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SPEAK: To Witness and Re-member: Movement Practices with Elders

As dancers over 65, we have been leading free movement and dance explorations in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery for the past four years as part of our project Walking in Witness to Life and Loss. Our collaboration continues to evolve as we mine the complex intersections of life, death and dance within the vibrant natural life of the cemetery. Here we reflect on how we first came to work together and the surprising places it has taken us.

Kaethe: When I moved to Berkeley in 2013 from Boston, where I had lived since graduating college in 1969, I knew I wanted to dance again. I had last danced in college in a Graham-inspired program, and then pursued a career as a psychologist and academic at Harvard Medical School. I hadn’t danced in over forty-five years! Where in this new home could I find meaningful dance opportunities for women over sixty? After many disappointing leads, a phone call to Luna Dance in Berkeley led me to Greacian and her IMPROMPTU NO TUTU elder dance ensemble in the East Bay.

Greacian: I also danced in college but focused primarily on literature and writing and then visual art in graduate school. I returned to dance with new purpose in 1986 when my father died by suicide. This gut-level shock abruptly shifted my primary expression from photography to performance art. Moving as a performer, rather than observing passively, was essential for me to make sense of this loss. I completed an MFA at California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) in 1990 as the first graduate in Interdisciplinary Performance Art. Since there was no dance offered at CCA I took classes in the community, most memorably on trapeze with Terry Sendgraff. I also studied theater and dance improvisation inspired by the participatory work of Anna Halprin and Liz Lerman. Later I received an Orff Schulwerk certification in movement and music for all ages.

Two elderly women are dancing in a cemetery hall in unison.

Photo courtesy of Greacian Goeke

I became a teaching artist and have worked throughout the Bay Area in venues ranging from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to the city dump (Recology’s artist residency). I am committed to strengthening community and building hope through art. In 2008, I founded IMPROMPTU NO TUTU, the elder ensemble that Kaethe joined, to show the world what movement from the experience of a long life can be. 

Kaethe: I took classes with Greacian and participated in IMPROMPTU NO TUTU events for a year. She then invited me to create a duet with her for a performance with Dance Generators, the intergenerational company based at University of San Francisco. We met regularly to rehearse at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, conveniently located for both of us.

Greacian: I have been practicing T’ai Chi in and around the cemetery for years. It’s quiet, obviously, but not as much as you might think. I’m at home in unusual sites and Kaethe shared my fascination with the physical and social space of this large urban oasis.

Kaethe:  While developing the duet we both realized that our previous work—for me, in communities in the aftermath of violence, and for Greacian, offering artistic means for elders to stay connected to life through imagination and community—had led us to develop many shared values and practices. I first saw how similar Greacian’s pedagogy was to mine by taking her dance classes. Her way of both structuring and participating in the classes was the movement equivalent of how I teach psychology. We both have enormous respect for people’s creative potential and relish the process of creating open-ended opportunities for exploration.

Greacian:  After our duet performance in 2015, which memorialized what would have been our parents’ 100th birthdays, we felt we had just touched the first layer of creative exploration together. The cemetery had deepened the themes in our duet and we committed to meeting there weekly to improvise and see what else would emerge.

Kaethe:  The cemetery is essentially our silent third collaborator. While dancing there we have a visceral experience of being alive, in motion, and looking at our ultimate, inevitable end. We are moving in this beautiful container of death.

Greacian:  In early 2016 we began designing monthly movement labs for dancers from IMPROMPTU NO TUTU and others from the community. They continue at no charge in the present. Each month a different group gathers to improvise in the cemetery using concepts and scores we have evolved from our own movement research on site.

We call our project Walking in Witness to ground us in a basic movement form that unites many visitors to the cemetery.

For our first Memorial Day lab, Kaethe had suggested we work with the theme of witnessing, since she realized that each previous lab had been an experience of witnessing. This was a term I often use in a poetic sense and had experienced via Authentic Movement, but she meant it in a very specific way from her clinical and community work.

Kaethe:  As a trauma specialist I have spent most of my professional life working with witnessing. I have published many articles and a book, Common Shock, Witnessing Violence Every Day: How We Are Harmed, How We Can Heal (Dutton, 2003). While most people are familiar with the terms “victim” and “perpetrator,” few are aware that by far the majority of violence and violation we experience comes through the witness position. This is not the same as “bystander,” which implies that the person standing by is unaffected.

Witnessing is a two-sided coin: one side is harmful to the witness, but the other side can be healing. As a clinician I had worked with a form of witnessing practice originated by the anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff with a Jewish community in Venice, California (documented on film and in the book Number Our Days). She developed a storytelling technique that allowed these elderly displaced persons to “re-member” their lives. “Re-membering,” more than simple recollection, is a communal engagement in witnessing and reflection that offers opportunities for reviving and re-embodying what has been lost or diminished.

Greacian:  We transformed Myerhoff’s spoken language process into a nonverbal movement and dance score in which each dancer moves to commemorate a person or idea she wishes to “re-member,” with the group silently witnessing. Then the group reflects the movements they saw, with the dancer observing. Next, the original mover can incorporate new insights into her movement remembrance while the group joins in.

Working with Myerhoff’s ideas in this form deepened my belief in the necessity of moving together in community. The body’s natural language is such an overlooked resource for reflecting on experiences, especially when words are at a loss. We will continue to bring this important process to older adult groups coping with transition and loss, which are so prevalent in later life.

Kaethe:  This past September we worked with an intergenerational audience when we participated as one of five artist projects chosen for the Oakland Museum’s Around the Block: A Day of Neighborhood Stories. We created an interactive performance and installation for a plaza at Laney College titled HOME IS WHERE.

Greacian:  We wanted to highlight the vital issue of housing in Oakland – to acknowledge the stress of living under the threat of displacement and loss of a safe home, particularly for elders. And to provide a creative way to reflect on it.

Kaethe:  We also wanted to seed the idea that experiences of home are rooted in more than the physical space – they are built from relationships, shared time, and memories of feeling at home.

Greacian: To incorporate voices of long-time Oakland residents, I met with participants at the downtown Center for Elders Independence, where I have taught a movement and music class for many years, to ask the question: “home is where…?”   

Two women are lunging on top of cemetery blocks grasping each others' hands smiling at the camera.

