Author Archive | Ann Murphy

The Call: San Francisco Native Margaret Jenkins Always Moves Forward

Dancer on red square reaching upwards is being ignored by a surrounding circle of dancers

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company / Photo by RJ Muna

Margaret Jenkins, known to the dance world as Margy, has been making dances for most of her 75-years. She trained at the leading edge of performance with Judy Job, Welland Lathrop and Gloria Unti in the Bay Area and with Twyla Tharp, James Dunn, Gus Solomons, Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others in New York. For the 43rd anniversary of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, she has commissioned the company’s seven dancers (Brendan Barthel, Kristen Bell, Corey Brady, Alex Carrington, Margaret Cromwell, Kelly Del Rosario and Chinchin Hsu), in collaboration with visual artists David and Hi-Jin Hodge, poet Michael Palmer, lighting designer David Robertson, costume designer Mary Domenico and composer Thomas Carnacki, to present portraits of intimate and public life through Site Series (Inside Outside)(2015) and the world premiere of Skies Calling Skies Falling.


Ann Murphy: Margy, what’s your overarching intention for this concert run?

Margaret Jenkins: When I started to think about how I could turn the force of this dramatic political moment into a work that moves beyond this instant––that both reckons with it and suggests alternative ways of moving forward––the question for me became: what are the skies bringing or threatening? What are they calling? What’s falling? Where am I at this particular time? I realized that the work we began performing in homes and other intimate sites about 2 years ago––Site Series (Inside Outside)––could be an interesting partner to a new work, Skies Calling Skies Falling.


AM: Talk about Site Series and how it differs from Skies Calling.

MJ: Site Series is a 30-minute set work creating a Beckett-like imaginary living room. It inspired us to have conversations about the kinds of conversations that occur in different living rooms, and especially ones own, or ones family’s. Obviously, since we are from very different generations and backgrounds, we have had very different experiences, not only because of what is going on politically at any given time but also because of the different character of family itself among my company. Someone like Chinchin Hsu, who was raised in Taiwan, grew up experiencing a very quiet, almost held mood in those living room exchanges. Since I was raised during the height of the McCarthy period, my family’s conversations were intense and full of passion, concern, fear, disagreement, and strategy. We always had lively, animated exchanges. So it’s the nature of intimate conversations as revealed through movement that shapes the work.


AM: And Skies Calling?

MJ: Most of the people I know experienced a degree of shock and bewilderment as the result of the US presidential election and what has flowed from it. There is a kind of destabilizing of the state underway. It feels different from Bush; it feels different from other times. It’s a blatant dismantling of truth. So the question becomes: How do you find balance? How do you make sure that you’re looking at the reasons for working together? Are they for the sake of the work itself? Or are they also for something that you might shed light on? A number of people in the company say: “Look, most of my friends are having a hard enough time with what’s going on that they don’t need to see a work about how hard it is.” They want to see some affirmation of the human spirit. They want to have the experience my generation has had where there have been extraordinary highs and these extraordinary lows.

This particular moment in our history has asked the dancers and me to begin very regular conversations about how we want to physicalize our reactions in a cohesive way. Very very important to the people in the company, and to me, is: how do we propose hope? It’s so interesting for me, being almost 75, in this roomful of young people of different races, different sexual orientations, and different points of view. I have dancers who have family members who feel differently from you and me. What are these artists having to deal with? How do you relate to people you deeply love but feel so differently from? We’ve been looking at how to cast light on the present; about what is the purpose of art making and how can the language of dance bring some information into conversation?

Skies has a seven-minute video prologue and it was filmed in India Basin in San Francisco in a huge granary shot 400 feet above by a drone and directed by Hi-Jin and David Hodge. The audience will see this right before live dancing, and one of the fascinating things for me is it juxtaposes intriguing and unlocatable space in relation to the specific space of performance. It expands the meaning of each so when I watch the video, I have a conversation between the kind of movement the dancers do outside and the kind of movement they do live on stage. It complicates the plot, and asks the question: who are these people, where are we, is this an abandoned city? I like that it’s not a gimmick—it’s additive. We launch into this spatial ambiguity and then move into live dancing [with footage as visual landscape] where the dancers will take care of one another as they question how safe they feel caring for one another. What might get proposed is that there is a way to move forward with optimism.

I certainly don’t feel that a dance changes the landscape in which we all live but I do think that by throwing light on things we become enlightened, that there’s a kind of artistic insistence that outlives tyranny. I’ve seen that throughout my life.


AM: Your family of origin embodied both the activist and the artistic life—your father a renowned labor leader and your mother a poet. How does this work reflect that?

MJ: The thing that I really loved about my parents was their capacity to change their minds as was necessary to keep on effecting change. They didn’t hold on to didacticism and dig their feet in. When the Khrushchev Report came out on Stalin they left the Communist Party. Even though I was too young to “get” it, what I did get was how they lived their lives, how they surrounded us with poetry and opera and dance and conversation, that they were always looking for the windows—the gates into another way of seeing; another way of living. They represented a kind of larger arc, and they never got stuck in one place. Antonio Gramsci wrote about “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will” and I love that idea. Those of us who are artists and who are encouraging others to do work are always having to bring those forces into balance.


AM: How do you go about finding something true in the dance that has a fixity to it but is also fluid and admits of possibility?

MJ: Well, I’m interested in working with the body, talking about how movement gets generated and where physical action comes from. When we started talking we had a conversation about different kinds of shock. There’s shock when all the blood goes out of your body or when you hear something you didn’t expect to hear, and you become silent. For Skies we took different people’s reactions to the concept of shock, and what would it mean to be taken aback. Then we started talking about what would it mean to make duets that embraced this idea of being taken aback. What would happen with the body if you were trying to create an environment where you wanted to physicalize the experience of vanished feelings such that the body could no longer stay upright? What would amplify some of those ideas?

It’s also the result of years of understanding this world of physical exploration—how you partner, how you care for someone, how you create chaos. Some of my dancers have been with me now 10 years. We create the equivalent of lots of sentences that make interesting paragraphs and then look at what the physicality is telling us. I think the intellect tells you one thing, but the physicality tells you something else.


AM: What is physicality telling us?

MJ: I feel there are limits to language and there are limits to the body. One of the reasons that I often work with Michael Palmer [poet] is that I like the collision of those two worlds and how much they can inhabit in relation to one another. The body has its own truth. For instance, when I’m looking to take a new dancer into the company I’m interested not only in whether they want to create in a way that interests me to create, but whether they trust their bodies to be taken to some new place physically that it hasn’t been. Are they willing to throw themselves at someone and trust that they’ll be caught? Are they strong enough to catch somebody?

I think the act of both surrendering to what the body can do and then resisting the first impulse is very different than putting words together. And I trust that the language of dancing, of the body, moves emotion to a different place. It’s been found that dance opens people up in ways that other expressive mediums do not, and for good reason.


AM: MJDC is the first dance company to perform in these spaces in the War Memorial Building?

MJ: Yes. We will perform Site Series in the Education Studio [part of Wilsey Center for Opera] at the War Memorial–a huge room that’s about 60 x 60’ with wonderful vaulted ceilings and allows us to be in the round. It will also have a red floor. After intermission everyone will move to the Taube Atrium Theater, which is a more traditional proscenium space with raked seating, for Skies Calling Skies Falling.

Site, which has a prologue always created for the specific location, typically asks the dancers to dance in 15 by 22 foot spaces, and this necessitates a certain kind of dancing–dancing that eats up space and gallops across different environments is not really viable. It is a piece that is portable and affordable, as wells as adaptable and responsive to different environments. Whether it has been in someone’s living room, the Catherine Clark Gallery, or the Presidio’s Officers’ Club it always created a situation in which the audience’s relation to the action was up close and personal, not unlike what happens when audiences hear chamber music in a salon environment.

This conversation between audience and dance action, and this conversation between audience and drone imagery throws us back on what is our call to action. I don’t know the answer. I know that the place that I feel I can make the most impact and I can learn the most about myself is in the studio with the dancers—that’s the place where I can’t wait to be and that gives me sustenance. There is something about this flammable moment just asks me to be in the studio where we as artists can meet the call, whatever that call is.

We all live under one sky, but depending on ones perception and point of view, there are different skies. And it isn’t just the sky calling––different elements are calling. People are calling. The Republic is calling. And the art is calling.

Tales of Change: CounterPulse and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center Look to the Future

In Italy there’s a famous adage that says “everything must change in order for everything to stay the same.” To our 21st century ears this might sound like a zen parable, but in fact it’s a paean to pragmatism, and suggests that the people who change alongside history’s sweeping transformations are likeliest to endure with their interests intact. Refuse to adapt, cling to things as they have been, and risk being swept away with the fierce currents of time. At its most cynical, it captures the kind of Machiavellianism that various corporations have employed as they adapt company messaging to align with public concerns, working to win over consumers’ sympathy while continuing to despoil the earth and seas or sell faulty products. At its best, though, the idea acknowledges that if we accept change and adapt to it—even use it—we have a chance of creating valuable continuity through time and across generations. For the arts, such continuity in the face of change is critical. Without it, vision sputters and traditions can die.

