all of twelve years old), ‘This is what I want to do with my life. This is what I want to pursue. This is what needs to come through me into this world.’
From there I broke away and I wanted more. It wasn’t enough; I was just pushed to seek more—more than what that little town could offer me. At the time I was living with my mom and she was my biggest support. I told her, ‘I want to dance. I want to pursue this, I want to learn more things, I want to experience other styles.’ At that point, it all was informal; no one was training me. I was kind of training myself and I was the resident dancer in the group so I was training everyone else with no training myself. I was watching So You Think You Can Dance on TV and that was my only training.
I was desperately seeking development from a mentor, a teacher, an external source. My mom said, ‘If you want this, you need to figure out where it is. You need to figure out how you’re going to go about it.’ So I dove into finding what limited resources or platforms were available to people who didn’t have the means to access studio training. There wasn’t a single studio in my hometown and the closest places that existed were in Cape Town. Even when I found the studios, we didn’t have the means to pay for studio fees and stuff.
I found this dance development program called The Ackerman’s Dance Academy. Ackermans is a clothing chain in South Africa. This dance-training program took on underprivileged kids and gave them access to the dance world. The program was every weekend and I would travel in every weekend and train. This whole journey was solace from the discrimination I encountered in my community for just always being other, for just being a more effeminate boy, for just being softer, more emotional, more sensitive. I was always picked on and bullied, discriminated against and made fun of, and it didn’t leave me feeling at home within my own community and within the spaces I was living. Dance became that community initially; it became a defining part of my identity and my development as a young adolescent.
I went from this training program to being taken into a youth company. I showed a lot of promise because I just had this immense hunger to belong somewhere. I’m realizing now, looking back, it wasn’t just the hunger to dance. It was that I connected to this thing that gave me access to a community and I had this crazy hunger to belong to a community. Once I found that in dance, I committed wholeheartedly and I just ran toward this newfound community. I went from the youth company to being part of a hip hop dance group when I was 15 turning 16 and that was what gave me access to the rest of the world. Within my first three months I qualified as a national champion with my team and later that year we went to Las Vegas to represent South Africa.
In Vegas at the World Championships there were all kinds of nationalities and identities and the common thread amongst us was dance. We had this common language. That immersion in true diversity, community, and connectedness sparked something in me: an understanding that this is how the world should be. When you eliminate the labels of being a South African, a Canadian, whatever label it is, you just connect on the level of being dancers. Those were my first steps [toward] this idea of not being labeled as something that sets me apart from another human being and finding something that connects us on a human level. Ever since then there’s been this growing sense of transcending labels, transcending prescribed roles because no one could prescribe a role…never mind, people could. This is what I learned later on.
I was just so in love with dance that I was just seeing dance as dance. But later on the realities of the segregation within the dance world became very apparent as well. Ballet dancers thought they were better than hip hop dancers and hip hop dancers felt they had more flavor and edge than ballet dancers so there [were] this segregation, these minorities, and these groups within the dance world. It was kind of sad. We are all dancers and I thought we all connect on that level. They made these sub-communities within a community that I felt should have been about unity because of the art form. It was just a very saddening realization for me that people are going to discriminate in almost every environment on this planet. That segregation and judgment taint even the most beautiful thing.
It became a passion of mine to eliminate that wherever I can. My artistry became all about openness, openness to humans; openness of mind, of everything, of heart, because I know what it’s like to be discriminated against so acutely before I even had any sense of who I was, before I had an identity. I try to exercise non-judgment as much as possible in the way I live my life, in my artistry, and in just my humanness because I feel that is the only remedy to the state of things. The sense of ‘I belong in this box’, ‘I belong in that box’—even I experienced it from my own perspective. Once I became a dancer, I was like, ‘People who don’t dance won’t understand dance.’ You are now this thing that someone else can’t be if they don’t exist in this world; if they haven’t learned a dance move. What nonsense is that? The sense of separateness on any level, whether it’s your gender, your sexuality, your artistic discipline, your discipline, any vocation, any career path, any choice that you’ve made—the fact that that can set you above or below someone to me now is such an unreality because of the journey I’ve taken through my artistry.
