Author Archive | Emmaly Wiederholt

Changing the Face of Dance Around the Female Body: An Interview with Krissy Keefer

In 1984, Krissy Keefer and Nina Fichter founded Dance Brigade to create and perform dance-theater that addresses the complex problems of contemporary American women. Prior, Krissy co-founded the Wallflower Order in the 1970’s as the nation’s first feminist dance company. I had the honor of speaking with Krissy about the personal and national impact of her work.


Emmaly Wiederholt: Prior to the Wallflower Order, what was your dance experience, and how did it lead you to understanding that dance could be political?
Krissy Keefer: I trained in ballet from the time I was six years old. My mother was a dancer and used to teach classes. I trained very seriously in ballet until I was 14. I danced with Columbia City Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet. Then I switched to modern in high school. In college, I was a dance major, and a loose group of us who danced together started the Eugene Dance Collective. Out of that came the Wallflower Order.

In the 60’s and early 70’s, everything was political. I took a Women in Literature class in college and choreographed to some poems by Marge Piercy and Joyce Carol Oates. That was the beginning. Then when we started Wallflower we were embedded in the women’s movement. Laurel Near was in the group and her sister Holly Near was a political singer, so we were really encouraged to be political. It all just took off from there.

Wallflower Order, courtesy of Krissy Keefer

Wallflower Order, courtesy of Krissy Keefer

 

EW: What was the genesis for Dance Brigade?
KK: Dance Brigade began as the Wallflower Order Dance Collective, which started in 1975 in Eugene, Oregon. It was a women’s collective that toured all over the United States, Europe and Latin America for nine years. We had a political fight and broke up, and out of that Nina Fichter and I started Dance Brigade in San Francisco.

When the Wallflower Order broke up, Nina and I were on the same side, not necessarily ideologically but emotionally. We wanted to keep going; we weren’t done choreographing and making community work. So we started Dance Brigade.

EW: Can you speak to the activist bent of Dance Brigade?
KK: Wallflower was a women’s dance collective. We were probably the first dance company to respond to the large lesbian nation across the United States. Feminism and women’s power were the basis. We moved into much more diverse politics, including class and race. Dance Brigade was founded to continue that mission.

The women’s movement was definitely the foundation of our work. However, Wallflower toured extensively, whereas Dance Brigade has ‘stayed home.’ We decided to produce local events, including The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie and Furious Feet Festival for Social Change. We really tried to integrate ourselves into the larger Bay Area.

EW: What are some of your personal highlights?
KK: Well it’s been a whole life. I was 22 when Wallflower started. I was able to manifest myself as an artist because of this national network of women production companies. We had a crossover aspect because we were good at what we did. I’ve been able to combine how I make a living with my politics. Not many people get to do that, especially artists. People tell me they have their politics, their art, and their job, but they’re not mixed. That’s been my personal highlight: my life.

EW: What are the greatest challenges and hurdles you’ve faced?
KK: Money. It’s the feeling that the amount of work I do doesn’t register with funders. That’s not just me though, that’s everybody. You have to fight for the money and resources every step of the way, and it gets exhausting.

Within a collective, there grows a lot of rancor and in-fighting. Wallflower had a big breakup which was very public, and that was painful.

You have to take the bitter with the delicious. I think about all the artists I’ve been able to collaborate with over the years. It’s a whole community of artists I can call my own.

Dance Brigade, Photo by Miley Trabing

Dance Brigade, Photo by Miley Trabing

EW: When do you feel most successful? How do you measure success?
KK: Success comes at different times in everybody’s career, and everybody has peak periods, and then they take breaks or are forced into breaks, and then they have peak periods again. Every individual has their standards about what makes a success.

Are you talking about being a successful choreographer? If you look closely, you see that most of the choreography jobs go to men. But if you don’t know that then you take it very personally and you say, ‘I’m not a good choreographer because I don’t get hired.’ But let’s be real: people take chances with men at any age, much more than they take with women.

All of the 2015/2016 repertoire and new work for San Francisco Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet were created by men. You can check this out yourself. The evidence and writing on it is unrelenting.

[Krissy compiled the following quotes about the lack of commissioning opportunities for women:]

“It’s 14 years since a woman was commissioned to create a main-stage ballet at the Royal Opera House. If this were true of women playwrights at the National Theatre, or female artists at the Tate, there would be outrage. But at the flagship institution of British dance, the omission has escaped public notice. As it did last summer when the Royal Ballet and the National Gallery launched a collaboration named Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. Of the 15 artists and choreographers involved, none was a woman. An ironic decision, given that the subject was the goddess Diana, the personification of feminine power.” Luke Jennings UK Guardian 2013

And from Sharon Basco’s 2015 article in ARTery:
“Really? Have you noticed?” (Twyla) Tharp said. “And how many famous painters, philosophers, musicians, some writers — it’s not a woman’s prerogative to be an artist. We all know women have a high hill to climb whatever they do, and the world of arts is very chauvinistic, and one knows that going in.”

It’s not just in the U.S. that men lead and choreograph the ballet troupes. “The world class companies, for the most part, are run by men,” said Lynn Garafola, a writer, scholar and founder of the Columbia University seminar Studies in Dance. And why are women leaders gone? “The more professional a company becomes, in my observation, the more likely women are going to disappear from the leadership positions, and they’re going to be replaced by men. I think this is very typical of organizations when they get larger, when they get more important.”

KK: Then there’s people who make brilliant work but don’t have any money to make their next piece because they don’t have a business model. They’re floundering financially all the time. Then you have others who are very good at business and create an empire in order to support their work. There’s a gaze on them that says they’re successful, but they spend 75 percent of their time monitoring their building and business, so they see the independent artist as more successful.

So I guess you have to look at what influence you have. I base my success on my influence. I do feel like I’ve forged a path and brought a lot of people along. To me, that’s successful.

EW: What difference do you perceive Dance Brigade has made?
KK: I was at a panel discussion recently with Keith Hennessey and Sara Shelton Mann, and Keith actually contextualized us brilliantly. He said, ‘They changed the face of dance for many.’ Which we did.

This is what Keith said:

Krissy was part of a collective of women that started a company in the mid 70’s called the Wallflower Order, which basically changed the face of dance for many of us, of what we grew into, those of us who really started working in the 80’s. Some of the lay of the land had been set up about what was possible for political dance, what was possible for the merging of all forms into one kind of thing. The Wallflowers did in 1975.

Then in the early 80’s that company split apart and multiple pieces were made, but the only enduring project to really
grow and continue from it was the Dance Brigade, which was started by Krissy and her longtime collaborator and partner Nina Fichter, and that led to the creation of Dance Mission Space at 24th and Mission – a very vibrant, multicultural, dance space – 18 years ago.

And looking at spaces in San Francisco, one of the reasons why my next project will premiere there and not somewhere else is because it’s the only space where there is a contemporary/modern dance audience that is not the only dominant audience of the space, but where it’s actually, truly multicultural, with many people who aren’t white, who really see that as their space in the way that spaces get marked, and that is part of a long term politic of Krissy and the people she’s worked with. That’s just a little piece of history about Krissy…

Photo by Josh Flipp

Photo by Josh Flipp

KK: Dance Brigade and the Wallflower Order gave permission to a lot of artists with specific politics by bringing lesbianism into the modern dance world by name. All those things are transformative.

EW: I’ve heard that Dance Brigade’s home – Dance Mission – is jeopardized. Is that true?
KK: That’s the truth. We don’t have a lease, and the landlord is raising the rent every year. It’s not just about us though; it’s about the face of the Bay Area changing and who’s got access to the real estate. It’s not a new story, but it’s so overwhelming we’re all mind-boggled and reeling.


Krissy Keefer co-founded Dance Brigade in 1984 with Nina Fichter. They reside at Dance Mission Theater, where they operate a 140-seat theater, dance studios, adult and youth classes, Grrrl Brigade and produce groundbreaking eventsice.