That said, organizations do die, and others gather dust. We all know the stories of the urban dance studio that, because of sky-rocketing rents, disappeared from the map. Or how, when the founder of a leading dance company died, the work disappeared as well. But we also know the inspiring tales of dancers insisting on keeping alive the legacy of their mentor, or of organizations that could have retreated faced with impending homelessness, or the need to modernize its entire operation, yet refused to give in. CounterPulse in San Francisco and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley each were faced with ineluctable upheaval and challenge, and each made a quantum leap that thrust them into demanding new eras for their organizations. Both trust that, in changing everything, their abiding purpose and mission will be sustained long into the future.

CounterPulse, A Cinderella Story
The path to such transformation is rarely smooth. When Twitter moved in up the block from CounterPulse, it signaled that a potential new risk-taking donor had entered the neighborhood, artistic director Julie Phelps said. But far more immediate than philanthropy, Twitter’s mid-Market arrival in 2012 meant that the once-sleepy zone was about to be absorbed into an area of high tech expansion, fueled by what the New York Times describes as “a city tax incentive that largely exempts them from city payroll taxes if they relocate to the Mid-Market….” No amount of forward thinking on Twitter or any other tech company’s part lessened the threat that the boom posed to the decades-old pioneering activist, interdisciplinary enterprise. With CounterPulse’s 10-year lease set to end in 2014, rent on the space was poised to triple, spelling the end of an era.

As many people learned, the Northern California Loan Fund soon got into the act to help CounterPulse plan for the future. The Kenneth Rainin Foundation was close behind, with its forward-looking efforts to provide seed money to arts organizations in order to secure their futures. Then, together with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) (a joint venture of both the NCLF and Rainin), the non-profits set about to find CounterPulse a new home, as part of a larger effort to offset rapid monocultural gentrification of downtown San Francisco. Not far from their Mission Street digs, they found a former porn theater—a distressed property that sat on a block of bruised and shuttered facades on Turk Street in the Tenderloin. It had been the Dollhouse and, in true SF fashion, was once a gambling hall then the Buccaneer Tavern and, before the porn palace, the Gayety Theater. As is so often the case, change was both immediate and slow: it took two years for contractors to transform the forgotten space into a modern theater three times as large as the former Mission Street space, and the grand opening date came and went, construction delays postponing the opening night for months.

While the new building appeared to resolve the problem of securing a long-term organizational home, the building was the outward face of a complex agreement constituting a phased lease-to-own plan to enable CounterPulse to become owner of 80 Turk. The first step required that CounterPulse raise $1 million, which is a daunting task for most small organizations and especially one that serves the marginalized and under resourced. Then, following the heavy lifting of planning and renovating the site, CounterPulse had to agree to set its sights—and organizational strategies—on buying the building in a 7-to-10-year period while renting the space from the philanthropic owners at below market rates.

If this sounds complicated, even burdensome, it is, and the hard work for CounterPulse’s board, staff, and community in many respects has just begun. The good news is that CounterPulse is now known around the country as it was never known before. In some ways, Phelps said, “we really did just spread our wings rather than make a quantum leap.” But from another vantage point, “it was a quantum leap. We were a hole in the wall before with never a story in the paper about CounterPulse. Since then, I’ve flown across the country myriad times” to talk about the crisis and its solutions. “It’s such a rare story that the philanthropic support has skyrocketed.” Given its Cinderella story, it has a good chance of continuing the success. That is just as it needs to be, given that raising money has to be the strong force of the institution for the next decade while it holds fast to its mission to present “risk-taking art that shatters assumptions and builds community.”

According to veteran non-profit consultant Laurie MacDougall, when the heat is on because of crisis, “the most important thing for an organization’s survival is its mission.” MacDougall has helped countless organizations strive to clarify, build, and target their work in the decades she’s been in the business, and the first thing she wants to know when she consults with an organization is: does the non-profit need or deserve to exist? Then she asks: what kind of growth serves the mission? She enjoins non-profits to take a page from corporate culture and embrace “radical honesty,” which, even in the best of times, can be difficult. MacDougall is suspicious of pipe dreams, and is most chary of organizations that set their goals on buying property, since a mortgaged building pressurizes a non-profit and can easily become a financial albatross. Heavy debt is risky business, in part because few buildings are properly capitalized, MacDougall says, and they tend to have high fixed costs that are rarely planned for and therefore difficult to meet over time.

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center: a new generation takes the helm
So when MacDougall was hired by Shawl-Anderson Dance Center and heard that one of the board’s leading dreams was to find a bigger building than the crowded two-story craftsman house that Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson bought in 1968, she quickly laid the fantasy to rest––at least for the near term. Five hundred students pass through the modest three studios on Alcatraz Avenue each week, and every night the space becomes jammed with rehearsing students, making the yearning for a larger building understandable. But transitions, she says, are tricky, and the transition that is underway at Shawl-Anderson is one of the toughest— moving from founder-run to second-generation leadership.

Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson, professional modern dancers in New York, arrived in Berkeley—Anderson’s hometown—to set up a school and a company in 1958. Luisa Pierce, a dancer with Lester Horton then Martha Graham, joined the faculty, and the first guest teacher on site was Charles Weidman, one of modern dance’s pioneers. In the ensuing years, Shawl-Anderson managed to function both as the corner dance studio and as a serious training ground for future professionals, like Kate Weare and Ramona Kelley.

If CounterPulse has had to assume the heavy mantle of landholding, Shawl-Anderson is having to face a rapid modernization operation where organizational structures that were never needed during the loose, familial, and highly personal rule of the founders are now essential. Board and staff can no longer serve as extended family of the founders, even as those bonds hold firm; they must be stewards of a dance center modeled after the inclusive and non-competitive ethos of Shawl and Anderson’s mentor, May O’Donnell (dancer and choreographer with Humphrey-Weidman/ Graham). What MacDougall has made clear, is that the board and staff duty is to ensure that that mission endures.

The shift to second-generation at Shawl-Anderson has been slow and organic. In many respects it began in 2006, when Utah-trained dancer, teacher and blogger Jill Randall became assistant director at Shawl- Anderson, and Rebecca Johnson, a dancer with a degree in education and literature, joined as managing director in 2008. Randall built up enrollments and master classes, and created the Dance Up Close/East Bay performance series, while Johnson took on infrastructure. For two years, they developed a lock-and-key working relationship until Randall left for full-time teaching in San Francisco (2010-16). Johnson continued on. Self-described as having “an affinity for both programming and administration,” she oversaw everything from plumbing to artists-in-residence programs to teacher oversight, and continues to have an eagle eye on the big picture while balancing the books. In 2014, as the founders’ health suffered, Johnson’s supporting role made a quantum leap: she began building the organizational models that are critical for second-generation leaders. And so the transition began in earnest.

The team of four board members (myself included) and Johnson began two years of work that resembled the shared effort to outfit a ship previously sailed by master sailors who used only the stars and their intuition. Now it needed a built-in navigation system, a rudder, sails, and lifeboats to send it safely, if more swiftly, over the same waters it had been traveling for nearly 60 years. Shawl-Anderson also needed to be made navigable by any adept to come along with the same goals in mind as the founders’. Jobs at the center were clarified, new work created, pay increased, boiler and stairs renewed, and outreach to funders, donors, and community begun, all with the goal of finding new ways of meeting Shawl-Anderson’s mission.

Among MacDougall’s many wise directives was to begin balancing programs with management, investing in infrastructure and support staff, and creating a supportive work environment. To that end, the board asked Johnson to become the first executive director in Shawl-Anderson Dance Center history. Soon, with her every act of clarification, five new zones seemed to emerge requiring her attention. Not a year passed before Johnson found herself trying to manage the equivalent of multiple full-time jobs, and she risked burnout. As an organization, Shawl-Anderson had thrived on Depression-era frugality, but demands of technology, fundraising, facility care, staff and teacher training, and performance programming means that squirreling away 1’s and 5’s no longer suffices in running an organization today. What’s more, Shawl-Anderson’s mission includes the commitment to foster choreography and performance, and MacDougall made clear that, in order to move to a model where a greater percentage of income was generated by arts-funders, the center would need to develop and highlight its artistic role. According to board president Steve Siegelman, “that meant that, to more demonstrably serve the part of its mission that speaks to ‘fostering the evolution of the art of dance,’ Shawl-Anderson would need to hire a dedicated artistic director.” Such a person would not only lighten the infrastructural load but deepen and broaden programming.

