Author Archive | Rob Taylor

Clog On: Ian Enriquez Continues the Barbary Coast Cloggers Legacy with the Mussel Rock Cloggers

musselrockphotobyloiselling-300x200Spend time exploring the Bay Area’s myriad traditional and folk dance communities and you will soon discover that the concept of “traditional dance” is an amorphous concept that changes based on whose eye is beholding the tradition.

As is the case with other cultural forms, the transmission of a dance tradition almost always begins with a student studying the dance form alongside a master dancer. Over time, and after achieving a particular level of excellence within that dance form, the student becomes master, and takes on the responsibility of training another generation of students.

This well-established dynamic is how dance forms were passed on to future generations, and for most of human history, the speed of cultural change meant that the dance form evolved slowly. Whether the student was a West Virginian who learned how to clog from an uncle in 1905, or a young girl in India learning Bharatanatyam from her mother in 1925, or a Mexican teenager discovering Jarabe with their siblings in 1955—in each case the student was regularly immersed in the same cultural ecosystem as the master dancer, and when innovations were incorporated into the tradition, the homogeneity of experience ensured that the changes happened slowly over time.

But in the early 21st century the path to mastering a traditional folk dance is often a circuitous one that passes through the full range of cultural influences that technology and globalization have provided our time. Evolutionary change to the dance form that might have once taken generations can now happen within a decade, or faster. The work being done by Ian Enriquez and his Mussel Rock Cloggers is a perfect example of those rapid changes within a Bay Area context, which he initially began developing for the all-male clogging group Barbary Coast Cloggers.

Clogging is a raucous amalgamation of tap dance, Eastern European dance forms, line dancing, Irish dance forms, and West African dance that was forged within communities in the Appalachian south over the course of the 19th and into the 20th century. In its modern format, clogging can incorporate complex group formations borrowed from square dancing traditions, thrilling audiences as dancers travel across a stage in dynamic rhythm.

For Ian, clogging was not an obvious path. Raised as an international student in the Philippines, when he went looking for dance, he discovered hip-hop and embraced it fully. He says, “I became that kid in high school who danced hip-hop and choreographed for school performances.” He continued to dabble in dance while at Oberlin College in Ohio and upon moving to San Francisco after graduation, he began studying for a dance certificate at City College. As he recalls, “one summer I couldn’t get into one of the classes that I needed, so I decided to do something completely different and…I stumbled across a clogging class. I had studied tap and knew that tap had come from clogging,” but he knew little else about the dance form at the time.

Through an immersion in clogging, he developed a deep appreciation for the history of the dance, particularly its role as a cross-cultural art form that drew from both European and African influences. “Clogging incorporates many different cultural strands. It proves that at different points throughout American history, everybody partied together at some point,” regardless of culture.

In 2003, he began taking classes with the Barbary Coast Cloggers, and “picked it up really well. Matt Ellinger [Barbary Coast Clogger’s artistic director at the time] started grooming me right away [for performances]. When I couldn’t afford classes he took care of me, and he came to my [City College] choreography final.” The fact that Ellinger was so supportive of his development as a dancer touched Ian, who laughs as he recalls that he “kind of felt obligated to audition for [the] Barbary Coast [Cloggers].”

Ian’s acceptance into the group came at a very auspicious time for the Cloggers. The company had been founded in 1980 and had thrived for while, but the original membership was hit extremely hard by the AIDS epidemic. But by the early 2000s, new dancers had picked up the mantle and the company was on an upward trajectory, selling out performance at the Palace of Fine Arts, booking shows around the country, and performing in such varied spaces as Sean Dorsey’s Fresh Meat Festival, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and as an opening act for rock group Faith No More. They developed a devoted following, and as a male group they existed as an anomaly in the clogging world where most groups are either all-women or mostly women.

“Men just dancing together is a rare sight and conveys a different energy to an audience,” Ian explains, “Barbary Coast as dancers have tried to embody Gene Kelly’s style of a ‘man’s man’ who is having fun [in the dance] without being aggressive. A lot of choreography for men is very aggressive, but the dance being done in Barbary Coast was just men having fun.”

As Ian began taking a more prominent artistic role in the company, eventually becoming lead choreographer, he began to insert his own distinct artistic personality into the company’s work, and states, “I try to bring who I am as a choreographer, into what we do.” When probed on what that means exactly, he says “the [Barbary Coast] Cloggers always had some novelty number but I do a lot more weird stuff.”

As times change it’s inevitable that dancers move on from a company, and having an all-male repertoire made it difficult when there weren’t new male dancers capable of replacing the ones that left the company. Clogging dance formations involve eight people, and Ian says that “when the numbers got low this time, and there weren’t any men taking clogging classes, the only way I could think to preserve the dances we are doing was to invite women [to perform].” He continues: “Bringing women into the company made more sense, especially because we had so many skilled [women] dancers in our classes. They were dancing at such a high level and it was a bummer that they didn’t have an opportunity to dance at a professional level.”

This change spurred Ian to form a co-ed dance group in 2013 called the Mussel Rock Cloggers. The group’s name is a clever reference to San Francisco’s past that also touches on the group’s immediate lineage. As Ian describes it, “the Barbary Coast was the place in Gold Rush-era San Francisco where everyone came to celebrate, where there were up to 14 men for every woman. The 1906 earthquake destroyed the area that was home to the Barbary Coast and the epicenter of the earthquake was Mussel Rock, a rock formation off the coast of San Mateo county.”

The Mussel Rock Cloggers will perform at San Francisco City Hall as part of the Rotunda Dance Series, and the performance will be a perfect example of the tradition/ evolution spectrum in practice. “We’ll start off with some of the more traditional dances. Doing stuff that we can tie to the city a little bit,” Ian tells me, starting off with choreography set to traditional songs like “Foggy” and “Fire on the Mountain.”

The second half of the performance will represent the contemporary work (Ian’s “weird stuff”) being created for the company, including a Bollywood/Clogging number, a Star Wars-themed performance, and two dancers will portray the presidential candidates and perform a Trump-Clinton dance off, choreographed to the song “Dance Off” by Macklemore.

Traditionalists may scoff at these modern reworkings of clogging, but according to Ian, “what’s often forgotten is that clogging is a folk dance, and that it needs to incorporate new elements to grow and evolve. It’s a living folk dance. Limiting the dance to only performing it as it was done 100 years ago is disingenuous and not true to what folk dance is. So when people see contemporary clogging set to modern music, there’s a disassociation with their expectation of what ethnic dance or folk dance is supposed to be, or what it means to them. Ethnic dance has been framed as a feature of the past, but with clogging it is growing, it is still changing.”

As we wrap up our interview, Ian lets me know that “It’s been a challenge to get out there. People have tried to hire Barbary Coast and when I said we have a co-ed company, they changed their mind. Which is disappointing because the dancers I’m working with are as strong as any I worked with in Barbary Coast.”

But he understands that “there’s this mystique as to what Barbary Coast is, so that now that we’re co-ed, people have gone back to thinking we’re just cloggers” and not the innovative and groundbreaking group that they are. Mussel Rock Cloggers will be working hard to dissuade their audiences of the notion. It’s what Ian thrives on as a choreographer and a dancer. He says: “Those moments when you break the boundaries of audience expectation is transforming as an artists and as a person. I’m not a contemporary dancer, I’m not creating what’s maybe seen as high art, stirring, or powerful. So to have these other moments where you are making a difference in the dance community is great. It’s really energizing.”

The Mussel Rock Cloggers will perform on Fri, Nov 4, Noon, as part of the Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco City Hall. The Rotunda Dance series is presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West in partnership with Grants for the Arts and San Francisco City Hall. More information can be found at

Becoming Super-Flamenca: Carola Zertuche Guides Theatre Flamenco Into its 50th Year

Photo by Christine Fu

Photo by Christine Fu

The ink on the lease to the newly acquired studio in San Francisco’s Mission District was barely dry when I sat to talk with artistic director Carola Zertuche’s about her guidance of Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco through its 50th year, and the new show the company is preparing to present during their November home season: El Latir del Tiempo / The Beat of Time.

Carola speaks in precise, clipped tones, and is intensely friendly, emanating a fierceness that befits a Flamenco dancer, which in no way detracts from her approachability. Born and raised in Torreón, Mexico, she was introduced to classic Spanish dance as a child. She was introduced to Flamenco when her mother sent her to ballet class as a young girl. As she describes it, “I was bored in Ballet and I could hear the Flamenco class next door, so I begged my mother to put me in Flamenco.”

The match was lit, and at the age of 16 she traveled to Mexico City, where she began her career at the Flamenco nightclub Tablao Mesón de Triana (a Tablao is a type of intimate nightclub where Flamenco is most often performed). She toured internationally, before deciding to settle in San Francisco in the late 90s for the diversity of dance experiences the region offers. “The dance community is super strong here,” she says. “I go to see the modern dance companies, the ballet, ethnic dance. All kinds of dance is practiced here and it is what attracted me to the region.”