Photo courtesy of Greacian Goeke

Kaethe:  We transformed the responses into haiku-like gestures as the basis for an easily learned movement chorus. On the day of the event we worked with our visitors’ thoughts about home in the same way, creating “instant dances” knitted together with the movement chorus. Later visitors could leave additional thoughts on postcards that decorated the trees in the plaza.

Greacian: We definitely sparked a deep conversation that allowed diverse people and age groups to interact. I think this project is the start of something that will thread through our work in other forms and venues. We’ll bring this theme into future movement labs in the cemetery as well. We recognize we are working in a time of great national upheaval affecting everyone. People need a place for safe freedom of expression and we offer that.

Kaethe: Besides our annual Memorial Day “re-membering,” we observe occasions such as the solstice, new year, and significant local and cultural events. Our weekly explorations and now this recent project have given rise to many percolating ideas about what we will do next.

Greacian: We’ve been so busy talking about our work, I want to make sure to say how grateful I am for our collaboration—twin rivers of rigorous creative inquiry and exhilarating freedom of movement! This is one of the main things keeping me hopeful in this political moment.

Kaethe: Yes, our creative dialogue keeps us focused on what matters most. And I think there are more visitors to the cemetery these days. It seems that others also find it a place to ground in what matters most. Of course, there are probably some who wonder why we would choose to dance in a cemetery. But it is precisely here, in this beautiful place, looking directly at mortality, where we feel most alive. We hope those who see us moving feel something similar.

Special thanks to Ingeborg Weinmann for work on an early draft.

The Nawkhatt in My Mother’s Living Room

Photo of classic Persian artwork taken in mother’s liv- ing room; source unknown

Photo of classic Persian artwork taken in mother’s liv- ing room; source unknown

Come, I am lovesick and desolate without you
Come and see how sick I am in this sorrow without you
At night I lament your absence, oh fairy-faced,
And when the morning comes, it is as if I am on fire without you.
–Sa’di

With each return I see my mother’s home in sepia tones. Pan to her zereshk polo dish being served in technicolor, my father harvesting lemons in monochromatic static. Despite my nostalgia remembering these images in obscura, my parents’ home is luminous in color. The carmine Persian rug vining paisley knots, the precious saffron-stained rice tahdig my siblings and I fought over.

This is the house I grew up in. Next to the Starbucks we contested that leads the way to a labyrinth of forested suburban roads.

As a child I stared endlessly at the artwork ornamenting the walls. Behind glossy frames sumptuous Sultans looked to me with solemn almond eyes. The females adorned a single unibrow, akin to Frida, and a faint mustache. Their long, willowy bodies contrast the curves in the Renaissance paintings I saw in grade school. The men, too—with slender bodies and delicate, hairless faces—opposed western binaries. 

If it weren’t for turbans and crowns, the bodies and faces of these painted figures would be indistinguishable. There was a muted poetry within these genderless humans that I tried to understand through my youth. As male peers implored I should man up, I must eat more, I’m too skinny (yet women, of course, must grow inversely), the characters in the paintings grew to deities. Why did they look so similar? What legacies did they know? My premonitions were foreshadowed by historic truths.

Boy Holding a Falcon, Iran, Late 18th century, Qajar Dynasty, Hermitage Museum

Boy Holding a Falcon, Iran, Late 18th century, Qajar Dynasty, Hermitage Museum

In 18th century Pre-Islamic Persia, young effeminate men, or nawkhatts, were the portrait of beauty [1]. Sexual mores permitted homosexuality, though as travel between Persia and Europe rose, Persian beauty ideals and sexual sensitivities shifted. Persia sought assimilation. The establishment of the first Iranian Muslim Kingdoms further ushered new cultural vicissitudes [2]. Overtime genderless figures and same-sex practices were cryptic taboos, reserved for panegyrics and portraits to carry on ancient secrets.

Visiting my parents in Saratoga, California, the bathroom mirror blurred my pedigree. I branched out my arms beneath photosynthetic fluorescence and pondered my thin frame. A century ago, would these soft contours belong to a unibrowed nawkhatt?

When we conjure medieval Persian folktales, we learn that their secular scriptures were purposed to praise a prince, an erotic love, and later, mystical verse reinforced the ambiguity in these messages.

Classic Persian literature dreams of imaginary utopias, where nothing vulgar or abrasive—including gender—can obtrude. Such is the ambiguity of genderless language and portraits, where gender is nothing more than abstraction, and unisex figures could be either a lover or a mystical god. In these vague panegyrics, we don’t know of the addressee is a lustful prince, a deity, or both.

Like a flower I shall embrace your love
And then switch off the light of reason.
I shall place my head between your breasts,
I drink love from the scent of your body.
–Homa Katouzian

Miniature Painting. Two Lovers, Safavid Period, Isfahan, Iran. Date: 1630 AD. Artist: Riza Abbasi (ca. 1565–1635).

Miniature Painting. Two Lovers, Safavid Period, Isfahan, Iran. Date: 1630 AD. Artist: Riza Abbasi (ca. 1565–1635).

The tropes among classic Persian poetry intertwine in ceaseless harmony with the artwork. Romantic adulations interlace with intricate rugs that allude to animals, structures, and plants–all entangled with entropic beauty. Rather than using a subject, classical Persian painters used imagination inspired by literature to create exotic scenes, resulting in dreamscape imagery free from western art conventions.According to Art History Professor W.J.T. Mitchell, polychromatic Persian visuals are inevitably contaminated by language, and that …the dialectic of word and image seems to be a constant in the fabric of signs that a culture weaves around itself [3].

Language, poetry, and divine praise spin and intertwine with myriad interpretations. Gender fragments from its binaries and enters a new ontology. Genderfluid becomes artfluid.

Let me offer a critical framework. In conversation with Julie Phelps, Judith Butler speaks on gender performativity at the 2013 Dance Discourse Project:

Look, we all emerge in the world entangled, like being caught in a web of gendered meanings, like this is what is a woman, this is what is a man, and there are norms and constraints and also ideas of pleasure.

And yet what’s really interesting is what people do in the middle of that web. It’s not like it’s forcing you to be one thing or another, or that you don’t have a choice or there’s no room to play. There is room to move and work in it and cut holes through it. So although we’re born into a sometimes very contradictory set of gender norms, they don’t determine who we are. We’re able to exercise what I would call agency in the midst of that entanglement.

Outdoor entertainment for a prince (believed to be Shah Abbas II), Mohammad Qasim (1620-25), British Library.

Outdoor entertainment for a prince (believed to be Shah Abbas II), Mohammad Qasim (1620-25), British Library.