That meant leveraging funds to hire a second director of the Center. A national search got under way, Randall applied and was selected from an impressive pool of applicants, and she stepped into the new role of artistic director in July 2016. Quickly, the two women began to share the clarified workload, make creative plans for the year ahead, and provide ballast for each other as well as the organization.

To MacDougall, Shawl-Anderson has put in place “all the ingredients for a successful transfer of authority and vision.” This includes “a spunky board of directors ready to take on the challenge; a very healthy fund balance; and, finally, Rebecca and Jill.” In her view, both women are “impassioned and effective leaders committed to the administrative as well as the artistic task of bringing Shawl-Anderson’s operations into the 21st century.” Like CounterPulse, Shawl-Anderson has a better than good chance of successfully managing its sea change—transforming outward appearances in order for the soul of the organization to remain the same.

95 and counting

score by Ann Murphy in collaboration with Wayne Hazzard, Shinichi Iova-Koga, and various texts  

    1. 95 Rituals is a collaborative celebration emerging over three months in honor of visionary dance pioneer Anna Halprin, who will be 95 on July 13, 2015. Devised as a set of modular dance and music events, both structured and improvised, 95 Rituals was initiated two years ago when Dancers Group’s Wayne Hazzard invited long-time Halprin collaborator Shinichi Iova-Koga and his physical theater troupe inkBoat to create 95 dances to mark Halprin’s seminal career.
    2. 95 Rituals will unfold across time in myriad places while engaging a host of artists and movement scores. While a few rituals have already quietly transpired, most will unfold between May 1 and July 11 in San Francisco. Each event or collection of events will honor the principles that continue to animate her work. These include improvisation, group process, developing resources, scoring, valueaction, and performing. Using these tools, inkBoat dancers and their collaborators investigate how the body can engage the environment and spark creative encounters with each other and their viewers.
    3. 95: the natural number preceding 96 and following 94; the number in Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences; a poem collection by e.e. cummings.
    4. Rite: A particular ceremonial practice, from the Latin ritus, ceremony or habit, custom.
    5. Ritual: A series of actions involving gestures, objects, words, movement, music or other human form of meaning-making enacted in a designated space and created to influence elements and forces in the environment or in experience with the aim of shaping future outcomes for individuals or groups. (adapted from Victor ?Turner’s The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure).
    6. Anna Halprin: Ritual, as I use the term, refers to an artistic process by which people gather and unify themselves in order to confront the challenges of their existence.
    7. Anna, first name, variant of Channah/Hannah, meaning “grace” or “graciousness.”
    8. Halprin, surname, variant of Halpern and Heilbrunn. Place name derived from the city of Heilbronn, a Free Imperial City in Wurttemberg, where a large Jewish population resided during the Middle Ages. Meaning “healthy” or “safe” (heil) ” well” (brenn).
    9. Wayne Hazzard: 95 Rituals is designed to “honor/pay tribute to the amazing, gorgeous, sexy, funny Anna Halprin.”
    10. Shinichi Iova-Koga: The project, initially, was to happen in July around Anna’s birthday as a means to honor Anna, and to be set in Oakland….But it became important to decentralize the experience, so that it not become an object in one space viewed from one angle. We decided it would become installations of various decentered performances taking on the perspective of a three-ring circus.
    11. Wayne: I feel like I’ve known Anna all my life. Yet, as a kid who grew up in a blue collar environment with no arts (but lots of parks and beaches, hiking and, of course, television), I first read about Anna and her work at San Jose State University. College was also my introduction to dance. That was in the late 70s and it wasn’t until the mid 90s that I would meet Anna.
    12. Anna Halprin, née Ann Schuman (from the Middle high German “shuoch,” shoe + man) was raised in suburban Chicago and became passionate about the organic mechanics of movement; rebellious toward the conformism inherent in most mid-20th century modern dance practice; and radicalized by exposure to members of the German Bauhaus in Cambridge, MA, and to Beat artists and the counterculture in the Bay Area.
    13. Janice Ross: “…describing herself as a cup breaker in the world of modern dance…[t]he teacups she has shattered are procedural, involving how a dance can be made, the role of personal history in shaping dance content, the role of spectators, and the degree to which the choreographer takes risks, experiments, gives up control.” (from Anna Halprin: Experience As Dance, xiii.)
    14. Wayne: I knew Anna’s 95th birthday would be in 2015, so I had this idea of asking an artist to create 95 dances for Anna Halprin. It would be for our commissioning program ONSITE [which provides performances free to the public]…with someone who would be interested in questions like scale, moving in non-conventional spaces, addressing legacy.
    15. Wayne: The first artist we brought in to talk about this idea was Shinichi, and I asked: ‘Would you be interested in making 95 Dances for Anna?’ He took a bit of time to reflect on the question, and in true Shinichi fashion, with a sly grin and sparkle in his eye, he said yes! We all laughed and were off. We spent the next two years discussing how we would collaborate and fundraise for the project.
    16. Wayne: inkBoat has been a key player from the first conversation. Shinichi is conceiving how the work is to be created and he wanted the title to reflect the issue of 95, of scale, of Anna’s birthday, and that Anna thinks of dance as ritual.
    17. Shinichi: Part of Anna’s legacy and part of her imperative is for others not to look like Anna. We need to look like ourselves. So we reference Anna and we depart from Anna. But fundamentally, it’s an inkBoat work.
    18. Wayne: I met Anna for the first time in the lobby of the [Dancers Group] space on 22nd Street, and she changed my world that day: her energy, humility, enthusiasm for being in the festival. We discussed putting up archive images in the lobby and I was like a star-struck fan in awe of her history, tenacity and artistry.
    19. Shinichi: There’s no way to make a piece that encapsulates Anna Halprin. Just no way. What we CAN do is this: examine the intentions of her life, her effect, really, on the dance community… and on the art community in general. There are different Annas, honestly. Where she is right now as she approaches age 95 is different from where she was when she was 30, 40, or 50 years old.
    20. Wayne: Anna has been involved in the project from the beginning. We have had discussions with Tamalpa [the Halprins’ arts organization] and others, too. Shinichi is also working on a score project, and a book….
    21. Ritual 1, “Thicket”: Shinichi and Dana worked with Mari Osani (Noguchi Taiso teacher), witnessed by Anna Halprin on the Mills College campus.
    22. Shinichi: A number of our preparatory rituals in May and June 2015—numbers 1 through 70—are public experiments, where inkBoat and friends test out ideas.
    23. Ritual 2, “Future Numbers”: this was initiated by scores from Larry Ochs and John Zorn and performed by Rova Saxophone Quartet with Shinichi, Dana Iova-Koga and Dohee Lee.
    24. Ritual 3, “Curling”: 3 derived from John Zorn’s composition of the same name and was evanescent and hidden in the recesses of the Mills campus, where dancers marched to the lake, stripped down, covered themselves in mud and laid across rocks and other bodies.
    25. Shinichi: Soon after my daughter Zoe was born I did a solo influenced by her that was reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle. Anna read it and asked our mutual friend, Sherwood Chen, to introduce us. He did….soon I found myself at Anna’s having lunch at her house, when she asked: ‘Where did you learn to make work like that?’ I didn’t have a very good answer….In that moment I had the feeling that the way I make work has been influenced by this lady.
    26. Shinichi: If Anna is the rock that drops into the pool, we are the ripples in the pool, and ripples can also generate new ripples.
    27. In 1968 Lawrence Halprin fully realized the RSVP Cycles, a feedback loop, which involves assessing resources (R), making a score (S), evaluating the action (V), and performance (P). It is designed to describe and refine process as the material of performance and created by Halprin in order to notate his wife’s “new theater.”  (Ross, 253-254.)
    28. Lawrence Halprin: “Scores are symbolizations of processes which extend   over time….They are ‘nonjudgmental’…”  A score is usually “graphic and precedes the fact….” (The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment, 1)
    29. The performance is the result of the score.  
    30. Anna Halprin: “We have been alienated from the natural world. We need to find a way to reenter.” (from Returning Home, 2003.)
    31. The Halprin dance deck is an outdoor stage space that thrusts into the treetops on the hill below the family house on Mt Tamalpais.
    32. Mt. Tamalpais: Miwok for “west hill,’ sacred to the native peoples, and also known as the Sleeping Maiden. It is part the Coastal Range but stands apart from it.
    33. Shinichi: Anna asked me to be Associate Director on Spirit of Place (another ONSITE project, 2009) by calling me up and saying: ‘Shinichi, all of my collaborators are dead. Will you be my collaborator?’ That’s how it began.
    34. For Anna the open/closed continuum of a score is measured from 1 to 10, with 1 an open improvisation and 10 being fixed down to the last detail. Iova-Koga says that “Anna like[s] to operate in the zone of 5.”
    35. Shinichi: Two movers are joining 95 Rituals from Berlin. Two are traveling from Seattle. One artist is coming from Seoul….
    36. Ritual 4-6, “ascent,” on May 1, noon, is part of the free Rotunda Dance Series, where Dana and Shinichi perform duets choreographed by Mills faculty Molissa Fenley and Wanjiru Kamuyu, with inkBoat’s Dohee Lee, Suki O’Kane, Jason Ditzian and others at City Hall at noon. This ritual will be full of “islands of repeatability.”
    37. Ritual 7, “words.” May 21, 6pm at the Museum of Performance + Design in a symposium on legacy with Wayne, Shinichi and invited guests.
    38. Ritual 8-27, “market.” Sunday, May 31, 11:30 am, Fort Mason Market and Firehouse with Yuko Kasei, Sten Rudstrom, Heekyung Cho, Joshua Kohl Nishimura, Dohee Lee, Dana Iova-Koga, Suki O’Kane, Shinichi Iova-Koga
    39. “Lost Rituals.” June 14, 5pm at inkGround, Matteole Valley, Petrolia.
    40. June 27, Dance on Land San Francisco, 9am – 12 noon, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (lobby) inkBoat’s first urban Dance on Land workshop in San Francisco, led by Shinichi Iova-Koga, Dana Iova-Koga and inkBoat members.
    41. Ritual 50-70, “conjunction.” Sunday, June 21, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, TBA. Prototype for the final performance.
    42. 95 Rituals, July 7 and 11, TBA, SF.
    43. Shinichi: Friends and colleagues will offer scores, or seeds for scores.
    44. Janice: “Santayana’s message to Californians was that their environment offered alternative ways of seeing nature and society, and, most critically, our relationship to both––that we are not the center of the universe. The Halprins would come to learn this as well, and their work would point to a different dynamic between environment, artist, and art, in which the individual is no longer at the center of the world.” (72)
    45. John Cage: “…theatre is something which engages both the eye and the ear. The two public senses are seeing and hearing….The reason I want to make my definition of theatre that simple is so one could view everyday life itself as theatre.” (Mariellen Sanford, ed. Happenings and Other Acts, 51)
    46. Allan Kaprow: “These events, of course, are themselves the meaning of life. Inasmuch as lifelike art participates in its everyday source, purposely intending to be like life, it becomes interpretations, hence “meaning.” But it is not life in general that is meaningful; an abstraction can’t be experienced. Only life in particular can be––some tangible aspect of it serving as a representative, for example, a ripe summer tomato.” (Mariellen R. Sanford, Happenings and Other Acts, 238)
    47. 95 Rituals is a collaborative celebration.