The Right Space For the Right Piece: Here Now Dance Collective to Perform at CounterPULSE

Consider the following scenario: You’re a dancer living in the Bay Area, and you have an impulse to choreograph. Whether making dances has always been an ambition or one day you’re suddenly inspired, you feel a draw toward organizing bodies and movement in space. You have an idea for a piece and you want to make it a reality. You get together some dancers and find a space in which to rehearse and before long you’ve created something and are ready to present to an audience. Where are you going to present the finished work? Where will your piece be performed?

Photo by Matt Lewis

Photo by Matt Lewis

The space a piece is presented in affects the way a dance work is viewed almost as much as the content of the piece itself. For example, a choreographer might create a slow improvisational piece with slight subtleties and gestures. Imagine the difference in how the piece will be viewed from a small theater where the audience is ten feet away from the stage versus a large proscenium that seats hundreds of people. Obviously the viewing range impacts the audience’s perception of the piece. Vice versa, a leaping turning piece with multiple dancers might feel overwhelming up close, but the overall effect could be stunning from afar. Choreographers must take the way their piece is viewed into consideration as much as the content of their piece.

But this is assuming choreographers have access to the optimal performance venue that allows for ideal viewing of their work. What if a talented new choreographer has big ideas but lacks the funding or name recognition to mount their piece in the venue it needs to be seen in? Or worse, what if a choreographer lacks the funds to present their piece in a performance venue, period? The costs of renting out a theater independently are sizeable. Unless a choreographer is well established and funded through grants and donors, is chosen for a residency at their preferred theater, or is just plain wealthy, chances are the choreographer is not going to be able to mount their piece in the venue of their choosing. And optimally showcasing a piece can lead to more opportunities. It’s a get-the-ball-rolling kind of thing.

This is where Dancers’ Group’s New Stages for Dance grant comes in. It awards theater rental subsidies to San Francisco Bay Area dance companies and artists interested in presenting work at CounterPULSE, Dance Mission, ODC Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts or Z Space. Applicants for this past round applied to either co-present with another artist, present in a new theater, or significantly increase performances in a theater they had presented in previously. One of the 2013-2014 recipients of this grant is Michelle Fletcher of Here Now Dance Collective (HNDC). She will present a new piece entitled This Is Dedicated at CounterPULSE June 21-23. It will be HNDC’s first time presenting at CounterPULSE.

“The Garage has served as HNDC’s main venue for presenting work. However, after four years of mounting evening length work in the black box theater, HNDC’s audience has grown and requires more capacity for seating. Moving from The Garage’s 60-seat theater to CounterPULSE’s 95-seat theater is the next step in audience growth and public visibility for HNDC,” says Fletcher on how she will utilize the New Stages for Dance  grant. “CounterPULSE offers the perfect frame for HNDC’s This Is Dedicated, a new dance-theater work with an immersive multimedia set. The white-walled, white-floored, intimate, yet deep CounterPULSE theater provides the needed container to fully manifest the intentions of this new work.”

Photo by Matt Lewis

Photo by Matt Lewis

Fletcher’s work delves into the world of competition. Exploring the durational aspect of dance-a-thons and the structure of many sports, This Is Dedicated is a dance-theater game with rules, a referee, winners and losers. The ultimate winners are three Bay Area non-profits— Larkin Street Youth Services, The Vasculitis Foundation and Friends of Alemany Farm, which will each be championed by one of HNDC’s dancers. Motivated by their desire to win support and visibility for their non-profit charity, each dancer will compete for funding from audience members who can bet the price of their ticketed admission on a dancer, knowing their bet will go toward the non-profit the dancer is championing-dancing-playing for. In addition the piece will incorporate the visual and media designs of Hannah Ireland as well as live music by DJ Jordan Akerley.

“CounterPULSE is more than just a theater; it acts as a nexus for both creative thought and community connection. As stated in its mission statement, CounterPULSE acts as ‘an incubator for the creation of socially relevant, community-based art and culture’ and ‘a forum for the open exchange of art and ideas.’ This is philosophically in line with what HNDC sought in a venue for This Is Dedicated—one that embraces diversity, innovation, and experimentation for the Bay Area community,” explains Fletcher.

“Most of the time my work has subtlety and thus I am interested in immersing the viewer, so I lean toward presenting in smaller venues and mounting installations,” she continued. “CounterPULSE is still a fairly small venue in comparison to others in the area. What the New Stages for Dance grant offers HNDC is the ability to focus on working with the charitable organizations each dancer has chosen in order to raise funds. HNDC can funnel some of the extra fundraising energy of covering theater rental costs now to collecting pledges/bets for each dancer/non-profit team.”

In allowing Fletcher and HNDC to have an ideal space to present This Is Dedicated, the New Stages for Dance support has given not just the gift of funds, but the opportunity for the piece to be seen in an optimal light. CounterPULSE allows for the right size of an audience given where HNDC is in its growth, the right performance proximity given CounterPULSE’s balance of intimacy and depth, and the right socio-cultural setting given CounterPULSE’s emphasis on community and diversity. It frees up funds, time and energy HNDC would normally have to allocate toward production costs, so that the company can focus on the development of the new work and its partnership with the three non-profits. In the spirit of HNDC’s new work, it’s a win-win situation.

Fletcher reflected on what the grant has done for her: “This project feels rich with potential. With This Is Dedicated I’m trying to see if dance can serve beyond aesthetics. I’ve never been a fan of sports, but what I’ve observed sports successfully do is embolden complete strangers because they share a love for the same team and engage audiences through chance and rules they understand. I am appropriating these ideas into dance and creating a dance game. There is also a lot about sports that I hate, like the strange funneling of aggressions, male dominance, etc. that I am interested in exploiting. You have to come to the show/game to really see what I’m grappling with here. New Stages for Dance is granting me freedom to really delve into all these ideas by lifting some of the financial burden and freeing me up to concentrate more on the content verses the production of the work. That is a huge gift.”

Visit herenowdancecollective.com for more information on the upcoming shows of This Is Dedicated or to place a pledge/bet for a dancer/charity.

This Is Dedicated will perform June 21-23 at CounterPULSE in San Francisco.

Combining It All: An Interview with Antony Rizzi

Dancer-actor-visual-artist extraordinaire Antony Rizzi is coming February 7-9 to KUNST-STOFF arts to perform An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater with Pina Arcade Smith, his recent piece where he simultaneously plays choreographer Pina Bausch, performance artist Penny Arcade and filmmaker Jack Smith. American born, Rizzi worked with [William] Forsythe from 1985-2003 before branching off to make his own choreography. Still based in Frankfurt, Rizzi and I talked online recently, where I learned more about his artistic approach and his perspectives on dance.

Pictured: Tony Rizzi Photo by Thomas Brucher

Pictured: Tony Rizzi
Photo by Thomas Brucher

Emmaly Wiederholt: How would you characterize your artistic priorities right now?
Antony Rizzi: Umm gosh. Well, I want to say cooking. That’s my joke line.

I love to combine it all. I love to combine theater, dance, film and photographs. I like to mix all the things that I do. My last work was all about prostitution in dance and how that’s happening again. The birth of modern ballet, Nijinsky, started with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. All the ballerinas in the Paris Opera would go to the finest hotels to sell themselves after a show. Prostitution was big and Nijinsky was a prostitute, being passed around until he finally met Diaghilev and they said, “Hey let’s change the ballet world.” And it’s actually kind of happening again. I don’t know about the states but in Europe a lot of my students are supplementing their income by prostituting themselves.

It’s what pops up in my brain that needs to be talked about at the moment. Seeing Penny Arcade, the performance artist, perform when I was quite young at 27 in a piece called Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! made a big fan out of me. That’s why in An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater half of me is Penny Arcade. The other half is Pina Bausch. I feel both of them really grab for compassion and for issues, although Pina is much more abstract and Penny is more direct commentary. And then I threw Jack Smith into the mix. Not because I knew Jack Smith, but I have been compared to him. Penny Arcade was good friends with him and took care of him when he was dying, so I’d heard her imitate his voice for years.

