Author: sfdancematters

Lavender Country, April 25th Post: Ballet

Writing with Julian Carter

Post: Ballet’s Lavender Country is named after the first gay country band and album of the same title, released in 1973 and re-released in 2014. The ballet premiered in 2017 and returned to San Francisco’s ZSpace in April 2019. It’s 2.1 miles from ZSpace to the dance hall at 550 Barneveldt, where a thriving 20-year-old LGBT country-western dance community meets twice a week. Your $5 entrance fee includes access to lessons in two-step, country waltz, West Coast Swing and line-dancing; there’s a Two Left Feet Club for total beginners, Line Dance Pro for advanced dancers, and hours of open dancing. It’s home to a nationally respected line-dance choreographer and a competitive dance team. Each fall Sundance hosts the four-day Stompede, the largest gay country-western dance event in the world.

If you’re wondering what that has to do with Post:Ballet’s performance, the answer is not nearly enough. The show revolved around Patrick Haggerty, the original lead singer/songwriter on Lavender Country who performed in front of an energetic and skillful band while the Post:Ballet dancers moved in the dance space just below the band stage. Between songs, Haggerty spoke directly to the audience telling stories about coming out, talking with his father, losing friends to AIDS, finding a husband, and more. His performance of live memoir was often compelling—poignant and funny, and occasionally a little embarrassing in its earnest articulation of political visions now decades past their sell-by date. But neither the music nor the historical culture from which it sprang found reflection in the underwhelmingly generic movement.

Lavender Country looked like it was made by someone who lacked connection to the material and had no real interest in the technical challenges of building dance that speaks queer culture, sexuality, and politics—present or past. It showed little awareness of country-western dance and its traditional structures, rhythms, vocabulary or spirit. Haggerty’s music wasn’t originally made for dancing but it’s expressive and emotionally vivid. It’s also fun. Vanessa Thiessen’s choreography was not. Its affective and aesthetic flatness might explain why we found it difficult to stay connected with the dancing.  

We came to Lavender Country interested in how Post:Ballet would embody gay country-western music. We’d been investigating Rodeo (both de Mille and Peck versions) and talking about gender and race fantasies embedded in musical references to the American West. We thought Lavender Country might fuel our larger conversations about heteronormativity and whiteness in dance. That didn’t happen. In fact, we were unable to discern any real conceptual structure for the piece. We were especially puzzled by a cringe-worthy sequence to the song “To a Woman.” Haggerty explained that this love song was written and first performed by a lesbian member of the original band. Then all the musicians and five of the dancers left the stage, the lights went down, and a single dancer rolled and writhed on the floor to a recording from the original album. Even well-danced, it was difficult to imagine how this exaggerated and angst-ridden isolation could possibly express anything but resistance to desire and romance between women. Instead, it seemed to recycle the tired old assumption that lesbians die alone.

When we sat down to write this response we looked for other reviews of the dance from its 2017 premiere and found nothing. This seemed strange to us given the strong culture of queer dance and performance in the Bay Area. It left us wondering why this dance was overlooked by area dance writers. To us, this piece seemed in desperate need of post-performance reflection and thinking.  After the show, we talked with a number of LGBT people who were equally disappointed. A two-step dancer of many years told us that he felt two conflicting urges–one to let his critique rip, one not to badmouth–and reflected that both responses felt like they came from a gay place. A professional modern dancer disliked what he saw as inappropriately heteronormative pairing and asked how this composition could bill itself as radical in any way. And a relationship coach, who doesn’t have much experience with dance, asked in all innocence why nobody had pointed this was a bad idea. It’s a legitimate question, and the answer is larger than this review can hold.

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The After Party:  Lavender Country, ZSpace April 2019. Photo Credit: Michelle LaVigne

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May 10th, Dance Exhibit, Lauren Simpson Dance

Writing with Megan Nicely

We were invited to write a response to Lauren Simpson’s Dance Exhibit, described asa multidimensional arts experience centered around a physical and embodied exploration of the Atrium space and the sculptures contained within.” Each performance had a different post-show speaker. We were curious about how the dance is extended by including the perspective of Sarah Hotchkiss, the guest speaker on May 10th; when does a dance end? We’ve recently been inspired by The Hundreds, a book by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart in which each “essay” is written in one hundred words or multiples of one hundred words long.

Upon reflecting, we decided to try out Berlant and Stewart’s hundreds practice as a way to respond to Simpson’s piece. On one hand, this seems like a suitable framework for blogging – – a shorter writing form. On the other hand, it seems to fit, at least to us, how Dance Exhibit displayed meticulous attention to detail not only with the movement quality but also with its relationship to space and sound. Nothing seemed out of place or unnecessary. We each took a different approach with our hundreds practice, yet feel they capture the varied ways we see and write (this) dance.