47.5 to 95 Repeat in any order.

Team Rita

When I first got a call from Rita Felciano, she was working at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival office in Fort Mason Center and I was the editor at the Bay Area Dance Coalition, a service organization in the same building. It was the 1980s, and Rita asked to meet with me––she had an idea for the new In Dance monthly. And so we set up an appointment for later that week. I would eventually come to learn that this Swiss-born woman with a Spanish name was re-launching her career and feeding her hunger to write—in her 4th language—now that her two sons were well along in school.

The woman who appeared was poised and self-assured, dressed like a grown up in a simple suit—a pale grey green gabardine, as I remember it, that had a curious way of setting the tone then fading into the background like a great supporting actor. The clothes seemed to underscore that she meant business and yet they were neutral enough to allow her quiet air of power and purpose to speak loudest. Rita wanted to talk about writing for the monthly, which, at that point was an eight-pager with a performance calendar, grant information, workshop notices, and display and classified ads, but trying to be more than that. To expand content we had begun to include items like book reviews, editorials, and the occasional vox pop column. Dance reviews were forbidden, and even sly efforts at commentary were taboo. It was a balancing act between service and usefulness and the publication seemed to keep asking: What does a community publication need to be?

Rita had an idea: it needed feature stories.

Rita and I met together in a big draughty room on an upper floor of one of Fort Mason’s brick buildings. We sat in facing chairs surrounded by empty space. She leaned in, arms against her lap as she folded herself closer toward me decades before Cheryl Sandberg made the act a shallow meme, and brilliantly painted the rationale and outcomes that would emerge if I allowed her to write a feature piece on the SF Ethnic Dance Festival. Her voice was wonderfully sibilant, and she uttered words with conspiratorial purpose in a soft, polyglot accent. I watched in amazement as I both tried to resist her influence and saw how easily she won me over through conviction, composure, and sheer persuasiveness. Why wouldn’t this small publication bring in an outside writer to discuss events with the rigor of good journalism?

Following the finest pitch I would receive in my many years of writing and editing, Rita wrote the first feature article In Dance would publish, and as a result she expanded the vision of what the community could give itself, whether in today’s In Dance or in her many tireless reviews of known and little-known dance performances and events. Within a few years she became the first lasting dance critic for the one weekly inhaled religiously by the arts community, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Early on in her tenure there, she regularly met her editor over lunch to convince and re-convince him that the paper had a moral and editorial obligation to cover local dance. I was in awe. Like a great community organizer, she believed her duty was to actively champion the cause, and though the battle had to be renewed all too frequently, she won it again and again and held on to dedicated dance space each week. Rita has the power to imagine, persuade others to imagine, and then run after what she imagines, and through the writing reflect dance back to us. Always she has done it with both a capacious air of generosity and sense of the importance of the work in our midst, both now and for posterity.

The Bay Guardian had only cursory dance coverage before Rita arrived. In the decades that followed she created one of the most significant and enduring dance writing careers in the region. Wendy Perron, the longtime editor at Dance Magazine, describes Rita as a “human writer,” and, indeed, we see it in how she translates dance by giving every artist the benefit of the doubt, beginning with the presumption that each dancemaker and dancer climbs onstage to try to communicate with an audience, and that that intention, even when it fails, must be honored, even celebrated. She is the antithesis of the theater critic in Alejandro González Iñarritu’s latest film Birdman, Tabitha Dickinson. Dickinson, with her hardboiled reporter’s demeanor is the devil incarnate, endowed with mythical power to annihilate anything less than what she deems the highest of “high art.” While Rita has often described her mission as an educational one, her reviews and feature pieces reveal that it’s much more than that—it’s to be a witness to dance and its allied arts both for everyone who is in the theater on that occasion and for anyone with even a bit of curiosity about what happened.

While the Bay Guardian has been Rita’s mainstay, where most of us in the community have read her work, her writing has been in places as varied as Dance Magazine, The New York Times, Ballet Review, Dance International, the San Francisco Chronicle and the LA Times. This year Rita finally decided to retire, to pass on the mantle to another hungry writer. Then, just as that news hit, we learned that the Bay Guardian was going the way of hundreds of activist, leftist grass roots weeklies: the San Francisco Examiner bought it, then closed it. This is a double blow: we not only lose Rita’s enduring weekly commentary on both homegrown and imported work; we lose the most reliable record of dance in the Bay Area. The community, and history, are the poorer for it.

It’s not all bad news, though; we will still be able to read Rita at And perhaps a young and hungry writer will be inspired by Rita’s legacy to find a new way to carry on that vital and difficult public task.

Dance, Protest and Identities: A Book Review

Embodied Politics: Dance, Protest and Identities
Stacey Prickett
Published by Dance Books, 2013

Embodied cover (In Dance)IN THE LAST DECADES, we have begun to feel a seismic shift in western understanding of the body from that of a machine with drives as predictable as the laws of motion to the body as an ever- emergent organism inseparable from and in ceaseless and dynamic conversation with the world around it. For generations dance has been in the vanguard of this transformation as it pursued complex ideas of corporeality, embodied consciousness and communication, often in concert with philosophy and psychology.

Embodiment, for instance, was one of the vital ideas in the postmodern experiments of such choreographers as Anna Halprin, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. It was a vital part of the experiments in consciousness and physical expression that took place at Dartington Hall, when the members of Jooss company practiced meditation under the trees of the Devon estate. Earlier still, Isadora Duncan searched for and built a counterforce to the growing idea in the late 19th and early 20th century of the industrialized body through her use of breath and flow in structured improvisation.

Embodied Politics: Dance, Protest and Identities, sounds like it might feed from this same stream, but author Stacey Prickett, a Principal Lecturer at Roehampton University in England and former Bay Area resident, is foremost interested in the body as the launch pad of protest and dances as “weapons” or “tools” of social and economic struggle. In her extensively researched study, dance content and its context dominate; how the body shaped those politics is largely implied.