But to go back to your question, I’m always trying to communicate a certain message or reminder, always trying to remember what it is to be a human being. At the moment I’m trying to do a performance inside my apartment. I have a very beautiful, large, old, pre-war apartment and the whole room is covered with polaroids. It was for a performance in my apartment last year. I’m trying to figure out how to do a new performance here that incorporates food, a very intimate show for like ten people. The show last year was great. We only did 8 shows and we made $5000. We had people pay what they wanted and people paid $100, saying, “This was the best thing I’ve seen in years.”

EW: You come from a ballet background. When during your career did you find yourself delving into more theatrical and experimental dance/performance art? What was the transition like?
AR: I was always taking photographs as a kid. I wanted to be an actor. Then I saw Baryshnikov dance and suddenly I said, “I want to do that.” I started very late at 16. I got offered jobs at Les Ballets Trockadero or Frankfurt Ballet, and I chose Frankfurt Ballet. That first year we hardly danced at all. It was all very strange weird productions. I remember learning this piece where there was screaming and I just started laughing. You know, like, what the hell is this? So I think it was through my experience working with Forsythe and seeing the work of Pina Bausch which blew my mind as a twenty-year-old, seeing the combination of theater and dance. And for me that was always my problem with dance: how do I get the thought across with just a movement? Seeing Pina Bausch’s work I saw how it could be incorporated. In the work of Forsythe I just thought it was this weird thing. I had no idea what it looked like. I had no idea the power of it. Back then people hated it. Everybody was walking out and booing. They hated us. It was so radical. And then slowly it flipped. I was just talking about that today, how those first ten years of the company we weren’t really famous and people were joining because they believed in Billy, not because it was joining the cool company. I’m not saying that after that was bad, but those first ten years were an amazing, mind blowing experience.

EW: Do you still take ballet class? How would you characterize your personal relationship with ballet right now?
AR: I still love it. I still love taking class when the teacher is good. I took class today. I love teaching it and I love taking it. I think it’s also because it’s the only training I ever did. I became a modern dancer just from throwing myself around with Forsythe. We always made fun of modern class. We were such ballet snobs. And you know, after improvising with Forsythe for years on deconstructing lines and shape and understanding that we’re drawing space, suddenly my ballet got really good. From doing all the weird stuff my approach towards ballet became this whole other thing. And that’s what I try to get to my students. It’s too positional, the ballet world. I can see why a lot of people are afraid of it. When people take my class they say that, they say “I’m so afraid of ballet and you make it so approachable.” There’s so much great leg work that modern dancers don’t get, that articulation, which makes them richer. I just saw Sidi Larbi, he’s a choreographer from Belgium, and he was choreographer of the year. I saw his work and whatever, I didn’t like the work so much but the dancers were great. There was no real definition in their style. There are all these companies that mix everything; it’s hip-hop-yoga-ballet-jazz, and let’s put some talk in it too. It’s a big mix now. I always tell my students, go take anything. Take tap dancing. It will make you richer and you’ll be a better tool for choreographers. I don’t know what it’s like over there but here the dancers make up so much material. The director is more like an editor.

EW: What is your general process when you build a piece? Do you have a signature way of working?
AR: Usually I have an idea. Like this Pina Bausch piece, I was in Rome and I met an old girlfriend who was a baby ballerina in Boston. She’s a nun now and I hung out with these nuns in Rome and I was blown away. I said to myself, I need to make a piece about them. They’re so focused on love. I really got excited about their way of life and I wondered who else lives like that. I try to live like that. Pina Bausch lived like that. And from there it goes, and usually it goes quite quickly. It depends who I’m working with. That piece was made in 4 days. Snowman Sinking, the piece I do with my mother was made in a week. I have ideas in my brain; a certain subject matter is resonating in my head. And I’m taking pictures that matter too, even though I don’t realize it. And it all just starts to flow together. Usually it’s a point about something. I tend to be very critical of the world. I’ve always been critical. It used to drive my father crazy. I wanted to be a movie critic when I was a kid. And so I’m taking that criticism and using it as an instigating point. The Pina Bausch piece is very much a lecture on avant-garde of the past and present, and I think it’s very important for young artists to see the work. It talks about success and failure, this ca-pitalistic idea of success, how it’s just destroyed the Bohemian art world.

EW: When you work with a dancer or collaborator, do you take their training into consideration, or their personal charisma?
AR: Personal charisma, what kind of personality they are, whether they’re creative. Being musical is also important, it’s half the battle. I once did a performance with Forsythe called The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. We had some strong ballet dancers in the company and he made this killer ballet. And he said he wanted me to do it. So I had fun going back to super ballet world. And at dress rehearsal Billy Forsythe came up to me and said “Jesus Christ you’re so fucking musical! It looks like you’ve got technique.” And I thought to myself, I’m going to take that as a compliment.

EW: What trends do you see emerging in contemporary dance/theater/art that you are most excited about?
AR: I’ve seen a lot of pieces that just don’t have any content. They’ve got some sort of concept behind it but it looks too much to me like, “We’re going to do a piece with rugs, so what can we do with a rug?” Interesting is the role of performance art and people going into states of being onstage. I find that’s a new element. And I see tons of people copying the Forsythe stuff. I just saw Wayne McGregor do a lecture and I actually complained on his Facebook, “You know you could have given some comment you got this from Forsythe who got it from Laban.” The other thing I’ve found with Forsythe’s work that’s affected dance is a fluid extreme elastic movement. I’m getting so bored. I just want people to fall down once in a while. Or be uncoordinated. In America people don’t really know Forsythe so well. They just know him from the ballet. But that’s like 1/8 of what we did. I mean, let’s be honest, America’s five years behind. And that’s fine. It can catch up. It’s not like a race. But things have advanced a lot over here the way people perform with this whole thing of talking onstage. People have really developed that, and not just like “Oh I’m going to talk on stage.” It’s one of the lines in the show when I’m Penny Arcade and I say “I’m the godmother of performance art. I know what you’re thinking, a bunch of dancers that are going to start talking. I can feel your pain already.” This performance is really a play with dance. It’s not a dance piece. We just performed it in Munich and people were in shock. It’s very audience participatory. They have to do the lights, they have to help me with costumes, and they have to play Jack Smith for a while because I’ve had difficulty playing three roles at once so it’s very give and take. I made it in 4 days, I don’t have time for a lighting man, I’ll just call out cues to a stranger in the audience. It’s very makeshift.

Antony Rizzi’s, An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater with Pina Arcade Smith will be presented at KUNST-STOFF arts, February 7-9. kunst-stoff.org

Niagara Falling: An Aerial Look at Urban Decline

What do San Francisco and the town of Niagara Falls have in common? Not much. Located on opposite sides of the country with contrasting population sizes, climates, cultures, and demographics, there are more obvious differences than similarities. However this coming September 26-29 San Francisco may realize it has more in common with Niagara Falls than it thinks, as Flyaway Productions presents “Niagara Falling” in conjunction with video artists David and Hi-Jin Hodge. Presented as part of Dancers’ Group’s ONSITE series, a program designed to bring dance to the general public through free, highly accessible site-specific dance, Flyaway Productions’ dancers will be soaring up the west side of the Renoir Hotel on 7th Street and Market in Niagara Falling.

David and Hi-Jin Hodge hail from Niagara Falls, the noted tourist destination that has in recent decades experienced extreme urban decay. With abandoned homes, shuttered storefronts, vacant lots, rampant unemployment, and chemical seepage, the township of Niagara Falls has received much attention in the past few years for its increasingly dire state. The parallels between San Francisco and Niagara Falls become more obvious to anyone who has ever had the luxury of strolling through the 7th Street and Market intersection: both could use a pick me up.

“My inspiration is the economic collapse we are currently living though. I want to find a way to touch my own fear and frustration at how our cities are failing, who is at fault in the macro political economy, and also how people are fighting for repair and for justice in urban areas,” says Jo Kreiter, artistic director of Flyaway Productions.

