But shortly after sending the letter, she gave up her studies and her library, reaffirmed her religious vows and devoted the rest of her life to caring for her fellow nuns. It is not known whether she was forced, or chose to turn away from her life of the mind. She died at 44 of an unnamed plague that devastated Mexico.
Like the record of Sor Juana’s life, Manzanales’s new dance contains a series of impressions, drawn from threads in her writings. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the possibility, explored by contemporary scholars, that she may have loved women. “Given the total aversion I felt toward the idea of marriage,” she wrote in her 1691 letter, convent life “was the least unreasonable and most decent choice I could make.”
To tell this side of Sor Juana’s story, Manzanales has created a stately, intimate passage for two women, Gabrielle Sprauve and Isabel Robles, a quietly grounded, muscular conversation suggesting an aching desire for connection. It is the heart of the ballet.
At a recent rehearsal, Sprauve, who is dancing the role of Sor Juana, walked on, slowly, to the sound of church bells. A Baroque melody for the guitar by Sor Juana — yes, she also composed music — could be heard.
Then Robles entered. Despite the strong gravitational pull between the two women, for a long time they did not touch. Until finally, they leaned in, their lips almost touching.
The pas de deux was constructed over time, little by little. “Michelle was really adamant about the building of their connection,” Sprauve said, “showing the relationship when they first see each other, and the way they ask themselves, ‘What is it I’m feeling?’”