Author Archive | Kim Epifano

SPEAK

Edited by Zackary Forcum

No matter where I go I can’t help being informed and infused by the culture, architecture, history, and resonance of an area and its people. This curiosity began in 1979 during my time in Guatemala with the Peace Corps. We traveled from village to village (mules often carrying our equipment), creating a show with a cohort of clowns, guitarists, and community members as a part of the “Year of the Child. ” It was there where I first experienced how art can go beyond entertainment to be a cross-cultural and educational exchange with the ability to help people live healthier lives.

I came to San Francisco in 1982, when the city was bathed in wonder and imagination. It was a time of coming as you are and being who you were meant to be. Though I had years of training in movement (ballet, modern, jazz, gymnastics, swimming/diving) I wasn’t interested in fitting into any box or being easily categorized; even modern dance was too focused on a narrow view of bodily success, so I immersed myself in movement arts that blended dance, singing, ritual, and the playing of instruments, forms like Afro-Haitian Dance with Blanche Brown, Capoeira with Mestre Acordeon, and Congolese with Malonga Casquelourd.

During a Roda de Capoeira at Civic Center, two women approached me—Krissy Keefer and Nina Fichter—and asked if I also danced. Next thing I know I am dancing in the Wall Flower Order (Dance Brigade). Over the course of a decade, we created various sociopolitical and feminist works, such as CointelPro where we performed in drag as men in business suits in front of the San Francisco Federal Building. I went on to study with Sara Shelton Mann as a way to connect with new ideas and concepts in modern dance (such as contact improvisation), while staying grounded in the mixing of genres that I was experiencing outside of western concert dance. I joined Contraband for nine years, collaborating in all kinds of works for the stage (such as The Mira Cycles) and on the street in vacant and discarded plots of land, creating art that spoke to issues of the area and the time.

Simultaneously, I continued my cross-cultural arts exchanges, expanding opportunities to American teens through Mudd Butt International of the Telluride Academy. With my collaborators Wendy Brooks, Sally Davis and Mike Stasiuk, we established a youth program where art was the common value, language, and connector in creating performances in theaters, fields, broken down churches, gymnasiums, beaches, and temples.

Throughout all of these experiences, artists were cross-culturally exchanging and experimenting by mixing traditional and modern genres and practices, activating and involving the communities they were creating with. There was a confidence that we could do anything, even with cultural or language differences.

By 2000, I was constantly on the road touring and teaching, building a thriving company, Epiphany Productions Sonic Dance Theater (now Epiphany Dance Theater), and while I had no interest in slowing down, I wanted to anchor more of my art back in my longtime home of San Francisco. I found my answer while choreographing for Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Trolley Dances. Bringing this site-specific event to San Francisco seemed like the perfect opportunity to: connect with and support local artists, continue Epiphany’s growth, offer dance performances free of charge (which at that time was a rare occurrence), and explore and share the culture and history of San Francisco and its people.

A woman sitting on a bench looking for the train with her suitcase.

Photo by Andy Mogg

In this constantly evolving city (that has grown more in the last decade than many of us are comfortable with), with distinct neighborhoods, people, architecture, and countless stories to tell, there are few better landscapes for site-specific work. San Francisco Trolley Dances (SFTD) began in 2004 with its primary partner, SFMTA/Muni, and others. I curated four artists: Joanna Haigood, STEAMROLLER Dance Company, Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater, and myself at four different sites along the F-Line. I had particular romance with the F-Line, “a Museum on Wheels,” that runs along Market Street. With magnificent trolleys from all over the world, I would often think about where they could take us and what the pathway would reveal. SFTD’s maiden voyage was a success (even with rain, audience members came in droves with their umbrellas), and so we returned the next few years and before I knew it, San Francisco embraced us as an annual event. Taking inspiration from my work abroad, and my desire to reach out to more of the Bay Area, it was important to commission culturally traditional arts groups, placing them side-by-side with contemporary artists. Since 2004, Epiphany has commissioned new works from more than 80 companies and artists and has collaborated alongside vital community partners such as SFMTA/Muni, Market Street Railway, SF Public Library, SF Recreation and Park, Friends of San Francisco Environment, Intersection for the Arts, and more, opening doors that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. SFTD, now in its 15th year, continues to celebrate the story of this city and its people.

