Author Archive | Sima Belmar

In Practice: Colleague-Criticism

In 2009, I published an essay in this publication (In Dance) about a work by choreographer Randee Paufve, a dear friend of mine. I didn’t know it at the time, but in that same year, performance studies scholars Jill Dolan, Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, and Jaclyn Pryor published the essay “Colleague-Criticism: Performance, Writing, and Queer Collegiality.”[1] The writers define colleague-criticism as “a type of critical engagement in which the critic acknowledges his or her personal relationship with the artist and/or familiarity with the artists’ work and, in so doing, allows the reader to consider the context of the artist’s production as well as the critic’s response” (1). I wish I had known about this essay at the time; I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my endeavor to write about dance from a position of passionate proximity.

Colleague-criticism doesn’t seem to have gained much traction. Google Scholar reveals a mere four citations of the Dolan et al. article, and dance critics still largely write from what choreographer Tere O’Connor calls an “oracular place with the wrong information.” But something wonderful and unexpected has breathed new life into this endeavor, encouraging me to recommit to colleague-criticism: the Low-Res Dance Writers Laboratory at the new National Center for Choreography in Akron, Ohio (NCCAkron). I found the call for dance writers on Facebook (thanks for tagging me, Jill Randall), applied, and was accepted as one of five dance writers to spend a year writing together about, for, and with dance.[2]

At the helm of this endeavor is Christy Bolingbroke, former Deputy Director for Advancement at ODC, and Dance Magazine’s “One of the Most Influential People in Dance Today.” As outlined on giant post-it notes on the walls of NCCAkron’s conference room (Christy loves giant post-it notes), the organization’s mission involves supporting geographic equity, cultivating artists of “creative genius,” advocating for dance as a central part of US culture, investing longitudinally (which means long-term residencies that allow for ongoing conversations with an artist to track their growth and invest in more than just the making of a work—process over product), and fostering R&D through dialogue and proximity.

Christy kicked off our discussions, which took place over the course of four late July days in the University of Akron dance department’s gorgeous new building (every nook and cranny of which was designed with attention to time, space, body, and language). We talked about the state of dance writing today and what we could do to move dance discourse closer to the center of US culture. We generated lots of questions and few answers—What is the role of the dance writer in the dance ecosystem? What is the purpose of a program note? What does it mean to remember a dance? But as Christy said, NCCAkron is about “creating space for rigorous play and positive failure.” Her commitment to developing infrastructure for dance writing in direct engagement with dance making — writers, choreographers, and dancers are in residence together — and without the pressure to create “outputs” feels like the greatest of gifts.

And who should be the first artist-in-residence? None other than the aforementioned Tere O’Connor. Tere is famous both for his dances and for his bold stance against conventional dance criticism. Indeed, his 2005 debate with The New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella, discussed in the Dolan et al. article, is only slightly less well-known than Bill T. Jones’ battle with Arlene Croce. So although Tere’s artistic process was meant to be used as a launchpad for our discussions, he was wary, and chose instead to plunge us into philosophical questions, the spiky abyss where aesthetics and politics do their spiral dance.

This was at turns freeing and frustrating. We were privileged to view Tere’s latest work Long Run in process, but Tere wasn’t keen on using the work as a site for our analysis. I get it; mid-process is a vulnerable place to be. But the material offered so much—gestures in inorganic rhythms, mundane interactions made strange through repetition, low, smearing fourth positions that made it look like, nay, feel like someone’s crotch was going to fall out. And the dancers! Marc Crousillat, Eleanor Hullihan, Emma Judkins, Joey Loto, Silas Riener, Lee Serle, and JinJu Song-Begin—they made me wistful for a dancing past I never had, and happy, and cranky, all the things, all the feelings.

So we watched a video Merce Cunningham’s CRWDSPCR (1993) and tried to talk about that instead. And Tere told us a bit about how he began writing, starting, as it does for so many artists, with grant writing, then becoming a mode of “amplifying the thoughts around what I was making and an early detachment from the denotative aspects of language.” He’s a very quotable guy. (Here are my top three favorite phrases uttered by Tere during our discussion: “You can bite ephemera,” “Certitude will always be undone,” and, on what accounts for his mode of thought, “The erosive quality of the aqueous nature of dance on my brain.”)

Tere said that, in his experience with audiences around the world, he hasn’t found a racial, gender, or class determinant for how people see the work; it comes down to whether or not a person is able to “lean into ambiguity.” Some of us shifted uneasily in our swivel seats in response to this, but it does present a provocation: Can dance writing help viewers cultivate that openness, so that audiences begin to move away from the anxiety of “getting it”[3] and towards the pleasure of wading through the unknown?

Dance is under so much pressure to speak for itself even though nothing speaks for itself, not even speaking. Many dance artists feel like they have to make scrutable the inscrutable through verbal language, and granting bodies certainly rely heavily on verbal description and explanation to help them make decisions about whom to fund. Does description take away from the potential of dance to spark thought? What seems at first glance (or second, or third) inscrutable or inaccessible isn’t really. Just like anything new-to-you, it takes practice seeing it, time to access it.

The power of dance often lies in its ability to intervene into normative ways of moving and thinking. In doing so it risks entering into the inscrutable. Dance writing, rather than, or in addition to, helping us witness the dance with its multiple and often contradictory perspectives, and “amplify the world’s thinking about dance” (Tere), may do well to join the dance in its interruption of the so-called natural. Together, dancing and writing can focus our attention on our methodologies for being in the world rather than reflecting realities that are limited by what we already think we know.

***

Christy presented us with a mission: to connect with our respective local dance artists (including dancers who do not identify as choreographers) and dance writers over the next twelve months to create a knowledge base about dance. So this article is a call to Bay Area choreographers, dancers, and dance writers of all stripes to engage in friendly, feisty conversation with me about the infinite variations of a life in dance. Somewhat like Rachel Howard’s former Critical Dialogues column, which was also published in In Dance, I’d like to co-think and co-write dance as much as possible. The focus will continue to be on the practical details, on process, on doing rather than meaning, though meaning inevitably hops, skips, and jumps over and around all that we do.

Since starting the In Practice column, several choreographers have contacted me about seeing their work and reviewing it. Though I won’t be writing reviews here, I am interested in the work in an investigative reporting kind of way. I want to gather the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the work in advance of, during, or after a performance run. It doesn’t matter much when in the process we start; writing and dancing in dialectical relation knows no beginning, middle, or end.

So far, I think In Practice has been about this. But I only know so many artists. So, Bay Area dance artists—reach out. Our conversation probably will not be published in time to serve as a preview of your show (but it might). Contact me and we’ll talk about your daily grind, about how can we talk about dancing without killing it, about who you’re reading these days. (My bedside table hosts Maggie Nelson, Thich Nhat Hahn, André Lepecki, Tara Brach, and Sophie Kinsella. Full disclosure, TMI: I’ve read all Kinsella’s Shopaholic novels).

I know, it’s hard to reach out. It’s like when I invite my students to share their writing with the class and they try every technique in the book to avoid doing so—suddenly nodding off to sleep or becoming very interested in their cuticles. Sometimes I have to call on them, like this: Hey, Liv Schaffer! I want to talk about kinesthetic tools for academic courses. Robert Moses and Mary Carbonara! Let’s talk about being a two-choreographer household. Antoine Hunter! Let’s continue our conversation about the relationship between ASL and dance. Dance book club anyone?

Dance making, dance viewing, and dancing are relational propositions/activities. There is no unidirectional movement from choreographer to dance to performance to audience to critic to writing. All of this lives and breathes in interaction, intersection, criss-crossing vectors. Rather than taking this to mean that there is nothing inherent to a dance, nothing to read or understand or glean from the surface to the depths, I propose we imagine that there is everything in the dance, a site of potential, activated through doing, viewing, writing. As I wrote in my application to the writing lab, “My goal as a member of the cohort of dance writers would be to circulate writing through a creative process that includes choreographers, dancers, scholars, journalists, and audiences, co-creating the work of dance and redefining the role of the critic in dialogue and motion.”

Tere said he would prefer to hear “bad or intelligible words from the artist to dismantle hierarchies” rather than have writers speaking for artists. Let’s talk badly and unintelligibly together.