Niagara Falling is an artistic response to the economic degradation of our current recession. I am furious about tax cuts to millionaires, inaccessible healthcare, and houses lost to bank greed. With Niagara Falling I am choosing the artistic tools I’ve cultivated over the last 25 years to harness my outrage into something useful. I want to bring an artistic lens to the growing gaps between American wealth and deprivation and to cultivate an artistic response to economic degradation via a national story. Niagara Falls started its decline with the Love Canal tragedy in the mid 1970’s, while San Francisco is tumbling slowly away from its own grandeur. By focusing on these two cities, I hope to make the strongest case possible for the need to act now to reverse a national underinvestment in public infrastructure and community health.”
The piece comes at a time when economics is at the forefront of many people’s minds. But Niagara Falling goes deeper than money or the lack thereof. Niagara Falling tackles the idea of dignity; the right of a people and a place to exist with dignity, a theme often lacking in the traditional poverty narrative. Kreiter and her team of artists have sought to keep the integrity of the victims of urban decline alive through extensive interviews from residents of San Francisco’s central Market area. This includes the Tenderloin neighborhood north of Market and the 6th Street corridor to its south. From Big Face, a homeless resident of 6th Street, who detailed the dour “dominion of 6th Street”, to Civil Rights Attorney Bryan Stevenson’s assertion that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice,” the piece becomes a collection of viewpoints and perspectives, exalting the personal histories in what is happening to our cities and towns in this era of financial crisis.

The artistic scope of Niagara Falling is impressive. The Hodge’s video components will be projected from the balcony of the Art Institute, 80 feet from the Renoir building performance wall. Rigging designer Karl Gillick has designed a site-specific rigging plan for the Renoir Hotel’s roof that will facilitate the use of chain hoists for the dancers. These industrial chain hoists haul the dancers up the side of the Renoir Hotel to simulate swimming against the force of the Falls and the Pacific Ocean’s massive swells. Dancers include Jennifer Chien, Caity Beard, Sandia Langlois, SAM Lucky, and Michelle Wong as well as Marina Fukushima in the film projections. Award-winning composers Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi have created an original composition to create a complimentary soundscape to the visual scenery.

Kreiter spoke of her artistic goals: “The oral history process has been central to my choreography, but so far has been confined to sound. Having worked on four projects with tape-recorded and digitally recorded voice, I wanted to expand my visual and documentary palette to include film so that my choreographic language could expand as well. I look forward to the confluence of filmed images with the dancers’ physicality as their bodies are launched up a building via hoists and pulleys. The suspended apparatus I chose for this piece (steel framed life jackets and the shell of a life boat) will provide me with provocative challenges for movement invention, timing, and spacing as I fully integrate the choreography with the visual content of the film on a concrete ‘screen’ that is about 30 feet high by 50 feet wide. The piece integrates documentary style oral history interviews, suspended dancing with props/sets designed to invoke images of rescue, collaged film images, and some experimental film angles. The dance elements are designed to bring real time humanity to the project, as well as a sense of risk. We are trying to include both documentary and abstracted artistic elements, so that fantasy and reality create the narrative for the whole.”

This inspiring coming-together of artists and mediums does more than wow with its awing visual effects; it educates, inspires, and informs the route we must take if we want to solve urban decline. Gentrification has become an increasingly heated topic in recent years as it often displaces the very people most in need of aid. By highlighting the voices of the homeless and poor and by presenting the piece in the heart of the very district of decay, “Niagara Falling” doesn’t advise opening more chic shops and restaurants as the answer to urban degradation. It speaks to something much deeper than throwing money at the lack of money, because what is really missing is not lack of money but lack of care and foresight from the leaders we entrusted. This repeatedly plays out on the local, state, and national level. Niagara Falling is not only a social piece but a political piece as well. By spotlighting two communities that are the victims of ongoing greed and corruption, Niagara Falling demonstrates the outward consequences of social injustice, avarice, apathy, and pure carelessness. It depicts a broken political and social system in need of evaluation and renewal.

Niagara Falling is performed September 26-29 at 8:30pm and then again at 9:30pm. It is not to be missed, as it serves to remind us of what’s often swept under the rug and hidden in the closet. It’s free, and it provides the opportunity to take in the grandeur of a historic landmark amongst a community that needs our solidarity more than ever. May you take the message and compassion of “Niagara Falling” home with you and into your daily life. Perhaps if our leaders can’t make a positive difference we can begin to ourselves. It can begin with Niagara Falling.

AXIS’ Scope: What Lies Ahead

Three years ago I had the opportunity to dance with AXIS as a community dancer in David Dorfman’s Light Shelter. The experience was pivotal. Coming from a dance background steeped in ballet with its emphasis on youth and ability, AXIS taught me that I needn’t be so precious about my body. I learned that rigorous dance can exist in any body, whether that body be confined to a wheelchair or otherwise restricted in what it can do.

Over the past three years of watching AXIS perform around the community, I’ve grown to consider AXIS’ dancers and staff some of my personal heroes for their commitment to making dance that is in league with other companies in artistic rigor but that also brings dance to a segment of the population which would otherwise not be exposed to it: the disabled community.

However, AXIS is currently in transition; two disabled mainstays of the company, Alice Sheppard and Rodney Bell, are leaving the company for new horizons. And while I will surely miss their presence in Bay Area dance, I am also excited to see what the future holds for AXIS.

Joel Brown is the newest addition to the AXIS family. Artistic director Judith Smith filled me in on Brown’s background: “Joel Brown is one of our new dancers and he is relocated from Utah. His brother and mother are dancers, and his father is a gymnast. He was injured in a car accident when he was about nine. He’s danced some with his brother but he’s also a singer/songwriter so we’re excited to have someone in the company with singing and musical talents.

“Most of our disabled dancers that come to us have very little dance training and are new to dance. We have been very fortunate to find people who don’t have a lot of experience but who have potential and pick things up really fast. Joel has in fact performed before and done quite a bit of dance with his brother. I’m absolutely confident in his abilities. He’s already learned two or three repertoire pieces and most of our assembly program.”

The other newest AXIS dancer, who has yet to arrive, is a young woman from Austria who is an amputee. “I’m really looking forward to having a little more physical diversity in the company. Having an amputee dancer will add a whole new dimension and bring something back to our movement vocabulary that I’ve been missing,” said Smith.

Choreographically, AXIS has one of the most forward-thinking commissioning programs in the Bay Area. Every year AXIS commissions different choreographers to create new work on the company. Last year Europe-based Marc Brew created Full of Words, a piece that evoked different movement dialogues in different environments (a living room, a table and chairs, and a bathroom). The resulting piece was electric in its use of space, interactions, and differently-abled bodies.

This year audiences can expect more great work from AXIS. “We’re going to be working with Victoria Marks on a new piece in collaboration with Beth Custer (she’s from San Francisco and she’s done a lot of music for different dancers and choreographers, including Joe Goode). We’re also going to be doing a piece with Amy Seiwert,” Smith said. Victoria Marks is a professor of choreography in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA. Amy Seiwert is a locally based choreographer and is the artistic director of Imagery.

In addition, Alex Ketley (artistic director of The Foundry) will be creating a new duet for AXIS. Ketley has previously been commissioned by AXIS; his duet To Color Me Different (2008) on dancers Sonsheree Giles and Rodney Bell won a 2009 Isadora Duncan Award for Ensemble Performance as well as brought AXIS televised acclaim when it was performed on So You Think You Can Dance in 2011.

While these new dancers and upcoming choreographic projects bode an exciting future year for AXIS, in the meantime audiences can experience AXIS in all its distinctiveness this August 3 as part of the Rotunda Dance Series. The Rotunda Dance Series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West, is a series of free lunchtime performances performed at the San Francisco City Hall. AXIS will be performing Terre Brune, choreographed by Sonya Delwaide, The Narrowing, choreographed by Sebastian Grubb, Point to Something, choreographed by Sonsheree Giles, and a structured improvisation. Improvisation is one of the key practices of the company; with so many different bodies and ability levels to contend with, AXIS uses improvisation as an important tool for negotiating different approaches to movement.