She performed in nightclubs in San Francisco, and as a featured soloist in larger Flamenco companies. In the late 90s she began performing with Theatre Flamenco under the direction of Miguel Santos. Founded in 1966 by Adela Clara, Theatre Flamenco was the first U.S. company to stage full productions of Spanish dance, and proudly declares that they are San Francisco’s second oldest dance company (after the San Francisco Ballet). Santos had started dancing with the company at the beginning, and had been artistic director from 1987 to 2007.

Carola tells me that Santos first “invited me to perform as a dancer, and then he started inviting me as a choreographer. I would create a number for the company each home season. And then after three or four years,” he came to her and, “asked if I wanted to take over the company.” Carola leapt at the opportunity, in large part because it gave her an opportunity to drastically expand the scope of her choreography.

She explains, “I really like to perform in the [intimate spaces provided by] Tablaos, but people think Flamenco is just for the small venue, and that just is not true. In the theater you can really create something different. You have all these elements – lighting, sound, production design. And that was exciting for me. And then there’s the challenge of having to create something new every year [for the company’s home season].

There is some irony in the fact that over the past decade, as many dance companies have explored ways they can break their proscenium shackles and perform outside of traditional theater settings, Carola has been pushing Theatre Flamenco to excel as a company that performs on a proscenium stage. “The dance that is created for the Tablaos is a very beautiful thing, but when you go to the theater you have to use the theater.” In Theatre Flamenco performances, group numbers and duets are usually set for the stage with specific movements and timing, but solo performances in her show maintains the tradition of improvisation.

Photo by Christine Fu

Photo by Christine Fu

So while El Latir del Tiempo / The Beat of Time acknowledges and celebrates the company’s 50 years of existence, and the continuity of their mission to present the artistry of Flamenco in large scale theatrical productions, it is also a celebration of Carola’s 10 year tenure as artistic director.

Santos had developed the company towards large-scale, community-focused presentations, and “it was very beautiful what he was doing, but [Santos’ vision was] focused on students and teaching.” Carola had a slightly different vision and wanted to shift more towards employing full-time Flamenco dancers – a company with dancers that could dedicate more time to the artform.

According to the philosophy of Carola Zertuche, “If you do Flamenco, you are waking up with Flamenco and going to sleep with Flamenco. You have to have a very deep knowledge,” in order to perform with Theatre Flamenco.

“I said if I take the company, I really want to take it to another level.” She aspired to bring Theatre Flamenco to a level of quality she associated with Bay Area choreographers like Alonzo King and Margaret Jenkins. While the dance vocabulary is different, she pushes the company to maintain the same caliber of physicality and technique that she sees taking place in the larger ecosystem of San Francisco’s professional dance community.

Carola has also worked to expand the caliber of musicians Theatre Flamenco engages in their productions, especially bringing in skilled musicians and singers from Spain. For the shows this November, this expanded caliber includes Flamenco singer Juana la del Pipa who is part of a dynasty of artists from the Flamenco cradle of Jerez de la Frontera in Southern Spain.

“I want to show the direction of the company is still very tied to traditional Flamenco, which is why I’m bringing Juana, who is very traditional. Her way of singing is so personal and she is one of the last singers to sing that way. To be on the stage with her is amazing.” Carola expands on why it’s important to bring artists like this to broader audiences: “I bring this kind of artist to show what’s going on in Spain. To show people that it’s more than just polka dots and flowers and the Gipsy Kings.”

Another guest is Pastora Galván, who made her professional dance debut with Theatre Flamenco at the age of 15, before becoming an international star of Flamenco over the past several decades. This will be Galván’s third time guesting with Theatre Flamenco, although she’s danced in shows Carola produced before as a solo artist.

Carola describes the powerful impression Pastora leaves on the audience: “She is a super-Flamenca…that means she is earthy.” I ask her to expand on that and she continues, “It’s in the way you position your head. Not many dancers have that ability. They have incredible technique, they are beautiful dancers, but then when you compare them to Pastora…she doesn’t have to do anything. She comes onto the stage and you will have goosebumps”.

I have had similar experiences watching Carola perform works on stage, and when I ask her about her own super-Flamencaness she is demur, giving credit to the singers and dancers. For her, as with most Flamenco dancers, this sense of bearing and power is something that comes with time and experience. “It’s not a craft, it’s a way of being and when you hear the singer, or a note of music you slip into it,” she tells me. “For me it depends on who is singing and who is playing the music, because you bring that emotion into your dance.”

A Peruvian Heart on an American Stage: Nestor Ruiz Shares his Passion

I have worked for many seasons at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in varying capacities, and my first interaction with Peruvian dance company El Tunante and the company’s artistic director (and frequent lead dancer) Nestor Ruiz took place within that setting. I have a distinct memory of seeing Nestor in the midst of the quietly precise chaos that is the Festival’s backstage, where up to 80 dancers from eight or nine distinct cultures work together to produce a show that is seamless. I must admit that even in that manic context, Nestor stood out as he sprinted around his company, simultaneously assisting his dancers with last minute costume challenges, giving parking directions to late-arriving musicians over the phone, and rehearsing his own movements.

But when El Tunante emerged from that backstage pandemonium and stepped onto the stage, the transformation was profound. The frantic behind-the-scenes energy folded into the graceful and elegant choreography of the Marinera norteña. The Marinera is commonly called Peru’s national dance, and the Marinera norteña is a variation that came from the northern coast of Peru and has become the most representative form of the dance. It is a series of elegant choreographies between a couple. The male dancer is normally dressed in a Chalan drill suit (or sometimes in a poncho) with a wide-brimmed hat. The female dancer is dressed in traditional clothes, but most importantly, she always dances barefoot.

As they dance, the couple sweeps around the stage, flirtatiously stepping in and out of each other’s space in a complex series of movements that when executed with the precision that El Tunante brings to each performance, appears to have a beautiful simplicity. I love the grace the dancers bring to their performances commingled with delicate playing of guitars and the solid rhythm from the cajón that I am unable to unfold from the movement as it weaves itself around the dancers.

I appreciate the beautiful simplicity of the Marinera norteña for its formal qualities and as a subtle metaphor for the emotional transferences that take place between courting lovers. But I am not Peruvian, and I know that for those who are Peruvian, watching El Tunante can be a profound experience that carries within it the resilient evocation of a place, a people, and a way of life in one’s past that cannot be reached in present circumstances. I cannot tell you what the Marinera means to a Peruvian heart, but I’ve seen people cry and shake and stomp their feet when experiencing that passion El Tunante brings to their performances. I feel there is a specific power to the emotions that are evoked when a Peruvian in America experiences a well-produced Marinera norteña.

1. El Tunante photo by RJ Muna

Photo by RJ Muna

The man at the heart of El Tunante is Nestor Ruiz, who, when met in person outside the context of a performance and in the more constrained hubbub of a coffee shop is somewhat shy and very friendly man with eyes that are the very definition of soulful. He was born in Trujillo, the coastal city that is home to Peru’s National Marinera Festival. It is also home to Club Libertad, a cultural organization dedicated to promoting Marinera both in Peru and internationally. Both of his parents were professional dancers, and by the age of 16 Nestor was also dancing professionally as part of Club Libertad. He decided to devote his life to practicing and promoting Peruvian dance, and was named champion of the National Marinera Festival four times before coming to the United States in 1998. In America, Nestor struggled and hustled to find ways to practice his dance the way any artist must, although the immigrant-artist hustle has an additional layer of challenges. But he quickly found a home at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and their performance on June 3rd at the Rotunda Dance Series marks El Tunante’s 12th appearance at the Festival.

Nestor teaches more now, and is able to rely on his art to provide an income that may not pay all of his bills, but helps fund a performing company. He teaches at various schools and community centers throughout the Bay Area, and as is the case with so many practitioners of cultural specific dance in the United States, most of his teaching is to the children of immigrants who don’t want their children to lose a connection with their home culture. For many second-generation immigrants, their cultural dance forms becomes a cord that connects them to another homeland.

Nestor tells me, “I’ve taught in Peru and taught here. It’s a big change…in Peru, I taught students for competition – I taught students to be champions on the stage.” In the Bay Area, Nestor is teaching dance to young people who haven’t been raised in Peruvian culture. “In Peru they are born into the music. Here it takes time,” he says. “It’s a little bit different, a little bit weird to them at first, but it’s a bridge to Peruvian culture that needs to be built in order for the children to hold on to their culture.”

We discuss El Tunante’s performing history and how he transforms his students into performers. Many of El Tunante’s performances are in Marinera competitions where the emphasis is on skill, precision, and adhesion to form. “For the competition they lose themselves in the intensity of the conflict,”Nestor tells me. “The truth is when the girls and boys start dancing, they are competing, each one is trying to be the best they can be and to show how much they are able do with their feet and their body.”