Please find me @simabelmar or simabelmar@gmail.com or on Facebook.

[1] Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Jill Dolan, and Jaclyn Pryor. “Colleague-Criticism: Performance, Writing, and Queer Collegiality.” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies, Vol. 5 No. 1, April 2009.

[2] The inaugural dance writers are Betsy Brandt, dance dramaturg and professor; Katy Dammers, Assistant Curator and Archive Manager at The Kitchen; Benedict Nguyen, administrator for Donna Uchizono Company; Lauren Warnecke, dance critic at The Chicago Tribune; and myself. (We’re all dancers too.)

[3] Deborah Jowitt, “Getting It,” The Village Voice, February 21, 2006. https://www.villagevoice.com/2006/02/21/getting-it/

In Practice: Ramon Ramos Alayo and John Santos

dancer in orange poses next to dancer in white smiling and lifting a knee & handkerchief

Alayo Dance Company / photo by RJ Muna

This year, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (SFEDF) takes place for the first time at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. It is also the first year that the festival will present the work of Cuban choreographer Ramón Ramos Alayo and the Alayo Dance Company. Festejos Caribeños, a collaboration between Alayo and renowned Afro-Latin percussionist John Santos and his sextet, and commissioned by the SFEDF, is an enactment of a Cuban street party in three parts, each dominated by a different dance form: Modern Dance, Rumba, and Conga. Each form bleeds into the other, laced with a fourth form, Cuban Salsa. The work begins with a New Orleans-style funeral procession and ends with an invitation to join the Conga line. (NB: This is not the “one-and-two-and-three, kick!” of your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.)­­­

Alayo has been working in the Bay Area as a choreographer for nearly two decades—he founded Alayo Dance Company in 2002—and has organized the successful Cuban dance festival, Cuba Caribe, for the past 13 years. So it surprised me to hear that this was the first year his work was to be featured at the SFEDF. But Alayo explained that the way his choreography combines dances from Africa, Latin America, the US, and Europe has, in the past, been somewhat illegible to presenters looking for cultural forms that appear to have been spawned within clearly defined national borders: “Once I auditioned and brought a modern piece. They didn’t accept me. But this time they want to bring some modern into it.” In other words, dances from Cuba needed to look Cuban in the eyes of the presenters; traces of petit allegro or fall and recovery didn’t seem to go with percussive, polyrhythmic pelvic movement.

Thankfully, the SFEDF currently understands that “ethnic” dances are dynamic, hybrid practices rather than static, monocultural forms; they develop in non-linear time and multidirectional space. The audition guidelines call for “dances that reflect all aspects of culture, including sacred or spiritual dances, social dance, secular or vernacular dance, dances from life cycle events, and innovative work based in traditional dance forms.” Ethnic dance festivals, in their effort to showcase diversity under the banner of multiculturalism, risk conceiving of and promoting dance forms that are “recognizably” Other, perpetuating simplistic binaries such as traditional/contemporary and ethnic/art. But the SFEDF’s panel review criteria includes a section on the “Relationship to Cultural Origins – Authenticity and/or Genre Growth,” asking whether a work of “hybrid genre or fusion […] successfully integrates the disparate movement vocabularies as well as demonstrate technical and cultural understanding of its disparate roots.”

Alayo explained that since the 1959 Cuban revolution, Cuban dance has been a mixture of modern dance, ballet, and folkloric forms. To complete his Master of Arts at the National School of Art in Havana, Alayo trained for eight years in multiple dance forms including Cuban dance, folkloric dances from other Latin American countries (Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela), Yoruban dance, Haitian dance, modern dance (Horton, Limón, and Graham), and ballet: “All my life I have been mixing genres and styles.” To account for this complexity the festival is calling his work “Cuban Contemporary Folkloric,” “because I’m not doing a pure folklore. I’m modifying the Rumba a little bit, like with lifting [one person lifting another] from modern dance. They call it contemporary because it’s not a traditional Rumba or Salsa.” Since Alayo trained in Cuba at a school where contemporary and folkloric forms occupy a level playing field characterized by cross-pollination, it seems to me that “Cuban dance” would have been the more appropriate and accurate moniker.

Despite efforts by dance scholars to challenge aesthetic hierarchies that place “traditional” or “folkloric” dance forms below “concert” or “art” dances alleged to have universal reach and a capacity for transcendence, these hierarchies remain. [see footnote 1]  “Not for Cuba,” Alayo said.

“When you start choreographing, you can mix all those dances, there’s a lot of connection.” This interaction and exchange of forms that began after the revolution continues to change: “Cuban modern is changing because now they are bringing companies from Europe, who don’t know what Cuban dance is.”

musician holds drum

John Santos Sextet / photo by RJ Muna

Santos, who was born and raised in San Francisco to Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean parents, further discussed how we misunderstand the term traditional: “The forms that we are using here in this instance are super traditional dance forms but even in that context, even saying they’re traditional, they have to be understood as all about improvisation and creativity. It’s not a staid, under-glass, museum tradition. It’s a living tradition that has always evolved.”

In terms of labels like “Afro-Latin music,” Santos said, “They mean nothing. They’re commercial labels, made mainly for the industry, so the people selling the music know what bin to put it in.” Nevertheless, certain commercial labels often have complex histories, particularly among the musicians who find themselves under their jurisdiction. Santos explained, “To call music Afro-Latin, for example, does have a certain connotation and it means different things to different people. We’re dealing with Afro-Cuban music in this case, but we don’t call the music I play in general Afro-Cuban anymore. Afro-Cuban is the strongest root, but it would be limiting to call it that since we put in all our collective lines—jazz, funk, rock, classical, Puerto Rican, Brazilian. In Dizzy Gillepsie’s time, the 40s and 50s, it was Afro-Cuban jazz, not Afro-Latin. But as years went on, the Caribbean adopted it all, so now you can’t just say Afro-Cuban.” Afro-Latin Jazz works to account for that hybridity, but tensions among artists around labels continue: “There was a time not long ago when Cubans hated the term Salsa because it was a Puerto Rican term. We know it has mostly Cuban roots—it’s rumba, it’s son, it’s mambo—but the Puerto Ricans promoted it in New York. Now many Cubans say Cuban Salsa.”

Santos’ recordings provided the point of departure for Alayo’s choreography: “Ramón listened to several of my pieces and identified the ones that spoke to him. Then we took two separate pieces and made one new piece. Ramón gravitated towards the pieces that were most danceable.” Alayo worked with the dancers to the recordings and then showed Santos the choreography. I asked Santos how working with a choreographer and dancers affects his practice: “Whenever there is choreography we have to pay close attention for cuing, for the vibe and spirit of the piece. That’s what makes it special.”

Although working with choreography may be a special circumstance for Santos, working with dance in mind is not: “In order to play traditional Cuban music you have to learn it in the context of dance. I’ve been around that type of dance my whole life. When performing, composing, and recording music that is based on traditional forms, like rumba and conga, I visualize the dancing. The dancing is part of my process, even when there’s no dancing involved directly; the music is made for dancing. Most of our music is based on dance forms. So it’s a natural fit.”

When I told Santos about Alayo’s past illegibility in the eyes of the SFEDF audition panelists (and surely there were more variables in the decision than can be accounted for here), he was surprised: “What he was presenting should have fit all along. It’s what’s going on in Cuba. You now see modern, hip hop, Michael Jackson, boxing, baseball, in traditional rumbero dancing. It’s open to everything, so it’s logical to a dancer who studies modern and ballet, and who sees rumberos in the street.”

As the festival continues in our post-/neo-colonial, globalized world, it is important, perhaps now more than ever, that it presents artists like Alayo, whose artistic practices embody the tensions that challenge the concept of “ethnic dance” as it developed in the context of colonialism. As anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku argued in her groundbreaking 1969 essay, “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance,” all dances are ethnic dances, even ballet. [see footnote 2] And all dances are hybrid forms developed in the context of global flows of human capital, even ballet (Italian, French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban). Despite the fact that hybridity, creativity, and a notion of the contemporary characterizes all dances of modernity, the label “ethnic” continues to operate as a euphemism for “other,” for world dances that are somehow not of this world.