In college I learned of cultural discourse patterns. The Eurocentric model asserts that you must stake your claim with evidence. Middle Eastern writings, conversely, are riddled with metaphors, spinning around one another, kaleidoscoping into new geometries of interpretation. Through my research gender revealed itself to be a Fibonacci sequence, tangled through colonial histories.

In Untitled 1396—as part of Hope Mohr Dance’s 2017 Bridge Project—Maryam Rostami lip synced classics from Persian pop icon Hayedeh. She danced in high-femme drag, sparkly gold Persian garbs juxtaposed with faux-cheerful expressions as a satirical wink to the audience. Her classic Persian dance moves are notable in Persian weddings and pop culture, a twist of the wrist like you’re screwing in a light bulb, arms curling upward, a twitch of the hips.

Yet there was something disquieting lurking in Untitled 1396, later revealed in Maryam’s journal readings. The solo work, named after the year used in the Iranian calendar corresponding roughly with 2017, asks “how does a Texas-born, Iranian-American Muslim femme deign to decolonize her body?'”

After seeing Maryam’s work, I gazed at the nawkhatt in my mother’s living room and wondered how one begins to unstitch the fabric of colonial histories within a body.

Last June at CounterPulse, trans performance artist Alok-Vaid Menon asked a related question: What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?

I reflect not only on interpersonal trajectories, but cultural assimilations throughout generations, dynasties. I think of the modern imprisonment, lashing, and execution of Iranian homosexuals–their flag unthreaded and restitched with non-secular and western threads long ago. I think of our own country’s current draconian transphobic regime. When the odyssey of non-binary folklore mends to imperial clout, my ancestry might offer some sense.

Back in Saratoga I flipped through photo albums with my mother. I smiled at the identical mushroom haircuts my sister and I had, given by my father and a cereal bowl. Her, ten years of age; me, six. In our baggy 90s garbs, gender hadn’t yet fully crystalized. I flipped to another page. The colors of these photos were fading to sepia, but the memories were as vibrant as the rug beneath us.


[1] Women with mustaches, men without beards; Beth Potier; The Harvard Gazette, 2002
[2] Persian Painting: A Visual Window into a Genderless Language, Najmeh Khatami; Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies:Alam–e-Niswan, 2013
[3] Image and World; W.J.T Mitchell; Art Theory, 1986

Welcome

I’m breathing deeper, smiling more and sleeping. This is largely due to the results of the mid-term elections in November, which provided major wins locally and nationally—good news that was needed and deserved. And part and parcel to this good news is that in next year’s session of Congress, there will be over 100 women in the House for the first time in history. And: Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland will be the first Native American women to serve in Congress; Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar will be the first Muslim women to serve; Ayanna Pressley and Jahana Hayes will be the first black women to represent Massachusetts and Connecticut in Congress.

In San Francisco a significant Proposition that would impact arts funding was decided on. Prop E, with the tag line “arts for everyone,” passed with a whopping 74.28% of the vote. When in place, this new legislation will dedicate 1.5 percent of the base hotel tax — a 14 percent tax levied on hotel stays in San Francisco — to support arts and culture programs. The city estimates this will add more than $15 million in arts funding (through Grants for the Arts and the San Francisco Arts Commission) over the next two years.

Even with progress being made—I’ll dub them windfalls of hopefulness—there remains the ongoing important work towards racial equity, inclusivity and my personal objective of identifying and securing more permanent arts space in the SF Bay Area. To accomplish each we will need to remain resilient while continuing to pinpoint more opportunities for change. Dynamic resilience is now a daily refrain that keeps me moving forward while breathing deeply.

“Within the current dominant U.S. culture, the most common way we understand Power is through oppressive power or, power-over.” Aiano Nakagawa, a new writer for In Dance, draws attention to the fact that as an early childhood educator she provides opportunities for students to explore and understand their power through movement without being dominant over another person. The article goes on to illuminate a variety of topics that mirror larger social concerns around touch and choice that Nakagawa sees as vital to dance education.  

Oakland-based Cunamacué, led by artistic director Carmen Román, will finish out the 2018 Rotunda Dance Series season on Friday, December 7. Local educator and poet Yaccaira Salvatierra brings to life Román’s vision in an article that discusses how Cunamacué reflects Afro-Peruvian culture and contemporary expression. The company’s name fully embraces this blending of past and present—“Macué is representative of the ancestors; it is a stream in Mozambique, one of the places from which Africans were uprooted and taken to Perú. Cuna is the Spanish word for crib, representing future generations.”

Rounding out the December issue are articles that bring light to ways in which we think about our moving bodies—at all ages. In a SPEAK piece written by Greacian Goeke and Kaethe Weingarten they discuss how their “collaboration continues to evolve as we mine the complex intersections of life, death and dance within the vibrant natural life of the cemetery.” Heather Desaulniers is in conversation with Robert Dekkers about his dual roles as the Artistic Director of Post:Ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater and how both entities create space for people to come together. Family, food, history and colonized bodies tangle beautifully in Justin Ebrahemi’s questioning of perceptions of body and that of artists asking parallel questions like “how does a Texas-born, Iranian-American Muslim femme deign to decolonize her body?”

Practice resilience and nourish yourself so that you can nourish others.

Exploring Power and Agency in Early Childhood Dance

In the current political backdrop of the United States and the slew of problems we’re facing, the role of the early dance educator has never been more vital to ensuring a just, equitable, and sustainable future. In our efforts to confront issues such as rapid climate change, mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, the rise of Neo-Fascism, racism, xenophobia, gentrification, the houseless crisis, capitalism, etc., we need as many creative problem solvers as we can get.

As an early childhood dance educator, I understand my work as a direct action towards building a world in which all people can be seen, honored, and live freely. As children already see the world in their own unique way, I believe creative dance in ECE can support children in sustaining and deepening their creative and critical thinking skills. For example, when I ask young dancers to make a sharp shape, I want to see as many varying sharp shapes as there are dancers in the room and then I encourage them to find another way, and another way, and another way… so they’re able to explore all of the possibilities.

Dance, like many things, can be used either as a tool of oppression or liberation. Growing up, most of my dance experiences consisted of me trying to fit my big, Brown body into a mold constructed by Eurocentric and white-supremacist aesthetics of beauty. Although I had been dancing my whole life, it wasn’t until college, in my first improvisation class, that I began to feel and connect with my body. Through this experience of feeling and connecting, I began to heal from a long-term eating disorder and to access my Power from within. I began to shift from using dance as a tool of self-oppression to one of self-liberation. And along this journey, I continued to imagine what life might be like if we didn’t have to unlearn oppressive cultural norms and could instead live in our Power throughout childhood and adolescence.