Artistic Labor, Megan Nicely

I felt strangely idle. Women in colored jumpsuits moved silently and efficiently at the peripheries of audience clumps, repositioning pieces of industrial material–rebar, fluorescent tubes, coils of extension cords–while we chatted. It had started, the performance I mean. The bodies in colored jumpsuits–orange, blue, black, white, green–were already exhibiting the behind-the-scenes labor of installation crews to us, you know, the ways objects are placed in museums and galleries just so. These bodily gestures, measurements, and precision are what make the art object appear just right, and that is what these bodies–these dancers–were doing, and continued to do throughout the piece.

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

At some point we stopped our idle chatter. Maybe it was because the labor force had unified, and displaced us. We watched as the bodies staked their claim on a large wooden staircase, itself part installation, part architecture. Soon we also occupied this space, now a formal seated audience. We observed the art laborers mirror the forms of the art objects down below. I let myself continue the labor installation narrative, seeing the danced actions as a process of gathering information about the objects, so as to know what next to do with them–a way to understand their nature somehow.

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

After the performance, the speaker referred to “ooo”–object-oriented ontology, which means everything existing equally, rather than humans at the top. Did the objects communicate their preferences? Was the human precision a way to contain and manage the situation, to avoid mess or spillage? Clean, even, focused–these are not words we often use to describe labor, yet if a body is to repeat activity for a long time, or remain in relationship, a somatic aesthetic is helpful. Approach touching the material with care. You may not know the past lives that have allowed the things to arrive to this moment.

(“Dance Exhibit” with Lauren Simpson Dance, Dana Hemenway, and Sarah Hotchkiss; Alien Phenomenology by Ian Bogost; Awareness Through Movement by Moshe Feldenkrais)

Space Making, Michelle LaVigne

Walking into Minnessota Street Project, I felt curious and slightly impatient. I read that the dance started at 7:45; I didn’t want to miss anything. People were busy talking, walking, and sitting throughout the space. As we mingled, five dancers dressed in different colored coveralls moved around the open space, manipulating different objects – – glowing fluorescent tubes, macraméd extension cords, and twisted rebar. They moved to the stairs and slowly rolled their way down. We were then directed toward the stairs and sat down to watch the dance continue or was it just beginning? A new start or a resetting?

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Michelle LaVigne

 

The dancers then began to interact directly with the objects; they moved them and moved with them. They also moved like them; sculpting their bodies to mirror their shapes and energy. By taking on these shapes, the dancers activated these objects, suggesting they could be otherwise. The materials and space that might ordinarily seem static became mobilized, pliable. The soundscape performed live by Shanna Sordhal added to this tactile-ness. The dancer’s white shoes echoed through the space, also helping to amplify and alter the very white space. The manipulation of bodies, materials, and sound challenged the stability of expected forms.

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

The end came a bit abruptly; I was surprised to hear clapping from behind; my vision blocked by the I-beams bisecting the space. The shift from dance to words ended the evening with Sarah Hotchkiss, our speaker and then moderator with Simpson and artist  Dana Hemenway. We got glimpses into their creative practices and insights into how things (like Hemenway’s macraméd extension cords) come into being, how they have ontological status. It was an insightful end; their conversation left me wondering about space, things, and the power of bodies to move materials into ideas – – are we that different than things?

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

April 6th, PILOT 71 – “Six Second Rule”

This is the second time in five months I’ve been invited to write a response for the ODC Pilot Program.  Pilot 71 – Six Second Rule featured 5 dances by ayanadancearts, HB//Collabs, Kickbal, Alyssa Mitchel, and PULP. I’m not sure how these dances were connected under the production’s title, but I did notice that each paid particular attention to rhythm and used that rhythm to amply a range of themes, questions, and moods.

The first piece, Tane choreographed by Ayana Yonesaka (in collaboration with the dancers), was danced by four adults and an 8-year old. The piece had a playful, thoughtful quality to it. The choreography didn’t move too fast, which suggested a kind of taking care, especially between the dancers and their representative generations. This mood was interrupted by one dancer expressing a moment of frustration – voice whining, body tensing. This moment stood out and surprised me as if I had encountered this scene at a playground, on a sidewalk, or in a store. Why this moment was necessary? I wasn’t quite sure. Tane ended after the 8-year old went to each adult dancer and gestured as if placing an object into each of their outstretched hands, which underscored the notion of care. Overall, the dance reminded me that we can (and perhaps should) learn from the perspectives of children.