Associate Director and dancer Sonsheree Giles related to me how AXIS hones improvisation as an indelible practice of the company. “Improvisation is often used as a group warm-up. It is also often the basis of generating movement for choreographers as well as movement invention. It is how the company works as an ensemble to build trust as well as to listen and develop a common language. We usually use a structured score with pre-determined rules; we take turns leading, directing, and developing new scores. We explore by playing and finding things that are challenging, fun and/or satisfying. We practice improvising all the time. Even traditional dance classes for us still have a heavy component of improvisation because everyone is in a unique body. We have to make choreography work for each unique person. Therefore improvising is a skill we practice, develop and craft in order to best communicate, listen and dance.” Watching how different bodies cope with different choreographic tasks is one of the most interesting and inspiring aspects of AXIS’ movement practice and repertoire.

In addition to attending the Rotunda Series, anyone interested in getting involved with AXIS can partake in AXIS’ education and outreach programs. AXIS hosts an annual summer intensive program, as well as ongoing creative dance classes for kids, teens, and adults. Outreach is an important component of AXIS’ mission, and classes are geared toward contact improvisation, creative dance technique, choreography, and performance skills.

Between improvising and practicing repertoire, reaching out and educating adults and children in the Bay Area community, performing at events like the Rotunda Series, and commissioning and creating new works, AXIS has its hands full. Few companies and institutions in the Bay Area have the same breadth of reach and distinctiveness of mission as AXIS, and I am excited to watch the company grow and flourish in the years ahead.

And while I will miss Bell and Sheppard’s spellbinding presence, their exit in no way signals a dip in AXIS’ vitality. “It’s always a mixed thing when dancers come and go with this company because we do have to put repertoire away for a while. Our repertoire is really very much built on the people who are there making the piece. Sometimes we’re able to keep repertoire pieces going and sometimes we’re not and there’s a few that we’re putting away. It’s always sad when people come and go but there are also new opportunities that open up,” commented Smith.

AXIS’ slogan “Prepare to leave all your preconceptions at the door…” has proven so true. Thanks to AXIS, my preconceptions about who can dance and what dance is have dramatically changed. I know now that dance is limitless in what it can do.

Emmaly Wiederholt moved to the Bay Area in 2008 to study under Summer Lee Rhatigan at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. She currently dances with Malinda LaVelle’s Project Thrust and writes about dance for the San Francisco Examiner and for stanceondance.com.

Juneteenth: A Celebration to Remember

It was June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas. Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger arrived with news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved were now free, a full two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The shock and jubilation that followed has come to be known as Juneteenth, a combination of “June” and “nineteenth”. Almost one-hundred-fifty years later, Juneteenth has grown into a widely celebrated holiday of African American freedom and achievement, while also encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures.

Here in the Bay Area dance community, we have a Juneteenth celebration of our own through Grown Women Dance Collective. Grown Women Dance Collective is a group of former professional dancers who came together in 2009 to provide a safe space for mature, female dancers to create beautiful work in that is accessible and relevant to diverse audiences. Founded by veteran dancer Tonya Maria Amos along with Michelle Ned & Marisa Castillo, and Eurydice Ross, three of the women met at Alvin Ailey American Dance Center over twenty years ago and sought to eventually find a place that celebrated and supported African American culture through dance.

Says Amos: “Michelle and I spoke about creating art for years and noted about ten years ago how many ‘greats’ we were losing in the African American community. We decided to create a dance concert to honor them and their contributions to American culture. June was the perfect time to do this, as I saw a huge void in the community for Juneteenth celebrations.”

Based in Contra Costa, Grown Women Dance Collective brings Juneteenth to an area of the Bay that has less in the way of cultural dance performances and celebrations. “We have been urged each year to move the concert to San Francisco/ Berkeley/ Oakland where it would flourish easily, but we are hard-headed and believe that Contra Costa also deserves the arts and cross cultural family events,” asserts Amos.

This year’s Juneteenth will be on Saturday, June 30 at 8pm at the Willows Theatre in Concord and seeks to honor notable African American music artists who have died since 2000. Amos describes the program as follows: “The program honors about 35 musical geniuses through multimedia (photos projected on a screen, quotes about their lives and accomplishments) and dance. There are about ten artists that are honored through concert dance: live drumming to Miriam Makeba, a Lena Horne solo, a Ray Charles solo, Luther Vandross’ ‘Dance with my Father’- an amazing experience where I get to dance a duet with my dad (a sixty-seven year old ex-basketball player), an en pointe pas de deux to Run DMC (Jam Master Jay), a Michael Jackson solo, a Whitney Houston solo, ‘Amazing Grace’ sung by a talented singer, and a group piece to Nina Simone cut with Timbaland. The program opens with an intro and history of Juneteenth and ends with a Black History photo montage from slavery to Barack Obama set to James Brown’s ‘Living in America’.

“What started as a labor of love has grown into a really fun, uplifting, family-friendly evening honoring amazing African American musical artists that have impacted the fabric of American life. We fly in several dancers from New York (all in their forties) who I’ve worked with in different companies. This year we have two dancers coming in from San Diego, one of the most respected ballerina’s in Mexico, and the first African American to play with the Metropolitan Opera (she retired from the SF Symphony at seventy-two and is now eighty-four years old)!”

Performers include Renee Monique Brown, Mindy Haywood, Aliyah Hassan, Daniel Marshall, Jessica Raaum, Aundrea Seidel Duron, and Elayne Jones. In addition to the evening performance of dance and music, GWDC is also holding a silent auction to try to raise funds. Through increased funds and awareness, GWDC hopes to eventually expand its one day festival into a partnership with local history, music and dance teachers and to present Black History Month lesson plans in the schools.

Despite its limited size and funding, in the past four years since its inception Juneteenth has managed to bring awareness and appreciation to African American cultures in Contra Costa by bridging generations and cultures, particularly the older generation with the younger generation, and by introducing concert dance to usually non-dance attending audiences.

“We’re hoping that the audience experiences the power and beauty of concert dance and the cross cultural bridges that it can form. It’s amazing how people who may never have had a conversation with someone of a different race soon starts swaying to the music, talking and hugging their neighbors who were strangers just an hour ago,” describes Amos.

Thus the Juneteenth performance celebration in Contra Costa reflects the larger themes of the Juneteenth holiday: jubilation, personal empowerment, freedom in many forms, and the betterment of a community. “Through the arts we have a huge opportunity to change people’s awareness and impact cross cultural relations. This work has a solid effect on the community, as it allows people of all backgrounds to come together, learn, share and grow. We are proud to build cross cultural bridges and expose Contra Costa County to concert dance. By raising awareness of African American struggle and triumph, it highlights much of the joy and common experiences that we all share as Americans,” reflects Amos.

The many facets of American cultural diversity and awareness have flourished and grown so much from those first liberated slaves in the years following the Civil War. The past one-hundred-fifty years has seen struggle, growth, and empowerment in African American communities and other communities that share a downtrodden history. Through important events like Grown Women Dance Collective’s Juneteenth performance, this trend of growth and awareness can only continue. Whatever the next one-hundred-fifty years brings, it will be thanks in part to performances like Juneteenth that prioritizes educating, bridging, and ultimately celebrating the myriad of communities that comprises our unique cultural identity.

Emmaly Wiederholt moved to the Bay Area in 2008 to study under Summer Lee Rhatigan at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. She currently dances with Malinda LaVelle’s Project Thrust and writes about dance for the San Francisco Examiner and for stanceondance.com.

The Art of Watching: An Investigation Into Response & Criticism

A dance piece has two lives: there is the process culminating in the performance, and then there is the reception after the performance. And while much attention is focused on process and product, very little attention is focused on viewership. Yes, how we make and present dance is an important consideration, but equally important is the art of viewing dance.

While there are many ways of dancing, from ethnic to classical to improvisational, the contemporary field is perhaps most involved in the making of new dance. So although understanding viewership is relevant to all dance forms, contemporary dance is an easy place to begin inquiring into viewership because most contemporary dance is newly choreographed.

