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Sharing History, Making History: Michelle Dorrance Has Her Sights on the Future of Tap

five tap dancers leap on stage

Dorrance Dance, photo by Christopher Duggan

Whether jamming with a jazz band or teaching Late Night host Stephen Colbert a shim sham half break, Michelle Dorrance makes a personable and articulate ambassador for a new generation of tappers. The recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant in 2015, the 37-year old Dorrance is the inheritor of a tap legacy that stretches back to Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, Mabel Lee, Jimmy Slyde and the Nicholas brothers. Nonetheless, she is not one to sit on her laurels nor let her art form stagnate. In The Blues Project, which San Francisco Performances and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts present this month at YBCA Theater, Dorrance and collaborators Toshi Reagon, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant pay homage to the past while continuing to break apart traditional notions of tap with a fresh take on the language of rhythm and movement.

A native of North Carolina, Dorrance started dancing at a young age, first under the watchful eye of her mother M’Liss Dorrance, and then with Gene Medler in his North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. Her resume? could double as a hot list of the artists reinvigorating innovation and improvisation in the tap world: Dorrance has performed in STOMP, and in Savion Glover’s ti dii, later joining Barbara Duffy & Co, as well as Grant’s Imagine Tap and Jason Samuels Smith’s Charlie’s Angels/Chasing the Bird.

In 2011, she founded her own company, Dorrance Dance, which has been featured at venues from Jacob’s Pillow to the Kennedy Center. The Blues Project brings Dorrance together once more with the singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon and her band BIGLovely.

The premise of the show seems simple and straightforward enough, but its appealing blend of Reagon’s bluesy and heartfelt songs with the dynamic brilliance of Dorrance, Grant and Sumbry-Edwards won the show a 2015 Bessie Award for Outstanding Production.

Dorrance first encountered Reagon back in 1997 when, as a teenager newly arrived in New York, she happened upon her show in a local club in Greenwich Village.

“She blew the roof off the place,” she recalls. “I was an instant fan. Many years later, she and [drummer] Allison Miller were developing a show called ‘Celebrate the Great Women of Jazz.’ She invited me to be a part of that show in the opening and closing numbers to sort of represent the tap dance element in that legacy. During that time, I asked her kind of casually, ‘If I raise a ton of money, would you do a show with me? Could we create a show together?’

“And she was like, ‘Oh, God, you don’t have to raise a ton of money. Let’s definitely do a show together,’” Dorrance says with a laugh. “So that really gave me the confidence to start the dreaming process. I’d always wanted to make a show with tap dance and blues music, in part because tap and jazz are so interconnected historically.”

Dorrance notes that tap dance shares roots with blues music and in African-American history from the time of slaves on plantations.

“Music and art and entertainment were the first business of the African-American in the United States—that’s the first thing they earned, even before earning land,” she notes. “That was their first intellectual property, artistic property.”

Dorrance was also keen to work with two of modern tap’s most interesting innovators, Derick K. Grant and Dormeisha Sumbry-Edwards. As soloists and also as creative artists, she says, they bring unique stylistic voices to the show. Unspoken, though, is the sense that in Grant and Sumbry-Edwards Dorrance finds kindred spirits: tappers rooted in a sense of tradition and conscious of honoring the legacy of tap mentors and master hoofers, yet daring enough to push the art form beyond the popular notions of what it can be. In past interviews, Dorrance has talked about wanting to make tap relevant and asked about that, she clarifies.

woman dancer taps to her left

Dorrance Dance, photo by Christopher Duggan

“I think tap is relevant. I just want people to believe that,” she declares. “I don’t think we need to change the form to make it relevant, by any means. I think it has always been a source of innovation, in part because you have brilliant improvisational soloists pushing things forward technically, physically, rhythmically, at all times. What we really have to do is educate. History [is] at the forefront of our process, but I think a large majority of people underestimate tap dance. They think, ‘Oh, I remember seeing that little girl do it,’ or ‘Oh, Fred Astaire is brilliant, but, you know, that’s from 100 years ago.’ People think of sequins and little kids in Mary Janes, they think of tap as an antiquated notion or a dumbing down of entertainment. There’s so many different ways that the sophistication of the form is marginalized in the public eye.”

“Not that I think there was a campaign against tap dancing, it’s just our cultural memory,” she continues. “But part of our cultural memory is impacted by institutionalized racism, sexism, and oppression in this country. Any professional tap dancer is also a tap historian—we could all give you a long history of tap because that’s the way we were taught inside of our community. I think that we have to continue to push the technique in a genuine way with our stylistic and musical passions, and we also have to be torchbearers for the legacy because we stand on the backs of those who came before us.”

Dorrance points out that nowadays, tap is enjoying not just a resurgence of interest, but a kind of paradigmatic shift as well.

“Where is it going or where can it go? And I think the answer is literally every direction at once,” she says. “There are more tap dancers presented on big jazz bills now. You have Jared Grimes as a regular staple with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center Jazz. You have Sarah Reich touring with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox. People are blown away. They forget how complex and how moving and how immediate it can be.”

Dorrance is also cognizant of the boundaries she is pushing as a woman in a dance form that has traditionally seen only a few female stars. Among the women she cites as influential artistically are Barbara Duffy, whom she danced with, and Apollo show-girl and tap legend Mabel Lee, who toured with Cab Calloway and was known as the “Queen of the Soundies” for her appearances in musical films.

Dianne Walker was the first woman to really move me when I was young,” she says. “She’s the first person that really touched me emotionally with the sound of her taps. As a twelve or thirteen-year-old, I remember being moved to tears by the way she executed her dancing, but also her musicality.”

In that tradition, it seems, The Blues Project has already captivated viewers. Dorrance, though, hopes that audiences walk away with an even deeper view of how tap and its legacy and immediacy work within a greater whole.

“I hope that we can show that this musical form and dance form really are the bedrock of our culture, and that the history of both of these forms is so important and ever-present in the way we function,” she says. “And that that can serve as a point of reference for the way we need to move forward. I know that’s a lot to ask, but I don’t think it’s terribly far from what people might feel in an abstract way.”


When our Executive Director, Wayne, asked all of us at Dancers’ Group to reflect on our hopes for 2017 for the January/February issue of In Dance, I was at a loss. It was early December and the 24/7 news cycle of the presidential election-turned-transition had me feeling like I was careening down a hill in a car whose brakes just failed. The pace of incoming information had a newfound urgency, which has continued through the early part of 2017 and shows no signs of slowing down. To respond to Wayne’s provocation I wondered: How can I (and those who share a progressive, liberal politic) endure a political environment that calls for attention and resistance at the pace of a sprint for the duration of a marathon?

No. “Enduring” is wildly insufficient. My bar is higher than survival. How can I thrive? How, and in what ways, can I make a positive impact on the lives of others?

I am certainly not alone in my concerns regarding the political actions and tenor coming out of the United States federal government, which I assert to be racist (e.g. the travel ban), classist (e.g. seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act), authoritarian (e.g. restrictions on federal agencies’ communications), and lacking rationale. Several writers featured in this month’s issue also touch on political events and activism, addressing similar questions through their words and artistic practices.