Ballet, with its high level of infrastructural and financial support, doesn’t need a platform like the SFEDF. Even if he isn’t fond of the pressure to be “the representative of tradition” (and the concomitant critiques for being not authentic enough), Alayo appreciates how the SFEDF offers a forum for the rich Bay Area dancescape. Both he and Santos feel that the festival is particularly important right now. Santos said, “It has a special significance to be in that environment where there’s music from around the world; it frames current political discourse and divisiveness differently by demonstrating unity and solidarity across all real and perceived borders.”


SF Ethnic Dance Festival presents Alayo Dance Company and John Santos’ Festejos Caribeños: Jul 8-9 (full festival runs Jul 8-9 & 15-16), War Memorial Opera House, SF, sfethnicdancefestival.org


[1] For an excellent discussion of the discursive history of “ethnic dance,” see the edited collection Worlding Dance, edited by Susan Leigh Foster.

[2] In her chapter in Worlding Dance, “Race-ing Choreographic Copyright,” Anthea Kraut makes a crucial point about Kealiinohomoku’s groundbreaking 1969 essay, “Despite her efforts, the constructed opposition between the solitary, creative genius of the West and the collectively created dance cultures of the Rest continues to hold sway” (78).

In Practice: DWP, Dancing While Pregnant

In 2012, I saw Patricia West dance pregnant in Joe Goode’s When We Fall Apart. I was pregnant myself at the time and thought, Damn! I can barely get out of my car! When I put out the call for stories about dancing pregnant, I expected to hear about the task of modifying movement (floor work in particular), the audible gasps from audience members (like me) when they realize this is not a Cunningham-Kawakubo collaboration, running off stage to barf, and splitting costumes on stage. What follows is what I didn’t expect.

Even modern dancers hide pregnancies

Dance critic Arlene Croce called ballet a world of “signs and designs,” a world in which “[t]he arabesque is real, the leg is not” (see footnote 1). It’s rather difficult to be a sign and design when things start getting bumpy, and there’s nothing like pregnancy to make a belly real. Former Oakland Ballet dancer Milissa Payne Bradley writes, “Once I found out I was pregnant, it only made sense to hide it as long as possible. Being ‘fat’ felt like a death sentence concerning my dance career and stability as a working dance professional.”

I liked to think that modern dance would be more forgiving. But many modern dancers talked about hiding their pregnancies from choreographers for fear that they would be asked to modify movement or, worse, postpone performing. Lisa Bush Finn worked with a choreographer in New York on a piece that was set to premiere when she was 18 weeks: “I decided not to tell my colleagues and to keep doing all the inversions and floor work and leave the well-being of the creature inside me to fate.”

Dana Lawton describes hiding her pregnancy from her mentor, Janice Garrett: “I was afraid that if I told her, she would cut some of my stuff. I was in every single piece, I had solos in every piece, and there were a lot of lifts and a lot of running around. I told Janice after the run. I didn’t start dancing until I was 18 and was basically told I was wasting my time, so to be with her and feel like, wow, I’m actually really doing it, I didn’t want to jeopardize it.”

Dancing pregnant gives dancers a sense of control over a body out of control

Given their close relationship, I asked Lawton why she assumed Garrett would have that reaction: “I think I was just nervous that all of sudden she would have to worry about me. And there was the young ego—I can handle it, I’m fine, I’m in charge of my body all the time, I have mastered all of these things. I’m in total control!”

Lawton’s words resonated with several dancers. Still, several dancers found that dancing pregnant gave them back a sense of control. Mira-Lisa Katz, editor of Moving Ideas, a book on embodied learning, writes, “What stands out to me is that dancing is still, to some extent, an experience on one’s own terms. Pregnancy might slow you down or make you move in different ways, but you are still more in control of your own experience then you might be, say, doing things in public. When I was about six months pregnant, a middle-aged man looked down at my protruding stomach, and said, ‘Well we all know what you’ve been doing!’ What I realized during my pregnancy was that being in public, your body was no longer your own.

I was grateful during my pregnancy to have dance as a safe haven where I could continue to experience myself more or less on my own terms, and continue to be my own body’s friend through the dance.”

Toni Melaas, a New York-based dancer who is currently touring with Faye Driscoll, writes, “The way I handled the out of control nature of pregnancy was almost always through moving to remind myself that I still had the control to connect to myself and express through this body that has always been my happy/safe place.”

Dancing pregnant helps reframe the dancer’s relationship to her dancing body

Rebecca Chun, founding member of Mid to West Dance Collective (who wrote to me at 41 weeks!), claims dancing pregnant as a corrective for the fragile dancer ego: “As my mobility and balance decreased with the increasing size of my belly, my perspective on imperfections changed. Instead of seeing inabilities as deficiencies, instead of changing, fixing, improving, I enjoyed the acceptance of doing exactly what I could. I finally reached a respite from this thinking and saw my abilities as a matter of fact. This, in turn, allowed me to see my dancing effort as a beautiful offering to myself, the health of my baby, and an opportunity to be in community.”

Performing pregnant also affords the aspiring dancers in the audience a chance to rethink the “ideal dancing body” and imagine a dance career that doesn’t preclude motherhood. Carol Kueffer-Moore and Peggy Peloquin were pregnant at the same time on tour with David Dorfman Dance. Kueffer-Moore remembers being asked questions in post-show talks at colleges about what it was like to dance pregnant: “Young college students seemed to want to be reassured that one could be a professional dancer and still have children. It was unusual to see pregnant dancers and I think both of us wanted to make a strong point that, yes, it was all possible.”

The Bay Area is full of choreographers who embrace rather than tolerate the pregnant dancing body!

When Jill Randall became pregnant with her second child, choreographer Nina Haft asked to work with her on a solo with the express purpose of investigating how her movement changed as her pregnancy progressed. Moved by Nina’s interest in her morphing embodiment, Jill said, “It was this really special opportunity to fully embrace being pregnant. I remember things about heat, slowness, anticipation, breathing. That solo, The Wake of Your Dive, only existed during that point of time, nobody else has ever done it. I danced it eight months pregnant, which was incredibly hard. We made the piece over four months—how drastically my body changed!”

Like Haft, Joe Goode worked with instead of against Damara Ganley’s pregnancy, weaving the pregnancy “into the ‘character’ and movement development.” Ganley (who wrote to me at 35 weeks!) says, “I performed throughout my first pregnancy including a six-week performance run of Poetics of Space with Joe Goode well into my third trimester. I began the rehearsal process at 7 weeks pregnant and was in my 36th week when the show closed. Joe was open and supportive of adjustments made along the way when I found my body had shifted in ways that didn’t accommodate a particular movement sequence. I am fortunate to work with a choreographer that I can offer different things to—not just the capacity to perform high velocity or technically impressive sequences.”

Choreographer and Interim Chair of Dance in the Department of Physical Education at UC Berkeley, Sue Li-Jue, danced pregnant with June Watanabe, a mother herself who supported Li-Jue’s endeavor. She also danced “fully pregnant” with Dance Brigade: “It was total girl power the whole time and I loved it.” Whereas dancers used to just “disappear when pregnant and then come back well after the baby was older,” Krissy Keefer begged her to bring the baby on tour.

Pregnant dancers have mixed feelings about watching pregnant dancers

Ganley remembers seeing Yayoi Kambara dancing pregnant with ODC and “just being in awe. It made a big impact on me visually and emotionally and has stayed with me for years. I remember being struck by her freedom and full out dancing.” Still, she is aware that the pregnant body “carries with it such potent cultural narratives” and admits that she is not particularly “drawn to choreography that is just about being pregnant or being a mother. In some works I felt that there was a drive to universalize and idealize the experience in a way that I found unappealing artistically.”

Li-Jue had a similar response: “Well, maybe I am old school, but unless there is a reason for the dancer being pregnant on stage (like the piece is about that or related to motherhood), I don’t need to see that. It would be distracting to the piece. However, if I knew and liked the dancer, I would probably be, Oh, that is so sweet…”

Chun expressed a newfound respect for the pregnant dancer: “I’ve always enjoyed it as a gift from the pregnant mother. But now as a pregnant woman and knowing how depleted energy levels can be, how difficult it is to fit in work, sleep, self-care, AND dancing, I look at pregnant dancers performing as super heroes and/or a touch crazy.”