As Prickett makes clear in her introduction, embodiment can mean everything from concretizing the abstract, expressing an act in an organization, uniting, or incorporating something into something else. She starts with tangibles, which mirror her interest in Marxist or neo-Marxist politics physicalized through dance. There is something refreshing in her focus on dance as a tool in political struggle, which she takes up with the determination of an early 20th century Wobbly. But anyone picking up the book hoping for a philosophical discourse about the communicative possibilities of the 21st century dancing body will be disappointed. The theme of her study is not the politics of embodiment per se or the shifts in embodied meaning and identity from era to era, but the forgotten or as yet unanalyzed dance of pageants, marches and abandoned sites that has militated against the status quo, whether in affiliation with leftist parties or in unaffiliated protest against global capitalism, injustice and oppression. To that end she has undertaken a limited but detailed investigation of political grassroots dance in New York, San Francisco and England across the 20th and into the 21st century.

It is the sort of history some have lamented is too seldom written—thick with data about the valiant efforts by little-known choreographers—in this case, artists out to show, to protest, to celebrate the plight of the downtrodden. The difficulty of such an approach is that the trees can overtake the forest, and the reader can get lost in myriad and sometimes tangential details. The chapters often read like long articles rather than pieces of a larger argument, and within the chapters the facts can overrun thematic points articulated in the introduction: that alternative or marginal dance exists in taut relation to the status quo and power; that the protesting body as a rebellious social body can alter the perception of the possible; that larger narratives are embedded in many of these dances; and that participatory dances that are fueled by a collective ethos can give rise to personal transformation. These organizing ideas are often subsumed by waves of particulars, making it hard in the absence of those conceptual containers to organize the information into more meaningful wholes.

In the tradition of scholars like Mark Franko and Linda Tomko who have studied political dance in the early 20th century, Prickett opens by shining light on little-known Edith Segal, a New York Communist Party-affiliated dancer who launched the Red Dancers. Here the author offers a highly detailed account of Segal’s history, some of which she was able to get through interviews with the activist. Segal, who came up through the Henry Street Settlement and Neighborhood Playhouse, stuck close to Communist Party pageants, workers’ clubs, leftist summer camps and impromptu performances rather than to the emerging modern dance scene. She was, in the end, redder than most.

More fascinating than Segal’s own exploits to me, however, is Prickett’s depiction of the cross-pollination that went on, how widely someone like Segal traveled, and the shared influences of artists and activists across continents. She studied with “socialist actor and theatre director Senda Koreya,” the brother of the Michio Ito, visited Russia where she grappled with the resurrection of imperial-style ballet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow after the revolution. She also lived, worked and agitated in Detroit as a “field organizer” for the New Dance Group where, for $5 a week, she choreographed dances like Anti-war cycle: Industrialism, war, Fraternization for 18 dancers at the Dance Festival for the Cause of Peace. Whether she was directing the Ukranian American Pioneer Dance Group or the Freheit Jubilee pageant, Segal was a die-hard Communist who borrowed from avant-garde theater to blur the lines between protest and art to express her radical politics.

Prickett’s final chapter presents the South Asian dance advances in London, including the 2012 opening ceremony spectacle for the British summer Olympic Games that presented a performance by Akram Khan and 50-plus dancers. Detailing the powerful role of South Asian arts in community centers and the codification of non-western dance in the schools, Prickett conveys with some of the same verve as she brings to her portrait of the Bay Area a grassroots scene thriving, morphing, and reflecting the larger cultural changes of the country.

Her liveliest and most acutely shaped chapter is the one devoted to the Bay Area. This is not merely bias raising its head, though I was overjoyed to discover a scholar finally giving local artists the broad attention they deserve. It’s that nowhere else in the volume does Prickett zero in on particular companies and artists and vividly describe and contextualize work as she does here. With access to video documentation, emails with artists, interviews and direct involvement, Prickett makes Bay Area activist dance especially juicy; its link to larger issues of place, identity and injustice striking and clear. What’s more, some of you will find you and your work discussed or trip over fragments of your own thoughts.

The title of the chapter is “Politics, Dance and the Persona: Redefining Performance in the San Francisco Bay Area” and pays homage to Peters Wright, the Bennington summer sessions at Mills College, Gloria Unti’s work with marginalized youth and Ruth Beckford in the community centers in the East Bay. Although she misstates that Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer et al “travelled west” to dance with Halprin—Brown, Rainer, Robert Morris and Simone Forti were already on this coast, though soon to leave—Prickett captures the spirit of early troupes like Welland-Lathrop, Mangrove, the Moving Men and, more generally, the ferment from the 70s on which both drew upon and inspired a climate of political activism and visionary quest.

She examines some of Margaret Jenkins’ political threads and defines Jenkins’ role as the force that professionalized the scene, although I would argue that Jenkins created a magnet for dance that then generated new activity at new heights. Included was the dance of Joe Goode, who left the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company to start his own dance/theater troupe and contend with gender, identity, the status quo and AIDS. She pays lovely tribute to Joanna Haigood’s efforts to reclaim history, space and meaning through her site-specific work. She also gives Contraband, Keith Hennessey, Krissy Keefer and the Dance Brigade, and dance space per se, attention that is much-deserved.

Prickett’s study is only a beginning. She acknowledges that she has just touched upon the subject of the Bay Area, that artists are left out or merely mentioned. Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson’s pivotal role in the East Bay (Shawl/Anderson) is never mentioned, nor Lucas Hoving’s Performance Group, where he kept his radical past alive in Songs to Chile and other works. But Prickett has opened the path. Now other writers and scholars can further her examination of the body politics of grassroots dance here and elsewhere, and delve not only into the content and the context of political embodiment but its deep physical rhetoric and its role at each juncture of our history.

Parades and Changes Over the Past 43 Years: an Interview with Anna Halprin

When choreographer and dancer Anna Halprin and her husband Larry perched themselves on the side of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, they rooted their creative futures in a landscape of redwood, madrone, oak and berries. Little did they know that their choice would help revolutionize post-war dance in the United States. On five acres of wooded hillside Larry Halprin, a landscape architect, built Anna a stage in the trees—the now famous dance deck that hangs below a leafy canopy and an open sky—and this became an important laboratory for some of the most inventive artists of the last 60 years, including Terry Riley, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Simone Forti, Morton Subotnik, Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris.  Anna began to create scored systems on the deck that were fixed yet fluid, echoing the structured improvisations of her forebearers Isadora Duncan, Rudolph Laban and Mary Wigman. Then, by applying ideas from landscape design, music, politics, film, psychology and poetry to the moving body in the environment, she formulated works shaped by the cultural concerns of the day, from war to the unadorned body to the sexual politics of family life.

Pictured: Anna Halprin's "Parades & Changes" Photo by Unknown

Pictured: Anna Halprin’s “Parades & Changes”
Photo by Unknown

Now, at 92, Anna is remaking for the last time what may be the most seminal dance “score” of her career. In mid-February dancers from as far away as Paris will stage a final iteration of Parades and Changes, the dance that caused the New York police to issue a warrant for the artist’s arrest, stunned East Coast audiences with its total nudity, but also prompted curmudgeonly critic Clive Barnes to marvel that in the paper-tearing sequence, “Fantastic shapes evolve, paper sculptures mingling fascinatingly with nude bodies. The result is not only beautiful but somehow liberating as well.” In the less provincial environment of Berkeley in 1970, Parades was the first art event in the concrete modernist building built for the new Berkeley Art Museum. The dance program was an event described as “a multidisciplinary art extravaganza, heralding a radical new building and an ambitious cultural enterprise.” Now, 43 years later, Anna and her dancers return to say goodbye to the concrete structure, which will be repurposed by the university once the museum shifts downtown. We will all say goodbye to a legendary dance.

For this last look at a dance that changed the terms of performance and public expression, Anna is striving to make Parades as timely as ever as it channels the uprisings around the world. She is including a new, rhythmically patterned stomping section devised by composer and long-time collaborator Morton Sobotnik designed to suggest protest. She will add a falling section, that connotes sacrifice and death, and, most important to her, she is injecting a tender embracing section that signals our capacity for caring and concern. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of talking to Anna after a rehearsal about this final installment. This is what she had to say:

Ann Murphy: What does the title Parades and Changes refer to?
Anna Halprin: It’s the idea that there is a sequence of actions that go like this [she moves one hand after the other on the table top] that remind me of a parade, but they keep changing. So [in a dance] we might have a series of blocks going like this [demonstrates again] but they will change every time you do it, and that’s where the title Parades and Changes comes from. It was very hard to find a title [for a work that] keeps changing so much in its relevance to historic culture, so it has one connotation in one particular time. The first time I did it it was inspired by Picasso’s painting called “the Family Circus.” My family was like a circus, and the cast was all family. The second time I did it I did it with a group of hippies. Then the third time I did it was with the multi-racial company. So the cast changes as well, and as the cast changes the cultural overtones change.