But for El Tunante, performing for a more general public at events like the Ethnic Dance Festival is something different. “It is
a more emotional thing,” Nestor reveals, explaining that “at the Festival there are people from countries from around the world watching backstage and in the audience, and everyone has come to share their passion. At competitions it’s about being the winner, but at that Festival it is about sharing the passion.”

Nestor goes on to say that when dancers perform at the Festival, “We are building relationships with [dancers from] different countries and culture, and when my dancers are there they realize that this doesn’t happen much, and it makes the experience very special and very emotional.”

Nestor also singles out Ethnic Dance Festival Co-Artistic Director Carlos Carvajal as a powerful influence on El Tunante’s expansion as a dance company. “Year after year as we dance in the Festival, he’s always pushing us to dance bigger, to expand our performance. And when we hear the applause from the audience, that drives us” to follow Carvajal’s direction.

Nestor says that his mission in life is to share the art through performance, but also to perpetuate the art through teaching, by showing the public that the Marinera is a dance form that can be learned and performed by the youngest child to the oldest adult, and can be “something they carry with them through life.” The “eight to eighty” multi-generational framework is common among culture-based dance forms. Nestor and I were joined at our interview by Efrain Altamirano, whose daughter has been dancing with El Tunante for eight years, starting when she was seven. She will be dancing with El Tunante on June 3rd, and Efrain shares that for his family, seeing their daughter grow up dancing the Marinera has been “such a wonderful part of our life.”

It is quite a trick to make this magic happen, the tiring hustle that goes into teaching, and then into building a dance company— bringing a level of extreme passion into every performance. As audience members, we let go of what we think we know and are carried to a place where only the experience of dance is able to carry us. To watch the exchange between dancers in the Marinera is to see an intricate intersection of movement and culture. As the dance ends and music stops and the man and woman on the stage are facing one another, they come together as if to kiss, but the man raises his wide-brimmed hat to conceal that last moment and the lights come down. All that is left is the passion that the dance brought into the space of the performance, and it is very emotional and it’s pretty intense. But for Nestor Ruiz, “It’s my life all the time, I want to introduce the dance form, but I also want to share the passion.”

One Chinese Foot, One American Foot: Talking with Lily Cai

Group of performers moving ribbons

Photo by Marty Sohl

MY CONVERSATION with dancer and choreographer Lily Cai began with a topic that is probably the most important issue facing artists in San Francisco in 2016: real estate. We met at her company’s South of Market rehearsal space, where they have been for many years and she told me “we’ve been very happy here. This is our first permanent rehearsal space, and it’s been nice to not have to haul props in and out of Dance Mission or Fort Mason Center.” However her current rehearsal space is located in a multi-use building at 8th and Folsom, which “is a commercial space. They were happy to have us 51?2 years ago, but it’s different now.” Their lease for this studio is not up soon, but Lily is aware of how hard it is to hold on to artistic space in San Francisco.

Despite this, she is adamant that “San Francisco is still the best place to be an artist. First of all we have Grants for the Arts, we have World Arts West [presenters of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival], and the community is here. New York has a bunch of modern dance companies, but San Francisco has more diverse ethnic groups and there is just more community support for dance from backgrounds that aren’t ballet or modern.”

Fort Mason Center was where I first met Lily and her musical director and husband Gang Situ. At the time, I was working at World Arts West, who also has their offices at Fort Mason. Over the years I saw Lily’s company perform many times at the Ethnic Dance Festival, as well in her own home seasons at YBCA and the Cowell Theater. I have found her work to be some of the most thoughtful choreography in Bay Area dance, and it was nice to take time to understand her artistic history.

After our brief discussion about real estate, I inquired about her early years in China. Lily: “I started dancing when I was five years old, and I’ll never stop. My life is dance.” Lily goes on to tell me that nobody in her family danced (she was the youngest of five), and her father, who passed away when she was nine years old, wanted her to become a doctor. While he was dying he told her mother, “that little one, she is the smartest, so she should be become a doctor.” She never became a doctor, but “I bring all of that intelligence into the dance. All of that energy comes into the dance.

Reflecting on the course her life has taken as a practicing dancer and choreographer, Lily tells me that despite the difficulties of being a working artist, she’s found over her years of practice that “there is a true balance, if you are really happy doing what you are doing.”

She discovered that happiness in San Francisco—like many of the best American success stories, Lily Cai’s story is an immigrant’s story: “When I immigrated to the United States I had no dancers. I came to this country in 1983. I had no money, I couldn’t speak the language—I had nothing, it was just another world.” However despite these challenges, she laughs as she tells me that “I’m a strong headed woman, and if I think things I make them happen.”

Lily also brought with her many years of training in traditional Chinese dance and a performing career as a principal dancer with the Shanghai Opera House Dance Troupe. As has been the case for dancers from other cultures who eventually called the Bay Area home, Lily found a welcoming stage for her art at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. “I auditioned for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 1984,”as a soloist and after that she returned to the Festival numerous times over the following years.

After performing as a soloist, beginning to build a company became a natural decision. “I began working as a teacher’s aide at Galileo High School in San Francisco—they have a lot of kids from Chinatown.” She began teaching dance to students as a PE credit.

Lily divides the dancers in her company into first generation and second generation: “The first generation were basically immigrant kids who had never learned dance be- fore. They came to my dance through the PE classes at Galileo High.” The first girls took it as part of their two-year PE requirement, and some of them chose to stay for another year as a fine arts credit, and then they just kept dancing with Lily after school.

“That generation [of dancers] had no dance background. They couldn’t stay in time with the music and didn’t know their left foot from their right. But that’s how my dance style and technique formed. You can’t get angry with them [for not knowing]. They are so innocent—so wonderful. They are working so hard, but they just don’t know.

“I think of the saying, ‘there’s no bad orchestra, only bad conductors.’ It made me think a lot on how to solve this problem. So I began working with them for one hour during school in PE class and then again every day after school.”

A solo performer dancing with ribbon

Photo by Shawna Sarnowski

It was a challenge for Lily, “Of course, I had to tell them what to do, but after a while they began to understand what I was asking for and how to read my body language, and finally they began to move.” Eventually it got to a point “where they watch a video of themselves and [tell me] ‘Ms. Cai, I don’t see me dancing anymore. That’s you I’m watching.’”

After that group of girls graduated from high school, they continued dancing with Lily, and became the core of the company she toured with throughout the 1990’s, per- forming in more than 30 states.

As Lily established more performance opportunities and a successful touring company, she began to attract a more polished and trained set of dancers. The group of dancers that Lily works with now—what she calls her second generation—are dancers who were mostly born in America and “came to me knowing dance—it was their college major, but of course it was still challenging for them because we have a very unique style, and it still takes them two to three years” to really understand how to move in the “Lily Cai” style of dance.

As we continue talking, Lily pauses to try and describe how her working method has changed over the years. “You work with what you have, so with the first generation I had to teach them, but for the second generation I’ve had to inspire them and combine their passion with my stuff and it comes out as something very unique. I love it.”

Lily’s passion and choreographic intelligence are evident in the fluid, dynamic, stage-filling dances that characterize her work. She is a master of marrying movement with objects, be it ribbons, fans, or parasols, and after years of observing her work, I’ve found that she understands how a proscenium stage can be used to create a furious canvas of dance. It makes me curious to see how she’ll use the space at San Francisco’s City Hall for her performance at the Rotunda Dance Series.

“I just visited [city hall]…they told me a lot of times people sit on the stairway and watch the dances on the marble floor. But they’ll be facing the exits and the people going in and out. So I’m thinking we’ll use the stairway— it’s quite challenging, so I’m thinking we are going to present a completely brand new piece. If I have my stuff moving around and we enlarge our movements it will be nice.”

I concluded our conversation by asking Lily about her working relationship with Situ, and she explains that “I see the visual… it’s like when you write a Chinese character it’s in a square block, and as a writer, you have to decide how to use the space in that block. That kind of design thinking influences me very much. I see the design on the stage in my mind, and then I talk with him (Situ)… sometimes I hear a fluid melody and come to him with it and he shakes his head and says no—that’s easy listening.” She laughs at this and says, “he likes the counterpoint. He likes to mix it up.” Lily also designs the costumes her dancers perform in, “it’s still part of the creation. When I’m designing the costume, I’m re-thinking what I want the dancer to do.”

Their goal for creating the work is to have something that refers back to Chinese culture but makes something new with it: “we are so lucky that we have a foot squarely in Chinese culture and all of the different material that comes from China—there are 56 different minority groups in China and thousands of years of history to draw from. The other foot is my American foot—that foot wants to challenge yourself and do something unique.”

I ask her what it is like to return to China and watch dance there. Lily says that “the aesthetics about beauty are so different there—I watch dance there and it’s ugly and it’s beautiful—like plastic flowers. All the girls do the same thing, same arms; they’re the same skinny. But there’s no dynamic, and when you mix it up [which is what Lily aspires to] you see life. There they want everything to be the same, and this is why I live here. The depth is here.”