This article focused on performing while pregnant. But Ganley reminded me that we should consider the “other elements of the reproductive cycle/reality” for dancers. Miscarriage, abortion, fertility treatments, birth, motherhood, losing a child—we dance through all of these experiences. In fact, the female dancer’s first crisis often comes with puberty. As Dawn Holtan recounts, “I did RAD [Royal Academy of Dance] ballet from six to 16 until I got the little, ‘We want you to keep a diary of everything you eat’ talk. I took advanced modern at UC Berkeley with David Wood, and he gave me his version of the talk, ‘Your joint health will be greatly improved if you never go above a certain weight. You better stay light.’”

Also, in large part due to my own dance history, my inquiry wound up centered around Western dance practices that are positioned in relation to theatrical performance. My questions posed to pregnant dancers engaged in non-Western practices, or global traditions that are not built for the stage, most likely would have elicited different stories and raised other concerns.

And then there are intersectional issues that further complicate how pregnant dancers navigate their dancing identities. LaWanda Raines, former dancer with the Latin Ballet of Virginia, writes, “Being a dancer and pregnant added to the mountain of challenges I already face at the many intersections of life: African American, female, single. It was expected that I would drop out of the program and then college and only one professor supported my return as foregone conclusion. Dance life did not stop, but it added new logistical and emotional challenges.”

Dancing while pregnant affords artists and audiences an opportunity to reframe not only the image of the dancing body, but the entire concept of mastery. Many forms of dance collaborate with the view that the dancer can no longer be the master of her body once she becomes the incubator for another life. But pregnant dancing exposes our mortality, the reality of change, the fluidity, and the fluids that none of us are exempt from. We can only master so much for so long. And so, pregnant dancing invites us to let go of mastery and focus on practice in the present— this is my body now, it moves this way, I will tend to it, and let it teach me what it knows. As step-dancer Evie Ladin puts it, “The body is amazing how it can produce a child and never be the same again. Makes it hard to think about the stereotypical dancer’s body after that, as it seems unattainable again. And yet, the dancing continues.”


1. Croce, Arlene. “The Two Trockaderos,” The New Yorker, 10/14/1974. In Writing in the Dark, 67.

In Practice: Stephan Koplowitz on Making Site Work

AXIS Dance Company (with additional cast) rehearses Stephan Koplowitz’s new work / photos by Robbie Sweeny

When I was living in Naples, Italy, I produced a dance series called Site-Specific at Rising South, a cavernous bar in the city’s historic center. I was able to call the series Site-Specific without having to parse the concept of site-specificity in part because nobody cared: English words arranged in meaning-less combinations adorn all sorts of Italian spaces—t-shirts, retail stores, menus. (A case in point: my daughter has an Italian t-shirt that says, “XXX-Best Color-Smell Like the Spirits.”) But I also thought that producing a dance series in a bar rather than in a theater constituted site-specificity. It turns out, I was sort of right: according to Stephan Koplowitz’s taxonomy of site-specific performance, my series, which invited choreographers from Naples and beyond to present works that had been made for the stage in the bar, constituted a “Category Three” site work, “placing an already created work in a new space” (see footnote 1).

Since the 1980s, Koplowitz, an award-winning international site artist and former Dean of Dance at CalArts, has dedicated himself “for the most part to making what I call ‘Category One’ site-specific work, which is when no creative material is made or decided upon prior to going through a process where the site generates as many creative decisions as possible.” He has made work on/ for the steps of the New York Public Library, in the halls of London’s Natural History Museum, in a German factory, and in the windows of Grand Central Station. On July 1 and 2, Bay Area audiences will be treated to Occupy, a new work Koplowitz created in collaboration with AXIS Dance Company and Pamela Z for the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. Koplowitz and I talked about the logistical and ethical considerations of making site work via Skype on April 17.

Sima Belmar: How did you become a site artist?
Stephan Koplowitz: My professional career started thanks to Elise Bernhardt when she invited me to make a work in the windows of Grand Central Station as a part of a huge event she was organizing in 1987 (see footnote 2) Prior to that year, Elise had seen an exhibition of my photographs in the gallery of Dance Theater Workshop. They reminded her of the windows, and she gave me the gig! I had no idea what I was doing. I was so naive I thought, When I’m a grown up artist I’m going to have my dancers on the stage! Little did I know what was actually happening. That piece taught me 65% of everything I know about making site work.

SB: How do you approach a new site?
SK: There are four filters that I think about when I’m approaching a site. The first one is the physical site itself: the design, the architecture, the contour, the physical space and what’s in it and how it looks. The physical site is where I always begin with a technique I call site inventory. It’s a very simple idea: you go to a site and take inventory of everything you can see. You write down and you take pictures. You physically walk through the site and measure it yourself if you can, or you look at the plans. You do so in a dispassionate manner, without any regard for aesthetics or any notion of what you want to do. You try to count as many different details of a site.

The second one is the history of the site, going back as far as one can go, and discovering how the site came to be what it is.

The third is the current use of the site: how do people who interface with the site use the site? How do they perceive the site? How do they feel about it?

The fourth filter takes a step back from the site to look at the community that surrounds it. I enter a place via the community to decide whether or not a particular site is the one to engage. Working with a community means spending time getting to know what people value in their community and how their environment influences or contributes to their values. From there you will find sites that have meaning that you may not have discovered had you just used your eyeballs and your prejudices. Because the thing is, in my career as a site artist, I’ve done more work outside of where I live, places I’m not a part of.

SB: How long does a site project typically take?
SK: It depends on the project. I will take as much time as I’m given. This piece [with AXIS] actually took four years to come about. Judy [Smith] invited me to come to Oakland in the spring of 2013. I ew up [from LA] early in the morning, and we spent like 10 hours looking for a site in Oakland. Judy originally wanted me to work in Oakland since the company is based there. But we did not find a site for what we wanted to do in part due to issues of access and issues of scale. Then we went to Yerba Buena, which I had researched in 1998 for a project at the center and the gardens, but funding didn’t come through. I knew the site came about through displacement. When we got to the gardens we could see that they are so beautifully designed for access. We got there and I said to her, “I think this is the place.” I spent 3 full days in different weeks this fall to do my site inventory because I had no real plan. I make my plan from my research. I also spent time at Yerba Buena just communing with nature without doing inventory, just observing, just being.

SB: Which helps you with filter number three, I presume.
SK: Yes, exactly right. I had lunch with the fine folks who run the gardens and talked to them about their experience of managing the park and producing art. Their experiences plus my knowledge of the history of the site, and the fact that I was working with a mixed ability company, and the idea of access to space, and the fact that we’re living in a time when two of the most significant cultural cities in America—New York City and San Francisco—are being completely decimated by space being priced out of people’s ability to live in, all came into how I came up with the theme of how bodies occupy space. I’m not using wide open spaces. I’m looking at very small and specific locations inside the park and putting lots of people in them. People occupy spaces in particular ways hence the title, Occupy, which has many different meanings. Because I think of myself as a public artist, I’ve chosen to engage in the dialogue of a community or a city about who gets to occupy space, who gets to access public space, who gets to manage it, who gets to make deci- sions about it. Whether I get access, how I use it, how I bring audiences to it—it all becomes a negotiation. And more and more I feel that this issue of public space is under siege; the idea that we’re abandoning real spaces for virtual space is not fake news.

SB: So how have you been working with AXIS?
SK: I’ve worked with a lot of different types of performers in my life. I had a reputation of working in NYC with non-dancers, with dancers of different ages. I’ve taught for 33 years all different types of folks, but I’ve never worked with a mixed ability company. So I insisted, and Judy of course agreed without batting an eyelash, that I would have a time period where I’m not working on the piece, I’m just in the studio with the company, and allowing them to teach me. After my initial session with AXIS Dance Company, then I had one week in March when I worked on site and in the studio with 11 folks, the company and 4 invited artists. I had lunch during that time with Marc Brew and Judy, and I asked them what they get out of work- ing with artists like myself who they had never worked with, and they chuckled and said sometimes we think it’s the artist that is getting more out of it than their dancers.