AM: So your casting is in response to the cultural moment?
AH: Yes. And I want to say that with regard to the family cast, I had spent over 25 years working with children, so I was very used to relating to children. Rana was 10 and Daria was 14 and they were part of the children’s troupe. In those days children weren’t taken seriously in dance as members of a cast. I think Robert Wilson used a child in one of his pieces but that was very unusual. So that wasn’t an expectation—children taken seriously as children in a cast. And that was where I was—I was building a family at that time.

Pictured: "Parades and Changes," Sweden 1965 Photo by Ove Alstrom

Pictured: “Parades and Changes,” Sweden 1965
Photo by Ove Alstrom

AM: Did you score the original Parades and Changes, and have you scored successive iterations, and if so what does that mean?
AH: You saw me scoring right now today. I get resources from the group I’m working with. Then I begin to see what they’re presenting to me, and then I begin to find the scoring element. So my first score is very open: here’s an idea; explore it. That’s a very open score, but still I selected the idea of the embrace because I felt I needed that in this piece—I needed this human factor that was missing. Parades and Changes until now was completely task-oriented and I wanted something more humanistic. Now, at the very beginning, it starts with people telling stories, so the task is: tell a story. I will take an ordinary task but unlike the Judson I want to turn it into a dance. I don’t want to leave it as a realistic task.  So when people talk about task-oriented movement on the East Coast it’s very different from what I mean by it.  The environment has been foremost in my sensibilities. I even do exercises with the eyes with my students so they learn how to look and see the environment instead of an object. I can look at Sue as an object, or I can look at Sue and be aware that there’s a fire going on behind her, and that she’s gesturing, and that there’s a man over there with grey hair, and a woman over there with a white blouse. I’m still looking at Sue but I’m looking at her in relation to the environment and not as an object.

AM: What does this relationship to the environment bring to your work?
AH: One of the first things is that it broke the barrier of the proscenium arch, because I worked on the dance deck that meandered in around the trees and is suspended in the air. I was aware of the sky and the animals that went by. So it had a huge effect on me to get out of the box studio or the proscenium arch theater and opened up a whole world of new possibilities that had to do with being more realistic about life. It’s as if the dances I’d been doing [earlier in my career] were little exhibition pieces in a box.

AM: What do you mean by being more realistic about life?
AH: It means that you’re contacting other people, which gives you a different relation to the audience, so it becomes more inclusive. At a very profound level it means working as nature operates. Nature operates according to processes. Nature doesn’t have an ABA and a formalistic compositional technique. Nature works in process—a tree grows, the sun comes out, the rain comes. It’s never a fixed form. That was so reinforced by my husband, because he built that deck and he’s the one who got me out of a box….[He] got that not from the Bauhaus but from going up to the Sierra for a month at a time every August and living there and sketching and drawing and writing and observing. He was my major collaborator and that had an effect on me.  The deck itself had an effect on me.

AM: Did your and Larry’s choice of moving to the side of Mt. Tamalpais prefigure that? Were you already aware of the role of the environment?
AH: In an intuitive way. I was born on the Skokie Plains, and I was never comfortable in an urban environment. And Larry started a kibbutz in Israel working the land, and was originally getting his PhD in biology.

AM: So you both knew open space?
AH: Right. I remember something Larry wrote. He said: When I was a little boy I used to go to a tree, and I’d hide in the tree to get away from all the adults and their problems.

AM: So you went and hid in a tree in another way?

AM: Anna, I know that when you performed Parades and Changes at Hunter in 1967 you had to get out of town fast.
AH: Very fast!

AM: Tell me what happened.
AH: Well, when I did Parades and Changes originally, it was commissioned by a music festival in Sweden, and I knew ahead of time the cultural attitude about nudity—they took saunas together—nudity wasn’t a cultural taboo in Sweden. So when we did it there, the dressing and undressing scene was received with the following comment by a dance critic. He said that “it was like a ceremony of trust.” Then it was presented on national television. Well, 43 years ago imagine performing something like that on our national television. Then I got a letter from this farmer that said—oh it was so beautiful to see the naked bodies. It reminded him of his newborn calves—sacred and innocent.

Pictured: "Parades and Changes," Berkeley 1970, Photo by Paul Fusco

Pictured: “Parades and Changes,” Berkeley 1970,
Photo by Paul Fusco

Then when we did in New York I was a little naïve. I made an assumption that New Yorkers are very sophisticated, and it didn’t even occur to me that it was going to create a problem because it was so well accepted in Sweden. But I began to wonder when I saw a couple of policemen back stage. I’d never seen that before. Well, it turned out that they were actually security people who were supposed to keep the police out, because the Director of Hunter College anticipated something of this nature. So sure enough, they issued a warrant for my arrest at the hotel the next day for indecent exposure. But I wasn’t there.

AM: You were warned?
AH: Yeah, I was. And as a result of that I didn’t go back to New York for years, and it affected my reputation. At the time I had a group and we were touring but nobody would touch me. For years and years it was all they talked about even though it was one score amongst ten different scores, yet that’s all they ever talked about, so we stopped touring. But that was good, because then I could really focus on rituals, and ceremonies, and working with people and their issues, and AIDS and healing, and racial conflict. It gave me an opportunity to be completely liberated from any expectations. It was a disaster that turned into a blessing.

Pictured: "Parades and Changes," Sweden 1965 Photo by Ove Alstrom

Pictured: “Parades and Changes,” Sweden 1965
Photo by Ove Alstrom

AM: So Anna, I know that you have changed Parades with the time, the setting. How is this particular context shaping the score for you and this particular moment in time?
AH: The theme––and this may sound a little Pollyannish––but the theme for me is peace. Peace with yourself, with your naked body, unadorned, unmasked–be real–and peace with each other. You are part of something bigger than yourself. I’ve incorporated into the score the shooting and the stomping and the anger and the rebellion of the Occupation Movement, and then a final Planetary Dance, which is hopeful. It has a sense of “if we can be one voice, this is what we would ask for.” Ultimately, as a grandmother and a great grandmother, if I leave any legacy at all to my children and their children, it’s an awareness of how to take responsibility to create peace in their lives and the lives of others. I feel that Occupy was an outcry by our young people to deal with the corruption, to deal with the 1% because it’s going to destroy us all, and it’s going to destroy the planet. Occupy was a very brave thing to do, and I feel bad that it hasn’t gotten the full support it needed to grow, and develop and cultivate its clarity.

AM: Do you think it still might?
AH: Oh yeah, I do.

Anna Halprin’s Parades and Changes will be presented at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Februrary 15-17.

BOOK REVIEW: The Body Eclectic: Evolving Practice in Dance Training

Twenty years ago dance was declared dead by more than a few New York dance critics who had watched both modern dance and ballet flower and, they believed, collapse. The geniuses were gone, the movement innovations had dried up, and the big audiences had moved on to home videos and jogging in the city park. All along the dancers in the studios and on stage knew better: Dance might not be the same as it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or early ‘80s but it certainly wasn’t dead. It was in transition.

What was less clear is what we meant and when it began. Did it start when Tharp stormed Lincoln Center with her boundary-breaking “Deuce Coupe”? Or is it the day Judson Dance separated dance virtues from traditional notions of movement virtuosity? Perhaps it actually began with the debut of the New Dance Group in the early 1930s, when the band of lefties assaulted the racial and class divide that kept concert dance white and highbrow. Or was it Wigman’s premiere in New York, which shook the dance world to its core? Perhaps it was even more fundamental—the Ballets Russes tour in 1916.

While much could be written about the profound changes in and changeability of dance over the course of the 20th century, Melanie Bales and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol in their new and somewhat uneven, but valuable compendium, “The Body Eclectic,” assert that the evolution of the form since Judson Dance Theater represents a paradigmatic shift in dance that distinguishes it from other periods of change. The two University of Illinois dancer-scholars set out to support this position by documenting Judson-driven shifts which are still reverberating today on the practical and conceptual level. The result is itself an eclectic body of information, and the book’s format reflects the diverse and molten activity it sets out to document. “Body” blends theory, practicality, personal opinion and story in a volume that can be read selectively or plowed through from beginning to end.

Bales, professor in the University of Illiois Urbana-Champaign dance department, is a Laban Movement Analyst and former ballerina. Nettl-Fiol, associate professor of dance, is a choreographer and Alexander teacher who specializes in kinesiology and somatics. Together, they contribute a large number of the articles to the anthology without seeming to dominate it. Part of this many-voices feel of “Body” is the result of the collection of highly readable interviews with a total of 17 practitioners. These include the venerable Martha Myers of Connecticut College and the American Dance Festival, and Cecchetti teacher Janet Panetta, who became ballet mistress at Tanztheater Wuppertal after the beloved ballet master Alfredo Corvino died. This weave of opinions creates a rich tapestry that eschews the uptight tone that can overtake some academic dance writing. For the reader it provides a rare experience of reading a dance text that, as a whole, offers a real and impassioned sense of the praxis of contemporary dance.