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Tane, ODC Dance Commons April 2019. Photo Credit: Mark Shigenaga

Wonderment “focuses on the emotion and experiences of joy” and incorporated recordings from 7 interviews. Choreographed by Hayley Bowman (in collaboration with the dancers), the movement and gestures exemplified togetherness, including the clapping and holding of hands. The recorded interviews and music created a disjointed sound experience that seemed at times unnecessary to the concepts at work in the piece. Why not let the movement speak more? What did the words add? The dance ended with all the dancers in a clump, one on top of the other and then one dancer stood on top before jumping off as the lights darkened. The concept of joy as articulated in Wonderment suggests that the experience of it can be intimate, scant, small, and even difficult at times. The dance’s message seemed clear (to me): Joy should not be taken for granted.

Relic, the third piece on the program, was playful and introspective. It started with a dancer taping down a large piece of white butcher paper on the floor stage left; once in place, the dancers walked around it counting out their steps as if measuring distance. Later, another dancer rolled out butcher paper across the back of the stage, tapping it down. Then she rolled across it while at the same time outlining parts of her body on the paper with a sharpie. These tactile moments and earthy hue of the costumes gave the dance an archeological feel – were they making relics? Discovering them? The dancers also played with the audience by smiling and winking; It was hard not to smile back. While I wasn’t sure what choreographers Emma Lanier and Ky Frances wanted me to take away from Relic I did enjoy the whimsy articulated by the dance and dancers.

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Relic, ODC Dance Commons April 2019. Photo Credit: Mark Shigenaga

Frustration is part of a larger work by Alyssa Mitchel titled The Classroom based on Mitchell’s experiences as a math and organizational skills tutor and, like Wonderment, includes audio from interviews. This is the second time I’ve seen Mitchel’s work, which was also part of The Classroom. The dancing in Frustration clearly embodied and expressed the myriad ways frustration manifests – as small fits, exhaustion, isolation. The dance also served as a reminder that we are not alone, especially when it comes to learning and the structures that constrain that process. The research behind Frustration is compelling yet the inclusion of the interviews at times seemed intrusive to the choreography and my experience of the dance. My 7-year old daughter wrote in her notes that this (i.e. frustration) “happens a lot of times to me.” The message in Frustration clearly speaks across ages, which doesn’t happen very often in dance but maybe it should more.

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Frustration, ODC Dance Commons April 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

The last piece on the program, Foot Fault, choreographed by Jenna Valez (in collaboration with the dancers), was infused with rhythm of five dancers that never seemed to stop dancing. Before the dance started, the curtains were pulled back to reveal the windows, providing a backdrop of the street and amplifying the communal feel of the dance; we were not in a theater anymore. The choreography – with fast gestures, movement cannons, and a delightful head-bobbing moment on the floor – was consistent and playful. The dancers kept moving. The music choices suited the movement quality of the dance as a felt experience of shared energy. Foot Fault didn’t dive too deep and seemed a fitting way to end the evening of dance.

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Foot Fault, ODC Dance Commons April 2019. Photo Credit: Mark Shigenaga

I’ve been attending the ODC Pilot performances on and off for years and am always pleasantly surprised by what I see. The dancing across all 5 pieces was committed and thoughtful, suggesting that dance can include 8-year olds, field research, interviews, outlining, and more. Reflecting on this evening of dance I wonder how often people take the time to try out a new choreographer, dance venue, or art form. I’m thankful for the opportunity to keep trying new things and hope the ODC Pilot program continues to thrive in a city that seems sometimes at odds with its artistic sense of self.

Dancing Around Race, Public Gatherings #1 and #3

Guest Post by Julian Carter

Public Gathering #1 Thursday, September 20, 2018
Featuring Aruna D’Souza, author of Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in Three Acts

Public Gathering #2 Thursday, February 28, 2019
Featuring Thomas F. DeFrantz, Professor of African and African American Studies and Theater Studies at Duke University.

“Dancing Around Race” was a year-long series of dialogues generated and hosted by choreographer and dancer Gerald Casel in his role as Lead Artist in his 2018 Community Engagement Residency, a program of HMD’s Bridge Project.  For his residency, Casel convened a cohort of 5 dance-makers to explore “the role race plays in dance production and presentation.” Yayoi Kambara, Raissa Simpson, Sammay Dizon, David Herrera, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto spent a full year researching and discussing the layered intersections of artistic practice, community engagement, institutional resources, and racial identity, awareness, and ideology in the contemporary dance world. Casel also invited three highly-qualified outside experts to the Bay Area: art historian Aruna D’Souza; Barbara Bryan of Movement Research; and dancer/choreographer/writer Thomas DeFrantz.