SB: Any last thoughts?
SK: I don’t believe that site-specific work anywhere can exist in a vacuum. It is a political act, it is a social act, whether you want it to be or not. I try to keep my ego, prejudices, and priorities as an artist at bay as much as I can when I start a work. Of course, what I’m saying is impossible, but I try to be as disciplined as possible by putting myself in certain modes of thought and certain processes to help me be more of an open vessel to a site. I am a big proponent of going with your gut, but I do think there has to be a conscious going with your gut. It takes a lot of work to stay open to the four filters and the processes that support them. I always say, Why do I put myself through this? For me, it’s exciting to discover something outside of my own experience.


1. Stephan Koplowitz, “Still Learning, Doing, and Relearning: Thoughts on Making and Defining Site-Specific Performance,” in Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik, Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces (Gainseville: University Press of Florida, 2011), 74. Koplowitz’s four categories of site work are: [4] Reframing the Known, [3] Reframing from Studio to Site, [2] Site-Adaptive, [1] Site-Specific.

2. Grand Central Dances (1987) featured works by Lucinda Childs, Merce Cunningham, and Philippe Petit.


For more about Stephan Koplowitz go to stephankoplowitz.com & youtube.com/c/StephanKoplowitz

In Practice: Borderlines

dancer bends forward while walking on a line

Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz / photo by Yvonne Portra

Every day my inbox receives announcements for interdisciplinary conferences on migration, conferences that investigate “the performative role of the document in controlling the movement of bodies across borders” or the ways “artistic interventions show that borders can become sites of resistance and gestures of solidarity especially for those whose bodies are arbitrarily made ‘illegal.’” Poised to write an article about borders, migration, and dance, I realized I was woefully ignorant of what the basic terms of the immigration debate mean.

Luckily, I know a geographer who specializes in borders. Adam Levy, Associate Professor of Geography at Ohlone College, agreed to give me a crash course in political/physical/social geography. Our conversation began happily thinking about borders and border crossing in conceptual and choreographic ways (see footnote #1). He explained how in the past, geographers drew on the language of fluvial geomorphology (river science) to study border patterns, and how contemporary geographers “focus on three different types of spaces and the processes that produce them: borders as the limit, as the outer zone of contact, and as separate, hybrid space.” He defined a “borderland”—e.g. Tijuana/ San Diego, Juarez/El Paso—as places that “create a third space,” and pointed out that borders are not necessarily contiguous spaces as in the case of diasporic communities. But before I could settle into a reverie about the fluvial geomorphology of dancers, shit started to get real.

To explain the difference between a refugee and a migrant, Adam pulled up a 2014 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) presentation used as part of global border guard training plans “designed to help local government agents learn how to perform, that is, to better manage risky populations, as part of their gatekeeping role.” According to Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” is outside their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return. A refugee may also be someone whose life is at risk due to “generalized violence or events seriously disturbing the public order.”

Scrolling through the presentation, I saw how the press uses the terms interchangeably. Indeed, the point is to show that refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, economic migrants, victims of trafficking, and others are all in the same boat, always discursively, often literally. They come from the same countries, they take the same modes of transport across the same bodies of land and water, and they face the same dangers along the way. They are subject to traumatizing Refugee Status Determination (RSD) processes—“credible fear hearings”—since they are all perceived as threats to state sovereignty and security. So even though an economic migrant is classified as someone who is leaving their country of origin by choice to improve their socioeconomic status, they are often subject to the same risks to life and limb as those fleeing state-sponsored persecution. “It’s a biopolitical issue,” Adam says, “Modern humanitarianism qualifies which lives are worth saving.”

I plunked my head on the table in despair. The situation is so dire and complex with countries paying other countries to create safe havens in their own countries in order to stop people from crossing the border, and credible fear hearings that are poorly administered, not to mention the very structure of RSD—“a neoliberal, actuarial model, trying to calculate precise dangers; a damage control model,” Adam explains, with significant collateral damage.

So what do those of us who spend our lives attending and attuning to choreographic structures and the materiality of embodiment have to offer in terms of developing understanding of what it means to move across borders and within borderlands in the context of gatekeeping?

Luckily, I know a choreographer-dance scholar who specializes in borders. Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz is a movement artist and Ph.D. student in performance studies at UC Berkeley, whose research explores borders and migration as choreographic systems that involve both the human and the non-human (objects, ephemera, documents), “the way objects move things.”

As a formerly undocumented immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, Juan Manuel entered California “without inspection” (EWI) in 1990 at the age of six, just as the state was gearing up to pass Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant, “Save Our State” (rhymes with “Make America Great”) initiative. It took him two attempts to cross the border, first through a fence, then across the desert: “It was very cinematic: running, helicopters overhead. So already at an early age I was exposed to the physical dimensions of what it means to have a precarious life. (Though it felt like an adventure to me at the time!)”

After moving around southern California, Juan Manuel settled in Salt Lake City
in 1996. Juan Manuel grew up dancing cumbia, salsa, merengue, and bolero, and started taking modern dance classes with his sister in high school. The way modern dance thematized space, time, and energy offered him tools to express his “anxieties and uncertainties about what it was like to be undocumented and Mexican in Utah. Dance theater became a site and process to work out those things.”

In 2011, a year before DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) went into effect, Juan Manuel left the US for Mexico in order to regularize his status, unsure if he would be allowed to return. Speaking about his first interview in Ciudad Juárez, he says, “I had to let them know I was a credible US resident. This person starts asking about this form that I had sent in years ago, and I’m sweating. I have the document that says the US received it. I can’t lose it, the document or my composure. At that moment there’s this vetting of your sweat and your gesture. On the one hand, I’m looking at the dramaturgies of the border in the interview center. And yet, I am scared because my family’s on the other side” (see footnote#2).

Juan Manuel draws on his experience with the material realities of border crossing to put pressure on theories of migration that fail to address the material conditions and kinesthetic-affective experiences of crossing a national border or trying to order a hamburger in a language that isn’t yours. One way he does this is by facilitating “Curated Moves” workshops, where participants “work through origin stories and produce as much sweat as possible,” changing out of their sweaty clothes and examining them as artifacts of the experience. These workshops activate what Juan Manuel has termed “sweat citizenships,” ways that movement leaves traces of and beyond the person who moves. “A lot of mobility is about the production of sweat for work, or the lack thereof to make sure you don’t look guilty. When I think I sweat, when I move I sweat—it’s a way of knowing and relating. When I go see performances, I look to see who cleans up the space. If at some point in time, after the creative practice encounter, our sweat can meet, there’s some point of connection between me and the people who work in the space.”

From his experience crossing the border into the US from Mexico, to living as an undocumented person of color in Utah on the “wrong side of town,” to making cross-disciplinary dance theater works about his immigrant and undocumented status, to working in Minnesota at the Latino Economic Development Center, to his research on migration in an interdisciplinary PhD program, Juan Manuel learned “saber cómo mover, knowing how to move in a very practical sense, always in conjunction with the materiality of life.” Drawing connections between these diverse movement processes, he realized that “all are practices of movement and that relationships are inherently mobile. Performing my anxieties on stage became a process to work through the messy uncertainty of fear that would come with my eventual departure. I always assumed this departure would be accompanied with an irremediable loss. However, I learned from other immigrants and migrants, my parents included, that leaving and moving across countries, or towns, is a practice of learning how to move in unknown situations. I stopped being afraid of not being able to return when I realized that my liberation and freedom was not dependent on the United States’ immigration system. I had the capacity to improvise and learn how to move dynamically across borders, be they national or personal, to form new relationships.”

Juan Manuel’s consciousness-body is a borderland, a hybrid, third space made up of multiple artistic genres, aesthetic modalities, geographic landscapes, and cultural affiliations. For him, dancers have the potential to attune consciously to this viscous, “kinopolitical” (see footnote #3) (corpo)reality: “I think dancers and dance studies can contribute to border migration policy by attuning to different qualities of movement, vibrations, stopping and starting, repetition, circulation, to the different types of movement people do, and how those different types of movement respond to different forces, rather than thinking about in the way that it’s conceived in migration, from point A to point B.”