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh continues her series of articles about her experiences of performing and teaching in Pakistan. This month, she reflects on how her artistic practice is a tool for combating the spread of fear of the “other” — in her case, being a Muslim-American woman. Kathak provides a platform for Shaikh “to bridge cultures…and do [her] part in influencing a global culture that can be positive, supportive, and non violent.”

Choreographer Charles Slender-White articulates the role that activism plays for him on and off stage. He recalls his personal evolution from being a young political organizer in San Diego, to his renewed focus on activism and ongoing work of creating artistic opportunities through his company, FACT/SF.

Famed tap dancer Michelle Dorrance expounds on tap’s history in African American culture, having emerged out of slavery and deep institutional racism that persists to this day. And Miriam Peretz celebrates the power of community and sisterhood through the newly formed Nava Dance Collective, a group of women who perform dance and ritual from Central Asia.

Back in December, I scrawled my hopes for 2017. May the tide turn toward love, justice, and joy. May we be patient with ourselves, yet urgent in our work. May our art help carry us through.

I plan to do my part in making these hopes become reality by investing at Dancers’ Group and also as an audience member to further support dance artists in their tireless and essential work. By reading well-researched investigative journalism. By calling representatives in Congress to talk about issues I care about. By instilling the values of compassion and curiosity into how I raise my daughter. By resting, laughing, and moving.

I do not expect, or want, everyone to agree about how to address society’s ills. Our artistic and personal diversity – in form, background, and belief – enables our work to engage, to begin and continue needed and important conversations. To “bridge cultures,” as Shaikh writes.

Dance need not be overtly “activist” in tone or intent to have political implications. Dance’s mere existence pushes culture forward – even as it recalls its history – a radical act in its own right. Dance can be a provocation. A communing. A history. A hope. A resistance. May it be all that, and more, for you.

Consider the Source: Five Common Knee Injuries

Dancers often perform hundreds of jumps in a single dance class, so it’s no surprise that knee pain is a common problem. Many dancers assume pain and even injury are part of the job, but knee problems are neither inevitable nor untreatable. Here are five of the most frequently occurring knee injuries and how to prevent them.



Kneecap pain is common among dancers and dance students. Symptoms of patetellofemoral pain syndrome develop gradually, causing soreness around the edge or underneath the kneecap. Pain is aggravated by dancing or sitting for long periods of time. “The patella doesn’t track properly as the knee goes through a range of movement,” explains Dr. Coleen Sabatini, Director and Chief of Orthopaedic Surgery at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland (BCHO) and Director of the BCHO Dance Medicine Program. Often there is a popping or cracking sound under the patella when bending or straightening the knee.

Muscle imbalance, lacking exibility and improper technique are all factors that can lead to knee problems. “A lot of young dancers get injured because they tend to force turnout which puts abnormal stress across the joints, particularly the inner knee,” says Dr. Sabatini.

Turning out with control is essential. “The most important thing for any dancer, young or old, is to have strong core muscles, strong hip abductors, strong and balanced quadriceps and flexible hamstrings,” says Dr. Sabatini. When turning out, use your abdominals, lower back muscles, thighs and glutes. Avoid sinking into your hip, tucking under or gripping as you move from one position to the next, maintaining correct placement.



The meniscus serves as a shock absorber, protecting the knee joint from impact. Meniscal or cartilage tears are a common injury in dance, often occurring after landing a jump or a sudden twist of the knee. Wear and tear from loading the joint as well as twisting your lower leg to improve turnout can also damage knee cartilage. Performing new choreography with sudden or very deep plie?s may be another factor.

Symptoms of meniscal damage include pain and swelling, as well as a locking feeling which, is caused by a piece of cartilage coming loose and getting caught in the joint. Minor meniscal tears can be handled conservatively, but serious injuries may require surgery.

If you experience sudden knee pain during a class or rehearsal, stop immediately, says physical therapist Dr. Suzanne Martin, the founder of Pilates Therapeutics in Alameda and the lead physical therapist with Smuin Ballet. “Sometimes the knee is just twisted out of position,” she says. Her go-to method for fixing minor twists: “Sit on a high enough surface and swing your legs. It’s like rebooting the knee.”



Jumper’s knee is another name for patellar tendonitis, or inflammation of the patellar tendon. Pain is usually felt at the bottom of the kneecap and worsens when running or jumping.

Misalignment of the feet is a main cause, especially excessive pronation (rolling in), which increases the strain on the muscles around the knee. Dancers with certain anatomical variations, such as knock-knees or bowlegs, are also more vulnerable. Weak quadriceps and hip muscles can contribute to tendonitis issues.

Instead of forcing your feet, rotate your legs outward from the hip. In a ballet class, avoid sacrificing placement for a perfect first position. Use muscle control to maintain your natural rotation during the barre and in the center, making sure that the knee is aligned over the foot as you go through demi-plie?.

Initially, it can be difficult to know the severity of any knee injury. Dr. Martin recommends starting with the standard treatment for acute injuries: RICE (rest, ice, elevation and compression). “Ice from the back and the front,” says Dr. Martin, “and use a gel pack from the refrigerator instead of the freezer.”



Young dancers can develop Osgood-Schlatter disease, which may cause a painful bump to form below the knee on the front of the tibia (shinbone). Symptoms begin with increasing pain during activity. Later a visible bump develops on the tibia which may become permanent if untreated. Kneeling is also uncomfortable because of the swelling on the shin.

The condition is caused by overuse of the quadriceps, which straightens the knee, putting strain on the patellar tendon where it attaches to the growing tibia. It typically affects growing dancers because the bone is not yet strong enough to withstand the force of the quadriceps pulling on it.

Osgood-Schlatter disease usually heals after growth has stopped. However, dancers should avoid pushing through the pain, as it can worsen the irritation and prolong rehabilitation.



Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries are uncommon in dancers, but the consequences are serious. The ACL is one of four ligaments that are crucial in stabilizing the knee. A partial tear does not necessarily require surgical repair, but may result in many months of rehabilitation.

Awkward landings are a main cause of ACL injuries. Fatigue may be a factor and many injuries happen at the end of the day or after a long performance season.

Both doctors emphasize the importance of strength training for beating knee injuries. “You have to do conditioning if you want to stay in the game,” says Dr. Martin. She adds that dancers can do strengthening exercises without bulking.

Safeguard Your Potential

Dancers are used to dancing in spite of pain, but pushing through can lead to more problems down the road. If a physical evaluation has ruled out a serious injury, try reducing activity, along with icing and physiotherapy. If your knee pain continues or is recurrent, your physician may order an MRI to ensure a correct diagnosis.

While knee injury rates are high among dancers, there are things you can do to keep knee problems from worsening. Getting a proper diagnosis, adjusting your training during growth spurts and allowing your body to fully recover after an injury diagnosis can help. “You have to get smart about how you take care of yourself,” says Dr. Martin. “Talent is not enough. You have to protect your talent.”

Better knee health

If you are not injured, Dr. Martin recommends this exercise to stretch the quadriceps and psoas for more flexible hip flexors:

  1. Kneel near a wall and place a cushion or pillow under your left knee.
  2. Face away from the wall and lunge forward on your right leg until your working knee forms a 90-degree angle.
  3. With your legs parallel and your hips level, place your left shinbone against the wall.
  4. Keep your back upright, pelvis square and glutes tight. Hold this position until you feel a gentle stretch on the front of your left hip and thigh.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

Building Sisterhood Through Movement

women stand around teepee holding hands

Nava Dance Collective, photo by Laura Soriano

A cooperative with multiple contributors. An array of artistic perspectives and voices. A desire for an alternative, more egalitarian structure. A common passion for sharing the transformative potential of dance and performance. A spirit of togetherness and kinship. Any idea what I am trying to describe?