Some of the contributions are downright beautiful. Wendell Beavers, who began dancing with Mary Overlie and continued with the Judsonites, later helped found Movement Research and now directs a new MFA program at Naropa. He writes:

“It is possible that, in its present manifestation, dance is both the last repository of the truth in human history and a place where we can continue our evolutionary journey. Conversely, not dance could mean an evolutionary dead end … By dancing we range freely through prehistory to the forward edge of the future.”

Beaver is eloquent on the subject of the role of technique, which he renders with zen-like transparency as the “necessity of knowing how to do something.” In an art that can either fetishize or dismiss technique, it is refreshing to come across the wise voice that says it is the means by which we discover how to do something. If the method works over time, it is likely to be codified and handed on to others.

Debates brew in “Body Eclectic” about the nature of alignment and its mechanical versus cultural significance. There is refreshing physicality to the discourse as the authors plumb the subject of the Cartesian “substantial body” versus the post-modern “relational” body.

The editors insist on an existential facticity of dance, letting the practice itself call the conceptual shots, and then allowing the theory to have its say. This makes for no shortage of abstract thinking, and opens the door for the richly personable interviewees—dance figures like Shelley Senter, Tere O’Connor, Shelley Washington, Janet Panetta, Ralph Lemon and Anne Bluethenthal—to wrestle eloquently with the conceptual roots of the work they do.

Putting into context what so many of us know intuitively, Bales says that although “some dancers today may still practice only one ‘pure’ style, such as Graham technique, or take classes derived directly from some other style originated in the period before Judson, this phenomenon is becoming rare. In fact, there is just about any kind of ‘training package’ you could imagine going on these days, and therein can be found one of the major descriptors of contemporary dance training.”

Dismantling traditional dance training has become for some a sign of the art’s dangerous decline. For others, including a vast number of young dancers, it heralds a new, liberated expression stripped of the stylistic artifice that has calcified traditional ballet and modern dance for years. What is incontrovertible is the fact that it is economically impossible for many dancers to pay for daily classes. Regardless of philosophical proclivities, dancers increasingly have to find creative ways to develop and tune their bodies outside historic channels of training.

“Body Eclectic” delves capably into the revolution in body-mind studies that spurred the new physical practice, as well as into the deep aesthetic changes that arose alongside of and as a result of these innovations. Through accumulation worthy of Judson-era dance, Nettl-Fiol and Banes give substance and contour to the post-Judson era, making “Body Eclectic” a persuasive and important guide to contemporary dance.

“The Body Eclectic: Evolving Practice in Dance Training,” edited by Melanie Bales and Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2008.

My Hot Lobotomy; Review: October 23, 2008

In “My Hot Lobotomy” by David Szlasa and Sara Shelton Mann the audience knows within moments that dancer/choreographer Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is one adroit actress. She sits alone for long minutes in the small black box theater wearing a quizzical, nearly blank face, playing a lobotomized guy named Joey, her eyes the single alert organ in her frozen form—and we can’t stop looking. Later, when a beatific expression takes hold of her features and her eyes disappear into her head as she plays part of a Bach cello concerto, we also discover that she is an equally accomplished violist.

We see Stuart decked out in a suit sitting in a bright orange chair. It is a color that gives an Impressionist touch to the scene, accentuated by a plump and contented looking blue sky and white cloud projection behind. The world we are entering, though, is a post-post-post Impressionist dreamscape, the kind of place where Cezanne, Matisse and even Van Gogh exist as happy Brave New World distractions against disaster, where peaches, apples and starry nights are fake and there is no depth of field or horizon line to look toward. In fact, this is an absurd and dystopic reality, a weird claustrophobic place in which 19th century innocence is supplanted by psychosurgical disconnection.

The cornerstone of that zombiehood is Stuart’s gentle, blank mask. In the first minutes, we scour her face for shifts and changes as we would the transfixed face of a clown. Finding none we begin to take in a barrage of small details. I noticed how, for instance, her khaki jacket and nicely pressed khaki pants were distinctly different shades of the same dun color. And how the circle of blue beefy recycling arrows surrounding a heart on her tee shirt was a variant of the blue of her turquoise shoes. During the long time in which we got to pay attention to her crookedly arranged mouth, I wondered if our gaze had heat and, if so, whether or not she could feel it on her face. I also noted activity in seemingly stationary hands. The fingers were slowly crawling along the khaki pants. Not quite like spiders. Like zombie hands awakening. Like the hands of someone dying making a monumental effort to move in their waning hours. Shelton Mann’s butoh-inspired action was laced with such sweet, dark humor.

Because this was theater, and because it was absurdist theater, somewhere between Beckettian koans and Ruth Zaporah’s Action Theater, the proverbial knock at the door came as it had to come, and it was both a shock and wholly expected. Stuart’s eyes leapt in the direction of the door behind the audience and our skin leapt with her when the hard rap arrived. It was a well-timed joke that got the charming, somewhat rambling hour-long absurd-apocalyptic dance-theater piece moving in earnest. Rather than the FBI, the CIA or the KGB, the man knocking is the pizza man, Spencer Evans, the night’s catalyst, decked out in a neo-Aussie-cowboy look, a guy who also sings and strums his slightly out-of-tune guitar to tell us about Joey. Joey, it seems, plunged an icepick into the orbit of his eyes and scrambled his brains.

The messenger Evans feeds Joey, offers instructional tapes, and leaves behind a mountain of garbage. His role is much less ominous than a government agent and far more insidious. Evans drops an audio tape into the boom box to keep Joey company as he eats. “I’m really glad you’re here,” a warm female voice croons. “You’ve met the delivery guy. He’ll bring you everything you need. No need to tip him….It’s going to be great…it’s going to be really great. It’s going to be great….” Like a vacationer in Hawaii fanned by tropical breezes, Joey drifts off into contentment and soon sleeps the sleep of the lamb.

Against this somnolent waking world, Szlasa creates Joey’s dream zone where truth appears in the form of images and messages. These are played out as projections overlaying the sheep-like clouds and happy blue sky. But this is where the not-quite sharp symbols of pizza, pizza boxes and oozing mind-control tapes that are nevertheless wacky and fairly apt become the all-too literal images of National Geographic or Time magazine, devoid of the kind of transpersonal terror that could spur even the lobotomized to action. Apocalyptic dreams tend to be far more archetypal than baby polar bears struggling in water and vast acres of automobiles, smog-clogged skylines and Al Gore from “An Inconvenient Truth”. A friend recently described her “hot lobotomy” nightmare: “There’s a room full of guys, all lolling on chairs and sofas like teenagers. The house is on fire. The fire is approaching. I am screaming at them to leave, to hurry, to get out immediately, the house is on fire. They look at me casually, unperturbed. None of them moves. I’ve got my leg out the window. I can see the flames approaching.” She has since bought herself a fire extinguisher and talks about selling the house.

But back to Joey. Joey wakes, repeats the process, following Jane Fonda’s workout one moment, and a musical instructional the next, each unit sweet and wry although ultimately tame and slightly disappointing, since with a bit more probing Szlasa and Shelton Mann might have disturbed our own somnolence more. Because how does the Fonda fitness craze compare to the psychotic quackery of a Star War’s missile shield, the dissemination of humvees as family transport or the embrace of conspicuous consumption as a form of religious obligation and patriotic duty? And how does the beauty of Bach and the expertise of musicianship figure in to the modern plague of papered-over consciousness? Finally, Stuart shoves off the pizza and begins to build something with the pizza boxes, and although the resistance is welcomed, the reason for it is unclear.

Since many of us are asking these days where resistance should and can go, we also wonder how we “become the change we need” without turning into an infomercial for the apocalypse or a self-parody that points to our inevitable post-post-everything absurdity. Many have begun to believe that each personal act is crucial, that awareness and responsibility are inseparable, and that reforming ones own habits is the beginning of profound and widespread socio-economic, political and spiritual change. Others are figuring out how to migrate—to Canada, or, preferably Paris, more preferably the Marais or the 5th

Joey, too, is planning on going somewhere. He scores boxes with scissors, folds, builds, folds and builds some more. First he constructs walls that fall (oops, can’t hide) and then he builds a space ship. A wonderful kids’ spaceship, with each box carefully puzzled together with its neighbor, the last box his hat doubling as the ship’s nose. Joey holds the true religious symbol of our time, the steering wheel, in his hands, gripping tight. He is happy. Delusion has no limits, afterall, and can project itself into outer space and new, unlit frontiers. The instructional purrs: “…It’s going to be great…it’s going to be really great. It’s going to be great….”