Producing a festival has proved to be an outward-bound experience full of curveballs and lessons learned. I have been fortunate to work with some of the Bay’s brightest in troubleshooting these obstacles, such as: entertaining an audience group during an unexpected delay (and then rerouting the tour completely), finding a replacement for a stolen speaker mid-day, facing an ensemble of dancers ready to riot as they performed in the big meadow of the Botanical Gardens (in the pouring rain, in grass littered with duck-poop, no less). There are also the more pressing conversations on how we bring audiences into places where people work, live, and build their lives: How do we respect folks living on the streets? How do we keep our sound levels appropriate for neighbors? How are we working with the communities in which we seek to make art so that a valuable exchange can take place? How do we educate our audiences so that their presence as part of the festival is holistic and not an example of privileged voyeurism? Epiphany has faced these challenges head-on, and because of this, San Francisco Trolley Dances is still rolling.As the festival grew, so did the area’s desire for more site-specific work and accessible/free public performances, some of which I have been proud to mentor. The artistically and logistically strong formula for SFTD has led to my involvement in co-envisioning the initial years of similar events such as Baile en la Calle the Mural Dances with Brava! for Women in the Arts, Mission Street Dances/Walking Distance Dance Festival with ODC/Dance, and Island City Waterways with Rhythmix Cultural Works. As I look out on our SF Bay Area performing arts landscape, I see SFTD not just as a platform for commissioning artists, but as a launching pad for how various organizations consider their own site-specific efforts.

With continued requests to expand the event, I have considered sustainable and engaging possibilities. In light of its 15th anniversary, Epiphany Dance Theater is piloting “Transit Dances: Night Trolley” a night-time site-specific event atop the new downtown Transit Center at Salesforce Park on October 12. As more industrial buildings sprout up throughout downtown and fewer environmentally friendly spaces remain, it seemed natural to partner with this new transit center (a project of the TJPA) that offers a new green space. Transit is the vein of a society and Epiphany looks forward to expanding on the complex art of how we make a city move.

Just as you get to know a person, you get to know a place. I find it mesmerizing how by simply sitting, seeing, listening and absorbing details in a specific location has informed my cellular soul and investigative mind. Having created site-specific work all over, from the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, the Streets of SF (Natoma, Minna, Annie, Shotwell, Balmy Alley, and many more), along the waterways of Alameda, under Coronado Bridge in Barrio Logan, a parking lot in Chula Vista, to a bar in Mexicali, Mexico, and more, the physical world and my own personal map have become fused. San Francisco Trolley Dance’s focus of site-specific art continuously feeds my creative practice in and outside of the annual event.

I’m often asked what my favorite moments of the festival are from over the years, which is a challenging question as there are so many. But one that often comes to mind is SFTD 2012 when Epiphany performed at the City College’s Evan’s Branch in the Bayview; the piece had a lot of moving parts, one of which was a verbal telling of the neighborhood’s past (its people and the history of the Dogpatch area). A local preacher, in his Sunday suit, approached me at the conclusion of performance and exclaimed, “This is amazing—where did you come from? You’re making history here!” To which I responded, “We just told the history! The piece is called Where You From?” We laughed. Over the years it is moments like these that show what San Francisco Trolley Dances is about. All of these everyday places have a vibration waiting to be magnified, explored, and experienced.

Notes From a Suitcase

MAY 2009 – In A Dance Studio In America
During a recent rehearsal I rediscovered a recording of my young Ethiopian students singing. It transported me back to the village in Africa, where everyone sang, danced and laughed with abandon. They were in the studio with me and would be with me always as our moments together were precious.