We all learn how to move in formal and informal ways, but we are not all required to be conscious of that knowing. We move through separate and unequal choreographic scores of living. Social, economic, and political policies direct the ways bodies move as matter through the world, inside, outside, and across national borders. As dancers, we have the potential to see the choreographic in everything we do, like Juan Manuel observing the ways buildings, guards, waiting rooms, and documents structured his movement towards and within his visa interview in Ciudad Juárez. As dancers, we can also attend to the sweat we leave behind as material traces of the past acting in the present towards potentially resistant futures. As dancers sweating bullets, we have the potential to engage in conscious trespass. Practice attunement to moments of trespass— physical, social, affective, political—to the moments when we choose or are forced to cross rather than walk the line, to our sense of being borderlands.


1. Adam introduced me to Glenn Weyant’s The Anta Project, Banksy’s Walledo Hotel project in Palestine, and Milan-based Multiplicity Lab’s Border Device(s) project.

2. Juan Manuel documented his path to documented status on his blog, juanmaldape.com.

3. Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.

For The Love of Dance: A Community Remembers Victor Anderson (Aug 10, 1928-Feb 7, 2017)

It is a delicate task to write about a private person. And Victor Anderson, co-founder of the Shawl Anderson Dance Center, who died on February 7 at the age of 88, was a very private person. When I heard about his death, I knew there would be wonderful obituaries that would honor Victor’s accomplishments and his legacy (in particular, see Victor’s story on the Shawl Anderson website, shawl-anderson.org). These narratives are crucial to making sure that Victor is remembered for his role in modern dance history. But as a long-time member of the SADC community—22 years and counting!—I wanted to find a way to pay homage to Victor’s whole person, with a special emphasis on his relationship to the Bay Area and the legions of dancers who have passed through the heavy door at 2704 Alcatraz Avenue.

I didn’t see Victor much during the last years of his life—he had stopped coming to the studio in the early morning to clean the space and give himself a ballet barre in 2011—but I can still see him behind the desk, standing stalwart, a serene sentinel lovingly watching over the studio. And I feel him every time I come to take class in the quiet undercurrent that runs beneath the center’s hustle and bustle. Victor had a fire in him, make no mistake, but it is his calm, quiet presence that continues to look after the house that dance built.

About six years ago, when Victor’s health declined, the SADC community galvanized to help care for him and maintain his independence. So, in lieu of the traditional biographical obituary, I asked SADC community members to share memories of Victor as a dancer, teacher, and friend. Because Victor and Frank Shawl created a community in the little house in Berkeley, it seemed fitting to allow the community to remember Victor in their own words. Below is, of course, but a fraction of Victor’s friends and fans who have been gathering together in person and virtually to honor his life and work. You can find more or leave your own reflection at shawlanderson.org/victor.


It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but, as I said to Victor the day before he died, we would never have done it alone. I wouldn’t have done it alone, and you wouldn’t have done it alone. It took the two of us to start this place and it’s such a marvelous school, it’s developed so many people as teachers, choreographers, administrators. And just the joy of dancing, all ages, preschool to seniors. It’s part of the community. What more can you ask for? Frank Shawl

Victor told me that he thought about quitting dance when he was on tour with Call Me Madam [cast by Jerome Robbins in 1950] because when he would stop in places on tour and take local classes, he saw a competitive attitude that he didn’t like. And then he found May O’Donnell through a burlesque dancer with whom he was taking ballet class. Victor was in awe of the loving community spirit that May created. He would reflect on how May’s co-teacher, Getrude Sherr, would say, “Victor, the people that want the competition and the backstab- bing, they don’t stay here because they don’t nd that here.” This kind of supportive community changed Victor’s dance life and is, to me, what Victor and Frank implicitly built into SADC, and what we’re trying to make explicit and cultivate each day. — Rebecca Johnson, SADC Executive Director

Victor took so much pride in really good teaching. Even in the last few months of his life, he would like to hear about whose class I took and how they crafted the class. He was so proud of SADC’s commitment to the craft of teaching. And he was so humble! When we were getting ready for the SADC 50th anniversary, I found the program where he performed with Ruth St. Denis at Carnegie Hall. I was amazed at the thought of him touching history, but he just said, “Oh there it is! Yes, I performed with Ruth St. Denis.” — Jill Randall, SADC Artistic Director

Victor was accomplished enough when he was 18 to decide to become a pianist or a dancer. That was a pivotal time for him and I’m so glad he went towards dance. He loved living in the apartment on Florio Street [built from lumber from the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, which Victor attended] and looking down on the garden. I have the most abiding tender memories of him. — Ruth Bossieux, Friend and Dancer

SADC is located on Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley in a house that used to be a private home. But it started above the liquor store across the street. Victor once told me about how he would look out the window and see a little boy playing the harp in the living room, what is now studio 4. The boy would wave at Victor and Victor would wave back. Years later, that little boy came back to the studio and said, “I used to live in this house. I heard that the people who moved in here were from across the street.” When I was working on a site-specific piece at SADC about how the center had been a private home, I set up studio 4 as a living room. This is what Victor wanted me to know about the building. — Nina Haft, SADC Faculty

There is so much to say and acknowledge about Victor—how he fully embraced life’s offerings, never taking one moment of visits with friends for granted, while completely giving his entire attention to every word spoken, as though it might be the last time. I always found his attention and engagement astonishing and quenching. It was at once simple and profoundly generous. — Ann DiFruscia, SADC Board Vice President

Victor was a great beginning ballet teacher because his combinations were spare and simple, accompanied only by the sound of a beating drum. But he also had an unusually deep capacity for feeling music and being moved by it. He would listen to the Met opera broadcast every Saturday, though he had no tolerance for contemporary takes on classic operas. About one Rigoletto telecast, he told me, “It was set in Las Vegas…in a casino! I just turned the picture off and listened to the music.” — Steve Siegelman, SADC Board President

Victor used to split a bar of soap and put one half in the upstairs bathroom and one in the downstairs bathroom. He did this to make sure we didn’t go over budget. And that frugality is in part why SADC is still here. Whenever I think of Victor, I think of that half bar of soap upstairs. — Katie Kruger, SADC Youth Program Director

I love the story about Country Joe [McDonald, of Country Joe and the Fish], who lived next door to the studio. He was famous for his super long curly hair. Victor had always had really short, cropped hair, but at some point he had decided to grow it out. Meanwhile, Country Joe got a haircut. One day, they passed each other in the street. They nodded at each other in acknowledgment of the fact that they had switched haircuts. — Abigail Hosein, SADC Administrative Director

Victor seemed to always have such a strong sense of self and never let this be compromised. He had recently told me about auditioning for, I believe, Agnes De Mille’s company, and finding her so pompous that during the audition he decided he didn’t want the job. I’m so impressed by his strong moral compass. It seems like he always stayed true to what felt supportive and right for him. I can’t imagine living like that and wish I had an ounce of his courage to do so. — Juliana Monin, SADC Faculty

I first started coming to SADC in 1972. Victor used a modern approach to ballet technique. He always offered a calming presence and that’s important for the frenetic energy that can be in a dance studio. As a teacher he wanted us to get rid of the grunting, to not force it, and the energy was good in the room so you didn’t have to force it. He gave me perspective on why we’re doing all this training: there’s a life flow, a love, an energy, a beauty in it, as opposed to how high is my extension, how high can I jump. — Claire Sheridan, Founder of the LEAP Program at St. Mary’s College

Taking his class as a teenager: his beginning Ballet class was the hardest ballet class I’d ever taken because it was soooo daaaamnnn sloooow — with his round, soft voice and his round, strong drum keeping time as he wandered around the class, “and- a-one, and-a-two, and-a-three, and-a-four….” The slow developes were torture, made you so strong and deeply focused and were, now that I think about it, transcendent. Once he stopped teaching: seeing him at the studio behind the desk every morning after his own solo ballet barre, chatting with him on my way to class about things like Buddhism, the importance of quiet, walks in nature. His warm, impish smile, hands clasped behind his back, like he knew the joyous secret to solitude and peaceful reflection. — Kimiko Guthrie, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director, Dandelion Dancetheater

Today [the day after Victor died] the house was open, to love and to grief, to memory and always, always to dancing. All of us who gathered, in body and in spirit, by email and phone call and text message, working to share our love and our art, dancing today in the midst of our grief, expressing our gratitude for him and for each other, embodied Victor’s legacy. Victor and Frank taught us to be rigorous with that love, to be open-hearted with ourselves in our work, to see ourselves — teachers, students, artists — as part of an interconnected, loving, laboring, and loving-to-labor system of dance, and of artistic inquiry. — Valerie Gutwirth, SADC Faculty


Please consider donating to the Victor V. Anderson Scholarship Fund at Shawl Anderson Dance Center to help continue Victor’s project to share the joy of dance with future generations.