The ‘dance collective.’

Now, the thoughts offered above are by no means meant to be a complete definition. Actually, trying to define a term like ‘dance collective’ is challenging. The dance collective isn’t a static or fixed entity. There is no one model for what a dance collective should look like nor one formula determining how it should function. Every new iteration constructs its own vision and carves its own path. Just look to a few past and present examples of dance collectives and notice the range and breadth among them.

In the 1960s, collectivity met with post-modernism at Judson Dance Theater, and, in the 1970s with improvisation at Grand Union. In that same decade at Dartmouth College, innovators forged a new project with collective collaboration as a central tenet—that spirit, that impulse, continues to drive Pilobolus today. In New
York, Troy Schumacher’s BalletCollective and Columbia Ballet Collaborative (out of Columbia University) are
present day examples of collectivity in ballet. Numerous contemporary dance collectives call the San Francisco Bay Area home—from the longstanding and established, like ODC, to newer, emerging endeavors like LV Dance Collective, SALTA, Mid to West Dance Collective and Stranger Lover Dreamer. And then, there is a sisterhood of creative souls exploring international world dance in performance, empowering women through movement and unlocking dance as a healing art. This is Nava Dance Collective.

A relatively new presence, Nava Dance Collective came onto the scene three years ago under the guidance and direction of lifelong dancer and choreographer Miriam Peretz. Specializing in a number of different movement genres including contemporary dance and dances of the Silk Road (Central Asian dance), Peretz has had and continues to enjoy a rich and varied professional career. Previously, she was a member of notable world dance companies like Ballet Afsaneh, Wan-Chao Dance Company and Inbal Ethnic Dance Theater. Today, Peretz tours nationally and internationally as a solo dance artist. Her newest collaboration Madre – The Ladino Project just had its world premiere in January at the Freight & Salvage in the East Bay and later this year she will be touring to Spain, Portugal, Germany, Russia, Greece, and Israel.

Alongside performing, Peretz is a much sought after teacher and dance practitioner, instructing in numerous cities around the world. Here in Berkeley, she has been active at the 8th Street Studio and is currently on the faculty of Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance, which coincidentally, is the studio where she began her dance studies as a teenager. It was in these classes at the Center for International Dance where the idea for Nava Dance Collective began percolating. “During our dance sessions, deep levels of connection and sisterhood were organically growing and blossoming between all of the women,” Peretz recalls, “a community of support and care was forming both on and off the dance floor–it was turning into something bigger for all of us, something beyond technique, rehearsal and performance.” And so Peretz took the next step and began the process of founding Nava Dance Collective.

Which, of course, led to important and penetrating questions. What kind of dance collective would this new group be? What values and principles would it embody? How best to honor and foster the specialness that they were encountering together in the studio and in performance?

Women in white dance in tree grove

Nava Dance Collective, photo by Robert Bengston

First and foremost was and is a holistic approach to dance. “So often, there is a gap between the performative aspect of dance and the healing, therapeutic nature of dance; with Nava, as with any of my dance sessions, I strive to always offer something for the body, the heart and the mind,” says Peretz. To that end, Nava Dance Collective places an emphasis on dance’s duality. Certainly as a technical performance art but equally as a means to facilitate healing, be it physical healing, emotional healing or spiritual healing. A safe place for women where the whole being can be nurtured. “Our hope was and is to create something impactful with dance as an all-encompassing practice,” Peretz shares, “an intentional space to hone our craft, refine our character, experience personal healing through movement and work on soul traits like compassion, humility and generosity.”

In addition, Nava seeks layers of diversity. The collective is multi-generational, multi- cultural and international, with members in Spain, Italy, Israel and California. While Peretz acknowledges that having a dance collective spread across the globe can be challenging, it also affords a unique opportunity to “connect a larger community web for dance and promote cross-cultural exchange.” In terms of physical vocabulary, Nava’s scope is similarly vast, ranging from traditional Central Asian dance to devotional, ritual dance theater to what Peretz calls ethno- contemporary movement, “contemporary language and approaches infused with world dance forms.” Even the collective’s name reflects their commitment to diversity, “I wanted a name that would mirror inclusivity, bridging cultures and traditions – in Farsi/Turkish, Nava means melody or tune; in Hindi, new and innovative; in Hebrew, it is a common name for girls, meaning pleasant; and it is one of the traditional Persian music modes,” relays Peretz.

With this foundation in hand, Nava Dance Collective was ready to get going. And these first few years have been busy for the group with several different endeavors, including The Bustan Project – Garden of Roses. Peretz describes this piece as “a weaving of classical, contemporary and devotional interpretations of Persian Dance, with live music and poetry; it is an ode to motherhood, a call for women to remember their strength, and is dedicated to the beautiful and strong women of Iran.” After presenting the work throughout Israel, Spain and Italy, Nava recently brought The Bustan Project to the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco for its Bay Area debut and will be taking it to various California locations later this spring.

At the same time, Nava is actively expanding their repertoire, prepping and building additional choreographic material. One of these works, Transcendence-Charkh e Falak (turning of the cosmos) will be premiering as part of the Rotunda Dance Series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West. On Friday, March 24th at noon in San Francisco City Hall (admission is free), audiences will have the opportunity to see the first showing of Nava Dance Collective’s newest ensemble dance. “Transcendence honors Nowruz, a celebration of the Spring equinox observed across the Middle East and Central Asia,” explains Peretz. “It also honors the ancient Zoroastrian sun deity, Mithra, and marks the sun’s passage across the celestial equator, equalizing night and day, the alignment of the cosmos and the constant turning towards center.” For this premiere performance, Nava is also thrilled to welcome some special guests – Abbos Kosimov (master Doira player from Uzbekistan), Amir Etemadzadeh (Persian percussion) and dance artist Aliah Najmabadi.

Nava Dance Collective, photo by Shulamit Bushinsky

If 2017 is any indication, Nava Dance Collective is on a fast moving trajectory, full speed ahead. They are excited to see what the future holds, what may come next and what legacy they might help to establish. With an eye towards profound narrative themes like the power of sisterhood and healing from trauma, continuing to create new performance projects is definitely part of the picture, as is making space for others to choreograph and construct dances. But the longer-term, high level goal for Peretz with the collective is outreach: “we hope that Nava dancers will be able to go into communities that maybe don’t have the resources to attend dance classes or performances, because the larger vision of Nava Dance Collective is to be able to offer the healing power of dance to a greater population of women.”

To learn more about Nava Dance Collective, visit

Gaining Perspectives, Changing Perceptions – ARTICLE #2: Our World in Constant Motion

Editors Note: In the December 2016 issue of In Dance Farah Yasmeen Shaikh wrote about her experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American woman Kathak artist and her work teaching and performing in Pakistan— Article #1: How Politics and Power Shaped Dance in Pakistan. This is the second of at least three articles that discuss the complexities of navigating past and present politics and artmaking.