To have found this thing that liberates me from all of that…when I move, there’s no categorization. When I move it’s not about being a boy or a girl, or a man or a woman, or hip hop dancer or contemporary dancer, or gay or straight, it’s just about liberation. It’s about being free of any pressures that stem from being boxed in and fitting into a predetermined mold of humanness. There’s no one that can determine what is the right way for me to be Chester. One of the things I am grateful for as a result of my artistry and as a result of my journey is that I have gotten to this place where I am so completely liberated. I want to offer that liberation to other people. I want to use my platform, my artistry and this language I have studied to communicate this sense of freedom and to get other people to understand that if you want to be liberated you are the only one who can liberate yourself. There are people in this world who are going to allow you that space and support you in that space. My artistry has become about [that liberation] and it is something I want to see realized (even if only a fraction) in my lifetime through the things that I do.
How has your environment, growing up geographically in South Africa, how has that influenced or inspired your work?
That’s quite a recent understanding that I’ve come to. I didn’t think about it for so long because all I thought about was getting away from it. I felt so boxed in and so limited being from ‘Third World’ South Africa, from very conservative communities, from a place that lacks the infrastructure to allow most people to realize their dreams. South Africa is still very much a country where you only have access to the world if you come from the privileged communities, which is still only less than 5% of the general population. So I had to go through being looked at and being treated like I am crazy for aspiring to be a part of a group of people, or a percentage of people who had access to the world when I came from the percentage of people who didn’t have that, just on a socio-economic basis. It’s becoming more of a reality now because of the Internet Age. People are seeing it done, but the collective mentality is that you can’t escape the circumstance, must merely accept and go on to perpetuate the circumstance you are born into.
That’s the general accepted reality and that was what I grew up in. This is the mentality of much of my family, the mentality of my friends and their families, and it’s even the mentality of the people in the city of Cape Town. A mentality that stems from social conditioning. The psychological effect and socio-economic legacy resulting from apartheid. Our schooling systems, geographical and social positionality almost forces these mentalities and cycles to be perpetuated. The working class lack access to the information and resources that will allow underprivileged communities to effect collective change for the better.
I was just seeking a way out of the cycle and I went from opportunity to opportunity that led me to an encounter with someone who could offer me that way out. I’ll say it again, I couldn’t and wouldn’t have been able to do it myself within the timeline I have and coming from my circumstances. I didn’t obtain the finances personally to take myself overseas. I was given the opportunity by someone from a ‘First World’ country who saw my potential. That’s why it’s become a burning passion to pay that forward, because we live in such a talent rich country. There are people who can easily be of an international standard artistically and in many fields if afforded the opportunities. There are people that commit to the things they are good at to such an extent that it’s absolutely criminal that they are never discovered and recognized; they are never found. They are never able to see their potential fully realized. To have had that experience and to have started that journey for myself, I really want to see that happen for many more people.
The reality of seeing the world and having access to other cultures and other lived experience shouldn’t only belong to the 5% or the 1% or the gentry of Cape Town. It is something that is so evident in the landscape of the city itself. No one is addressing the fact that the actual culture of Cape Town lies in the suburbs, the Cape Flats and the rural surrounds. People don’t go experience that, and if they do, they do so as tourists, engaging with the rich cultures and vibrant people of South Africa only on the surface. When you come to the city and you’re a foreigner, you’re often staying in the CBD (central business district) or the Atlantic seaboard and you’re living the luxury of Cape Town most Capetonians never get to live. It’s a really big challenge for people from here because the quality of life for middle class people is still quite high. They have access to the ocean, they have access to the mountain, they have access to one of the most beautiful cities in the world for free. It is their backyard but because of that exact reality, it has closed them off to ever thinking they could go anywhere else, or wanting to go anywhere else. For me that is such a loss. Because I think there is a magic in the people of Cape Town and in the city that needs to be shared with the world. It is something we need to take ownership of as a people so that we can manage what we are exporting and what we are taking to the world.
It shouldn’t just be the world coming to us; we should be able to go to the world and vice versa. It should be an equal trade. At the moment and for the longest time, Cape Town has not been an equal trade. So as an artist who has had the privilege and the opportunity to work internationally, I feel it’s my responsibility to educate and be the change. Attempt to open people’s minds to the reality of this city and to the magic that is here. Everyone I meet that comes to Cape Town sees it and feels it. But it is an understanding that is not common within the people of Cape Town.
I want to see Cape Town become the entertainment and business capital that it can be in this world. I want Cape Town to become the global player that it should be. Without officially being recognized as that, I view myself as an ambassador for Cape Town, and being an international representative for what Cape Town is all about, and what we are capable of, what we can achieve.
If being from a small rural town in South Africa in the Western Cape didn’t stop me from reaching the heights that I’ve reached, why should it stop anyone else? That’s why for me it’s about education, it’s about going out of your comfort zone to find the information that will allow you the access to more lived experience outside of your immediate reality and comfort zone.