WHAT I DO IS MEDICINE: Julia Chigamba and the Healing Power of Dance

Chinyakare dancers moving

Photo by RJ Muna

I WAS WALKING ALONG a street not far from Downtown Oakland, looking for the studio where I was scheduled to meet Zimbabwean dancer and choreographer Julia Chigamba to discuss her work with her dance company, Chinyakare Ensemble for this article. I had missed the address the first time around, and starting back down the street I began to wonder if I had the correct information.

As if to answer my uncertainty, the unmistakable sound of someone plucking a mbira drifted across the cool autumn night. The mbira is an instrument constructed from a small wooden board to which an assortment of harmonized metal prongs has been attached. It is utilized by musicians in a number of African cultures, but is particularly associated with the musical traditions of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Played with the thumbs, it produces the most beautiful sound. I followed that sweet, multifaceted music into the dance studio, where I spoke with Julia and members of her community.

Julia Tsitsi Chigamba was born and raised in Zimbabwe, and comes from a long lineage of Shona musicians, dancers, and storytellers. From an early age she was enmeshed in a world where dance and music were an integral part of everyday life.

“I watched my mother and my father play music in ceremonies and rituals for other people in the community,” she says, explain-ing that when people were sick or families were having problems, music and dance were used to “call to the ancestors to find out why these things were happening and find the path that would lead to solutions.”

She came to the United States in 1999: first to Portland, Oregon for six months, and then returning permanently in 2000 to settle in Oakland joining the thriving community of both African expatriates and African-Americans who sustain different African dance and music forms. She began working with the group of dancers and musicians who became the Chinyakare Ensemble the following year.

Julia tells me that for the first few years in America she was reluctant to do extensive work with American dancers and was focused on doing solo shows and teaching here and there.” As she began working with American dancers, she began to become comfortable describing the body movement she was looking for in English.

“I grew up speaking Shona, and back home [in Zimbabwe] people made fun of you if you spoke broken English.” Coming to the United States, she was wary of teaching students for these reasons. However, “none of the students laughed at me when I talked, so I didn’t have to worry about that. I gained confidence around my English and my teach-ing from watching students dance and seeing how good they were becoming.”

Julia and two of her students began to perform as an ensemble, with Julia dancing solos, then watching her two students perform from off-stage. “I would watch them and sometimes I’d be in tears, because I’d be watching the girls, but I would be seeing my family.” This almost magical capacity of dance helped convince her that she was on the right path as a Zimbabwean dance choreographer in America: “the dance could make me see someone from home, when I was so far away. And I could make other people see and feel my home,” through her choreography.

In these early performances, Julia and her students would sometimes dance as a trio, and Julia would be overcome by a kind of spiritual ecstasy: “I would just go off and the dance just takes me someplace. These girls somehow knew to stay in step, to stay within the choreography. Then I’d come back from where I was and return to the choreography. They were able to speak that language, and understand that they didn’t have to panic and they could maintain the line.”

It’s appropriate that in the Shona language of Zimbabwe, Chinyakare translates to “we are many, all in the deep tradition of the arts of our ancestors.” The training that Julia has provided those girls and continues to provide to dancers and musicians is about building community. “I wanted to make music and dance for families, for communities, for peo-ple to come together and find out they could solve their problems.” Through the practice of Shona dance and music, these community members can reach back to their ancestors to find solutions to the challenges life presents. “Sometimes the family can’t find the solution on their own,” she explains, “but through the dance and music they can—it lights the eye that helps us to see and opens the ears that helps us to listen.”

Julia tells me, “I never knew it was going to be a full-time job, it was tied to my culture and my family.” For Julia, to be a dancer and to build a life around her cultural form was “the way to live life. It’s for helping people, and sometimes it’s hard for me to understand that I’m doing it as a job.

She continues: “I’m not here to just be here. What I do is medicine—it is a healing thing. I feel that what I’m doing here [in Oakland] is what I saw music and dance being used for at home [in Zimbabwe]. It is to unite the community and bring families together. It can give you peace of mind when you are having a hard time, or when you are sick.”

While I was transcribing the recording of our interview, I realized I only asked Julia two of my planned questions. Most of my questions were follow-ups to her very thorough response to “what made you decide to become a dancer?” and to her responses to my follow-ups. I did get to my second planned question, which was “did you ever want to do anything else?”

After a long pause of reflection, she answered with “no, but sometimes yes. Sometimes I just think that I don’t want to do this anymore, that it is too much.” It is exciting and meaningful work for Julia: “you meet different people, you meet different cultures.” But she explains that there are also the pain-ful realities of life that come out when one is creating art and “with what I do, most of the time I hear about people’s hard times and troubles. And it becomes personal for me. Sometimes it’s too much. It’s intense.”

But when she takes those hard experiences to create art, she explains that “I sing and dance and when I talk about it I feel free, I feel open, I feel happy. Then I ask myself what other things are going to make me happy? Life is not easy, but you have to find a way to have peace of mind, and I’ve found for me that music and dance is what keeps me strong. Dancing is a healing thing and when I hear people say that my dance touches their heart, it makes me feel happy, it makes me feel strong, because that person I helped has become strong.”

Julia Chigamba and members of the Chinyakare Ensemble will kick-off the 2016 Rotunda Dance Series with a performance at San Francisco’s City Hall on February 12, 2016. The performance will begin with a welcoming dance to serve as a call to the ancestors, and continue with a series of performances that will call for healing and celebration.

SUSTAINING THE LINEAGE: Kumu Hula Kawika Alfiche shares the multi-faceted training of a Kumu Hula

Hawaiian dancers, blue background

Photo by RJ Muna








THE 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) represented many things to many people in its time, but one of the most notable outcomes of the festival was that it introduced the Hula dance and music form to the United States. Hawaii became a territory of the United States in 1898, but it was through the Exposition that mainland Americans were able to interact with some of the culture of the islands. This exposure made Hawaiian music incredibly popular, and only a year after the Exposition, Hula music recordings, many featuring the Ukulele, outsold all other styles of music purchased in the United States.

This June, the Rotunda Dance Series continues to celebrate the PPIE’s centennial with performances of both traditional Hawaiian dance and music by Halau o Keikiali’i and Halau ‘o Ku’ulei, two Bay-area based Halaus (Halau roughly translates to “school” or “group”) that are sustaining traditions. Recently I sat down to chat with the Kumu Hula of Halau o Keikiali’i, Kawika Keikiali’ihiwahiwa Alfiche about his background and their performance at the event.

The son of mixed Hawaiian/Filipino parents who both worked for the Airlines, Kawika was born in San Francisco, but grew up with strong Hawaiian connections: “My parents brought us up the way they were brought up…the food, the culture and etiquette, everything was done in the Hawaiian and island traditions.

Kawika Alfiche, in a crown and necklace made of leaves

Photo by RJ Muna

Because his parents worked for the airlines, Kawika was able to easily travel there to spend a great deal of time in Hawai`i where, “all of my cousins, and all of my aunts danced, and the uncles all cooked but none of the men really danced, but it was something I wanted to do.” While his desire to dance was not exactly forbidden, it wasn’t encouraged (“I think my dad would have preferred it if I continued sports”), and Kawika didn’t begin formal Hula training until high school – ”because I could take myself to Hula.”

I used the word ‘professional’ while asking about the decision to devote himself to Hula full time, and Kawika stepped back from the term (“It makes it sound like a job.”). He tells me that in terms of dedicating so much of his life to Hula, that “I didn’t really make a decision. I danced.”

Hawaiian culture developed over a thousand years before it came to the United States, and understanding Hula (even in the very limited way an outsider like me can understand it) means grasping a sense of how the form was cultivated over time, which ultimately requires an appreciation for the role lineage plays in the development and evolution of Hula. One doesn’t learn “Hula,” the exact same way from each teacher—one follows a distinct lineage that is passed from teacher to student over time, and each lineage reflects the style and method of each Kumu Hula (master teacher).

To become Kumu Hula within a lineage, a dancer goes through an “`uniki,” or graduation process with a Kumu Hula whom they have studied under. However, the terms of the training and the `uniki are set by that older Kumu—there’s no formal Hula college, or set curriculum. The knowledge (dance, music, lei making, prayers, chants, etc.), is largely the same, but how it is passed on can be vastly different.

Kawika’s journey is a fascinating example of the complex pathways that a dedicated dancer can take. The first Kumu he trained with was Tiare Maka-Olanolan Clifford, who passed away in 1992. After that fell under the care of Harriet Keahilihau-Spalding. “Aunty Harriet” was from Keaukaha, and two years after mentoring Kawika she had Kawika start his Halau and made Kawika the Kumu Hula or leader.

As Kawika describes it, “I was very young—21. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it—it wasn’t even a thought. I was just doing what I was supposed to do. She said here’s the name of your group, and I’ll mentor you for as long as you feel you need.” The name of the group was, and still is, Halau ‘o Keikiali’ (“School of Keikiali’”— it was named for Kawika), and Kawika is still the Kumu.