As 80% of the brain is formed by the age of three[1], the messages we receive in those first three years literally shape how our brains understand the world for the rest of our lives. This is why so much of anti-oppression work with adults consists of unlearning toxic cultural norms deeply ingrained in our brains.

Now, I invite you to imagine what the world could look like if we did address ideas of power and social equity in early childhood, when children’s brains are learning at such a rapid rate. I think that as a society, we underestimate the innate intelligence and capacity children have to learn about social justice issues. They have a natural sense of justice and want things to be “fair.”[2] I don’t think it’s appropriate to bog them down with every terrible thing happening in the world, but I believe it is possible to cultivate developmentally appropriate ways for children to explore these topics and to me, dance is one of those ways.

Within the current dominant U.S. culture, the most common way we understand Power is through oppressive power or, power-over. In turn, we internalize Power as something we attain when we have power over other people. The power-over structure is the root of all patriarchal (hierarchical) structures, including white-supremacy, ableism, adultism, ageism, classism, cisnormativity, heterosexism, sexism, etc. A step towards dismantling these power-over systems is to cultivate Power-with, also known as inner Power, Power-to, and Empowerment [3].

Developmentally, four-year-olds are all about exploring power [4] – I see them punching, kicking, slashing, and running as fast as they can through space. Instead of prohibiting dancers from using these movements – which are actions that can be used in violent and oppressive ways – I encourage them to use their full Power, but never towards another body. This allows the dancers to still explore Power, but not at the expense of another person’s autonomy, safety, or wellbeing. Encouraging children to explore their powerful movements also allows them to realize that they don’t need to exercise dominant power-over another person to be Powerful, but rather that they are already Powerful on their own.

There is also immense Power in knowing one’s boundaries and having the agency to make one’s own decisions. As dance educators, we can support children in claiming their agency through activities like freeze dance. Three-year-olds, in particular, are just coming into their individual bodies, experiencing it as separate from their primary caregivers. Freeze dance with body part articulation can aid children in being able to identify their body parts as they build confidence through knowing they have the power to control their body [5].

In every class, I practice a tactile activity, not only to support learning where our bodies start and end in space but to give everyone a chance to learn about our body’s preferences. Without fail, in every class, there is one child who jokingly yelps “Ow! Ow! Ow!” as they pat up and down their body. I use these moments to remind the whole group that we are the ones in charge of our bodies, and if we are doing something that hurts our bodies, we have the power to stop and/or shift our actions.

I end this activity by opening the space for children to share what kind of tactile touch they enjoyed most. By doing this, I hope to encourage children’s ability to be aware of and name their body’s preferences. I also hope to hold space for the spectrum that exists between the child who needs a harder, heavier tactile experience to feel grounded and the child who needs lighter, gentler touch because they are extremely sensitive.

In this process, young dancers become attuned to their own needs/preferences and to the varying needs/preferences that exist amongst their peers – needs/preferences that are all valid and worthy of being honored.

When children are aware of their boundaries, they are more able to speak up when they have been crossed. However, even if we recognize our boundaries being crossed and we speak up, we have seen time and time again that the dominant culture does not teach us to understand that no means no.

As a society, we are at the beginning of our journey in practicing consent and addressing harmful power dynamics. Building kinesthetic empathy through dance can help move the dominant culture towards one where when a boundary is crossed, the person crossing the boundary can intuitively sense they’ve crossed a line, step back, and address it. As dancers, we know the deep connection that is built with the people we sweat, move, and create with. I believe that through creative dance in ECE we can cultivate experiences of kinesthetic empathy, encourage creative problem-solving, exercise critical thinking, and explore Power – all of which are all critical components to actualizing this future world.


[1] The Urban Child Institute, “Baby’s Brain Begins Now: Conception to Age 3,” http://www.urbanchildinstitute.org/why-0-3/baby-and-brain
[2] Alison Gopnik, “Four Year Olds Don’t Act Like Trump,” New York Times (May 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/opinion/sunday/4-year-olds-children-trump-gopnik.html?mcubz=0
[3]   Nieto, Leticia. “Part One: Reading Social Interactions.” In Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone, 13. Cuetzpalin Publishing, 2010.
[4]  Reedy, Patricia. Body, Mind & Spirit in Action: A Teachers Gude to Creative Dance, 72. Berkeley, CA: Luna Dance Institute, 2015.
[5] Reedy, Patricia. Body, Mind & Spirit in Action: A Teachers Gude to Creative Dance, 71. Berkeley, CA: Luna Dance Institute, 2015.

New View: Carma Zisman

ODC welcomed Carma Zisman as its new Executive Director in September 2017. Zisman comes from a family of artists in Santa Rosa and has lived throughout the West Coast, but has been rooted in San Francisco since 2000. She remembers her parents bringing her to performances in San Francisco since she was a child and calls the city her “first arts community” and studied at ACT and attended SF State University. Dancers’ Group asked Zisman more about her experiences and inspirations.

What drew you to join the ODC team?

I’ve been drawn to ODC since the first performance I saw in the ODC Theater (Brenda Way’s Scissors, Paper, Stone). I thought Brenda’s work was electrifying. In the sea of multidisciplinary work happening across SF in the early to mid-2000s, I had been searching for performances that would show me a true marriage of concept, skill, technique and a thoughtful interplay between musical and visual elements. I remember being struck in the opening moments of the work by the feeling that I had, finally, found a company that would both challenge and reward me as an audience member. I had also taken my first hip-hop class from Rhythm and Motion in the early 1990s, and discovered a place where I could explore a physical vocabulary that went far beyond the ballet and tap traditions I had originally trained in. When I had a chance to join ODC last year, I jumped at the chance. The mission makes me eager to get up in the morning, and the ODC team embodies much of what inspires me most–a diverse group of people who are passionately committed to getting EVERYone dancing.

What were you doing before joining ODC?

Just before coming to ODC I served as the Director of Advancement for The Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio.

Do you have an artistic practice and/or background?