I went to the first and third public events. Both events began by introducing the artists of Casel’s cohort and proceeded with presentations by the invited experts. In session #1, there was a potluck at Humanist Hall, an Oakland community center. People mingled in the garden and there was a general social excitement in the air. Someone took time to lay out beautifully articulated ground rules for talking about race—guidelines intended to foreclose specific kinds of derailments and especially to guarantee that the conversation would not get bogged down by white defensiveness and willful ignorance. Instead, it was constrained by the expert presenter, Aruna D’Souza.

Aruna D’Souza is a dynamic presence and her book White Walls is a quite wonderful analysis of the racial economy of visual art exhibitions in the contemporary white box. Under many circumstances, I would enjoy listening to her do a keynote, but I had been invited to a conversation about dance, and so I was restless at discovering myself in the audience for what seemed more like her book tour. I doodled and wondered whether my fellow audience members were also feeling the energy drain out of the room. I was curious about why Casel chose not to redirect her comments to speak more directly to our common interest or create space for other voices and perspectives to be heard. Relief came in a group activity: we were instructed to migrate around the room writing on hanging pieces of butcher paper in response to prompts like “what would racial equity look like in dance?” I gathered that these prompts were generated by the artists in the cohort, who had been working on them together for several weeks.

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Photo Credit: Hope Mohr

When we returned to large-group conversation there was some powerful testimony about racial type-casting, and a few important threads emerged about:

  • how dance training leaves legacies of white dominance in the body;
  • how our standards of excellence continue to be shaped by white aesthetic traditions;
  • how work made in those traditions (specifically ballet) receives disproportionate funding and attention.

But the evening was almost over and despite a general atmosphere of willingness, and many people’s decision to stay far later than the original posted ending time, the discussion did not go very deep before I had to leave. Writing for inDance, Sima Belmar noted a similar feeling.

Session #3 had a completely different and much more intense quality. Over 70 people, more than half of them white-appearing, crowded into the Eric Quezada Cultural Center, a small featureless Valencia St space. Tommy DeFrantz’s brief presentation blended personal reflection with historical analysis before he invited Gerald Casel into dialogue. Then the assembled audience was broken into 12-minute small-group discussions led by the artists of the cohort. At the end of this exchange, each group selected a representative to report back to the re-assembled room, thus initiating collective discussion. Time was carefully monitored and transitions had been planned. Overall the evening was structured with much more attention to sequence and flow; yet the room seemed energetically foggy and withheld in a way that queer artist of color Bhumi Patel, who was the Dancing Around Race Program Coordinator for HMD, identifies as white anxiety.

I came away with two responses and a list of questions. First, I was struck by the way that this conversation kept returning to the quantitative: people talked about budgets, scarcity, rents and wages, audience sizes, and tokenization. All these issues are absolutely real and yet I found myself wondering whether the recurring emphasis on numbers was also a tactic for keeping things abstract–not too visceral, not too personal. Moments, when people left numbers behind to talk about the quality of human relationships and interactions really, stood out.  

Second, I noticed that a lot of the conversation in session #3  took an interrogative form. I found myself fancying that might have something to do with women’s leadership in the dance world, and many women’s deep training to soften declarative statements into questions; and also that it might have something to do with an ethic of inclusion in many marginalized communities, where questions rather than statements can be a way to hold open the space for collective critical thinking. These are the ones I wrote down:

  • How do we know when a dance is good? How do we know when we’re racializing a dance to determine whether it’s good?
  • Who are you facing toward? Who values what you do?
  • How do we value who we address?
  • Who is this dance for, and what role do I play in that?
  • What can our art make possible, and for whom?
  • How would it look different if our work was fully facing our communities, rather than keeping one eye on the funders?
  • Why don’t we push back and say no, this grant isn’t enough for what you’re asking me to do?
  • How are we sharing out toward an assemblage of care? What is it to move toward, to be in, relationship?
  • How do white people see one another? How do we hold one another accountable
  • How do we get past the person at the top?
  • We have alternative models for relationships and institutions; why don’t they get taken up?
  • Why do we imagine that problematic institutions should be fixed instead of destroyed? Why can’t we just cut them off? What if instead of reinventing institutions we ended them?
  • What actions can actually overturn the existing power structure?
  • How can I as a white person work to create a more powerful space for people of color? What power and resources do I need to yield or hand over?
  • What is the line between stepping back and retreating into white silence?