I ask him about Keahilihau-Spalding’svision Halau o Keikiali’i, and he tells me that it was (and still is) a vision of the “halau as something that helps and supports the community.”

Part of that vision that was passed down to him meant that Halau o Keikiali’i wouldn’t participate as a contestant in the world of Hula competitions, which for some is the core reason to dance Hula. Kawika tells me that for some people in the Hula world, “there’s a sense that because my halau doesn’t participate in competitions, we must not be as good as other companies.”

But his reason for not participating is very specific: “I saw this cut-throat part of it, where it wasn’t as important to learn what the dance was about as it was to present the dance.” Kawika “would much rather spend my time in a ceremony than on stage in a competition. And there are lots of people willing [to participate in competitions], so there’s no need for me to be a part of that. I support competitions, I play in them, I help my friends who do it, but it’s not my deal.”

But not participating in competitions does not mean he has retreated from the world. He has traveled extensively internationally, sharing hula as a performer and teacher. This has been in large part the result of work he began with his last Kumu Hula: Rae Kahikilaulani Fonseca, a widely respected Kumu who had been a student of George Lanakilakeikiahiali’i Na’ope, one of the most respected Kumu Hula of the 20th century and a founder of the Merrie Monarch Festival, which is the Super Bowl of Hula dance competitions. Kawika trained under him from 1996 until Fonseca passed away in 2010, going through a formal uniki ceremony in 2007. Kawika was one of only six people to attain Kumu status under Fonseca in the 30 years he taught, and was the only one of the six who lived outside of Hawai’i

It was with Fonseca that Kawika also began taking Hula to new places. The national explosion of interest in Hula that began after the 1915 exposition ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century as a global phenomenon. Kawika points out that “people have been dancing and singing to the songs from the 20s and 30s all around the world. Shirley Temple did it, Elvis did it–it was huge.” Fonseca had discovered that there were groups all over Mexico who were passionate about Hula as a result of this infusion into other cultural forms. Some Mexicans had also traveled to Hawai’i, learned some things and brought it back to Mexico. So Fonseca began traveling around Mexico and teaching his style of Hula.

Kawika began assisting him as part of his own training “[Fonseca] treated everyone he taught there as if they were his own students, and he provided them with foundational training they didn’t have from just studying popular Hawaiian dance,” that they had picked up through media representations or through brief visits to the islands. “You go [to those Mexican communities] today and when you watch them dance it’s all Kahikilaulani (Fonseca’s style of Hula). You can see it in their dances and their movements. They may not even know that, but they’re dancing our style because of the work he did.”

Kawika has continued to work in Mexico and in other parts of the globe. “All of my work is international or on the other side of the nation—New York, Boston, DC. I go to Japan every two months, and to Mexico every three or four months.” He’s planting seeds of Hula in these other locales, but letting the communities cultivate the tradition on their own: “It’s not for me to become their Kumu but to put them on a path so that one day they can find their own Kumu.”

This international expansion of Hula brings up the challenges of Hula as an evolving form. Kawika is pretty clear where he stands on the issue: “It’s 2015 Hula has to evolve, but the challenge is making sure it’s evolved by people who have a strong foundation in the culture and form. There’s lots of people making changes and evolving the dance, but they haven’t gone through a formal process of training.”

Kawika breaks it down for me in more specific detail: “Kaholo [a side-to-side movement] is one of the most basic movements in Hula, and maybe you have a glimpse of what Hula is after doing a Kaholo a million times.” The challenge comes when a new dancer/choreographer “has done a Kaholo 10 times, and then decide they are ready to start incorporating all of these other things into the form—that is a scary thing for me.”

Kawika describes his role and goals as a Kumu to me: “I think we have some
wonderful songs and chants that have been passed on through generations. My job is to completely share those things with my students so they are passed on to future generations, and to make sure they know these dances so well they don’t have to think about it when they do it. And there’s a way to present those dances and make them as interesting as anything else without other elements being added to it.”

As part of his upcoming performance at the Rotunda Dance Series, Kawika and his Halau will focuses on songs of the Ukulele and song from the era that came after the 1915 PPIE. “I grew up dancing to these songs and I hated them (laughs)—they were so corny and felt so kitschy at the time. I want to dance to songs in Hawaiian, I wanted to express myself in Hawaiian songs and words. But it’s a definite bona fide era of Hula. Now, I love playing them and singing these songs.” Before the Ukulele piece, they will open the show with Hula Pahu— ceremonial songs done on the Pahu Hula (shark skin drum).

As is the case with many of the artists I speak to who carry a tradition forward, I ask Kawika about the pressure of sustaining tradition, and he agrees that there is pressure. He shares a Hawaiian word—the Kuleana: “It’s your duty. Some people like to translate that as responsibility, but I like to translate as duty—no choice” But the way he describes Kuleana sounds liberating, and his tone resolutely upbeat, as he concludes “at the same time, I am really, really honored to have been chosen.”

An Ongoing Improvisation: The Enduring Legacy of Pandit Chitresh Das

Chitresh Das in a pose

Photo by Marty Sohl

The death of Kathak Dance Master Pandit Chitresh Das in early January of this year came as a shock to the Bay Area dance community. Although he turned 70 in 2014, he had a performance and teaching schedule that would put dancers half his age to shame. In addition to his ongoing work leading a dance school with branches around the world, this past fall he debuted Yatra, his collaboration with Flamenco dancer Antonio Hidalgo Paz. Upaj, the documentary that explored his life through his groundbreaking collaboration with tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith had been broadcast around the country on PBS stations this past year. On the day he passed away, Pandit Das was in meetings making preparations for a performance of Shiva.

In late January, I spoke with Rachna Nivas and Charlotte Moraga, two of the principal dancers in the Chitresh Das Dance Company. Although they were both still reeling from the sudden loss of Pandit Das— as are all who knew him—both were firm in asserting the company’s absolute commitment to the unveiling of Shiva at a future date. Although it was previously performed as a work-in-progress at Z Space, Pandit Das had completed updates and changes to the piece.

Moraga says that before his death, he had “clearly articulated his vision on [what the performance would look like] down to the costumes and the lights. Now it’s up to us to bring that to fruition. We’ve been working together to bring together his vision”

She adds that when rehearsing Pandit Das’ choreography, “we feel his presence. The piece is about death… it’s about the transformation of energy. For those of us dancing, it’s a tremendous gift.”

In his life, Pandit Das bridged many worlds. He was born in Kolkata in 1944, before India gained its independence, and was raised in a society that was finding and redefining its identity on its own terms. His parents ran a dance school that taught several different Indian dance forms. He was trained from the age of nine by his guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Misra and from an early age he was being heralded as a child prodigy in India.

He came to America in the 1970s, a country that was experiencing its own period of upheaval and culture redefinition. In this cultural context Pandit Das found a home in 1971 when he was invited to start a dance program at the Ali Akbar School of Music in San Rafael. In 1979 he founded Chitresh Das Dance Company and Chhandam School of Kathak. Over the next 36 years, he built a dance company that toured the world giving acclaimed performances, and he himself was bestowed with many awards, including the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Most importantly, he built a community of women who were not only strong dancers, but strong teachers.

Two of these women are Charlotte Moraga and Rachna Nivas, who both met Pandit Das the way many met him—as students. Moraga was a dance student looking for a Flamenco class at San Francisco State University in 1992 when she wandered into a dance class taught by Das. She recalls:

“He started the class by saying, ‘I’m not a dance teacher, I’m a dance preacher,’ and I thought ‘oh boy,’ but he challenged everything I thought about dance.” Moraga continued her study with Das beyond college, becoming a principal dancer in his company, and an instrumental figure in the Chhandam School of Kathak, Pandit Das’ dance school.

Rachna Nivas met Chitresh Das in 1998 as undergraduate at UC Berkeley, when she entered “a classroom pulsating with energy. There were these intensely focused women, and there was this little man sitting in the front of the room, pushing them like I’d never seen someone pushed.” Nivas eventually also became a principal dancer and is now the director of the Chhandam School.

Nivas explains that this intensity was part of what made him an exceptional teacher. The instruction he provided his students “wasn’t just about their dance. It was about their life journeys. I wondered how he had so much insight into each of these people. One minute he’d make them laugh and the next minute it would be really serious, then it would be very contemplative, then the next minute he’s storytelling, playing a male, then suddenly playing a female, revealing a subtle philosophical message,” within that transition.

His ability to be multi-dimensional in his persona served Das well as a performer. But that magnetic stage presence didn’t serve the veneration of his ego. Das was committed to the evolution and expansion of Kathak dance as a constant, ongoing project. The performance was an important part of that, but it was always just one part. Nivas says that right before performing, he would tell dancers “remember, the moment you go on stage, it’s history. What’s next?” She says that “everything was about where we are going and he sacrificed his own performances in order to teach and build institutions.”