In Practice: Mix’d Ingrdnts Performing Resistance

Early in the introduction to What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research, Ben Spatz writes, “Supposedly people join theatre and dance companies to perform in front of paying audiences, but practitioners know that this is an inadequate explanation of the phenomena” (6; emphasis in the original). This is the first in a series of articles that looks to provide a more adequate explanation of what performing artists, specifically dancers, know about their practice.

To be perfectly honest, this series is mostly about my unceasing, possibly obsessive desire to find practical applications of the critical theory (of dance, of writing) I love so much. “Applied theory” is a dirty term in the “high” theory zones of academia, as if our practices—which most surely spark our theories to begin with—are somehow less than. Spatz is just one of many performance scholar-practitioners who are still writing books about the second-class citizenship of practice in the academy. Well, Dancers’ Group and In Dance have long honored embodied knowledge and “epistemologies of practice,” in particular by having so many dance artists speak and write for themselves. My aim, then, is to ask the Bay Area’s brilliant movement artists the sort of questions I know only they can illuminate. These questions about movement—as a performative, expressive, communicative act—challenge us to verbally articulate our knowledge, to translate that “deep and inchoate impulse to a task that could be directly attempted” (Spatz 10), so that we may attempt to understand what a mind-body, emotional body, spiritual body, political body, material body, virtual body, dancer body, spectator body, protest body can do.

To launch our series, I talked with Jenay “ShinobiJaxx” Anolin and Samara Atkins, co-founders of the multiethnic, multi-genre, and multimodal feminist dance collective, Mix’d Ingrdnts(1). I came to know Jenay and Samara in two contexts, one performance, the other pedagogical:

The crowd that gathered on November 17, 2016 at The Uptown in Oakland for Paufve Dance’s 8x8x8 was shell-shocked. Just nine days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, it was hard not to despair and/or panic. But despite being under the influence of the worst kind of “shock and awe,” I joined upwards of 160 dance lovers, to have a beer, shed a tear, and find solace in community. All of the performances that night brought uplift to the Uptown. But it was Mix’d Ingrdnts that activated a combination of joy and power through a timely and highly combustible performance of resistance.

I missed the Women’s March in Oakland so I could bring my 10-year-old daughter to Destiny Arts Center for her Hip Hop class with Samara. While I sat outside the studio watching live footage of the Women’s March on Washington, I became more and more convinced that having my daughter spend an hour in her body and in Samara’s presence was a parallel act of resistance. (Samara and the rest of Mix’d went to the march later that day, where they initiated a cypher, a freestyling circle; for more on Cypher Theory as a “multi-perspectival, trans-methodological” mode of critical inquiry, see Naomi Bragin’s groundbreaking research.) Coming off a week at school, with all the usual tweenager posing and pouting, one-upping and shaming, an hour with Samara cleans the slate, allowing my daughter to embody Samara’s maxim, “There’s no one who can do what you can do how you can do it.” In other words, although my daughter might think she’s just there to learn cool Hip Hop moves, she’s also learning how to “cope, communicate, and connect” (Samara), to feel her power as an embodied reality. My daughter is electrified by Samara. She thinks Samara is magical. And she is. But I want my daughter to understand what goes into becoming magical. I want her to understand Mix’d Ingrdnts’ daily grind.

So, I asked Jenay and Samara, What do you wish your audiences, critics, and funders could see that is obscured by the spectacle of live performance? What do you wish we knew that you know? What’s your grind?

Jenay and Samara work seven days a week. Samara teaches 14 youth classes a week, running from Destiny Arts Center, LIFE academy, and St. Elizabeth’s High School in Oakland to Montera Middle School in Montclair to the Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro; teaches adult classes at Destiny, Shawl Anderson Dance Center, and In the Groove Studios; is a columnist for Dance Studio Life; co-runs Mix’d Ingrdnts; and rehearses and performs with Mix’d and other choreographers.

Jenay teaches dance at ODC, Destiny, and the JCC; works part-time as the dance content manager for a new app; co-runs Mix’d; runs Mini Mix’d (the Mix’d Ingrdnts youth company) and GroovLings Hip Hop + Health (a one of a kind youth class that teaches Hip Hop history and supports the “habits of a healthy dancer”); rehearses and performs with Mix’d and others (including Rennie Harris and Amy O’Neal); and enters dance battles. And she just got into USF’s dual Master’s program in public and behavioral health. Unsurprisingly, she sleeps 4-5 hours a night.

I’m exhausted just recounting what these women accomplish in a week. But they assured me it’s worth it. For all the economic and bodily precarity (Jenay has Medi-Cal health insurance, Samara has none), they’re living the dream.

Mix’d Ingrdnts’ tag line is “Empowering women to express themselves.” Expression is a tricky word that runs the risk of essentializing behaviors that may have little to do with who one feels oneself to be. But expression here is used in opposition to the sort of folding into oneself in the face of persecution that Mahershala Ali describes when talking about his Academy Award winning performance in Moonlight.(2) It is the coming out with what is socially, culturally, historically commanded to remain inside, out of view, out of earshot. Samara says, “We create these pieces out of necessity. We are women of color every day, and our work gives us somewhere to release our experiences, to talk about how they affect our everyday life, to show how they influence our movement.” Mix’d is a third wave feminist dance company “awaken[ed] to the fact that all lives do not, in fact, matter” (Alicia Garza).(3)

So even as a second wave feminist approach to women’s rights and solidarity is present in Mix’d’s self-understanding, I believe that when they talk about expression they are not talking only about expression of identity—though identity politics still matter—but rather something closer to an expression of force. Expression and empowerment as force and mattering, Samara and Jenay are contributing to the movement by transmitting embodied technique as a form of knowledge.

Part of that knowledge is self-knowledge produced in performance. Jenay says, “For me, performance is a time for reflection. As we rework a piece, our own personal accounts of what we’ve been going through begin to resurface. Performing awakens me to explore what’s really going on in my life. I’m able to channel stuff that’s happened to me as a woman growing up.” Samara adds, “Performance helps us reflect with ourselves and with our community. I don’t feel the same way coming out as I did going in.”

Jenay made it clear that the heart and soul of her work is Mini Mix’d, the youth company comprised of 11 girls aged 11-18. Mini Mix’d recently performed as part of the Lauryn Hill Tribute at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Jenay gets a bit teary when she talks about it: “It was their first big performance in a nice venue. They took this opportunity and went from scared to professional. They took control. I’d like to see youth have the biggest voices in the world.” After the performance, D. Sabela Grimes, interdisciplinary performance artist and Assistant Professor of Practice in the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, told Jenay, “That just gave me life.”

Dance as social practice. Affording young girls a brave space to choose how to represent themselves. Performance as a space of expression and a time of reflection. Dance as an expression of force and a synesthetic vocalization. None of this feels like work to Samara and Jenay. Often, when your work doesn’t feel like work, it’s easy to invisibilize the labor put into the work. And that process can make it difficult for dancers to receive recognition and remuneration. When Mix’d Ingrdnts takes to the stage, the studio, or the street, they make magic, of course, but their material body-minds work a daily grind. The goal of learning about the ins and outs of a dancer’s labor is not to inspire, but to activate. So take a class, go to a show, donate to the cause. Because this is about more than artistry, it’s about art as political praxis; it’s about dance saving the world.


Please visit mixdingrdnts.com for information about classes, workshops, and performances.