My excursion in Ethiopia was life-changing. So often my thoughts and experiences stay closed within my notebooks and my photos stay on my computer. Reading a notebook can be like unpacking a suitcase, you find treasures that aren’t necessarily related to each other, but together make up one full journey. This transference of art and community is essential to me.

APRIL 1
I landed in Addis Ababa Ethiopia a place that looks a lot like Mill Valley except the electricity goes out for weeks at a time and goats are everywhere. I was there to co-direct a theater/dance/music piece for teens from the United States and Ethiopia. The group went to a small village called Wondo Genet, which is five hours South West from Addis Ababa, with Sally Davis and our Mudd Butt Mystery Theater Troupe International. This marked our 15th international trip. Dropping into a village in Africa was a gift of intensity and ecstasy. For two weeks, we worked with 18 Ethiopian students and 16 American students in a very dark classroom with a stone floor. The windows were just iron bars and shutters, no glass. Each day, more and more people would peek through the windows.

APRIL 2
When we rolled into Wondo Genet, we were on a dirt road full of rubble and mud. There were many contradictions and weird juxtapositions in this village. It looked so desolate, but when we went back off the main dirt road there were mud houses everywhere, some had beautiful patterns on them. The people like to chew chat, which creates a speedy state. Everything was essential and nothing went to waste. We had three translators—one of whom was a woman who had lived in the United States for a short amount of time. One was a Rastafarian who wore a new Obama t-shirt everyday. And then there was our word smith who helped translate the play we worked on, keeping true to the poetic words in Amharic and bringing an environmental issue to the old Folktale we used as a script.

The pace of working with a script in two languages while directing and teaching was a whole other adventure. Slowing down was crucial. I found myself breaking up my sentences so they could be more easily translated, although some of our students spoke English. The group we worked with were between ages 14 and 19, but most of them were closer to 18. It was a group of 13 young men and 5 girls.

Tamirac, one of our male students, took us for a two-hour hike to a waterfall above a hot springs. It saddened me to see the poorest families living illegally in the jungle, their only income from the profit they make on trees that they cut down to sell. Deforestation is one of their biggest problems right now. Where there were still trees, we saw baboons.

On our way down the mountain, two little girls ran past with books in their arms. They were late to school a mile and a half away. One of them picked up some obsidian and gave it to me because she saw I was collecting it. When I got to rehearsal this moment of exchange with the girl stayed with me. She saw what I did and repeated it, so I translated that into a mirroring dance exercise. The students loved it. All of a sudden the whole room was full of duets. What do you need words for? Getting to know each other can transcend language. Many times when I am on the road internationally, mime becomes a part of my daily language. I was so pleased when tables turned and they taught us one of their dances. We learned the Pigeon Dance, also known as the Welcome Dance. It’s a great partner dance: you bob to the side of a partner’s head two times, dance around each other, and then the knees come up. It’s all done in couples and makes me think of our night off, when we went out without the students.

April 10
We went to a bar in the town of Hawasa; there was a lot of hard alcohol and an electric band. Each song would have a new singer come up and sing a modern version of an ancient form, all in Amharic, the ancient language spoken there. The fashion was incredible, a time warp: the women wore fitted bellbottoms of a spandex-like material and tie-dyed halter-tops, with braided hair and huge earrings. The men hung out with men, and women hung out with women, everyone was very affectionate. I danced myself into a sweat with a bunch beautiful Ethiopian city women. Typically in the village the women are married at 14. Most of them give birth before their bodies are developed enough to handle the birth. It made me question, what did these women do in the city? I looked over at the dance floor and laughed to see my co-worker Sally actually doing the Pigeon Dance with a man from the bar, the same dance we had learned from our students.

On a different occasion we saw couples dancing with their faces touching chin to chin. They would roll from that point along the edge of their faces all the way around to other side. Their faces were touching the entire time; the intimacy of this was stunning. In other parts of the dance, the men did a high kicking leg movement with knees way up and their pelvis jutting out. They would ripple through their spines and backs really fast.