I had completed my first performance tour of Pakistan in January of 2016, and was elated to receive an invitation to return to perform as soon as March. On March 22, 2016, I had an early flight scheduled to Pakistan from San Francisco International Airport. My alarm woke me up, but as soon as I turned it off and looked at my phone there were news alerts of three coordinated suicide bombings having occurred in Belgium that morning. Thirty- five people were killed, and more than 300 people were injured. My heart sank. Noooo, not again. I knew these attacks would have major effects on airport security, especially with two of the bombings taking place at the Brussels airport. I quickly woke my husband and told him I needed to be at the airport even earlier than planned to allow for increased time at security. I could not have been more right. Afterward, I took to social media to reflect on what happened: “Woke up today to the horrible news of what happened in Brussels, happening to be on the day I am returning to Pakistan. I am now flagged at airport security for my previous travel to Pakistan (as explained by a security officer at the airport), I was just pulled aside for almost an hour. I was pat down and had each and every one of my items removed and examined. I’m exhausted and I just broke, tears coming down my face as they patted me down.

“There is not an ounce of fear in me traveling on this day or to my destination, but there is immense sadness of this ongoing reality of the state of our world. And yet I have a renewed sense of exactly why I feel compelled to do the work I do, which is essentially, through the medium of dance, to bridge cultures and the unnecessary divide we have, and to hopefully do my part in influencing a global culture that can be positive, supportive, and non violent.”

Within hours, I was overwhelmed to get online and see the responses to my social media posts. Almost 500 likes, and over 100 comments, mainly messages of peace, love and support. I felt guilty however, as I wasn’t feeling like the victim in the scenario at the airport, but rather, my experience was indicative of the state of the world. Here was my follow up to that post: “ Wow – I’m so overwhelmed by the outpour of love and support. The words of care at what I faced during security check are beyond heart warming, but I do want to clarify something. My sadness was more a result of not what I was going through, but what it represented. When I or any other Muslim/non-Muslim (of which there have been many) are profiled or flagged, it is unfair. But much beyond this is the fact that we are in a place socially, politically, and globally, where violence is such a common occurrence, and it affects people near and far. By no means is aggressively being frisked even slightly comparable to what the actual victims of the various acts of senseless violence have faced. I guess the point is that it does reach all of us—directly and indirectly, and this is the point of responsibility that we all must embrace. If I/you go through something directly, I/you can do something to change things for the better. I believe we all have that ability through our various means.”

By the time I arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, I was more determined than ever to make this a productive trip. Still feeling the sadness of world affairs, I chose to direct my emotion into my work. I jumped right into rehearsals and teaching. I wanted to build off the momentum of my January trip, deepen the relationships, introduce more people to the art form of kathak, and have meaningful exchanges with any and all in my short three-week visit. An immediate high point to my arrival, especially as a follow-up to the way my journey had begun, was hearing of the national holiday in Pakistan to honor the Hindu spring festival of Holi. This was the first time in the history of Pakistan that this holiday was being officially acknowledged, and taking into account the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan, and the way that Hindus in Pakistan are not treated equally, this was a huge step in dispelling some of the negative rhetoric within the nation itself. Elated by this, I even chose to dance pieces of Holi in my performances during this trip to celebrate the acknowledgement of this festival. Less than a week into my trip, my happiness faded away yet again, when on Easter Sunday to be exact, March 27, 2016, another horrible tragedy took place. This time, in Pakistan…

Upon receiving messages from friends and family at home inquiring about my safety, this is what I posted to social media: “ Thank you to all who have reached out, and yes, I am safe. I am in Karachi and yesterday’s heinous, cruel and merciless attack was in the city of Lahore where 75 were killed and over 300 injured—mostly women and children. They were at a park—playing, celebrating Easter, enjoying life… So yes, I am “safe,” but I’m not okay. None of us should be after witnessing this over and over again. All of us should feel affected by what happened in Pakistan, along with what’s happening everyday—everywhere. It’s not about safety— it’s about compassion, love and respect. Why is it so hard to apply these simple principles as one’s guiding force to distinguish between good and evil, to understand that if hate breeds hate, why can’t we flip it and ensure that love breeds love. We are all in this together. The separations of borders, religions, race, etc., mean absolutely nothing.”

My heart continued to ache. Here I was, thrilled to be back in Pakistan, to know that the doors had been opened for me to come and share my art, the feeling of continued opportunity to do so signifying the desire from Pakistanis for dance to be part of their ongoing cultural fabric of the country, but then, the very thing that many had asked me, “Aren’t you afraid of the violence there?”, all of a sudden felt way too close. I felt like I wanted to defend Pakistan and continue to convince any and everyone that the labels placed on this nation were unfair and untrue. And yet, this tragedy had taken place, and the world was meant to believe that this is the Pakistan they were to know. I knew differently, and as sad as I was at the many losses of life, the violence, and the hatred, I knew, and continue to know, that there is nothing to fear, as fear is only a paralysis and a means of keeping oneself from what is necessary.


This series of articles, which began in late 2016, will continue to be a platform to share my work in Pakistan. But upon returning from my most recent trip in January of 2017, I came home to a newly elected President. I landed the day after the inauguration and my stomach was churning. It was the day of the Women’s March on Washington and cities around the country, and I would have loved to attend one of the marches, but my arrival time dictated otherwise. I found such great comfort and relief in seeing the infinite number of posts and pictures of people around the country and world, displaying unity, peaceful but assertive messaging, strength in numbers, and the love and camaraderie that was oozing out of each and every account from that day.

One week later, we were all slapped in the face by the Executive Orders from the powers that be regarding the ban on immigrants entering the United States from various countries, most of which have majority Muslim populations. I was shocked, horrified, heartbroken, and disgusted. Though Pakistan is not on the list, I’ve had many conversations with people asking if I will continue to go to Pakistan to work, and if I have concerns based on these new developments. Of course I have concerns, but I have no question about my renewed desire to continue to work in Pakistan, whether or not the country and its people are included on this list, and also knowing that there is likely to be profiling when traveling both in and out of the United States. Let me be clear, my concerns are not about me personally, but much like the tragedies that took place in March in Brussels and Lahore, these are issues that concern us all. I reached out to a friend of mine to get his thoughts on what is happening. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is a visual and performing artist based in the SF Bay Area, but his roots are deeply connected to the very places we are currently hearing so much about. “I am caught in an interesting place, as a Pakistani born in Damascus, Syria with Iranian heritage — how can I not feel solidarity with my fellow Muslims? My experience being away was for art, I went to Colombia to perform and coming back I thought will my Syrian-ness count against me? What are my resources, what are anyone’s resources? There are artists, writers, business people, students, all effectively declared illegal. Those that leave cannot come back and those that stay are marked. Is the next step a series of virtual prisons where we all register? They know where we live, where we work, who we know? Sanctuary cities become target zones. I was asked coming in if I had Syrian nationality, when the last time I went was, did I have family there, ‘No, just friends’ I responded. ‘But just friends right?’ The officer at secondary questioning asked as if to reassure herself that she was not assigned the offensive task of detaining another person. We must believe everything this president says and prepare ourselves for that.” So the question becomes: how do we – dancers, artists, citizens of the world – continue to bring peace and light through our various means – our work, our compassion – in the face of darkness? How can we rise above, see through and past the actions of a few ill-intentioned and instead focus on the positive work and contributions of the masses? How can we embrace the progress that is made socially, politically and otherwise, and ensure that these changes are here indefinitely? These questions are not easily answered, nor is there one answer, but at least for me, it is one that I continue to ask myself, reflect on, and stay committed to exploring.