These questions are powerful and ongoing. For me, they are the measure of the events’ success. It remains to be seen who takes them up, how they are answered, and whom those answers ultimately serve; but they define important conversations that all of us need to be having.

Reflecting on “Leaving the Atocha Station,” January 27, 2019

Choreography/Direction: Hope Mohr, in collaboration with the performers

Mohr’s newest piece, Leaving the Atocha Station, is inspired by Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel of the same title. Working with and from text is not a new format for Mohr. In 2015 she co-directed (with Mark Jackson) a dance theater production of Antigonick, Anne Caron’s translation of Antigone, for Shotgun Players. Many of Mohr’s previous dances are directly inspired by texts such as extreme lyric I (2018), Plainsong (2012), and The Force that Drives the Flower (2009). She also often relies on oral expression as part of her choreographic structure such as in Manifesting (2016). Last, Mohr’s ambitious Bridge Project is framed by orality as it is “a form of community organizing to facilitate equity-driven cultural conversations.” Given such, Mohr’s work can be situated between dance and theater, body and text. Leaving the Atocha Station is easily placed within her oeuvre and a distinctive contribution.

In Leaving the Atocha Station, Mohr takes on the task of translating and transforming Lerner’s “auto-fiction” to create a “hybrid theater” piece that included dance movements and theater-like monologues. The interplay between these forms amplified a commentary on art that astutely reflected the humor and strangeness of experience – the everyday and extraordinary, the self and other, the familiar and unfamiliar.

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Pre-Show January 2019. Photo Credit: M. LaVigne

The 55-minute piece began as the 2 dancers, Christian Burns and Wiley Naman Strasser, entered the space and sat down at a table strewn with empty pill bottles. They faced each other as if looking into a mirror, Strasser wearing a paper hood that covered his head and neck. They moved, copying each other’s gestures and movements, eventually touching each other as if wanting to know more about the other/the self. Toward the end of the opening, Burns reached over and grabbed the paper hood to take it off. Strasser quickly grabbed it back, clutching it to his body and turning to the side. He wore sunglasses and headphones – clearly not ready to be seen. How do we encounter the self as a self? What masks, screens, pills, and relationships do we hide behind?

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Post-Show January 2019. Photo Credit: M.LaVigne

I have not read Lerner’s novel, but critics understood it to be informed by Lerner’s personal experiences while living in Madrid, Spain as a Fulbright scholar in 2003. It seems fitting then for Mohr to orient the piece toward the subjective.

A series of scenes followed this opening in which Burns and Strasser took turns reading from, moving with, and responding to parts of Lerner’s novel. Maureen Corrigan (book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air) described Lerner’s novel as an “offbeat little novel [that] manages to convey what everyday life feels like before we impose the structure of plot on our experience.” Yet, Mohr’s editing-by-way-of-extracting gave Lerner’s words an elegant form that allowed the audience to witness the processing of events and happenings experienced by the novel’s main character, Adam Gordon, and performed by both Burns and Strasser; they took turns inhabiting Gordon’s persona. This format provided an alternative way of “reading” Lerner’s novel that allowed the audience to viscerally experience an art encounter in the Prado museum, witness the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and observe a conversation about a drowning. This last moment was striking. Both performers read this conversation from Lerner’s book while standing at microphones. They kept interrupting each other, which gave this section a kind of tragic urgency that left me still – could this be true? Leaving the Atocha Station ended with Burns and Strasser each performing a last scene – one with words, the other with movement. For some reason that I can’t pinpoint, it seemed fitting that the dancing came last. Perhaps dance can offer an embodied rhythm that resonates more clearly than the verbal. Perhaps dance can better “put into words” when the verbal (or textual) seems lacking in descriptive or active potential.

While Leaving the Atocha Station is not a departure for Mohr it was refreshingly poetic in its form and movement. I enjoyed laughing and encountering the question(s) of experience – art, self, and otherwise – the pleasure of not understanding and the wonder that travels with them.

PS: I was fortunate to watch and reflect on the piece with a few friends, which inspired my response in several ways. I would be remiss not to thank them – SW, MN, ML, JH, and MM. It seems fitting that my response here absorbs these conversations. As Lerner noted in an interview in Granta his novel “assimilate[s] many other modes and sources: it contains a poem from my first book of poetry (a poem I feel is changed considerably by being transposed into the fiction); entire pages from an academic essay I wrote on John Ashbery; lines from my third book of poetry; language stolen from friends and heroes; and so on. So yes, I do love how a novel can absorb and constellate other forms, what you called its ‘elasticity’.”