My work around the globe allows me to learn dances and songs from so many cultures. I hadn’t seen much traditional Ethiopian dancing before. There was a lot of fast shifting up and down of the shoulders. The women also would make a figure eight pattern with theirs heads, starting slow and building up speed until it looked impossible, as if their heads would fall off. Then they would slow down and come out of it, a short movement trance. I had a big moment, thinking about the figure eights of the Alexander technique when I watched this dance. The shoulder dancing was hard to learn, but everybody tried to teach me the correct way to move—even the cook gave me a lesson!

One night we sat around a fire with guitars and one of the instructors started to play Bob Marley songs. Everyone who was around started to appear singing “Don’t You Worry–‘bout A Thing” we all knew the song. It was beautiful. Ethiopia, fire, stars, voices and dancing, I had to pinch myself.

APRIL 11 – The Rastafarian Museum and School
We visited Shashamane, a town that Haile Selassie had made an official Rastafarian town. There was a sign that said all women are required to have their heads covered and wear dresses. If they were menstruating they were not allowed to go inside at all.

While in the museum, I looked at old photos of Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Haile Selassie, with American kids in Rasta hats and Obama t-shirts. My mind was flooded with cultures colliding. An ancient Rastafarian man gave us a tour. He tapped at the pictures with his cane as he spoke. He would punctuate his delivery with very long pauses, as if he had forgotten what he was going to say next. When we came to an exhibit about marijuana, he informed us all that cannabis is illegal in Ethiopia.

We went to see the school run by the Rastafarians, which was effective and well run, unlike some other schools we’d been to. Here it was clear that soccer is very important. Our students and their students bonded—again without words—playing soccer. When I travel I like to see what the P.E. curriculum is and how calisthenics is connected through different cultures. Many times the exercises are the same.

APRIL 13 – So Much Energy In Such A Short Time
The rehearsals and performances were trying and tiring, but full of questions and energy. Some of the songs that the group sang on the buses were intensely loud, rhythmic call-and-response chants with hand clapping. We all started singing “Pa Da Na Na Way,” which I know from Capoeira, an afro-Brazilian martial art. We all sang it. I asked them how they knew that song and they said they knew it from a movie they had seen.

We sang, danced and worked incredibly hard, it was a lot to put this show together. We used an Ethiopian folk tale, mixing traditional Ethiopian movement and song, with modern American style. We added concepts, like tourism, and environmental issues. To communicate the message to everybody in the audience and on stage, the piece was done in two languages, Amharic and English. We doubled almost every single character, props and masks, and a life-sized papier mâché horse. Watching that horse dance down the muddy road on the way to the performance was a show in itself.

At times it was hard to keep morale up because the obstacles we faced could become overwhelming. We would be told one thing and then another would happen. When we performed in a church we had to cut many sections out. One boy who was an orphan and lived at the church compound told me several times, “God is the director!” During rehearsals, pounding on our metal roof, the rain could get so loud, that we had to wait until it ended, before we could hear to continue. Even though there were obstacles and delays we always found our way.

APRIL 19 – Time to go
We left on Easter morning, when most Christians slaughter a goat for their Easter feast. This is their celebration in breaking a fast from eating meat the two weeks before Easter Sunday.

As we left Wondo Genet everyone was crying. Tamirac wanted so badly to leave his village and go with us. He even appeared in the next town and hugged us all again. It was hard to say goodbye. We drove past the sugar cane fields on a dirt road and I remembered how loud the frogs were and the sound of the hyenas crying like babies in the night. Finally we came to the paved road. We were all exhausted as we passed the Rift Valley in the distance. We were not far from the roots of human origin itself, the ancient bones of Lucy, and now Ardi, were discovered nearby.

My mind rushed from the lush jungle and the vast landscape of tree silhouettes, to the brown desert sands with camels and donkey carts. When we finally arrived back at Addis Ababa, my body was buzzing with the whole experience of our 18 days. Through our performance, we merged an old Ethiopian folk tale and brought in a modern, Western artistic slant. My experiences here brought two different cultures into one for a short time. Connecting art through cultures is so valuable! The young artists we brought will never be the same and the same goes for me.