SPEAK: Taking Action

two dancers lie face down removing tshirts

FACT/SF’s Liane Burns and Charles Slender-White in Platform, photo by Kegan Marling

Defeated and despondent, I spent the months between the 2016 presidential election and inauguration on January 20, 2017 commiserating with friends, and evaluating my level of political engagement. I’d voted and marched and donated to advocacy groups, but suddenly that felt insufficient. I took stock of my resources and skills, and examined how I had been spending my time. I realized that for all of 2016, and throughout most of the last decade, I’d been directing the vast majority of my energy towards my dance company, FACT/SF. Could I have been making more dances with clearer and more forceful political messages? Would that have made a difference in the election? Probably not.

In the past, my considerations of an artist’s role in society were always a bit esoteric and philosophical. They seemed relevant to the field as a whole, but never really felt personal. I live in San Francisco, and I’m an economically secure, white, cis-gendered, married, gay man. My identity is rarely under attack, and this has afforded me the privilege of choosing when and how I engage with politics. It did not always feel like I had this choice.

I was born in 1983, and grew up in a single-parent household in a working-class, military town just north of San Diego. When I was fourteen, I came out to my high school counselor. She ran a private support group for other LGBT kids and invited me to join. Two years later our group decided that we should become more visible, and we established a Gay Straight Alliance. On our rather conservative campus, the GSA worked to give voice to queers and their allies, combat bullying, and support our broader community. As our GSA’s primary act of service we volunteered for Mama’s Kitchen and, for the next two years, helped them deliver free meals for low-income people living with HIV in our region. High school was already tough, and making ourselves visible made things even harder. We got bullied every day. But, we were fortified by our collective strength and the support from our allies. Our work felt non-optional.

In October 2000, I got my license and a hand-me-down car from my grandparents. Every morning, I would pick up my 15 year-old stepsister from her mom’s house across town, and drive thirty minutes to our high school. That same fall, Proposition 22 was on the California ballot, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. On the drive from her house to our high school, we saw lawns covered in signs in favor of the measure. This terrified us both, and we decided to take action. One day after school, in broad daylight, we drove around town and stole about thirty ‘Yes on 22’ signs from peoples’ lawns. We went home and wrote a letter about the importance of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion. We turned the signs inside out, painted ‘No on 22’ on them, printed copies of our letter and, at 3am dressed all in black, returned the signs to their respective households and left our letter on each doorstep. That year, even though Prop 22 won with a startling 61% of the vote, my sister and I felt a sense of pride and strength in our guerilla activism.

By spring 2002, my senior year, I was fairly well known on campus. I was president of the GSA, president of the French club, a cheerleader on the competition squad, a varsity diver, a member of the yearbook staff, and a new dancer on the dance team. My school voted to make me Prom King. When my name was announced at prom, I was loudly booed.

A month later, I graduated from high school and moved to the Bay Area for college. Being in a new place, and a bit traumatized from my earlier experiences, I focused on myself. I quit diving and started taking more dance classes.

In dance, I found immediate acceptance – my peers and professors didn’t care about my sexual orientation. They were more concerned with what I could do in the studio and on stage. In this process, my political lens shifted. I no longer felt embattled, advocating for gay rights became less important to me, and pursuing a dance career became paramount.

In 2006, just after graduating from college, I accepted a job with Provincial Dances Theatre and moved to Russia. The working situation at Provincial Dances was extremely competitive. Rather than being paid hourly or weekly, our pay was based on the amount of time we spent on stage. This created an environment where dancers worked against each other. Though I was proud of the work we made, and thrilled to tour across Russia and Europe, I started to feel exhausted and isolated. I lost the stamina for the daily jockeying to be cast in the best-paid role, and I longed for a sense of belonging. In 2008, I gave up my life abroad, moved back to California, and started FACT/SF.

With FACT/SF, I was able to focus my energy on building the community I wanted to be a part of. I endeavored to create an environment that was much different than the one I had been working in – one where my collaborators and I offered and received mutual support and respect.

Over the past nine years, FACT/SF has pursued goals to provide dancers an hourly pay, annual raises, and contracts with detailed schedules. We have policies in place for conflict resolution, conduct annual reviews, and maintain space for open dialogue and questioning within the rehearsal process. In 2014, we created a commissioning program, JuMP, to share our resources with other local choreographers. This year, we’re launching PORT with the LA Contemporary Dance Company and ODC Theater. By bringing West Coast dance companies together, PORT increases regional touring capacity while decreasing financial risk. I am proud of how FACT/SF works, what it has done, the community it has created, and the role I have played to make
it happen. I know we are contributing to the dance field, and society, in important ways.

The recent shifts in our political landscape, though, have called into question my myopic focus on FACT/SF. My entire, tight-knit community of family, friends, and colleagues now feels tangibly and directly under siege. Our large group, spread throughout California and across the country, includes a diversity of people from different economic classes and with different faiths, ethnicities, places of origin, occupations, genders, and sexual orientations. An attack against one of us feels like an attack against all of us. It feels personal, and combating injustice and discrimination feels non-optional, much like it did when I was a teenager.

Using the organizing skills I’ve developed in running a dance company, I decided to spend the next two years working to unseat the Republican Congressman in the CA-49, my hometown district. He has been in office since 2000, when Prop 22 was on the ballot, and in 2016 he was re-elected by a 1% margin. In collaboration with my high school classmates from long ago, we have started to build an on-the-ground team for getting out the vote and hopefully flipping our hometown district from red to blue. Even though I won’t vote in the CA-49, I know a lot of people who will. I’m hopeful that this effort will have a positive, if small, impact on our national government.

My work with FACT/SF will continue, too. Liane Burns and I are premiering a duet, Platform, at ODC in June 2017. We are gearing up for our productions with the LA Contemporary Dance Company in September, and preparing to tour the Balkans in October.

Organizing political action has required finding more time in my day, and more courage to have uncomfortable conversations about policies and political priorities. It’s a challenge, but I feel optimistic. My enormous community has been a primary source of encouragement, and working for its survival the main catalyst for action. I feel empowered by a new sense of purpose, and more energized than ever before.

Welcome: Hopes for 2017

Jan/Feb In DanceWhat awaits? A simple question that involves speculation, hope, worry and certainly doing much of what is always done—work with what we have, while doing what we love. While I imagine what awaits, it felt vital to ask Dancers’ Group’s staff what their hopes are as they begin a new year.

Mine is—throughout 2017, find time to participate in life’s wonderfully awkward moments that inform my work and provide the laughter and tears that make life so grand. —Wayne Hazzard, Executive Director

I closed the door to 2016 and open the door to 2017. Before entering I remind myself that the hard work is just beginning. I feel in myself a superabundance of energy, which finds no outlet in a quiet life. Even energy runs out at one point, so for that reason I want to focus on how and where I use my energy. My biggest investments will always be my family, friends and dance—my trinity of happiness. In 2017 I hope to build my family up to their highest potential, enrich my friendships, and continue my allegiance to the powers of Dance. —Edgar Mendez, Artist Resources Manager

I hope for sore muscles, sand on my feet and good books to read. I hope to see my family more often. I hope for the pain to stop so I can dance again. I hope for self-discovery, patience, and courage. I hope for new friendships.