I fell in love with dancing at age four, inspired to beg for classes by the choreography of Michael Smuin back in the SF Ballet days. Hip troubles at age twelve drove me from ballet and tap classes to theater. As an actor, I focused on the development of original work. After seven years of helping create new works for stage and radio across northern California with playwrights, poets, musicians, journalists and authors, San Francisco’s Labor Archives commissioned me and labor folksinger Pat Wynn to showcase their collection of primary source materials, documenting the history of women in the Bay Area trade union movement. The presentation was designed as a single-night performance piece, but we ended up touring the work for two years. Those years opened my eyes to opportunities in producing and arts administration. I left touring and acting to lead the Amador County Arts Council and to co-found Main Street Theater Works which now makes its home in Jackson, CA.

Do you have a favorite performance?

So many works have inspired me! In addition to the first production I saw of Brenda Way’s noted above, Min Kahng’s The Four Immigrants at TheatreWorks SV last year remains a work I think about daily. It woke me to history and perspectives I was only partly aware of. Images from Garrett & Moulton’s Stabat Mattar continue to linger in my mind as do ideas from Sean Dorsey’s Boys in Trouble and ideas AND images from Brenda Way’s riveting Something About a Nightingale. I found the excerpt of Dead Reckoning (choreographed by KT Nelson) which ODC performed in Grace Cathedral for the opening of the Global Climate Action Summit beautiful and terrifyingly urgent. It reminded me again that some things are too important to be said with words–they must be danced.

What programs or activities does ODC have coming up?

I am excited about ODC/School’s offering of Aging Backwards classes. Through this welcoming (and fun!) class I’m re-discovering strength, flexibility and my physical confidence. On stage, I cannot wait to see Kate Weare and Brenda Way’s new collaboration with the old-time music group The Crooked Jades. The work titled World’s On Fire will have its world premiere at YBCA on March 7, 2019.

What’s the most rewarding part of your work?

I came to San Francisco because I needed a place that drew impossibly complicated, fantastically diverse people together. It was extraordinary to find myself surrounded by people who invited me to participate in exploring food, arts and nature with them. In the process, we began to work out who we were and what it meant to be community together. I loved the way San Francisco taught me to say “yes” to unexpected intersections – of subjects, disciplines, culture, gender, roles, flavors, seasons. It was prohibitively expensive to be here in 1989 as a theater student, supporting myself. It’s unsustainably expensive now (there’s a challenge waiting for a solution!). The most rewarding part of my work is to play a role in inviting people IN: into classes in the ODC/School which welcome 90+ year-olds and 2 year-olds, and everyone in between to discover and connect 365 days per year; into performances in the ODC/Theater or venues across the City that prompt us to expand instead of contract; into affordable space and nurturing residencies that dance makers across the Bay Area need–sometimes desperately. I’m grateful to be part of ODC’s on-going efforts.

What’s a future goal or dream that you have for ODC?

I dream of a fully funded space endowment for ODC (approximately $9.5M left to go) so that it will be possible to keep our building open to dance and dancers 365 days per year. When so many artists have lost their homes and their ability to stay in SF, maintaining this welcoming creative campus becomes ever-more personally galvanizing for me. 

Who is inspiring you right now?

Stacey Abrams (!), my brother Eben fighting a traumatic brain injury, Raean Gadonni and Troy Gassaway at Amador County’s rural Argonaut High for forging a culinary arts training program and a “farm-to-fork” school, as well as Brenda Way, KT Nelson, and Kimi Okada with their appetite for ODC’s work, endless wellspring of creative vision, and guts.

What’s a piece of advice you have been given that you still hold on to today?

Meane weil, speak weil and doe weil (the Urquhart Clan motto as taught by my grandmother, Violet).

What haven’t we asked you that you want people to know?

I’m always working to become more aware of the work of local and regional choreographers. I treasure suggestions for who and what to see next…

A headshot of Carma Zisman smiling.

Photo by Tanya Anguita

Lessons Learned Pulling Double Duty: In Conversation with Robert Dekkers

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Running a dance organization is hard enough. Now picture running two. And then imagine that the pair occupy very different spaces in the dance ecosystem – one traditional and one more experimental and avant-garde.

Robert Dekkers knows a thing or two about this scenario. He is currently the Artistic Director of two entities that seem pretty dissimilar: Post:Ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater. Dekkers founded Post:Ballet in 2009, and for almost ten years now, the dance company has bravely defied categorization. Its repertory is deeply collaborative, uniting artists from a variety of disciplines. Its choreographic vocabulary is bold, cutting edge and wildly unpredictable. And Post:Ballet has captured fans with its commitment to upending boundaries and challenging assumptions about dance, about society, about relationships and about gender. Starting in 2017, Dekkers also took the reins at Berkeley Ballet Theater (BBT), a renowned ballet institution that, for close to four decades, has been a West Coast paragon of classical instruction. Since it opened in 1981, its studios have welcomed students of all ages and all levels, including many on the cusp of a professional career. Alumni have gone on to dance in a variety of companies including New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Twyla Tharp Dance.

Over the last two years, Dekkers has learned much from pulling double leadership duty with Post:Ballet and BBT. Perhaps the most telling lesson is that they are not as divergent as they might appear. In fact, their commonalities far outweigh their differences. The pair is rooted in ballet technique and eager about ballet’s future. They are dedicated to artistic rigor without sacrificing a caring and supportive atmosphere. Their curiosity about how dance can be an impactful force in society is contagious. Dekkers admits he is surprised as anyone that helming both hasn’t been more dichotomous. “I thought it was going to feel like two very different environments, but it doesn’t,” he shares, “because at their core, Post:Ballet and BBT are looking at how art can create a space for people to come together.”

Leading a company and directing a school had long been goals for Dekkers, though he didn’t necessarily expect that he’d be fulfilling them simultaneously. Post:Ballet came into his life first. Its origin story can be traced back to the mid-2000s, when Dekkers was Choreographer-in-Residence at Nova Ballet in Phoenix. “Nova had a collective feel; it was a group of artists coming together to forge creative projects,” describes Dekkers, “when the company folded in 2009, a year after I’d moved to San Francisco, I was really interested in creating a similar space here in the Bay Area.” He did just that with Post:Ballet. After a highly successful first concert in July of 2010, Post:Ballet’s mixed repertory bills became a must-see on the Bay Area’s summer dance calendar – nights of eclectic, multi-discipline performance with abstract pieces and narrative investigations alike. As the group grew and evolved, Dekkers and the Post artists not only continued developing shorter, individual works but also began exploring evening-length compositional structures, where an overarching idea or concept informs an entire performance. This eventually led to the debut of Do:Be in August of 2016, a co-production with innovative sound duo The Living Earth Show (Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson) and Lavender Country, a collaboration with musician Patrick Haggerty, which premiered in November 2017 and will be returning to Z Space in April 2019 as part of Post’s tenth anniversary season.