MAY 2009 – Back In The Studio
When I arrived home and was back in the dance studio I felt changed, educated and influenced artistically. I remembered one of the American girls telling us that on her first night with her Ethiopian family, a young woman next door to her was giving birth. She heard the sounds throughout the night. What a life changing event for all, the new mother probably had no choice about the birth and the sounds this American girl would never forget.

All of these experiences began to flood into my work. Themes of tribe, justice, hunger, health, woman, ethics and culture emerged. I saw the world beyond myself—the joy, beauty, suffering and injustices—and it has challenged me, as a human, and as an artist.

A Red Thread: Creating Dance Across Cultures and Politics, Sept 2008

San Francisco, May 9, 2008

Abby Chen of the Chinese Cultural Center, invited me to create a site-specific improvisation on the bridge that crosses through Chinatown into downtown San Francisco. The performance was to lead into the opening reception of an art exhibit by Bei Lu. Lu’s vision was that of red thread—the connection between people of Chinese cultural tradition. The symbolism of the red thread was just what I needed. A connection between cultures, politics, dance, and art making—even if only symbolic. Lu’s red thread image was what I needed to tie together my experiences traveling through China and India.

Shanghai November 2007 & Beijing April 2008

On the Great Wall my footsteps fell alone in snow on old stones. It made me think about who was being kept out, who in. I was in China on my second visit to create “Speaking Chinese,” a collaborative project with Chinese ballerina Hou Honglan, American dancer C. Derrick Jones, producers Barry Plews and Hu He, musician Zhu Zian’er and a slew of other artists, both Chinese and American. “Speaking Chinese” was set to premiere as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival in May, 2008.

For our first creation period, we all met in Shanghai for two weeks. The city was at once complex and wonderful, and we worked in the most beautiful dance studios at the Shanghai Ballet.

Actor/dancer/improviser Jones, from Los Angeles, and prima ballerina Honglan,who danced with the National Chinese Ballet of Beijing, mixed beautifully together. They were such different movers, yet these differences fit within this new work that was crossing cultures, time-zones, races, and politics. The dance was inspired by Eileen Chang’s story “Love In a Fallen City.” The story, set in 1940’s China, was one of love, and a couple torn apart and brought together by the bombing of Hong Kong. “Speaking Chinese” quickly became a piece that was personal and political.

In between rehearsals I was able to see some of China. In visiting historic places the mix of Modernism and history was mind-boggling. The Temple of Heaven, The Forbidden City, The Drumm Temple, and The Bell Temple, all steeped in history, were a strange collage of ancient and modern juxtaposed with skyscrapers and ads for the Olympics. The subway stations were covered with these ads. My sense was of the Chinese people being very proud of the Olympics coming to China. There were new buses, cabs, and train stations; throughout the city sat huge cranes and construction sites in various stages of completion. It reminded me of our work in the studio—Honglan in her pointe shoes and Derrick in his calloused modern-dancer feet—a union of the traditional and the new.

We worked hard in those few weeks, amidst the challenges of cross-cultural collaboration. The schedule changes, the logistical obstacles of travel and funding, the early morning skype calls to San Francisco, the language barriers, the political landscape of being an American traveling, and the daily news of uprisings and violence in Tibet.

Dharamsala, India, a few days after leaving Beijing

I landed in Delhi and traveled from there to a school of 2,000 children, from toddlers to high school age. Many of the children had traveled from far distances, left their families, or were orphaned. The school is nestled high in the hills above Dharamsala and is called The Tibetan Children’s Village. It was founded by the sister of the Dalai Lama to keep the Tibetan culture alive.