I hope for all of us to disconnect and value silence and introspection. I hope for the city I live in to become affordable again. I hope for something real to be done about the people in the streets. I hope for 2016 not to be the precursor of a downward spiral. I hope for perspective, dialogue and kindness. I hope for more doing. I hope for the warrior in all of us to awaken. —Natalia Velarde, Program Assistant

I recently watched Rick Prelinger’s Lost Landscapes of San Francisco at the Castro Theater, an annual event now in its 11th year. Over a thousand people filled in the seats: we all watched with nostalgia and awe at shaky home videos, old street views, parades, and fog from the 1930s-80s—light leaks, film clutter, scratches, lint and all. This brief experience left me reeling so to speak; enveloped by the past and in community, I thought about 2017. Yet another year in the existence of this city. A new year.

I hope to observe—record, capture, listen to, admire—2017, via our city (our artists, our landscapes, our families, our dances) with the wonder I felt looking onto the beauty of the past. How can we witness and emulate 2017, in all its textures, imperfections, and beauty? —Melissa Lewis, Administrative Assistant

In the close of 2016, I felt forceful waves of change repeatedly crash before me personally, communally, and societally. The instinctive, physical response I experience is to close my eyes, retreat, flinch. I have discovered that this discomfort with change is more palpable lately than in my recent history, and I feel others struggling with similar and varying pains of their own.

As 2017 arrives, I hope to refocus my energy on cultivating an ability to navigate ever-shifting surroundings for both myself and others. I hope to remember and remind that there is power in any gesture made with empathy, and that change can be met not by mourning losses but by readjusting to the potential of a future sculpted from pillars of the past and driven by love. I hope we come together. I hope to dance more — let’s take class! —Chloë Zimberg, Administrative Assistant

More than all else, may the tide turn toward love, justice, and joy. May we be patient with ourselves, yet urgent in our work. May our art help carry us through. —Michelle Lynch Reynolds, Program Director

In the Bag

I was driving to radiation for breast cancer when I heard an interview with Eve Ensler, feminist, playwright, performer, social activist. The title of Eve’s interview was “The Body After Cancer.” Eve, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” had very aggressive uterine cancer. And though it nearly killed her she described it as an opportunity to truly live in her body for the first time.

I had been feeling the opposite: outside of my body looking in. I was in denial before the diagnosis. I was embarrassed by the invasive biopsies and mammograms. I cried on my way to surgery. I didn’t want to live in this body. I wanted to check out. I lost my wiry, thick hair and was spidery thin. Even my blood volume was shrinking. I felt like I was dragging a large dead animal behind me every time I mounted the stairs. I knew I was a dancer by Martha Graham’s standards: more than 10 years in the making. So how did I end up a zombie shadow of my former dancerly self?

Eve elaborated on the experience of being completely in her body, talked about cancer giving her perspective on what was really important to her. Something she said struck a nerve and I found myself sitting up at attention: “Capitalism engineers longing. This is not an accident. If we were content with our lives, it would be very hard to control us.” My inner rebel was ruffled. What’s controlling me, I wondered? Who’s cashing in on my insecurities? Is my cancer, burrowing its way into my bosom, a condition of the heart? How long had my body been sculpting that tumor? How had that tumor been sculpting my longing?

What do I want, I asked myself? What do I really long for?
I knew exactly what it was: a handbag.

With my dancer and teacher’s salary I have mostly avoided the upscale boutiques increasingly encroaching on our Mission District residence. But on a few occasions when I was going through cancer treatment, I had to splurge. Call it retail therapy, capitalism-engineered-longing, or living as if each day might be my last.

On one such day I got up the courage to walk into a handbag boutique, down the street, I had been eyeing for years. I was hiding my chemo-bald head under a fake fur hat with ears, as if I were some eccentric, rich cat lady. The man behind the desk looked up with kind eyes. “Welcome. I’m Basil. We make everything downstairs.”

In fact, I had a near-perfect handbag that I’d bought a while back for the hefty sum of $25, a thrift store splurge. But it was coming apart. I asked Basil if he had anything like it. He started to draw. Suggestions of pockets, flaps, magnets and straps were added to his hand-drawn design. I told him I was a dancer. It needed to convert to a backpack so it could rest just so beneath my shoulder blades. He laughed, “Then you’d better dance your ass off.” He wrote down the price: $575.

The rich cat lady in me lunged forward with my credit card in hand. When I got home I immediately confessed my outrageous purchase to my husband and kids who shared my sticker shock, especially considering that I had nothing except a drawing of a handbag to show for it. Part of me felt ashamed. Part of me didn’t care. Part of me thought I deserved it.

I visited Basil and the handbag-in-process regularly over the next several weeks. As he stained and hole-punched the leather straps I told him about cancer. He affectionately called me a cancer dancer. He asked me what I was working on. I told him I was starting to work on a new piece about the connection between capitalism and longing inspired by Eve Ensler.

The handbag was finally finished. It turned out even better than I expected. Basil donned the design the “Rowena Bag.” I continued to drop in from time to time, bringing egg tarts from the no-frills Grand Mission Bakery. Basil made us coffee and we chatted about art and life and death.

Over Christmas break I received an email from Basil. He told me his husband Graham had a family foundation. They needed to give away some money. They wanted to give me $1,000 to put towards my show. I couldn’t believe how this purse splurge was paying off.

And it was a good thing because the $5,000 of funding and production support I had secured to pay my assembled collaborators fell through. But we embraced our longing to make art without capital and persisted.

Then on my 46th birthday, I found a wallet in Dolores Park.

There was no ID in the wallet. There was a wad of cash. I counted out $355 and some loose change.

I brought the money into rehearsal to use as a prop. The money smelled like smoke, a blend of stale joints that were also stashed in the wallet, and the sage I burned to rid the cash of any bad juju. I pledged to put it to good use.

My collaborators and I were still $3,645 shy of our projected budget, but dreams and a story unfolded around the surprise Christmas gift from Basil, and the birthday money from Dolores Park. We began to wonder, were we in the red? Or were we coming out ahead?

We were moving, anyways. Right into a church. When I told my pastor Maggi Henderson of Old First Presbyterian Church that I was persisting with the project, she offered to chip in. “We don’t have a lot of money,” she said. “But we have space.”

In Old First’s stained-glass sanctuary, the emerging piece morphed into a service.

We considered giving the $355 away in a reverse offering, passing a plate full of money to be distributed. We envisioned dropping the bills from a balcony, “twenties from heaven.” We rewrote the Lord’s Prayer. Here’s how we started:

Our Dollar which art in pocket
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On Earth led by the G7

I also began a more earnest prayer practice. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu prayers, and the wisdom of Susan O’Malley through her book Advice From My 80-Year-Old Self. Each morning prayer session ends with an O’Malley affirmation such as THE HARDER ROAD IS THE ONE THAT MAKES YOU YOU and BE HERE NOW. Gradually, my sense of gratitude grew. I became more aware of how precious every moment is.

Toward the end of Eve Ensler’s interview, she talked about the second wind, “I love the idea of the second wind,” she said. “You’re running and running and running and then you get that next wind and you can keep going.”