Kids dancing

Photo by Marty Sohl

As an observer of the Bay Area’s dance community, I am continually impressed by the community he built over the decades devoted to sustaining the Kathak tradition, and feel that Kathak was very blessed to have Das as a proponent. Kathak is not thriving in India. Like many indigenous cultural art forms around the world, it has fallen victim to the vicissitudes of pop culture and dominance of modern western cultural forms. But in the Bay Area, it has found home in a community of women who have supported each other as they worked within the company, and as they have embarked to create work as soloists.

With the encouragement of Pandit Das, both Nivas and Moraga have created work on their own outside of the company. But it hasn’t been about them moving away from their community. It has been about the community founded by Chitresh Das growing larger.

Moraga adds to that, stating that he was “innovative in his art and in his pedagogy. He would train his students to become dancers on their own, to become their own teacher. Very few gurus have that in mind.” She adds, “All artists were to be teaching artists. That’s how you learn, how you relate, how you have passion. It’s how you understand people and life, and that’s what this art is about. “ Moraga adds that his devotion to connecting with people through teaching and performance (and in the Kathak tradition, there is often overlap, as performers are often expected to speak to the audience to provide context to the piece) was absolute, adding that “it didn’t matter whether it a student was 8 or 80, or he was performing for an audience of 100 and audience of one—he gave the same amount. The goal was to reach people.”

I personally met Pandit Das a handful of times over the years, and there were two main impressions he left on me. The first was that he was a born storyteller, a fitting attribute for a master in a storytelling art form such as Kathak. The other impression was that he was irrepressibly funny human being who could connect with anyone, no matter who they were. Nivas agrees with both impressions. Regarding my first she says, “Traveling with him was amazing. What I got out of being in that location was amplified. He was thinking about that land, the history. He gets a feel about the struggles the people in the land went through, and while he’s there he’s thinking about his role in the land’s history.” She describes a great humility and sense of perspective that Pandit Das brought to the communities he performed in: “He would say ‘I’m contributing to the landscape of this history. I’m bringing India to this land.’” Regarding the second observation she says, “He was HILARIOUS. As seriously as he took his art, he had just as much fun. That’s a part of it. It was always about changing up the energy and doing what was unexpected. Keeping the audience on their toes. An improvisation.”

According to Moraga and Nivas, for his longtime students one the strangest component of processing his passing is that he regularly spoke about it in classes and rehearsals (making statements like “On the day I die you should do footwork.”). I get the impression that this is not because he expected to die any time soon, but because he understood that if the art form he lived his life in dedication to was to flourish, then it had to flourish in the community he created long after he was gone. As Moraga describes it, “He was always thinking of the bigger picture, and the elevation and evolution of this art form.”

I ask Moraga to speculate how his legacy may develop now that he is gone. Careful to state she is speaking only for herself and not the company, she points out that “he trained hundreds of dancers. Martha Graham had so many disciples, and would she approve of everything they did?”

She continues, “as with any legacy, there will be strands that sometime may not be completely consistent with his teachings, but he was about energy and evolution. I’m sure it will go off in many different directions….you just have to have faith. He had so much faith.”

In addition to upcoming tribute performances by the dance company, the youth contingent of the Chitresh Das Dance Company will perform in April and Pandit Das gave his blessing to several of his disciples to perform solos this summer. Later this spring the company and school will make a formal announcement regarding longer term plans for the future.

Moraga explains, “of course, it can’t be business-as-usual. We have to make space for our grief, but we fully intend to continue this work.”

Nivas says, “I am so grateful for my guru sisters, during this time.” She says that while they are sad, they frequently imagine what he would say, invoking his voice to one another: “What was the point of all of this that I did, if you’re going to sit around and feel sad?” So with his voice in their minds, the dance disciples who Pandit Chitresh Das trained in this lifetime will continue sustaining and evolving the tradition of Kathak dance he shared with them, with some improvisations.

For more details about the Chitresh Das Dance Company, their classes and upcoming performances visit

A Labyrinth of Cultural Histories: Exploring the Legacies of the 2015 Panama–Pacific International Exposition

2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the Panama- Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), which was held in San Francisco on 625 acres of landfill that would later become the Marina District. In our current era of instant communication and unfettered online exchange, the idea of an international exposition seems somewhat quaint, although I was surprised to find that they are still held on a regular basis (see you in Milan 2015!).

Expositions and world fairs like the PPIE were a product of a pre-globalized era when experiences were unmediated by technology, and large-scale events were required to popularize trends and discoveries. These massive year-long series of events are a pre-requisite to globalization and facilitated the process through the introduction of new international cultures, arts, foods, and—most important of all—trade to the west. Expositions left indelible imprint on the cities where they were held, and the 1915 PPIE was no exception.

photo by RJ Muna

photo by RJ Muna

As part of a number of celebrations held throughout San Francisco in 2015 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this particular exposition, Dancers’ Group and World Arts West are programming their monthly, free Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco City Hall with companies that reflect or re-frame the cultures and contexts of the 1915 exhibition. The series begins February 20—the exact date of the PPIE’s 100th anniversary— with performances by Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, Balinese company Gamelan Sekar Jaya, and a Swedish folk dance performance. To understand how these companies reflect the Exposition’s legacy, some context is necessary.

The PPIE has remained particularly vivid in San Francisco’s collective civic memory—I don’t think the 1894 Midwinter’s Exposition or 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition receive nearly as much retrospective attention. Part of the reason is that the PPIE left San Francisco with one of its most iconic landmarks in the Palace of Fine Arts, although it’s often forgotten that the building now called Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was also built as an off-site venue for the Exposition. That these are the only physical remains of this monumental event is surprising, although other buildings lack the romance of the Palace of Fine Arts. If they had survived, I doubt couples would be lining up to have wedding photos taken at the Palace of Food Products or the Palace of Education and Social Economy.

Over the span of 9 months, more than 18 million people (a number that represented more than 20% of the entire US population at the time) attended the fair which featured over 80,000 exhibits and the participation of over 40 countries. The PPIE was formerly intended to be a celebration of the prior year’s completion of the Panama Canal, and it’s fairly well known that the exposition was also meant to display San Francisco’s full recovery from the 1906 earthquake that had leveled the city. But most importantly, the PPIE celebrated the burgeoning imperial ambitions of the United States, and positioned the building of the Panama Canal and the many neo-colonial excursions the country was taking as natural extensions of the “Manifest Destiny” policy that had guided US growth in the prior century.

The PPIE was held at a time when America was beginning to display its military power on an international stage, beginning with the Spanish-American war and the resultant occupation of the Philippines which would continue until 1946. In July of 1915, the US would invade and begin a 19 year occupation of Haiti. And in 1915 the former autonomous kingdom of Hawai‘i had been a formal US territory for 16 years, in the midst of a slow path towards statehood. One of the most popular exhibits at the PPIE was the Hawaiian exhibit, where Americans familiarized themselves with their new colonial acquisition.

As part of the exhibit, a group of Hawaiian dancers performed outside the lagoon at the Palace of Fine Arts. In Beyond Isadora, her indispensable history of Bay Area dancing from the time of Isadora Duncan through the 1960s, Joanna Gewertz Harris notes that a contemporary newspaper “describes them as famous for their dusky beauty.” This kind of exotic-ized depiction and superficial understanding of non-western culture and arts was common at the PPIE. Dance is an entry point to experiencing a culture, but as the comment reveals, it does not necessarily follow that experience leads to understanding.

In 2015 many of the cultural forms presented at the PPIE are now being sustained in the Bay Area by the diverse communities that have immigrated to this region over the last 100 years. Berkeley-based Balinese dance and music company Gamelan Sekar Jaya, performing at the Rotunda dance performance on February 20, 2015, is an excellent example of the way that the San Francisco Bay Area has become a center for the preservation and development of dance cultures from around the world.

Balinese culture was represented at the PPIE under the colonial moniker of the Dutch East Indies. Indonesia was the largest Dutch colony, and natural resources like nutmeg, peppers, cloves and cinnamon were grown and sold for the benefit of the Dutch colonial administration who also introduced non- indigenous crops—most notably coffee—to the Indonesian agricultural ecosystem. After World War II, Indonesian nationalists declared independence and the subsequent Indonesian National Revolution ended when the Netherlands formally recognized Indonesian sovereignty in 1949.

Gamelan Sekar Jaya was founded in 1979 by a group of predominantly white aficionados of Balinese culture along with Balinese Gamelan master I Wayan Suweca. Despite their East Bay heritage, they have grown over the past three decades to be viewed as one of the most artistically important and relevant

Balinese Gamelan company, receiving the Dharma Kusuma— Bali’s highest award for artistic achievement. Their performance at the Rotunda Dance Series will include a ceremony that recalls the Dutch colonial era depicted at the 1915 Exposition, as well as the economic exploitation of Balinese resources.