In order to better understand dance viewership, I posed these questions to fifteen contemporary Bay Area choreographers: “How useful is criticism and critique to you and in what form? What do you feel is a valuable response to your work? How do you try to view and approach other people’s work?” In posing these questions I sought to better understand the dynamics between choreographer and audience. Below are nine general issues that came up as a result of my inquiry.

1. Choreographers appreciate and recognize the important of dance criticism, both published and in person.
“To offer ways to open perception, both to the artists and the audiences: it’s the hardest thing and the most valuable thing that writers do for dance. It is a rare and wonderful gift for a community to have a dance critic whose literary voice is balanced by a rigorously studied dance background. A writer who has personally experienced an extensive physical practice or who has studied dance theory, history, and the body politic can inevitably lend readers an understanding of a dance’s subtleties.” -Kara Davis, Project Agora

“The observers of art play a vital role in defining the meaning of the work. There is chemistry, an esoteric relationship that develops when an audience is present. Without this I am not sure what art would be. To have conversations (criticism and feedback) about what is seen seems essential.” -KT Nelson, ODC

“I feel very strongly that I’m making work for an audience; I’m making work for people to watch. Yes it’s important what I want to do but sometimes I can become blinded by what I want to do and I need an outside eye to say, ‘Well I didn’t get that-in fact no one in the room did.'” -Jenny McAllister, Thirteenth Floor Dance Theater

2. There is questioning about the conscientiousness of dance reviewers.
“The criticism that I’m attracted to comes from the vantage point of honestly caring about the person it is being directed towards, and the form in general, for its betterment. In the same way that dance and art in general draws its strength from a real sense of consciousness, sometimes I don’t know if I feel like formal dance reviews really understand where they land in the overall ecology of dance.” -Alex Ketley, The Foundry

“Most choreographers do one really big program a year that is 6-8 months in the making. They pour all their resources and their self into that program. Then a critic sees it once and puts it in the paper for 3 million people to read about. And it overshadows everything the choreographer has done. Somehow the power distribution is off.” -Robert Moses, Robert Moses’ Kin

3. There is a common sense of detachment and passivity toward formal reviews.
“In my earlier days of directing I craved reviews of my work. I felt validation that someone who writes for any newsprint would come see the show and write about it. After all, if you make work, someone should review it or it was almost like it never happened. This is how I thought. Fast forward ten years, and I have toggled between seeking press reviews and not bothering to put out a press release of any sort. The years when I did not seek press did not seem to affect my ticket sales or my standing in the dance community.” -Sue Li Jue, Facing East Dance and Music

“Most dance criticism seems to fall down to the very basic and superficial level of initial responses: good/bad, liked/didn’t like, entertaining/boring, high production values/low production values, successful at meeting expectations/unsuccessful at meeting expectations, etc.” – Eric Kupers, Dandelion Dancetheater

4. A primary use of reviews is for generating more performance opportunities.
“At this point dance criticism seems mostly useful to me because if my work is reviewed I can use copies of the reviews in grant proposals. This is a sad state of affairs that I hope can change.” -Eric Kupers, Dandelion Dancetheater

“Most of the way artists get opportunities is through hearsay. I know several examples of artists who suddenly had all this work simply because people heard they’re doing great work, and
some of that is from press.” -Catherine Galasso

5. Dance criticism that contextualizes the dance performance is particularly appreciated.
“Because dance is deeply rooted in history, tradition, and discipline, it’s useful when dance critics write about dance within a context. It situates my work into context with other people’s work. Other people before me have established their work and their art so that I can move forward in my own work and art. I appreciate those critics that are able to take and interpret my work and put it into a larger frame.” -Manuelito Biag, Shift Physical Theater

“I find criticism useful when it provides a context for the insights. Maybe the dance maker’s history has been researched, or, better still, experienced first-hand. Maybe there is something else known about the dance maker; perhaps she/he has had a performing career or career outside the dance world that has informed the work. Are there other works, written, performative, or otherwise, that are invoked? What are the politics revealed?”
-Christy Funsch, Funsch Dance Experience

6. By and large, most choreographers depend on responses from colleagues and non-dancers for insight into their work, non-dancer opinions being particularly prized.
“There are two people who I really depend on feedback from. The first is people who say they don’t know anything about dance but will finally say that one part reminded them of something. These types of responses are helpful because the person has no patterning about what is good and bad work. The second type of response I find invaluable is from colleagues who share similar values. It is a small group of people who I depend on to say ‘this is where your intention gets lost’ or ‘you bring this out in this dancer.'”
-Nina Haft, Nina Haft and Company

“Some of the most honest, useful, albeit harshest, feedback I’ve received has come from non-arts people.”
-Randee Paufve, Paufve Dance

“I get a lot of valuable information from people who aren’t in dance. I think it’s sometimes hard for dancers to really see work because of preconceived ideas of what dance is supposed to be.”
-Catherine Galasso

7. It is important to keep in mind the temporal nature of live viewership.
“Because the form itself is so temporal, there are so many elements that come together to make that moment. I may have a stomach ache when I saw your show or the air conditioning was off and it affected my mood.” -Manuelito Biag, Shift Physical Theater

“I find so much of how we respond to performance has to do with our own time- based experience. If we are hungry or cranky or distracted it is very difficult to be a generous witness.” -Christy Funsch, Funsch Dance Experience

8. It is difficult to escape one’s personal aesthetic.
“In viewing other’s work I don’t try to remove my aesthetic because that’s impossible and absurd. If someone is asking for feedback, I usually ask questions, hoping that will be enough of a mirror to help edge the maker along.”
-Michelle Fletcher, Here Now Dance Collective

“There’s a difference between seeing work through your life’s kaleidoscope versus wishing work would fit inside of it.”
-Malinda LaVelle, Project Thrust

9. It is important to consider how one gives feedback.
“I find that the most helpful form of criticism for me is one embedded into the creative process itself as creative discourse.”
-Macklin Kowal

“Many times we blind ourselves to really seeing the work in front of us because we are unconsciously evaluating it by deciding what we would have done differently had we been the creator. But for me at least, that’s not why art exists.” -Malinda LaVelle, Project Thrust

“It is a delicate thing to offer feedback. It is a listening gesture. It is trying to be open to the intent of the artist; noticing what kind of feedback might be useful at that time; maybe even asking the artist what they need from you.” -KT Nelson, ODC

From this myriad of responses it is clear that dance criticism, whether published or private, plays an important role in the ecosystem of dance and as a result should strive to be as conscientious as choreography itself. Responses that are contextual, associative, or emotionally-based best serve to engage choreographer and viewer alike.

I challenge myself, my fellow dancers, and the tireless choreographers, writers, presenters, and audiences of dance to be as conscientious in viewership and response as possible. Perhaps we can begin to be more aware of our preconceptions and personal preferences and stop ourselves before thinking, “I would have liked to see…” and instead respond to what we are in fact seeing. It cannot simply be the job of choreographers and dancers to make dance the best it can be. Viewers must play their own important role in furthering the art of dance.

Much thanks to the choreographers for selflessly sharing their perspectives and thoughts.

Emmaly Wiederholt moved to the Bay Area in 2008 to study under Summer Lee Rhatigan at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. She currently dances with Malinda LaVelle’s Project Thrust and writes about dance for the San Francisco Examiner and for stanceondance.com.

The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble

The dancers enter the space in couples, men and women paired together. They nod at one another in greeting before beginning to dance. They are clad in white blouses with respective pants or skirts. Aprons, vests, and hats in the brightest of primary colors accent their garments. A band comprised of accordionists, a violinist, a clarinetist and a bassist starts up a lively polka. The song is short but quickly followed by another song, a slight shift in mood and rhythm. The dancers change their demeanor appropriately. As the tune shifts again and again, from majestic to solemn to homey to celebratory to ceremonial to romantic, the dancers in turn sing, gesture, sway and jump. The end result is a feeling of community and camaraderie, of people dancing the ups and downs of life together. This is the Polish Biale Podlasie Suite.