It’s been two years since my cancer diagnosis and I am back in my body. And my body is strong and elated to have me back in it. I’m dancing at rehearsal at Old First, where our piece, “Dearly Gathered,” will premier in January. I’ve also been running in Dolores Park, sprinting hills and stairs with abandon. And that’s something I’ve discovered about the second wind: you have to be all in in the first place. You have to hang in there. Keep working to truly inhabit your body as if for the first time; trust the money will come when the funding falls through — and then the second wind comes upon you. When you are invested, the payoff is invaluable. Basil not only made me exactly what I longed for in a handbag. He made me a friend. He would make you a friend, too, if you had a moment to spend.

Cancer clarifies that the real currency is time. Capitalism, in Eve’s words, engineers “desire in us for what can be in the future.” It’s about how you must compete for a better future for yourself. But that separates
us from each other—makes the distance between us longer-–and it separates us from this moment, with the promise that there will always be more. Do we need more? I found I have enough already. When I devote my time to appreciating what it is to be alive right now, with my family and friends and artistic community, I am content. I am free. It’s in the bag.

Tips on Writing a Letter of Intent (LOI) and Grant Application

Planning is key to success. Think carefully about your outline and proposal.
Talk about your ideas with staff and colleagues. Good writing does not usually happen in a vacuum. Rely heavily on the guidance and experiences of those who design and implement the project for which you seek funds. This means starting the writing process early, as much as six to twelve weeks before the deadline. Set aside quality time in a comfortable place (not necessarily your office) in order to give yourself the time to think openly and creatively. Talking plays an important role in the thought process because it prompts us to brainstorm and respond to others’ ideas. It can raise staff awareness and buy-in.

Avoid the Common “Dont’s.”

  • Don’t claim to be all things to all people. The whole world is probably not going to change if you get this grant. Don’t promise to achieve world peace or transform the entire community.
  • Don’t talk over your reader’s head. Educate the readers of your proposal. They may be unfamiliar with your issue, art form, mission, or cause. Don’t assume that funders will ask you questions. They are people, and if they don’t understand, they may not want to appear ignorant!
  • Avoid superlatives and comparisons. Be careful about saying you are the biggest, best, most innovative, etc. Instead, substantiate the merit of your organization and project, and back up your claims with facts, figures, examples, and or stories.
  • Avoid the victim mentality. Life is tough for most nonprofit organizations and artists. Your struggles are probably not that unique. If your project addresses an oppressed community or issue, then substantiate that issue or community need. Venting about past funding rejections, however, is not helpful to your organization or the funder. Your writing must connect with and relate to the reader(s) in a way that encourages their investment and buy-in.

Remember the basics of good writing.

  • Use simple, clear English. Double-check your grammar or, if you feel weak in this area, ask someone else to edit your writing. Overly-long sentences lose the reader.
  • Use active verbs. “Mr. Smith is the person that will be the director” is greatly improved as “Mr. Smith will direct the program.”
  • Avoid jargon, acronyms, and technical terms. Try to ensure that the reader’s understanding of a word or term coincides with your use of it. If you must use these terms, then define them.

Ask someone outside of your organization to read your proposal. The reader should not tell you if the proposal is good or bad, merely what they think is said. Are any portions unclear? Was your reader able to understand your vocabulary? Did they grasp the main points?

Important: Why would the funder support your program? This rationale is based in your research, rather than your hopes. Has the funder supported similar activities? Does your project fit their priorities and/or market? Note that answering this question involves addressing their priorities, not yours!

Feel free to use the words below in your grant proposals. But be aware of the potential for misunderstanding. Unless you are certain that decision makers will understand them, you may need to explain their context to your project, organization, and constituency.

—————————————————- —————————————————-

“Misinterpreted” Words—those with multiple meanings, such that the funder’s (or panel’s) interpretation might differ from what you intend.


—————————————————- 2 —————————————————-

“Missed” Words—those that funders may not recognize, particularly as some may not be experts in art, culture or history.

creative process

—————————————————- 3 —————————————————-

“Misused” Words—those that are sometimes misused by arts organizations.

the young
capital campaign
focus group
Latin, Latino, Latina, Latinx

Consider this quote from Aristotle, which is as relevant today as when it was written:

Style, to be good, must be clear. Clearness is secured by using words that are current and ordinary. You must disguise your art and give the impression of speaking naturally and not artificially. Strange words and invented ones must be used sparingly and on few occasions. The aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story. Their minds are drawn to the false conclusion that you are to be trusted from the fact that you seem to be talking to them. — Aristotle, The Rhetoric, written nearly 2,500 years ago

Just as Important: Why might the funder not support your program?

To answer that question, learn to think as your own devil’s advocate. What are the weaknesses, gaps, or inconsistencies in the project description, as stated in your application? As you expand and revise your application, try to address and eliminate your weaknesses, if possible, through planning, research, and dialogue with staff and community partners.

Here’s an example of how this process works for an applicant organization that seeks funding to present a performance series on gender identity:

Anticipated questions from the funder:
Does the applicant have partnerships with local LGBTQ organizations? Will the performance series reach and serve the LGBTQ community?

Weaknesses within the proposal:The applicant had not taken the time to plan this project collectively with its existing LGBTQ partners. In consequence, the application did not describe its partners’ role in the project or how their constituents would be reached.

Converting the weakness into a strength:
Applicant then reached out to community partners to discuss the project and describe their role and to confirm that artists were comfortable with the new activities. A revised, stronger proposal, incorporating that planning might read as follows:

Over the past several weeks, we have been in discussion with local colleges, museums, schools and social service organizations that address gender identity in their curriculum, programs and services. Professor Wilson, who is transgender and heads the Gender Studies program at ABC University, has agreed to host a series of panels for students from three colleges in our city. After our student matinee, the Buchanan High School will share its new curriculum, Out Teens, with students in attendance. The artists have agreed to meet with both college and high school students during the week they are in town.

Planning and research involved: Before submitting the proposal the applicant identified and addressed its weaknesses by contacting the LGBTQ partners to discuss their needs, secure their support, and design a mutually beneficial project.

Result: Applicant turned a weakness into a strength. Because the applicant provided evidence of its partnerships, the funder’s interest increased. Applicant incorporated first voice perspective, so that it was not planning a project for the LGBTQ community from a solely heteronormative place.

Next-to-Last Stop: Check the published review criteria. Review your application to ensure that it addresses every published criterion.

Last Stop: Check all application submission requirements. Ensure that you meet formatting restrictions to the letter, including margins, font size and word limits.

© Copyright Callahan Consulting for the Arts. All rights reserved.

Sanctuary Spaces: FRESH Festival Artists Violeta Luna and Roberto Varea Plan Empathy and Disruption Across Borders

FRESH Festival. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

FRESH Festival. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

“We were thinking about a number of other things,” says Roberto Varea when I ask him about what he and collaborator Violeta Luna have planned for their FRESH Festival outing this month. “…and then the earthquake occurred on November 8th and we started rethinking.”

Varea and Luna are seated on opposite sides of a wooden table in an old-guard Mission District café, accompanied by a loud soundtrack—Dylan live, Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry… We lean in to hear one another better, which heightens the conspiratorial mood. The presidential election is only a few weeks old and there’s a sense of dread that hangs in the air, of people bracing themselves for the coming storm.