(1.) Current Mix’d dancers, “The Ladies,” include Cassey Dela Pena, Ashley Gayle, Esme Kundanis-Grow, Gladys Liu, Marjorie Ortiz, and Nina Wu.
(2.) youtube.com/watch?v=e59q6jsWS6Q
(3.) mic.com/articles/166720/blm-co-founder-protesting- isnt-about-who-can-be-the-most-radical-its-about-winning#. TWvEKAy5o

Out of Order: Disobedient Dance Criticism

“The review, the most common form of dance writing, is weak as much for how it attempts to describe the object of that performed event as for what it leaves out.”
— Randy Martin, Critical Moves: dance studies in theory and politics, 34

Choreographer Randee Paufve presented her latest work That Obscure Subject of Desire at the end of July at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. I feel ridiculous writing “Choreographer Randee Paufve” since she’s one of my closest friends. Randee told me that there were no critics available to review her show, so I offered to do so myself. “Can you do that?” she asked.

On Friday night I chose a seat in one of the last rows of the theater. But I am close, very close. The house is packed with familiar faces, and I feel heat in my cheeks left over from all the hugging and waving and smiling. We’re still chitchatting when Jill comes onto the stage. The house lights are up and it takes a moment for the talk to settle to a murmur, to silence. Jill quietly draws our attention, taking steps to the side, walking, stopping. Randee’s voice comes over the PA. We turn off our cell phones. The house lights dim and then, nothing happens. That Obscure Subject of Desire begins when we’re not paying attention as if, radically, riskily, we are invited not to pay attention at all or, rather, to pay attention to how we pay attention and to what.

In the collection of essays and interviews Knowledge in Motion: Perspectives of Artistic and Scientific Research in Dance, German dance writer Constanze Klementz argues for a critic who writes neither as an authority nor a representative, but rather as an accomplice to the work: “As an alternative to critique I therefore plead the case…not for no critique at all, but for critique that is prepared to declare itself out of order” (256). Her essay is about criticism-as-practice, one that takes its cue from contemporary choreography that declares “its position and the system from which it comes, not from a distance, which is always reserved for ‘other people,’ but from right in the heart of its practice” (256).

Though writing in the context of contemporary German choreographic and critical practice, Klementz’s plea reaches across borders, geographical and ideological. What does it mean to write dance criticism from a position of proximity to and intimacy with the work, the dancing, the dancer, and the choreographer?

Is it possible to write dance criticism without special authority (though it will probably be actively granted or denied the writer), but rather with an eye (ear, fingertip, tongue) toward multiple knowledge bases, projects, and structures that position dance, writ large in the larger fabric of society? And if we accept that the dance review is the story of a performance, if the critic is somehow speaking for the work or for the artist, does this seal off the voice of the work, of the artist? What is the critic’s responsibility to the artist as she double-speaks for herself and for the artist? (I am borrowing heavily here from Amy Shuman’s Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy, in case you were wondering).

I am writing this weeks after the performance, which I saw twice. I am writing after the post-performance conversations and emails. There was the visual artist who was confused over whether the piece was to be taken in earnest or ironically. There was the dancer/choreographer/scholar who was struck by how different Randee’s movement read compared to how it felt in class. There were musings about Bay Area insularity and provincialism. I can’t forget the moment, in Randee’s first solo, when, facing stage right, she stumbles to her knees. Both times I saw the piece, I caught my breath as she caught herself, her face unworried, a person walking through life cut off at the knees.

The dance critic is granted authority predicated on distance (mostly by lay people who value journalistic objectivity and merciless judgment), but also on proximity (mostly by dancers and choreographers who value “insider” knowledge; authority as authenticity). Since it is impossible to be wholly inside or outside, to be fixed in relation to the object of reflection, the question becomes: How does the critic position herself with respect to the dance? What perspectives are at my disposal? Can I write from the wings? From backstage? From on stage? From the rehearsal space? From the choreographer’s living room floor? (See Susan Leigh Foster’s Choreography & Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire for some scholarship that experiments with positionality.) Periodically, these issues erupt between artists and critics (the 2005 debate between Joan Acocella and Tere O’Connor), between artists and scholars (Shelley Senter in reaction to some of the papers presented at the 2009 Society of Dance History Scholars conference), and between critics and scholars (inside my very head). And there are a lot of hard feelings. But hard can be good.

Randee’s body casts shadows on the floor in three directions. These shadows move toward and away from her, gather her in communal embrace, break from her without looking back. It is a cycle of abandonment and return. I have lost all sense of my peripheral vision and it is not until later in the dance, much later, during the section that parodies and celebrates jazz dance, kick-ball-changes and multiple pirouettes in parallel, that I become aware of the audience, laughing, relieved. That Obscure Subject of Desire has a seriousness to it. Randee is taking two things seriously in this piece, in her work: technique, the power of the deep plié, spatial orientation, choreographic structure, focus play; along with love, middle age, sex, friendship, romance. The mechanics and the metaphor do not always come together in a way that “makes sense.” In dances where these elements do come together, I often feel myself locked in a hermetically sealed world, ruled by a leader who, during my visit there, insists on holding my hand and explaining the architecture, the urban planning, the landscape, never leading me off the beaten path.

Most dance writing focuses on either the artist or the work. What would a dance review that focuses on the practice of dancing that subtends the dance look like? That Obscure Subject of Desire is but a tiny tick on the tape of Randee’s life work. All the hours teaching technique classes, rehearsing, taking notes, warming up, cooling down (I won’t even touch making phone calls, driving, eating, loving, crying): where is the space for those hours? Those years? And how would attention to them change the story of the work?

The men and women who dance for Randee love her movement. She offers a space for them in which the pleasure principle can have extended moments of free reign. The movement is big, luscious, rhythmically complex. But there are reality principles in Randee’s work: spatial orientation, relationality, and a thematization of seeing. Randee asks the women and men who work with her to investigate the boundary between a projected faciality and disappearing behind “modern dance face.” It is a struggle to break down habits of visual focus. Try to remember something without looking up or looking down or closing your eyes, whatever it is you do to remember. Try to see while you’re thinking, to see who’s dancing beside you, behind you. This is the work it takes to bring highly technical dancers out of their comfort zones and into risk. It is about learning how to cope with seeing and being seen. And the dancers, the work, Randee herself, I’ve seen them shift. Weight shifts. Shifts of attention. Out of extreme solipsism. A multimodal approach.

Writing about the practice of dance rips it from the melancholic clutch of ephemerality. Dance is durable matter, neural pathways, memory space. A dance exists before, during, and after it is performed. The dancers go out for beers after the show and the dance enjoys the kick of the alcohol, the relaxation. With every iteration, the dance etches itself more deeply. Dance may be perceived as constantly disappearing when regarded from a position of distance. But up close, inside, next to, it is a solid thing. So, as dance artist Keith Hennessey and dance critic Rita Felciano both mentioned during a recent Dance Discourse Project discussion on dance criticism, dance does not need writing to survive. Nor can writing about dance kill dance. Dance writes its own stories; dances inscribe themselves in the bodies that dance them and in the eyes that watch them. Scholar Randy Martin calls for the end to scarcity thinking in dance. Indeed, there’s only ever more of it to go around.

Katie strikes a lunge and then looks back over her shoulder at us. I can see Randee in that movement. And I can feel myself in that movement. The lactic acid built up in my legs watching the performance because I’ve danced that dance, I’ve danced in that space, I’ve danced with those people. As one obscure subject of desire, I am “remembering kinesthesia,” to borrow a term from Deirdre Sklar.

I enjoy a proximal position to dance practice and theory, and my account, though always inevitably approximate, counts for something. At least it will be an incomplete record for others who may want to know something about dance in the Bay Area in the early 2000s.

And for the record: the dancers were Stephanie Ballas, Rebecca Johnson, Katie Kruger, Diane McKallip, Randee Paufve, Jill Randall, Brian Runstrom, Frank Shawl, Jane Schnorrenberg, and Christy L. Thomas; lighting design by Gabe Maxson; costumes by Rachel Stone with alterations by Katie Kruger; sound by Heather Heise with music by Bjork, Marianne Faithful, Chas Smith, David Mahler, Milton DeLugg, and Willie Stein.

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