BBT came on the scene a little later. It was about five years back that Dekkers joined BBT’s faculty, at first, just teaching once per week. Eventually he took on more classes and in 2017 the Artistic Directorship presented itself. “Teaching has been a part of my life for over fifteen years, and I love the impact that you can have as a teacher on a student, but the impact you can have as a director is even farther reaching,” he explains. Dekkers’ transition into this new role was anything but gradual. Not only had BBT had some AD turnover prior to him accepting the position, but they were also moving from their longtime residence at the historic Julia Morgan Center for the Arts to a new home in the up and coming Gilman District in West Berkeley. “Honestly, Fall 2017 was a bit of madness,” recounts Dekkers, “sometimes challenging situations can bring people down and tear folks apart, but the BBT community really came together because they saw that the new space was all about moving ballet forward, and that my vision and approach to dance was in line with their ethos as an organization.”

Propelling ballet forward is definitely a place where Post:Ballet and BBT converge – the two are all in, invested and excited for ballet’s next chapter. And that means tackling the genre’s complexities head on and asking tough questions, “both Post and BBT believe in confronting ballet’s elitist/stratifying mold, in questioning gender roles, uniformity and structure so that the form can reach and include as many people as possible.” Dekkers is thrilled to be facilitating these kinds of conversations in each setting, though seeing them play out at the school has been particularly poignant. “These students are so mindful, they feel empowered to speak up and contribute – the dialogue with them is meaningful, positive and it’s going to affect change,” he relays, “inclusivity is a big part of why I took the position at BBT – to build on their mission that every body can dance.”

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Shared goals and shared leadership has also allowed for creative crossover and interdependent support between the two institutions. BBT’s students and faculty have had the unique opportunity to engage with several Post:Ballet collaborators across a variety of disciplines. Enrique Quintero’s paintings (created during Post’s performances of Dekkers’ 2011 work, Colouring) grace the walls at BBT’s new space; musician and composer Daniel Berkman accompanies class in Youth and Adult Divisions; photographer Natalia Perez is transforming the visual landscape from behind the camera; and four Post movement artists have made premiere work on BBT’s Youth Company, including Post’s current Choreographer-in-Residence Vanessa Thiessen. Plans for the next collaboration are already underway. Post:Ballet is presently in the early stages of a new venture with The Living Earth Show and iconic Bay Area composer Samuel Adams. Dancers from the BBT Youth Company will be invited to be part of that work, which is set to premiere in 2020.

BBT is equally influencing Post:Ballet, providing new avenues for outreach and partnership. Advanced students from BBT have been participating in Post’s summer intensives with an eye on deepening their technique and artistic voice. On the infrastructure front, the BBT studios have become a consistent host for Post’s rehearsals. And there is much interest and enthusiasm for Post’s choreographic projects. “Many of the BBT dancers and families have attended Post:Ballet performances, supporting the company’s work and helping us increase our reach into the community,” details Dekkers, “we’ve also had the chance to present several open rehearsals there [at BBT], giving the Post:Ballet team a chance to get feedback during the development of new work and giving BBT the chance to connect with the creative process.”

Certainly an exciting time for Post:Ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater – new chapters, new milestones and new collaborations! As keen as he is about the future of both, Dekkers is quick to point out that championing two organizations can take its toll if you aren’t careful. After performing at Burning Man this past summer, Dekkers experienced a critical health crisis. While he has been blessed with a speedy and full recovery, it was a wake up call that some patterns needed to be rebuilt, “I love working, but also really need to carve out space to power down – a 10:00am-2:00am schedule every day isn’t feasible for anyone – and I’ve spent the last decade consistently not sleeping enough.” To that end, these past few months have been a season of self-reflection; a renewed search for balance in all aspects of Dekkers’ life. He is learning to let go, lean on people, delegate and identify what projects are workable and which ones might not be, “passion/excitement is a strength but it’s also a weakness that can easily get the best of you; I’m learning that if your goal is to touch lives and make an impact on the community, you can’t put ‘you’ on the backburner – if you don’t care for yourself, you can’t care for others.”

Carmen Román and Son de Los Diablos

Y FUE a esa edad… Llegó la poesía/ a buscarme. No sé, no sé de dónde/ salió, de invierno o río./ No sé cómo ni cuándo,/ no, no eran voces, no eran/ palabras, ni silencio,/ pero desde una calle me llamaba,/ desde las ramas de la noche,/ de pronto entre los otros,/ entre fuegos violentosos/ regresando solo,/ allí estaba sin rostro/ y me tocaba.//

When I think of Carmen Román as a dancer and choreographer, I am reminded of the poem by Pablo Neruda “La poesía” where Neruda personifies poetry in search for the speaker pushing him to write verses. The speaker isn’t sure from where their inspiration comes from, if from solitude or nature, but it is clear that this inaudible calling is present and urgent. More so, it is a calling that can come at any time for those who create whether it comes at birth or one that develops over time. For as long as I have known Carmen, her calling to create has been strong, steadfast, inspiring.  Not too long ago, I had the honor to sit down with her and talk about being a choreographer: how she came to dancing, the work she is dedicated to, and working with the community and her future plans.

Two people dancing on a public sidewalk wearing two colored devil masks.

Photo courtesy of artist

Carmen is propped up at the head of the bed, sitting with her legs stretched out in front of her like two sturdy logs, her hair is disheveled into long dark waves, which most likely was brushed by her hand to the right side of her face. In her arms, like a warm loaf of bread, is a newborn baby quietly nursing. I sit next to her, and I am in awe of her not only because of her newborn daughter but because ever since I have known Carmen, her focus, work ethic and love emanates in almost everything she does, and here she is focused and in love.  I have known Carmen for over 13 years, and this is the first time we talk specifically about her work and dancing: interviewer and interviewee.  I have come into this interview with questions I thought I already knew the answers to, but am surprised to have learned so much. She tells me that when she was 11 years old, she emigrated from Perú to the United States to join her father in Santa Clara, California leaving her siblings and mother behind. Years later, her younger sister and brother would join them. Those first few years in the United States she felt an extreme sense of displacement which to this day comes and goes.  All that was familiar to her – the language, the food, the culture (even though she was living with her Peruvian father) – abruptly changed like being thrown into an abyss of the unfamiliar and unwanted.