The Biale Podlasie Suite is just one of many dances that the San Francisco based Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble keep in their repertoire. The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble (pronounced Who-vee-chah-nya) was established in 1975 and currently is Resident Dance Company of the Polish Club, an organization dedicated to serving the Bay Area Polish community since 1926. The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble’s current repertoire consists of approximately thirty-five regional dances, each with its own variation in style, costume, and music.

The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble will be presenting the Biale Podlasie Suite (a suite is a series of dances from the same region) and other traditional Polish dances at city hall this May 4th at noon as part of Dancers’ Group’s Rotunda Dance Series. The Rotunda Dance Series regularly presents various dance artists from around the Bay Area in San Francisco city hall’s open rotunda area. The lunchtime performances are always free and attract a variety of students, city councilors, local businessmen, tourists, and random passersby.
The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble strives to be as authentic as possible in their reproduction of traditional Polish dance. For the Ensemble, there is an educational aspect that goes beyond simply entertaining audiences and preserving the culture. Mary Kay Stuvland, artistic director and choreographer for the Ensemble, expressed how the preservation of traditional Polish dance and other traditional dance forms is “vitally important to understanding our immigrant culture and expressing our cultural roots.”

Stuvland, who has been associated with the Ensemble since 1979, spoke of how she often encounters prejudice in the greater arts community against traditional forms as if they were lesser forms, as though dance that is historic and recreational isn’t relevant or real. “Relevant is what moves people and makes them happy or sad. And when I stand in my Krakowiak costume that I’ve performed in for the last thirty years I most definitely feel real.

“In East-Central Europe (of which Poland is a part), Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, folklore traditions are still very much a part of people’s lives. In Poland, for example, the Highlanders of the Tartry Mountains wear their traditional dress for all important occasions such as weddings, baptisms, church holidays and festivals. These are literally living traditions-one can mark the changes in fashion and in styles of singing and dancing. This is also the case in the Eastern border regions. In other areas of Poland, the traditional forms of dress, music, song, and dance are universally recognized at the regional level, and many elderly still wear traditional dress on Sundays and engage in the long-held holiday customs each year. As recently as 20 years ago, women and girls of all ages in the heart of Poland (the Lowicz district, from which my group takes its name) walked to Sunday Mass naturally dressed in full national costume, or elements of that costume such as a cape and scarf.”

Stuvland and her associates in the Ensemble aim to bridge the gap between Polish citizens who still have a very tangible relationship to their traditional dances and the contemporary San Franciscan with Polish heritage. One of the ways the Ensemble facilitates this is through rehearsals that are regularly open to the general public. Every Tuesday evening from 7:30-10:30 the Ensemble rehearses at the
Polish Club (3040 22nd Street, San Francisco, CA) and anyone is invited to watch and partake.

The Polish Club rehearsals and the Rotunda Dance Series are just two examples of the many ways in which the Ensemble shares traditional Polish dance with the greater Bay Area. They have also been found performing at a variety of venues including libraries, churches, conferences, festivals, and operas. “There is a value in understanding people through culture beyond political discourse. We’re in a unique position here in the Bay Area; we’re a part of a cultural fabric that’s among the richest in the United States,” says Stuvland. The Lowiczanie Polish Folk Dance Ensemble is just one of the many gems of the traditional dance community that keeps the connection to immigrant roots as well as preserves and shares the timeless tradition of dancing.

For more info visit polishfolk.org

Israel Gone Gaga: Batsheva to the Max

Float. Pull your bones. Smear your flesh on the ground. Connect to your pleasure. Quake. Stretch your face. Find the snake in your spine. Put a good taste in your mouth. Melt. Connect to your form. Take an ice cold shower. Boil like spaghetti. Find your groove. Above all, don’t stop moving.

These are some of the dictates of Gaga, the sensory-based movement language created by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Gaga, less a formal dance class and more a practice in building sensitivity, has become the principle approach to understanding movement at Batsheva. Batsheva, considered one of the premier contemporary dance companies in the world, finds its distinction not only in its repertoire but also in the interest that has sprung around Gaga in the past decade. From a little known outcropping of dancers in the Middle East, Gaga and Batsheva have grown to become a tour de force in dance, influencing movement and choreography everywhere they go.

Naharin, who began his tenure as artistic director of Batsheva in 1990, began playing with the components that now comprise Gaga many years ago in an attempt to find more access to movement in his body while recuperating from a back injury. The resulting Gaga is now the official training practice of Batsheva. Classes are an hour long and are basically a guided improvisation. Dancers are asked not to leave the room or stop and watch. In addition, there are no mirrors. This allows the dancers to let go of any inhibitions about what they may look like and dance from a more honest place.

The biggest edict of Gaga is to not stop moving, even if that consists simply of floating in space and letting the blood pulse. It is important to note that although motion is constant in Gaga class, Gaga is not necessarily meant to be cardiovascular. Rather, the movement builds and ebbs in waves, asking the dancers at times to physically push themselves and at other times to take inventory of their body’s capacity to feel. Unlike more conventional dance classes that consist of repeatedly doing a step or phrase and then stopping to evaluate, Gaga approaches dance as unlocking the body through movement.
Bobbi Jene Smith has been a dancer for Batsheva Dance Company since 2008. When asked how Gaga informs her understanding of dance, her answer reflected a rich, sensory soulfulness: “Since falling in love with Gaga my relationship and understanding of dance has flipped in the best way. Gaga has helped me to connect to something that I didn’t know I had lost. I didn’t know that dancing could feel so good and so necessary. Gaga creates a place for my body to run to. It connects my effort to my pleasure. My pain to my pleasure. My weakness to my passion. My texture to my form. It reminds me why I love to dance. It reminds me that I want to move people and be moved. I now see dance in everything and I know that I am always dancing. I used to have many rules of what I thought dance was. Now, I feel like I am dancing when I’m doing the dishes, when I’m laughing really hard, or when I’m sitting quiet. Dance is much larger than the choreography, or the training, or the performance. You don’t have to be a dancer to dance. Gaga gave me that (and it’s huge).”

Perhaps then the genius behind Batsheva’s Gaga is not that it is particularly new or innovative, but that it celebrates the universal human ability to feel on the strenuous level of professional contemporary dance. While technically engaging, Naharin’s choreography also demands a high level of sensory availability from the dancers, asking them to really embody a certain feeling and allow it to manifest in their bodies. When pressed about the relationship between Gaga and Naharin’s choreography on Batsheva, Smith replied that for her, “those things complete each other.” Gaga provides a means of deepening her understanding of what it means to move, while Naharin provides her with a demanding environment to move that way in.
Since 2008, Smith has been coming to the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance each summer as Naharin’s personal emissary to teach Gaga and Batsheva repertoire to the students enrolled in the summer intensive. In addition Gaga classes are routinely offered to the general public. In this way San Francisco became one of the first places outside of Tel Aviv to offer Gaga. Batsheva is understandably very protective of Gaga, and only people who have either danced with Batsheva or have spent time studying with the company are allowed to teach it. Through such restrictions Batsheva hopes to keep the practice of Gaga pure and not diluted from its founding precepts.

San Francisco will have the opportunity to experience Batsheva in all its Gaga glory this February 23-25 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Novellus Theater. Batsheva is touring Max, a piece that can best be characterized as percussive, masculine and aggressive. There is a tense kinetic energy to the dance, as if the air were electrically charged. Gestures, deep lunges, and a heightened sense of musicality are other distinguishing features in this highly physical work. Here it becomes obvious the link between Gaga and Batsheva. In the dancers one sees how available their physicality is to them. Having repeatedly plumbed the depths of sensation in Gaga, the dancers approach movement with a grounded openness making them both quick and thoughtful in movement. These dancers are beasts in their own right.