Hearan Chung’s Eternal Dance: Review: February 23, 2008

I first met Hearan Chung six years ago. The dancer, recently arrived from South Korea, was living with her two children in an apartment in Millbrae, and I drove down to interview her in person. It was late spring, and I was writing an article about the upcoming Ethnic Dance Festival where she was to appear. Girded with only a smattering of knowledge about Korean dance inhaled quickly from a few sources, I plied her with basic questions; she talked with depth. At one point she graciously offered to demonstrate some of the dance’s fundamentals—the arc of movement, the trajectory of the breath, the courtly 4/4 meter. It didn’t matter that she was in jeans and tee shirt or that her floor space was limited. I could see why this modest woman was designated “a holder of important invisible properties.” She made the invisible visible.

Some weeks later the movement fragments she showed me appeared in Salpuri, an exacting shaman dance that Chung performed in the Festival. It was a work full of heroic restraint, channeling deep, emotional tides and complex thought about time and reality. Movements seemed to arise from far away then return to their source. A wrist, a knee, a step—each gesture was performed with chiseled deliberation and internal sweep. I saw her again in the Festival last year and was astonished all over again. Chung is a master.

Late in February on one of those nights the rain came down so hard it was like being inside the car wash during the rinse cycle, I joined a packed crowd gathered at San Mateo Community College to revisit Chung’s dance in a program entitled “Eternal Korea (Dance and the spirit of death).” Accompanying the dancer was a band of performers, middle-aged women from the Korean community learning about and celebrating their heritage, and a well-trained group of young assimilated Korean-American teens, including Chung’s now teenaged daughter.

This mix of professional and amateur is often freighted with the earnestness of a school recital, and there was some of that about the evening. Every family had a bouquet of flowers for their mother/wife/daughter, filling the theater with rustling plastic and the lovely scent of flowers. Even the gracious emcee Jong Hyuk Lee spoke of pride in his wife’s performance and admired the 50-year-olds for their fortitude.

But the evening was far more than a recital, and more than a celebration of an honorable culture rooted in animist practices, Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. Chung is foremost an artist, and even when some of her cohorts looked unsure or only half filled out a movement, the “holder of important invisible properties” shaped the evening into an event of and about Korean dance and music. The cultural celebration flowed from that source.

What made this possible, and what kept this night from descending into a nostalgic yearning for home, was Chung’s replication of the master/disciple relationship and the depth of her artistic practice. Rather than professional versus amateurs, an opposition that seems designed to make the pro shine and the non-pro look mediocre, Chung embodied the sublime and transcendent, her students apprentices on the path toward that goal. Rather than second rate, their efforts became deeply honorable achievements on a long journey difficult to master. The relationship was philosophical more than theatrical, and it mirrored the process of being and becoming (and the eternal cycle of life and death) fundamental to traditional Korean music and dance.

Although less adroitly performed than some of the other sections of the night, the segment entitled “Realization that death is not the end and desire to lead the soul safely to Heaven” made these relationships crystalline. At one point the dance resembled a May Pole dance, with a white robed Chung functioning as the fulcrum, her five dancers winding ribbons around their mentor accompanied by a wordless chant. While the floor patterns designed to help the spirit on her way needed greater clarity in space and in intention, the women were participants in a sublime rite. That much was very clear.

As a group, their greatest prowess showed in “Gum Mu,” a dance from the Shilla era (100 BCE) in which the women were garbed in bright yellow blouses under red gowns draped in blue-green panels, and small, black bowler-style hats with feathers. Together they performed an eloquent sword dance accompanied by a high nasal drone and flute. Used in shamanic rituals to prepare for battle, it was a lesson in bounded movement and flow and sat at the crossroads of religion, art and politics. Each dancer’s focus was magically inward even as the ensemble moved as a unified whole, circling, slicing, and turning.

“Sogo Cheum,” a hearty drum performance as aerobic as it was rhythmic, was wonderfully rendered by Chung and the teens, whose gestures shared some of Chung’s own precision and elegance. But it was Chung’s solos that, in the end, created the deepest spell. The 27th Intangible Cultural Asset called “Seung Mu” opened the second half of the program. Considered the most artistic of all Korean dances, it is a folk dance originally performed by Buddhist monks, later developed into an expressive solo. Wearing a robe, a white hood, a red neck sash, with a dash of blue sleeve slipping into view, Chung rhythmically stepped, turned, tossed her arms, dancing the joy of being delivered from karma and the eternal cycle of rebirth. And like the best of dancers, she used the movements as exquisite vehicles for forces much larger than herself alone.

Our Breath is as thin as a Hummingbird’s Spin; A Foray into Interspecies Love

In his latest outing, butoh maverick Shinichi Iova-Koga put himself under the powerful spell of Nanos Operetta and its director Ali Tabatabai, along with dramaturge Ellen Sebastian Chang, to create “Our Breath Is As Thin As A Hummingbird’s Spine.” Performing in July with long-time Bay Area actor Sten Rudstrom, and backed by the adept seven-member music ensemble, Iova-Koga and his collaborators produced a touching if unrealized surrealist cartoon about unrequited love of a man for a bird.

This was a light year from Iova-Koga’s solo winter show, “Milk Traces,” in which he worked alone in a tiny black box theater, presenting spare butoh with a furious intensity that seemed to float in a pool of quiet. It was also a big break from his spellbinding all-white duet in 2004 “Ame to Ame,” where relationships and objects were both acutely abstract and audibly physical. This time the comedic ruled, and narrative became a series of sometimes-delightful gags and absurd juxtapositions that, although offbeat, were unable to establish the kind of poetic depth that has distinguished Iova-Koga’s work in the past. Whether due to divergent methods and aesthetics among the team, or too little time, the result was a production that seemed still in workshop phase, ripe for a huge shove into far more illogical and less comic book terrain.

With the versatile and imaginative band backed against the theater’s brick wall and made spectral by a scrim, the concert began with salted whiskey baritone Nyls Frykdahl (of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum renown) in faintly Dickensian rust colored morning coat and top hat, crooning into his mike a rococo tale of unexpected love. Next, Iova-Koga took charge of the proceedings as he emerged from a squinchy fairytale door (marked “door”). He was dressed in a pulsing red lounge suit and shirt bedecked in gold glitter. The Lounge Lizard get-up was apt costume for a man about to fall in love with a skinny, cool-hearted and red-legged bird. Less than 10 feet away, out of a huge nest (labeled “nest”) on a platform, a ball of lemon-yellow feathers emerged until it revealed itself to be as big as Big Bird but even stranger looking, like a giant feathery yellow fruit on top of two ridiculously thin red sticks.

It’s at this point that I should disclose that I was given a canary songster as a gift quite recently, and as I watched “hummingbird”, I experienced an eerie sense that the production was channeling my life with my new friend. Since I hadn’t read the program beforehand, I was abashed to see myself in the story. Critics shouldn’t do that. But during intermission I read the notes: Operetta’s Tabatabai, like me, had tripped into a deep love for his pet, a sentient ball of feathers in a cage. Soon enough he found that no matter how loving or entertaining he was, his depth of feelings weren’t met in the slightest, a role Iova-Koga played with exquisite tenderness and comedy, whether it was performing a liquidy dance of yearning, a series of entertainments with a branch (golfer, batter, dog, paddler), a goofy chicken dance, or lip syncing “You Are my Destiny” (Paul Anka). But there’s another story to bird love. Avian sentience is strange and delicate and to find any communion one may have to enter bird mind. What a ripe path for butoh to travel.

But that’s not where “Hummingbird” ventured. Well into the production, Rudstrom cut then devoured the string that tied together the tin can phones that were meant to connect the two creatures across their animal and existential divide. It then became even clearer that if the bird—or any solipsist, for that matter—could talk intelligibly about its state, it would probably echo Tina Turner and ask: “What’s love got to do with it?” This made crystalline that interspecies love was really the pretext, not the point of this cracked fairy tale about love. What was this “pet,” after all, but a blazing narcissist in feathers happier to preen in his bed before a mirror than commune with a companion, which sounds like plenty of people plenty of us know. The team never quite sorted these facts.

One of the moments when Iova-Koga came close to taking the story into more layered terrain is when he accepted a beribboned box and out of an egg-shaped package he made materialize a female blow-up doll with B-29 breasts. Then he taped feathers on her arms. But committed too literally to the bird tale, “Hummingbird” lost its drift. And as welcomed as his voice was, it was unclear why the captivating Frykdahl kept popping up when he did, darkly singing hurdy-gurdy songs (“Lulu, for us the moon is too high. A spoon on the table is a star in the sky.”). Such episodes neither deepened the mystery nor injected a big enough dose of helium into the atmosphere.

But even with its flaws, “Hummingbird” was valiant and madcap. And it reminded us that butoh is a large Dadaist container capable of holding all kinds of material dredged up from the wild recesses of our hearts, our homes and our cages.

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