Consequently, like in Pablo Neruda’s poem, dancing came to her unexpectantly, knocking at her door, asking of her that which she yet did not know existed: a sleeping giant housed in her body wanting to breath in this world. And, when she was 14 years old, she was invited to dance in a Peruvian dance troupe by a family-friend who was starting their own Afro-Peruvian dance company. Desperately feeling a need to connect with her Peruvian roots, she joined the company and answered that inaudible call.  It is here she began participating in Afro-Peruvian dances.

Yo no sabía qué decir, mi boca/ no sabía/ nombrar,/ mis ojos eran ciegos,/ y algo golpeaba en mi alma,/ fiebre o alas perdidas,/ y me fui haciendo solo,/ descifrando/ aquella quemadura,/ y escribí la primera línea vaga,/ vaga, sin cuerpo, pura/ tontería,/ pura sabiduría/ del que no sabe nada,/ y vi de pronto/ el cielo/ desgranado/ y abierto,/ planetas,/ plantaciones palpitantes,/ la sombra perforada,/ acribillada/ por flechas, fuego y flores,/ la noche arrolladora, el universo.//

In the beginning of this stanza, Neruda contrasts not being able to write to having a burst of vision and knowing – he finds the sky, the universe, a change that allows him to see everything with his eyes, inner discovery and excitement. Carmen, in many ways embodies this, too: after having been introduced to Afro-Peruvian dance as a teen, she continued through high school and college, first for a sense of belonging , but then more intentionally for the dancing itself. While in college, Carmen studied Accounting and, after graduating, she worked as an accountant for a few years, but began to feel her inner giant asking more of her, which is when a shift in her life occurred. In 2008, she quit her job as an accountant and applied for another degree in Dance at San Francisco State University. Soon after, she went onto graduate school at Mill’s College studying Dance with an emphasis in Choreography. She says, however, that the contemporary language of her choreography began from when she taught children in the Village Dancers Program at San Francisco State University. She wanted to know how she could help young students understand and feel part of Afro-Peruvian dance, so she integrated contemporary movements making it easier for young students to connect. In 2010, she applied for a Fulbright scholarship and, even though that year she did not become a recipient (she would apply again in 2014 and become a recipient of a scholarship to Perú), the experience was pivotal in helping her decide to create her own dance company called Cunamacué, an Afro-Peruvian dance company fusing historical Afro-Peruvian dances with contemporary themes and dance languages.

Photo courtesy of artist

This December, Carmen and her dance company will be performing Son de los diablos in three pieces: Ofrenda, a duet; a suite called, La ruta de Cachafaz by Pierr Padilla Vásquez, an Afro-Peruvian artist; and Símbolos.  Ofrenda will be the opening piece for Son de los diablos. Ofrenda means “offering” in Spanish and this piece is an offering to the ancestors, a personal offering of gratitude. The suite is based on the historical events in which the dance was created.  Essentially, it shows the process of religious syncretism towards the enslaved Afro-descendants and how they resisted to express their ancestral memory through their dance and music.  Overall, Carmen says she wanted to explore Son de los diablos because of its origins and history for Afro-Peruvians in the face of Catholicism. She explains that the use of masks, with accentuated African features, were used in Catholic processions demonizing Afro-descendants; however, in Perú, as well as for Carmen and Cunamacué, the masks reclaim African heritage and pride breaking free from Catholic hegemony.

In addition, when she began to perform Son de los diablos, it was a deliberate offering to the ancestors, but as the dance projects progressed, others blossomed: dance workshops in Oakland; a symposium about Afro-Peruvian dance emphasizing Son de los diablos; a documentary, which was played in the Fruitvale district; and an outdoor performance of Son de los diablos held in the Fruitvale, as well. Currently, Carmen’s dance company – Cunamacué, has partnered with Pierr Padilla Vásquez and percussionist Pedro Rosales to bring Afro-Peruvian dance and culture to children in schools. She says she looks forward to sharing this dance with others. She wants to continue using outdoor spaces for free performances and for accessibility to communities. Of the upcoming performance at San Francisco City Hall’s Rotunda, she is grateful for the opportunity to have Cunamacué perform and share Son de los diablos once more.  

Y yo, mínimo ser,/ ebrio del gran vacío/ constelado, /a semejanza, a imagen /del misterio, /me sentí parte pura /del abismo, /rodé con las estrellas, /mi corazón se desató en el viento.

Lastly, I ask her about other projects she is working on. She mentions a few that will take place in the middle of 2019, but then she pauses, looks at her daughter, and as if blowing her heart into the wind, she says, “Aitana.”

Welcome

This past spring I was selected to serve on the jury for a civil trial here in San Francisco. It was a complex case involving privacy, legal malpractice, and battery.

What followed was a three week trial that was at times emotionally overwhelming and at other times tedious. But while I was in that box as Juror #2, I did my utmost to listen and learn with a fair and open mind. Not an easy feat when the world outside the courtroom clumsily navigated conversations of racial and gender inequity. After all, it was impossible not to notice that the plaintiff was a young Latina woman and the accused: an established, white, male attorney.

Race was the subject of the first of three Long-Table conversations organized by Hope Mohr Dance this fall, and of Sima Belmar’s outstanding In Practice column beginning on page 3. In dialogue with choreographer Gerald Casel, the two discuss intractable, embedded, and embodied racism within our dance communities, as well as the discomfort (notably among white individuals) in even having the discussions about how to bring about progress. Casel wants even more tension; he seeks to acknowledge the racial dynamics in every room, class, rehearsal, and performance.

As election day approaches this month – with historic numbers of women and people of color running – I have been reflecting on how conversations like Mohr’s Dancing Around Race and experiences such as serving as a juror are all a part of my civic engagement.

While our systems of governing and structures of power are profoundly challenged, there are a few ways I can and will participate, to attempt to bring positive change – however incremental – to bear. I will emphatically support the arts and participate in its visibility, viability, and equity, as it is cultural ground upon which our society stands. I will be a careful juror when called upon. I will vote at every election. And I will encourage everyone reading who is able, to do the same.

In addition to the officials running for office, there are local propositions that could impact our Bay Area dance ecosystem. For example, Prop E seeks to restore funding for arts and culture in San Francisco through the Hotel Tax by allocating a portion of its revenue to fund cultural equity programs for underserved communities, arts programming, and funding for Cultural Districts and Cultural Centers in San Francisco.