The PPIE was also important milestone in the popularization of the burgeoning modern dance forms created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in opposition to ballet. In Beyond Isadora, Harris states the natural style of dance created by San Franciscan Isadora Duncan at the turn of the century began to enter the mainstream dance culture at this time, due in part to the inclusion of Duncan-style dance on performance stages at the PPIE alongside music hall style dance forms. According to Harris, “the general public thus began to see dancing different from that at music halls and in vaudeville in intention, costume and design… At the PPIE dance began to acquire a different dimension, an aura of grace.”

photo courtesy of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

photo courtesy of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company

The Rotunda series performance on the 20th will also feature a performance by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. It may be argued that Jenkins’ own graceful work is part of a dance lineage that extends back to Duncan, but Jenkins has spent her career creating dance that is informed by collaboration across disciplines and cultures, working with companies and artists in milieus as diverse as India, China, and most recently, Jerusalem. This outward seeking creative philosophy is one that is not uncommon in contemporary choreographers who have reached the edges of the modern dance vocabulary, but in her body of work Jenkins has successfully walked a path that has felled many lesser choreographers whose collaborative work has been less authentically process-oriented than hers has been, and more about combining different cultural forms as a stunt to attract new audiences.

The most curious and potentially most interesting performance at the opening of the Rotunda series is the Swedish folk dance. Sweden was represented at the PPIE. Yet, 1915 was a period where many European immigrants to America began to abandon their cultural traditions and practices with the goal of being accepted into the dominant homogenous “American” cultural identity that promised the benefits of what is now commonly referred to as white privilege, constructed on a system that oppressed people of color. Peeling back the artificially created “white” culture to explore the distinct cultures that were abandoned in its construction (such as the Scandinavian dance forms the Swedish dancers will present) has the potential to remind an audience of the complex and contested processes that make up our country’s cultural history.

The gulf of differences between the world of 1915 and the world of 2015 is vast, but there is one notable similarity. Attendees of the 1915 PPIE were experiencing cultural, economic and technological changes at a rate faster than they had ever experienced before. In 2015 we are, as a culture, experiencing a similar rate of change that is dizzying and sometime dispiriting. These dance forms provide a connection with the labyrinthine histories of our past while also offering optimistic visions for the possibilities of the future.

The 2015 Rotunda Dance Series will continue with monthly performances through December 4, with performances by artists to include Halau o Keikiali’i, Kaiwen You Chinese Dance, Nimely Pan African Dance Company, Shinichi Iova-Koga, and many other Bay Area artists sustaining dance and music from around the world. For more information visit


Photo by Lin Cariffe

Photo by Lin Cariffe

CHOREOGRAPHER, DANCER AND KUMU HULA (master teacher) Patrick Makuakane is a dynamo of thoughtful energy and good-natured cheer. Speaking with him in a coffee shop near his home in Potrero Hill, I was reminded that a key part of what I’ve always enjoyed about the performances by his dance company, Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, is the boundless enthusiasm for both his culture and his company that he displays on stage as master of ceremonies. Hula is very lucky to count Makuakane as an ambassador to the world.

We started by talking about the show he’s bringing to the Palace of Fine Arts this October, and how it was born from time recently spent with his first teacher. Makuakane explains, “when I went back home [to Hawaii] earlier this year for a four month sabbatical, I was able to dance again with my Kumu, Robert Cazimero. We did a show called Hula Guyz that was very successful, so I asked if he [would] bring his company to San Francisco and do a show with my company that focuses on similar themes but in collaboration with my guys.”

Usually in a Hawaiian show you’ll see a mixed gender company or just woman, but “seeing a show that’s just men is very unusual. Robert’s company— Na Kamalei O Lililehua—is only men, and I grew up in that company.”

Finding male dancers can be tough in general, and Hula is no different. But according to Patrick, “There’s a strong cultural aspect to it that really resonates with a lot of men, so there’s an “in” because doing Hula becomes a cultural thing rather than a ‘dance’ thing. It’s easier for them to get attached to the idea. A lot of Hawaiian men use dance as a vehicle to express their native identity.”

The Hula Guyz performance in October will replicate and further develop what was created in Honolulu: “I came home and taught my men some of the choreography from the first show, and we have some pieces that only my men will do, and are new to this show, and some that only Robert’s guys will do.” One of the challenges to creating this show is that “Hawaiian culture has a strong focus on balance. You never do anything without including men and women, and for a while I toyed with the idea of bringing in a woman to do a solo, but finally I decided it will be okay to just be all men.”

Almost as notable is that this will be a rare opportunity to see Makuakane dancing; “Over the years, I’ve danced here and there, but I stopped enjoying it. I realized that I love dancing with the company I grew up dancing with. With my company, it’s time for my dancers to shine. I’ll chant and drum and dance in the background. In my company that’s my place.” But because Hula Guyz brings the company Makuakane grew up dancing in to San Francisco, he will be able to switch places, if only for a night.

The collaboration between the company Makuakane has been building in San Francisco over the last 29 years and the company he began working with as a teenager in Hawaii leads us to discuss his initial attraction to Cazimero’s form of Hula. “He was pushing the envelope of what could be done with his company when I was dancing with them.”

Patrick has been able to push the envelope a little further because he built his company on the mainland in San Francisco. He says, “I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder all the time, and I‘ve been able to use my own personal taste and standards to decide whether or not something works. Of course you still have put it in front of an audience and see how they respond. If I was still living in Hawaii and trying to do this, I don’t think I would be as much as a risk taker. But here it’s celebrated.”

Despite his risk taking, Makuakane always holds himself to a standard that retains the integrity of the movement, even if he’s playing with them. “I love taking traditional movements and maneuvering the gestures so that they look similar. The Hula person will recognize the Hula in the movement, even as they see it’s not Hula.”

Makuakane is also noted setting his choreography to diversity of musical sources far flung from the canon of Hula—opera, pop music, rock. One of his most company’s most popular pieces is a Hula to Roberta Flack’s rendition of The First Time Ever I Saw our Face.

He explains, “I used to be a DJ, and I collected a lot of music over time. I’m constantly sifting through to see which pieces I want to play with. Some of the pieces that come out of that exploration have a strong Hula grounding, and some don’t. But my company has a strong Hula grounding, so whatever I create for them needs to be in a form that they feel comfortable using, or else it’s going to look odd. You won’t see us jumping, or leaping through the air. It just doesn’t happen for us, but I’ve discovered there’s a lot that I can do with the vocabulary I was given.”

There is a sense of “either/or” that often permeates to artistic worldviews of a lot of artists who practice traditional art forms, born in part out of the increasingly common experience these artists have seeing their culturally-based art forms appropriated by artists and media in Western culture without much regard and with a superficial understanding of the culture where those forms were established over hundreds, or even thousands of years. The understandable response by culture bearers to this seeming accelerating trend is to say either you maintain the forms exactly as your learned them, otherwise your work contributes to the dissolution of the culture.

It’s a charge that is often thrown at traditional artists trying to evolve their work within their tradition, and it’s a line that Patrick is aware of, stating “that’s the challenge that lot of my fellow [traditional] choreographers face—can we evolve our cultural art form while simultaneously preserving it? I say yes, of course we can. My goal is maintain the integrity of our traditions but give them a modern flavor.

“I think Hula is inherently beautiful. It doesn’t need to be changed. But there are so many other ways we can express ourselves through our art form that involve traditional movements but with changes to give them a contemporary feeling, or use contemporary music.”

Makuakane continues, “there is a lot of confusion around this, because what I don’t do is take traditional dance and chants and turn them upside down. I don’t do that. I teach and perform the traditional dances in the way I was taught. But there are no rules in what you can do beyond that. If I want to create a new Hula to Madonna, there are no rules that say I can’t do that.”

Makuakane agrees that it is vital “to have a really good understanding of tradition. That’s why I went back to Hawaii about 10 years ago and studied traditional Hawaiian dance with another Kumu, Mae Kamamalu Klein.” Studying with Klein, who is revered as a traditional Hula master, “gives me confirmation and validity in [the] Hula world, because although I’m doing all of this, I have this experience. She and Robert came from the same teachers, so it’s still part of the same lineage, just expressed differently.”

At the same time, he is quick to explain that his own immersion in Hula wouldn’t have occurred if he had started in a purely traditional grounding. “Robert was considered a bit of a renegade, but if he wasn’t like that, I wouldn’t have been interested in Hula. He showed me that Hula was so much more than what I had expected.” Only after beginning with a “renegade” Kumu was Makuakane able to get to a point where he could “see how the beauty in how this [modern takes on Hula] came from that [Traditional Hula].

“At first I didn’t appreciate the tradition as much because I wanted all the flash and glitter, but once I was immersed in Hula I began to understand how beautiful that is. The evaluation was backwards—I started with the less traditional teacher, and then went back to the traditionalist.”

Makuakane is also lucky to have found two Kumus who allowed him to study with the other. “A lot of people don’t get to go back and forth the way I do. You start with one, and then you move on to the next one and move on entirely from the prior one. I asked permission—somehow I got it from both of them.” Going back to study with Klein really helped “solidify my traditional foundation; the idea was to help me get close to the edge, but not to fall off. I really enjoy the challenge of doing both. I really enjoy passing my dance on to students the way I learned them, intact.”