Last post of 2018/First post of 2019

One of the last dance performances I saw in 2018 was Performing Diaspora 2018 at Counterpulse featuring choreography by Cynthia Ling Lee and Melissa Lewis (with Kim Ip and Nina Wu). It was an exceptional way to end a year of watching and writing dance. I was grateful to learn about the Santa Cruz, CA Chinatowns and Chinese labor camps that existed between 1860-1955 in Lee’s Lost Chinatowns. The layers were sometimes hard to see through, but some points resonated – the value of testimony, community, and memory. I couldn’t help but think about my grandmother, my Oma. She immigrated to the U.S. after WWII with my 7-year old Mother. How did she manage to make a home and find a place after the atrocities of war? Then I thought about how much she never talked about that time and how many stories get lost – the unspeakability of things.

It seemed fitting for the evening to end with I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father. It was poignant and funny, thoughtful and fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect (I explicitly avoided the KQED review of the piece before seeing the show). As part of the Performing Diaspora Residency at CounterPulse, I suspected this piece would be about racial identity in some way. Race was part of the conversation, but it didn’t dominate, which allowed for Lewis, Ip, and Wu to dig deeper into issues of ancestry, identity, and longing. Part dance, part theater, part movie set the pieces of  I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father added up – the dancing amplified the content along with the costume changes, karaoke singing, and spoken word. I didn’t get lost or wander too far.

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I dreamed Bruce Lee was my father, CounterPulse December 2018. Photo Credit: Robbie Sweeny

This multimedia, and multimodal piece asked the audience to consider the past as part of how we are now, in the present. What are the lineages that keep us moving, keep us asking not only who we are but who we hope to be? This inquiry, as played out by the dancers, is serious and also humorous. Writing for KQED, Gluckstern claims the piece “doesn’t lead to a greater revelation of the persistence of outmoded stereotypes.” I noticed that too, but that criticism didn’t linger for me. What lingered for me were questions about ancestry and a longing for connections between parts of ourselves that we don’t know to connect or wish we could do better.

As I walked out into the night, I thought about what I long and hope for. I can’t think of a better way to end 2018 and begin 2019.

 

December 2nd, Pilot 70 – “Merging”

Choreography by Alyssa Mitchel, Charlotte Carmichael, Marlene Garcia, Nadhi Thekkek, Molly Matutat, and Tanya Chianese

I was invited by Alyssa Mitchel to write a response to Pilot 70 – Merging and happy for the opportunity. I’ve written responses to Pilot 65 and 67 programs and generally found them to be fun evenings of dance making. The ODC Pilot Program provides a performance venue and framework for emerging artists and is supporting its 70th cohort. Each choreographer is mentored by a professional choreographer and ODC staff in their artistic work, production, and promotion. The selected choreographers self-produce and promote their work collectively, which is not an easy task. 

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Defining Intelligence, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Defining Intelligence by Alyssa Mitchel explored the meaning and nature of intelligence by incorporating video interviews with students and teachers. The inclusion of school desks, rulers, and other classroom references highlighted that institutions of learning still underpin how (and where) we cultivate intelligence. This piece had a lot going on, and it seemed to move fast. I wasn’t sure the videos were even needed as the choreographic movements clearly worked through some of the questions we have about the relationship between intelligence and learning. The end of the dance aptly captured the idea that intelligence is an ongoing process and place of wonder and perhaps a kind of play.

multiple ways to feel invincible by Charlotte Carmichael, a solo performed by Rachel Geller, set a different tone following Defining Intelligence. It was slower and almost melancholic. The music, “Picture your favorite place” by Neterfriends, gave the dance a spacious quality that was amplified by deep plies and large forth positions – as if Geller was gearing up or waiting for something. Maybe she was trying to figure out where to go. Maybe she was gathering strength for some feat. There were glimmers of invincibility especially at the end when Geller’s expression broke into a smile, suggesting that she had figured something out that the rest of us hadn’t. In this way, invincibility might have something to do with persistence and resilience.

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multiple ways to feel invincible, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Fuerza by Marlene Garcia offered a dark landscape. The trio of dancers moved in and out of synchronicity. They started the dance together, in a small circle facing inward. I was drawn to this quality the most.  The dancers moved seamlessly between individual and collective moments. The repeated twitching movement suggested an unease or distortion that made the darkened aesthetic even more so. Fuerza is Spanish for force and I wasn’t quite sure how (or if) Garcia was speaking to or with this concept. I couldn’t quite make out the words of “oh ahh Hum” by Jane Winter (designed by Jonathan Crawford), but thought I heard the word “home.” I kept trying to figure out the connection between it and the dancing. The piece ended as it began with the dancers in a tight circle and instead of facing inward, they faced outward as if they gained a new perspective or way of seeing.