The luscious sensuality behind Gaga and the terse, forceful movement in Max are evidence of a larger dance movement happening in Israel of which Batsheva is only the most visible element. On the one hand, Gaga has become a movement phenomenon in Tel Aviv, with classes for non-dancers growing ever more popular with the general public. On the other hand, smaller Israeli-based dance companies like Inbal Pinto, Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and Barack Marhsall Theater Dance create similarly gestural, percussive, tense work. The Gaga craze contrasts the dominant mode of choreography: soft suppleness is juxtaposed with harsh choreographic attack. The result is a definitive dance style characterized by elasticity and adaptability. Perhaps a consequence of the tumult of the Middle East or of the long history of Judaism, there seems to be a decidedly Israeli approach to dance, an approach rooted in the history and instability of the region. In more ways than one, the movement coming out of Israel seems to be a reflection of the social and political environment.

Exposure to Gaga, Batsheva, and other choreography coming out of Israel can do more than simply teach dance enthusiasts about the latest trends in movement and choreography; it can also act as a cultural exchange. We can share what is current and germane in our respective cultures in the hope of building greater connectedness and understanding. Through Gaga classes in places like the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, in New York, and elsewhere abroad, and through Batsheva’s international touring schedule, a uniquely Israeli way of dancing can bear relevance on our own unique ways of dancing.

See Batsheva. Experience Gaga. While dance can indeed be fluid, pretty, and ethereal, it can also act as a cultural barometer for what’s important and what’s resonant, making dance not only a spectacle but also a cultural communion as well. By experiencing Gaga and Batsheva, participants and audiences have the opportunity to revel in the microcosm of Israeli dance as well as in the universality (inherent in Gaga) of the human body to feel and move.

For more information on Batsheva’s upcoming performances in San Francisco visit ybca.org. For more information on Gaga at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance visit sfconservatoryofdance.org.

Emmaly Wiederholt moved to the Bay Area in 2008 to study under Summer Lee Rhatigan at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. She currently dances with Malinda LaVelle’s Project Thrust and writes about dance at danceinthebayarea.blogspot.com.

Israel Gone Gaga: Batsheva to the Max

Float. Pull your bones. Smear your flesh on the ground. Connect to your pleasure. Quake. Stretch your face. Find the snake in your spine. Put a good taste in your mouth. Melt. Connect to your form. Take an ice cold shower. Boil like spaghetti. Find your groove. Above all, don’t stop moving.

These are some of the dictates of Gaga, the sensory-based movement language created by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Gaga, less a formal dance class and more a practice in building sensitivity, has become the principle approach to understanding movement at Batsheva. Batsheva, considered one of the premier contemporary dance companies in the world, finds its distinction not only in its repertoire but also in the interest that has sprung around Gaga in the past decade. From a little known outcropping of dancers in the Middle East, Gaga and Batsheva have grown to become a tour de force in dance, influencing movement and choreography everywhere they go.

Naharin, who began his tenure as artistic director of Batsheva in 1990, began playing with the components that now comprise Gaga many years ago in an attempt to find more access to movement in his body while recuperating from a back injury. The resulting Gaga is now the official training practice of Batsheva. Classes are an hour long and are basically a guided improvisation. Dancers are asked not to leave the room or stop and watch. In addition, there are no mirrors. This allows the dancers to let go of any inhibitions about what they may look like and dance from a more honest place.

The biggest edict of Gaga is to not stop moving, even if that consists simply of floating in space and letting the blood pulse. It is important to note that although motion is constant in Gaga class, Gaga is not necessarily meant to be cardiovascular. Rather, the movement builds and ebbs in waves, asking the dancers at times to physically push themselves and at other times to take inventory of their body’s capacity to feel. Unlike more conventional dance classes that consist of repeatedly doing a step or phrase and then stopping to evaluate, Gaga approaches dance as unlocking the body through movement.

Bobbi Jene Smith has been a dancer for Batsheva Dance Company since 2008. When asked how Gaga informs her understanding of dance, her answer reflected a rich, sensory soulfulness: “Since falling in love with Gaga my relationship and understanding of dance has flipped in the best way. Gaga has helped me to connect to something that I didn’t know I had lost. I didn’t know that dancing could feel so good and so necessary. Gaga creates a place for my body to run to. It connects my effort to my pleasure. My pain to my pleasure. My weakness to my passion. My texture to my form. It reminds me why I love to dance. It reminds me that I want to move people and be moved. I now see dance in everything and I know that I am always dancing. I used to have many rules of what I thought dance was. Now, I feel like I am dancing when I’m doing the dishes, when I’m laughing really hard, or when I’m sitting quiet. Dance is much larger than the choreography, or the training, or the performance. You don’t have to be a dancer to dance. Gaga gave me that (and it’s huge).”

Perhaps then the genius behind Batsheva’s Gaga is not that it is particularly new or innovative, but that it celebrates the universal human ability to feel on the strenuous level of professional contemporary dance. While technically engaging, Naharin’s choreography also demands a high level of sensory availability from the dancers, asking them to really embody a certain feeling and allow it to manifest in their bodies. When pressed about the relationship between Gaga and Naharin’s choreography on Batsheva, Smith replied that for her, “those things complete each other.” Gaga provides a means of deepening her understanding of what it means to move, while Naharin provides her with a demanding environment to move that way in.

Since 2008, Smith has been coming to the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance each summer as Naharin’s personal emissary to teach Gaga and Batsheva repertoire to the students enrolled in the summer intensive. In addition Gaga classes are routinely offered to the general public. In this way San Francisco became one of the first places outside of Tel Aviv to offer Gaga. Batsheva is understandably very protective of Gaga, and only people who have either danced with Batsheva or have spent time studying with the company are allowed to teach it. Through such restrictions Batsheva hopes to keep the practice of Gaga pure and not diluted from its founding precepts.

San Francisco will have the opportunity to experience Batsheva in all its Gaga glory this February 23-25 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Novellus Theater. Batsheva is touring Max, a piece that can best be characterized as percussive, masculine and aggressive. There is a tense kinetic energy to the dance, as if the air were electrically charged. Gestures, deep lunges, and a heightened sense of musicality are other distinguishing features in this highly physical work. Here it becomes obvious the link between Gaga and Batsheva. In the dancers one sees how available their physicality is to them. Having repeatedly plumbed the depths of sensation in Gaga, the dancers approach movement with a grounded openness making them both quick and thoughtful in movement. These dancers are beasts in their own right.

The luscious sensuality behind Gaga and the terse, forceful movement in Max are evidence of a larger dance movement happening in Israel of which Batsheva is only the most visible element. On the one hand, Gaga has become a movement phenomenon in Tel Aviv, with classes for non-dancers growing ever more popular with the general public. On the other hand, smaller Israeli-based dance companies like Inbal Pinto, Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and Barack Marhsall Theater Dance create similarly gestural, percussive, tense work. The Gaga craze contrasts the dominant mode of choreography: soft suppleness is juxtaposed with harsh choreographic attack. The result is a definitive dance style characterized by elasticity and adaptability. Perhaps a consequence of the tumult of the Middle East or of the long history of Judaism, there seems to be a decidedly Israeli approach to dance, an approach rooted in the history and instability of the region. In more ways than one, the movement coming out of Israel seems to be a reflection of the social and political environment.

Exposure to Gaga, Batsheva, and other choreography coming out of Israel can do more than simply teach dance enthusiasts about the latest trends in movement and choreography; it can also act as a cultural exchange. We can share what is current and germane in our respective cultures in the hope of building greater connectedness and understanding. Through Gaga classes in places like the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, in New York, and elsewhere abroad, and through Batsheva’s international touring schedule, a uniquely Israeli way of dancing can bear relevance on our own unique ways of dancing.

See Batsheva. Experience Gaga. While dance can indeed be fluid, pretty, and ethereal, it can also act as a cultural barometer for what’s important and what’s resonant, making dance not only a spectacle but also a cultural communion as well. By experiencing Gaga and Batsheva, participants and audiences have the opportunity to revel in the microcosm of Israeli dance as well as in the universality (inherent in Gaga) of the human body to feel and move.

For more information on Batsheva’s upcoming performances in San Francisco visit ybca.org. For more information on Gaga at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance visit sfconservatoryofdance.org.

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