This October allows audiences to see some of the work that Makuakane is passing to his students. October is the normal home season time of year for the Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu performing company, but every five years, Makuakane rests the performing company and instead brings his entire school—the Halau—to the Palace of Fine Arts for a Ho’ike. This is a grand recital that features hundreds of dancers on stage at the same time.

“I laugh because every five years I say I have an opportunity to rest from doing a big show. But trying to marshal 260-plus people into a show is a bit of a logistical maze, but it works on a different part of my brain.”

“I love being able to give this opportunity to all of the classes. The performing company would not be able to do what we do without the support of these students. They help all the time, and their dedication is moving to me. So we want to give them an opportunity to be on the big stage. It gives them something to look forward to, and is a chance for them to up their game. Normally when they’re just in class, week after week, it can be hard to get the inspiration,” without the goal the event provides for his students.

The Ho’ike I saw five years ago was mammoth, and while dancers of all skill levels were present, the skill level in the dances performed tilted towards high. In addition, the scope of the show—as well as the intense dedication of the students—made it memorable one-of-a-kind experience.

Even in this show, which is essentially a recital, Makuakane wants “to create something memorable. So we craft a line that’s unique and special and engaging. I’m coming home each night exhausted, because there’s this constant internal dialogue going on about how to inspire these dancers— they aren’t the performing company, but I am holding them to a certain standards,” that are very high for dancers who are not regular performers.

He smiles in a way that is just a little bit devilish, and I know that even in the Ho’ike there will be something special that only Patrick Makuakane can bring to a dance recital: “Sure it will be a recital, but it will not be your grandma’s recital.”

Hula Guyz will be presented on October 18 at 2pm and 7pm. Ho’ike Nui O Na Lei Hulu will take place on October 25 at 7pm, and October 26 at 12pm and 5pm. For more information about both shows visit

LENORA LEE: Sharing Stories Through Dance and Film

The pair of programs Lenora Lee will present September 26 – October 5 at Dance Mission as her company’s 7th season will be a good opportunity to be introduced to the work of this fascinating interdisciplinary artist—a showcase for her dynamic work that integrates dance, fi lm, installation, text and music to tell stories of family, community and the way that history embeds those abstract concepts into specific places, times and people.

As she explains to me, “it’s always made sense to me that these different artistic disciplines can work together as a woven tapestry.”

Born in Sacramento, Lenora was raised in San Francisco. She went to college in the mid-90s to study biological sciences, but began taking dance classes at City College of San Francisco, then in UCLA’s Department of Dance / World Arts and Cultures, eventually graduating with a degree in Dance. During her college years she also studied with saxophonist/composer Francis Wong who has since become an artistic collaborator.

Recalling her time at UCLA, she cites two figures from the department being particularly important to her artistic development: Victoria Marks and David Gere.

From Gere, (who joined UCLA after decades working in the Bay Area’s dance community as a writer and critic), Lenora was introduced to concepts in the philosophy of dance, the male gaze, the female body and how women are portrayed in dance and in media. She says, “that struck a chord…I became very interested in dealing with the idea of equality, gender equality, being respected as a female director, choreographer and maker, and to have our stories and our work respected.”

Lenora was also inspired by Marks, and the way she “worked with various communities in creating her dances, and also how she was able to create intimate portraits of people in these communities.” Marks was asking questions of her students and within her own work that influenced Lenora’s artistic formation. Lenora is exploring similar questions in her own work today: “How can one integrate his or her life and everyday experiences into the world of performance? How can we shed a different light, or expose various facets of our experiences and those of others in the world in a creative, innovative way that transcends everyday communication?”

The idea that her artistic practice could be built from the material of everyday experience began formulating in Lenora’s mind after a tragic and ironic event that occurred while she was still in school. “I always believed that I didn’t understand my grandmother because she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Chinese. I took a year abroad in China, in part to get a better idea of the Chinese community that I had grown up around.

“She passed away when I was in China. It was unfortunate and odd that I would go all the way to China [to] understand my grandmother, and then she passed away while I was there.” In the aftermath Lenora interviewed her mother and her mother’s sisters about her grandmother—“they had very different interpretations of her”—and created a performance art piece at UCLA about her grandmother based on those different interpretations. Following college Lenora continued her training (her CV displays an impressive array of the different dance and movement styles she’s studied) and performed with other companies, although increasingly she began creating her performance pieces.

34. Lenora Lee_CourtesyofLEnoraLeeDance

Dancer Chin-chin Hsu and martial artist Yukihiko Noda in The Detached / Photo courtesy of Lenora Lee Dance

After living in Los Angeles, she returned to San Francisco, then moved to New York City for four years before returning to San Francisco, although she tells me she still performs regularly in New York. She seems a little reticent to fully embrace what she calls “the bicoastal life,” but she acknowledges “it has worked out well. I’ve been able to deepen contacts and fi nd support for my work, I think specifi cally because I was doing research on the history of New York City’s Chinatown and there are organizations and individuals who are interested in supporting projects that explore that history.”

While her work had always utilized a variety of movement styles and integrated other disciplines, 2010 provided Lenora an opportunity to expand the scope of her work in terms of subject matter and the degree to which she was able to integrate media and text into her performance. She was commissioned to create a piece for the centennial commemoration of the opening of Angel Island Immigration Station, through which 170,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States, including three of her grandparents. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred almost all immigration from China into the country, and those who passed through the station had to endure intensive interrogations.

The piece she created, Passages (excerpts to be performed in Program B of her season this year), recreates that experience through the story of Lee Ping To, Lenora’s grandmother. Through a large-scale, interdisciplinary combination of movement, media, music and text, Passages recreates her grandmother’s story in a performance that also conveys experiences that hundreds of thousands of other immigrants have also had to endure.

She explains, “we had access through the National Archives to their immigration papers. We had no idea how the piece would manifest — it was kind of like going on a genealogy hunt sparked by my desire to understand what their experiences were, and it just opened up the doors.”

For Lenora and her collaborators Passages became an opportunity to unpack this complex history through the performance: “I had to explain about the Exclusion Act and discuss its effects on the generations of Chinese coming to the U.S. between 1882-1943. It was very compelling and provided a context and significance to the work that it hadn’t had before. There were so many people who never told their stories in fear of being deported. My parent’s generation never heard these stories for three reasons. One, they weren’t positive experiences; two, my grandparents already felt like second class citizens; and three the immigrant generation was afraid their kids would leak out the truth about their identities by accident. So a lot of the stories were just lost when this generation passed.”

Through Passages, Lenora was able to reclaim some of these stories: “even though I am third generation, I felt I could share some of the experiences, even if it came together as a collage of what I had researched and heard about.”

Passages—like much of her recent work—explores subjects that are intensely personal for Lenora, but are designed to engage all audiences. Her work examines “the history of the communities that I grew up in.” However, as an artist her goal is “to portray the experiences in ways that go beyond ethnicity and culture. Although I’ve been doing work about the Chinese American experience, the experiences of what people struggle, strive and triumph through—those experiences are universal.”

Passages was Lenora’s first work that integrated installation art, media and choreography at such a significant scale, and she began scaling up in the work that followed. In 2011 she returned to explore the immigrant experience in Reflections, which focused on the experiences of male immigrants. Two of her more recent works The Escape and Rescued Memories: New York Stories examined the lives of women who migrated to the United States, and sought refuge from exploitation and forced labor.

Lenora and her collaborators, filmmaker Tatsu Aoki and media designer Olivia Ting create films that are projected on traditional and nontraditional screens, to bring the sites where the historical events occurred into the theater. Lenora directs the live movement and choreography to respond to what’s on the screen: “A lot of what we’ve shot in the last two years has been site specific in San Francisco Chinatown and New York Chinatown, and I wanted to recreate scenes that I felt were key experiences in the stories I had researched.” During the piece “the dancers flash back to that space, or are in the same time frame interacting with the action on the screen.”

The day after we spoke, Lenora was scheduled to film a sequence at the former Fort McDowell hospital on Angel Island. This will be shown as part of The Detached, a new work that will be performed in both programs this season. The interactive, multimedia performance will continue with themes developed in The Escape and Rescued Memories: New York Stories (which will also be part of the season’s line-up) by focusing on the stories of women who have survived human trafficking. The Detached will also be an integrated performance that combines dance with film.

The ultimate goal of Lenora and her collaborators, including music director Francis Wong, writer Genny Lim and lighting designer Patty-Ann Farrell is to “create environments that performers can step into. These environments are designed to provide viewers multi-sensory and multi-layered information. This provides a more encompassing experience. For me it’s about impact and how deeply can you connect with people—how deeply can you share the experiences through the work.”

Lenora Lee Dance will perform their 7th season at Dance Mission Theater from September 9-October 5, 2014. For more information visit

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