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Fuerza, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Reminisce by Nadhi Thekkek, was part of a larger work, Broken Seeds Still Grow, a mixed media dance production. Thekkek notes: “This work is inspired by witness statements describing the events before, during and after the 1947 Partition of British India.” I was inspired by the possibility of a dance actively engaging with a complex (and troubling) historical moment and its impact on people. The aesthetic and movement vocabulary was fitting and embodied the multifarious drama, particularly in gazes passed between the dancers. The end, focused on the question of how to forgive hate, seemed particularly relevant to the current political climate. Reminisce did feel like a fragment of something larger, but it felt committed and made me curious about the whole work and how one uses dance to deal with the suffering of the past. 

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Reminisce, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Residue by Molly Matutat, was another trio of 3 dancers that started with one dancer in a spotlight center stage that eventually opened up to the full stage with all dancers sharing the space. This was another dark landscape – costumes, lighting, and mood. The crackling-static like sound amplified an other-worldly tone. The choreography included exhausting repetitive movement; the dancers at times ended up on the floor. They never wavered energetically and the pace of the dancing was persistent. I kept wondering what the dancers were searching for, what did they want or need? There wasn’t much resolution at the end, but maybe that was part of the dance’s message. What is left behind? How can we make sense of what we can’t quite grasp? Such questions resonate with 21st Century living.

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Residue, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Daybreak by Tanya Chianese, was the last piece on the program and brought light (literally and figuratively) to the end of the evening. Inspired by the rising sun, Daybreak offered a vibrant dance filled with chorus-like movement and breathing. The seven dancers spent most of their time dancing together, repeating choreography and gestures that at times seemed a little frantic and at others more grounded. While there was a lovely duet it was the collective movements that really stood out to me. And I kept wanting the dancers to slow down so I could focus on the energy between their movements and how they breathed through them. Even so, the light was palpable and the communal aspect of the dance resonated. This piece was well placed on the program given the darker shades of content in the previous pieces by Matautat, Thekkek, and Garcia.

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Daybreak, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

“Merging,” the title for Pilot 70, is a verb that means to immerse, to plunge, to be absorbed and disappear, to combine, to be amalgamated (from the Oxford English Dictionary). The six works (all female choreographers by the way) did not directly engage with these definitions of merging, but they did explore concepts, experiences, and voices in ways that suggest a kind of bringing together. Whether it was a collective questioning about intelligence, hate, or dreams or repeating of shared movement, the dances by Mitchel, Charmichael, Garcia, Thekkek, Matutat, and Chianese were engaged with their content and danced with commitment. I went home glad to have seen six women choreographers and hopeful for the future of dance in the Bay Area.

Molly Rose-Williams and Co., “Social Movement,” November 17th & 18th 2018

Guest Post: Using Ridiculousness and Some Dance Moves for Social Change by Dalton Alexander

“Raise your hand if you have ever felt small.” The majority, if not all of the audience raised one hand.

“Raise your other hand if you are pro-nuclear disarmament.” The collective was taken aback by this out-of-the-blue proposition yet chuckled at the incongruous juxtaposition made by the performer, Chelsea Boyd Brown. Most raised their other hand. An intertwining trio then engulfed Brown to the rising volume of rock music. Her voice softened and slowed as she was pulled backward saying, “You can put your hands down now.” The ridiculousness of a scene like this highlights just one theme in Social Movement.

On November 17 and 18, 2018, Molly Rose-Williams and Co. presented Social Movement, an evening of dance, moving targets, hope, and human pyramids with opening-act guests, Suzanne Beahrs and Jiten Daiko at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center (SADC) in Berkeley, CA. The central question of the evening was: What roles might dance, art-making, and performance play in creating social change? I wouldn’t say the evening worked to directly answer this question but did create a space for one to be affected and potentially changed by the dance’s provocations.

SADC is a house converted into multiple studios and can be used in various ways as a performance space. The audience began downstairs on night one with two dance films by Suzanne Beahrs. Night two featured Jiten Daiko, a young taiko drumming group of 7. On both evenings, the audience was ushered upstairs where the company performed an evening-length work focused on themes like community, individuals, frustration, and awkwardness.

My experience began with Jiten Daiko’s Yama Kawa. As the performers started clicking their sticks to resonate the wood of their drums, a sense of ritual and history felt grounding. As the performers danced through and around the drums, the energy of the group maintained as their dynamics ebbed and flowed – supported by two tempo keepers. Moments of kaleidoscopic turning and polyrhythmic playing by two, three, and finally all seven performers were as much visually as aurally pleasing.