I was there with Mudd Butt International, an educational arts program I have co-directed with Sally Davis for the last 15 years. Through Mudd Butts we take 16 students from the United States to a village somewhere in the world and do a two-week residency. We work with 25-40 local students wherever we are and together, with the American and local students, create a show and perform it in the town and surrounding villages. It is always hard on the American kids—difficult living conditions, strep throat, stomach bugs, etc.—but they all hang in there. Sally and I stay on campus with the teachers and our students stay with the local students. We rehearsed everyday and presented the show for over 2,000 students and teachers in an auditorium and at a school in town. It was amazing to watch these young artists transform in front of my very eyes. They grew as performers and diplomats of the world—what an extraordinary combination! Here was education, politics, and art being developed and played out and I was thankful to be able to play a part.

One day, as we came into the town, the sun was setting and we saw light emanating from hundreds of candles. Thousands of students came into view, from different schools in the area, dressed identically in blue pants, blue sweaters and blue checkered shirts walking with the ethereal shimmering light of the candles and Tibetan flags. As we marveled at this spectacle we watched as the group took a sharp curve and headed back down into the town. At the same time there were hundreds of monks converging into the vigil. The maroon red color of their monks’ robes was seeping into the blue of the students’. They were all chanting and each group started to chant in their own time. The moment was haunting, beautiful and extremely moving. I had to pinch myself: was I really seeing this?

I had just arrived straight from Beijing only a day before and here I was in the middle of the news I had been reading about. During this time, in March, was the golden moment (which the Tibetans call it) for the Tibetans to let the world not forget about their cause. There had just been an uprising in Lhasa. The politics were rushing out of the chanting, out of the moment, and my worlds were colliding and caressing. After my experience in China, where I had been treated so well, I couldn’t help but ask myself: what do I really believe in?

The next morning we awoke to find out that the Dalai Lama just happened to be at his home in McLeod Ganj—a suburb of Dharamsala that is also referred to as Upper Dharamsala or “Little Lhasa”—for three days until he headed off to speak and meet with people all over the world. We hiked down to the temple where there was a huge line to get in to see him. There were Tibetans in suits who guarded the Dalai Lama and his home, alongside hundreds of Tibetans and foreigners praying. Everywhere you looked prayer wheels were spinning. We immediately sat and meditated for an hour and half. Praying collectively with the same cause in mind was extremely powerful. Within all this group energy I felt introspective. My busy mind swept through a review of my life, family, loves, art, the work I do, the person I am. But even with all these thoughts racing, I was continually pulled back to the sound of the chanting.

Amidst this, the Dalai Lama looked worn and worried as if the world had given him a job that really was not his job. There was much press about him and what the Chinese were saying, so many people wanting things from him. I had to think that he is a spiritual leader not a politician. The Dalai Lama stopped at one point and came over to a monk who had been crossing the world in a wagon as a show of the Tibetan cause. Here we were, sitting in India, surrounded by Tibetans who felt like the time was now to be seen and heard, and no one was backing down.

San Francisco, May 2008

It’s only three weeks before the premiere of “Speaking Chinese,” and I’m still in the troughs of sorting out my experiences abroad. The day Honglan arrived in San Francisco for our final rehearsal was the same day the devastating earthquake hit the Sichuan region of China. When she arrived at the airport she had just found out about the natural disaster, which had surely impacted her family in Sichuan, and yet she had no idea if they were OK. She finally got through on the phone and learned that they were safe, but the constant flow of news that described the devastation and the people who died was overwhelming for Honglan. With loss weighing heavily on us it was hard to work and I thought to myself, how am I going to finish this piece and have it ready to premiere? But, in the end, I believe we made an extraordinary dance that reflected this moment, while becoming its own story.

ART making—that has an opportunity to travel the world—creates change and creates peace. Stories will always need to be told, and everyone has their own way of engaging in the centuries-old storytelling. Without these stories it is difficult to capture anything close to the complexity of humanity. ART making shares these visual images, without the need to be “overtly political.” Yet the paradox is that each of our experiences is inherently political because of the direct action in the communities in which it is created and the subsequent dialogue it opens through the shared experience of live performance. The red thread keeps rolling.

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