“Going back to this empathy/disruption thematic thread for FRESH ’17,” continues Varea, referring to the too-timely prompt from the Festival’s 2017 curators (including founder Kathleen Hermesdorf, Abby Crain and José Navarrete), “…it felt like the time was ripe to try to imagine a new work dealing particularly with what’s going on, in the context of empathy for immigrants.”

The title for the new piece, sanct·u·are / (sanc·tu·ar·y), turns on the status of San Francisco as a sanctuary city for all (including undocumented) immigrants as well as the temporary zone of acceptance (safety “for the expression of the unsafe”) manifest in socially engaged performance. Varea is directing and supplying video to the concept that he and Luna are evolving. In addition to performing the piece, Luna supplies costumes and properties. Music and sounds will be furnished by David Molina, a longtime collaborator and, like Luna and Varea, an immigrant himself.

“That’s the spin on the word sanctuary,” continues Varea. “Hopefully it will be obvious enough for people to conjure the idea of the sanctity of the other— especially the most vulnerable other, in the context of immigration and the climate that Trump and Sessions and all these people are going to be putting into practice for them. Let alone the reality of an immigrant that 99 times out of 100 is not leaving to ‘make it’ in some other place but because of some catastrophic situation back home.”

Violeta Luna, leaning into the conversation, expands on the title, sometimes softly passing through a phrase in Spanish before reaching for an English equivalent in her pronounced Mexico City accent.

“I mean a place where you can have dialogues with different people who come from different backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, gender, disciplines—you can create a space of security where you can talk to different forms, to approach themes in different ways. For example, I am an immigrant, I am a woman, but also I am Mexican. All of the narratives [placed on me by] power, I can speak [to] in a safe space.”

Deeply invested in the bifurcated, in between identity of the immigrant and of all forms of otherness, Luna has long worked at the intersection of ritual, installation, performance art and theater, both in solo projects and in collaborations, including La Pocha Nostra. Her work has been presented in the Bay Area for the last two decades, but about ten years ago she established a permanent residence here. A couple of years later she began working with Argentine-born theater director and University of San Francisco professor Varea and Salvadoran-born musician-composer Molina in the collective Secos y Mojados (which also included visual artist Victor D. Cartagena).

sanct·u·are / (sanc·tu·ar·y) builds on this and related work, including Secos y Mojados’ Border TRIP(tych) (2008), a rigorous exploration of the immigrant experience at the site of the divided, besieged, remembering, anguished, desiring body itself. The task, made increasingly urgent in a time of unbridled authoritarianism and scapegoating, remains to humanize the other.

In a highly unequal system, the marginalized and criminalized immigrant is a vulnerable body that can be easily manipulated by the powerful actors at the top, who have multiple uses for it, beginning as cheap labor but extending to a political cipher that can be deployed as a convenient stereotype by demagogues, as the recent election demonstrated so appallingly well.

Art as sanctuary, then, means the space for re-appropriating, re-writing, complicating, questioning those narratives put on us by the dominant forces in society?

Violeta Luna: Yes, though it’s hard to keep those spaces. And not just here, but all over the world, people are having to work harder to [maintain an artistic practice] in terms of securing a budget, getting grants…

Roberto Varea: To me it is one of the most horrible hypocrisies of our culture, that of picking on the most vulnerable of scapegoats because they don’t speak the language [and overlooking the fact that they are] most likely leaving conditions unfavorable to them, because they are favorable to us in the U.S…. Controlling people involves also oiling the machinery of their exploitation, particularly those without papers, who they’re counting on being here anyway. There’s this overwhelming construction of the Evil Other and the Righteous Self, and then there’s the actual economy.

How do you begin to approach this terrain again, in an aesthetic sense? What does your process look like?

RV: That’s the big question for us too! We shift gears a lot as we’re thinking about a number of things. Of course, the good thing about it is that FRESH invites us to start something new. But we’re certainly going to build on a number of things.

VL: For me, it’s important to approach it at different levels. First there is all the research that we need to do and that we have already done, and also our own personal history. But also this level that is more intuitive. My work is more performance art in that sense. Objects [are] also very important. A suitcase. A pair of shoes. Clothes given us by a friend, an undocumented worker—clothes that he was wearing when he crossed the border.

RV: We’re dealing with empathy, which ultimately is about trying to do our best to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, so to speak, to try to understand someone else’s story as if it were our own. Within that [we seek to] create intimacy where there is alienation and otherness, as a path to understanding. So I’m thinking of imagery related to Muslim people, transgender as border- crosser—whatever defies the fixed and controlled spaces even as they relate to our own identities. What are the different ways that we all migrate, including our consciousness, our sense of self.

FRESH Festival. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

FRESH Festival. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

A space of possibility.

RV: Exactly.

VL: When I teach my workshops, I ask the participants, “Which borders do we want to cross today?” Yes, it’s the curiosity, but we have many borders. Cuando hay más fronteras la gente es más intolerante, no? Identity is a construction coming from the narrative of power. In terms of the economy, the borders are open. Maybe we start to open our own borders.

RV: We need to also find a way to cultivate sanctuary for the expression of different views. So that we can feel safe to talk to each other on frank terms about the things that we haven’t been able to talk about. This is worldwide. We travel a lot with our work and we have families in our countries of origin. We’re seeing this happening everywhere, the polarization, the division. It’s critical that we not only find a way to keep ourselves safe from the larger designs of people like Trump, and that kind of mentality, but also that we reach out to those we haven’t been able to talk to because we are all in our bubbles. How can we build spaces to respectfully engage with different views and not have to agree but to have civil conversation? What can emerge from that? I think it would be a step in the right direction.

The problem is often that the disagreement is already skewed by a serious imbalance of power. At the same time, our inability to speak to one another on an equal plain is a division that serves power, which, as we’ve seen recently, very intentionally exploits that division.

RV: Relationships can be oppressive too, so it’s about finding relationships of mutuality. It’s a path in that direction…. I feel there are fewer spaces that can actually get there outside of art. I believe art is the primordial space where this possibility emerges. In this context, the lack of support for the arts [in the United States] is not a coincidence. I’m from Argentina. I survived the dictatorship. And the meticulousness with which the dictatorship attacked the arts, particularly the arts that involved a live presence—it was just absolutely clear. These guys were very concerned with the performing spaces, the performing arts, and they were quite brutal with people who engaged in that kind of thing. They were, too, with a famous singer or writer that reached millions, of course. They killed them and they forced them into exile, they disappeared them. But those who worked in creating these sorts of spaces where people come together were also particularly targeted.

VL: Yes, because there’s never really a separation, no? …activist art is sometimes imagined as disconnected [from the arts in general], but art is also a political decision. It’s not just the activity of the imagination. And these public spaces—they are the means or the vehicle because it’s more inclusive. In Latin America, a lot of theater groups not only created such spaces but they were also very connected with social movements. That happened in Peru, in Colombia, Argentina, Chile—but always the artist needs to be like a chameleon.

RV: Reflecting on Argentina and what I’m seeing today in the U.S., we haven’t gotten to that [extreme] of course, but I am having some PTSD. The worst thing that happens to a society under an oppressive government is the tearing of the social fabric, particularly along the lines of trust. When we enter into that space where we couldn’t even have this conversation because I don’t know you that well, and I’m not sure what your agenda is—that is most destructive to a culture and society, more than the specific people being killed or disappeared, it’s that larger social tear.

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