Onward upstairs to the main studio, Rose-Williams welcomed us with a laughing exercise by posing: “Often dance is very serious. Here is your permission to laugh. Let’s practice.” We laughed – fake at first, but more legitimate as the laugh redirected to ourselves and the situation. Just seeing Rose-Williams’ bright smile pulls a giggle or two out of many that know her. And that is exactly what the audience felt like in general: a community of people who Rose-Williams has gained the trust and support of.

Social Movement (the dance piece) began with an entrance through a door, then a retreat. Followed by a build-up of many chases, run-ins, and lock-outs between gendered bathrooms and the studio entrance. We got glimpses of every-person-for-themselves as well as more collective efforts to open a locked door or squish through another. The focus zoomed in when Galen Rogers, the only male dancer in the company, began backing slowly out of the men’s locker room while exploring intricate hand movements. The other three performers attempted to mimic, distract, or distort his task, but fell short in changing his course. Was this meant to be a comment on gendered bathrooms? If yes, it was very subtle and would only be noticed by those actively searching for “meaning.”

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What was clearer was the theme of the individual versus the collective. In these moments, the audience could focus on what one person had to say and then witness the improvised responses by other members in a “Yes! I have felt the same,” manner. In another moment, as a quartet attempted to pretzel their bodies together in a pyramid to fully support at least one person and transport them through space, success, not surprisingly, did not come the first time. We humans try and try to advance things for the better, but often feel like we are getting nowhere. Social Movement wove the successes of embodied tasks with a collective understanding of the frustrations within a fight.

We were also shown unison choreography that advanced through the space powerfully but fell short in relaying the strength of the collective that the improvisation allowed. By working with fantastic improvisers, the choreography felt and looked uncomfortable at times. Nonetheless, when speaking to James Graham of James Graham Dance Theatre (and renowned Bay Area gaga teacher), he shared an appreciation saying, “It was a very interesting compositional choice to see the company do movement that was clearly from Molly and then to see Molly, herself do it right after in her solo.” Often this is not the case for the choreographer/director to also perform the same movement separately, or at all, from the group as “other choreographers may come across as ‘one-upping’ their dancers, but Molly’s acumen as a performer and charismatic M.C. helped the choice come across as rather curious and bemusing.”

For the third part of the evening, Rose-Williams very much did perform her material as a solo entitled Soliloquy. She performed with an intricacy that made you want to zoom in and be in on the secret. It was the silence she held when entering, seeing the audience for who we were and knowing that we saw her, which catapulted us all into a shout at a corner, a collecting of imaginary apples, a making of a stew by drawing “ear dust” from the audience, and an exit that was just that, an exit. Rose-Williams’ transition from fully energized physicality to a shrugging off of the entire event itself allowed us a deeper connection to who she is and showed us a confidence that she’s just “doing the thing.”

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There are two definitions of social movement which Rose-Williams and Co. brought to mind. First, there are the political and justice-oriented social movements. These are the “good fights” that we may or may not be privy. Then there is movement within a social scene – a boogie, a jam, a place to be more embodied and research what that means. By working in the latter embodied realm, Rose-Williams and Co. were able to physically address their own battles which could be (and were) interpreted in many ways by both performers and audience.

Is not the simple act of being exposed to things we would never think of in our daily lives a social change in itself? We are asked to interpret new experiences through previously constructed mechanisms. Yet, we fall short because the moment is so new. We must be open and chuckle when we are taken by surprise. This is what creates change. This is how we build new ways of seeing the world. Unfortunately, not the whole world looks at dance this way, nor is aware of possible internal changes due to, simply, the scene of address.

Was the company’s question answered then? Can dance, art-making, and performance create social change? That’s a hard ask and one that needs to be assessed on the individual level. I am changed by seeing friends perform in ways I have yet to. But do I feel more pro-nuclear disarmament? Not more than before. But it is now on my mind. To be able to change people’s perceptions on specific social issues through dance performance, the audience needs a clearer and more directed message to dive into, tear apart, and reflect on internally. However, by just creating a scene where new experiences are expected and even welcomed, we can argue that this flows into how people look and interact with the world outside of the performance scene.

In the moment that this performance was occurring, over 600 people were still unaccounted for from the Campfire north of Sacramento – California’s deadliest fire to date. It seems even more necessary that this community that so loves and supports the work of Molly Rose-Williams and her company members leave their isolated homes despite the hazardous smoke outside. We need that touch, that laughter, that connection.