In California, Prop 10 would repeal the 1995 law known as “Costa Hawkins” and enable municipalities around the state to have greater control over their local rent control regulations. Proponents say that it might help lower the costs of renting around the state.

Expanding beyond local, state, and even national politics, Bay Area artists highlighted within this issue of In Dance are traveling far distances to bring their perspectives and movement practices. Johnny Lopez and his TURFinc perform every chance they get, bringing Oakland Turf and other street styles to audiences worldwide. This November, they will be presented at San Francisco City Hall, as part of the Rotunda Dance Series. Dana Lawton brought her company and modern dance teaching to Thailand for the first time this past summer. And Dasha Chernova returns to Russia this month to continue Telaboratoria, movement workshops designed to be a place of support and healing for that nation’s LGBTQ+ individuals.

Wherever your dance practice takes you, it inevitably and necessarily interplays with broader societal and political contexts. If you’re able, bring all that you glean from your practice and experiences to your vote this November.

Tango Con*Fusión: Not Your Mother’s Tango

“While remaining true to its heritage, this is not the tango of yesteryear; it is not even the tango of yesterday; it is the tango of today.”  Ted Viviani – Producer, Extreme Tango  

There’s nothing confusing about the vision of Tango Con*Fusión. San Francisco’s all-women dance company is laser-focused on building on the tradition of the century-old dance. The group of eight artists with eclectic backgrounds, skillfully bends the rules to explore the boundaries of Argentine Tango.

From the beginning, they have been inspired by, and have worked closely with, local and internationally known tango musicians. “The genre of tango music is vast,” says dancer/choreographer Debbie Goodwin, “and we’ve been fortunate to work with some great musicians, many of them women.”

How it all began

The women originally came together in 2004 to “play” and explore the traditional boundaries of Argentine Tango. It was a concept Debbie had thought about and nurtured for some time. “One day Debbie called me and said she had this vision of a group of women coming together to work in a collaborative effort of choreography and dance,” says Christy Cote, one of the original founders and current co-director along with Debbie.  “It would be more than just tango, but a mixing together of different dance genres.”

Debbie’s idea was to have dancers who came from modern, ballet or jazz, so it would be a fusion of these genres. “They had to be strong, independent women and be able to both lead and follow,” she explains.

In addition to Debbie and Christy, the founding members included Pier Voulkos, Chelsea Eng and Michelle Gorre. To get started, they held a two-hour workshop with Brigitta Winkler, founder of the New York company, TangoMujer, and then they were on their way.

“We decided to meet once a week and see what would happen,” says Debbie. Little did they know how far their concept would take them.

In their first major performance piece in 2004, Sola, the violinist Vanessa Montgomery accompanied the dancers onstage as they portrayed one woman’s struggle to find her place in the world. The “voice” of the violin soulfully underscored the contemplative mood of the dance. “Having Vanessa onstage with us really inspired the dancers,” recalls Christy.

Two years later, Tango Con*Fusión performed in Leading Ladies of Tango produced by Ted Viviani at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. In keeping with the theme, Ted brought in musical director and pianist, Polly Ferman, who assembled an all-women orchestra for the occasion.

“Collaborating with them was a wonderful experience,” says Polly, founder of the all-female multi-media music and dance company, GlamourTango. “In 2009, Tango Con*Fusión performed with us at the Logan Auditorium in Chicago. They are wonderful artists, creators and friends. What else can you ask for?”

Tango composer and lyricist Débora Simcovich recalls working with Debbie and Christy in their 2015 performance with Orquesta Victoria at The Playhouse in San Anselmo. Says Débora:

“Having Christy Cote and Debbie Goodwin dance in our show was wonderful.  I remember, in particular, their intuition when they danced my tango, Hermana Mía, which I wrote in memory of one of my sisters who was recently deceased. Without any reference from me, they decided to dance in long nightgowns (one in white and one in black) and infused a sister-like spirit into their choreography. I was amazed by their acute perception of the real history that inspired this tango!”

How they work

Even though Debbie and Christy are the company’s primary choreographers, they solicit input from all members. “Each dancer brings her strength to the group. The energy is wonderful when we work together,” Christy says.

The dancers start by listening to, and understanding, the music. “We listen over and over again,” says Christy, “until we start to see how the music is formed, what moods are created, and what we feel in the music. Then we start to create the dance.”

“Tango music evokes a range of emotion…passion, drama, conflict,” Debbie adds. “Usually choreography comes forward that reflects the mood in that moment in the song.” They often collaborate with local musicians while developing a work.

“Collaborating with the women of Tango Con*Fusión on original material has been a pleasure,” says Charles Gorczynski of Redwood Tango. “They intuitively connect with the heart of the music and highlight the personal aspects from a place of deep connection, from within both a tango perspective and a broader arts mindset.”

Over the last decade, Tango Con*Fusión has performed many times with the Bay Area’s Trio Garufa. “They always bring a fresh perspective and interesting approach to the art of Argentine Tango,” says Garufa’s Adrian Jost. “It is exciting for us to see how they will interpret our music and what story they will tell with their dancing.”

Fresh from their European Debut

While the company has done seven tours to Buenos Aires, in July 2018 they made their European debut in Berlin where they performed and taught in the Berlin Queer Tango Festival. Audiences were engaged as soon as the dancers, dressed as 1930’s dandies in men’s suits complete with fedoras, came on stage to dance El Chamuyo.

“All week long, people came up to us to tell us how much they liked the show, especially the humor in the choreography,” says Debbie.

They also presented a new work, Derecho Viejo. Choreographed by Christy Cote and Rose Vierling, the dance demonstrates how Tango Con*Fusión uses gender-bending creativity to transform the iconic male/female stereotype.

Performing in Buenos Aires

The company has had many successful appearances in Buenos Aires, beginning in 2008 when they were invited to perform during the Queer Tango Festival.

“The organizer, Mariana DoCampo, invited our group as an inspiration to get more women dancing as leaders,” says Debbie. “While the men in the Queer Tango scene were dancing with each other, very few women in Buenos Aires were doing so and were even looked down upon.”

As a company of women dancers, they didn’t always find such a warm welcome. Debbie recalls when, in 2010, they were invited to perform in the CITA (Congreso Internacional de Tango Argentino) stage show. “One of the male dancers refused to perform if we were dancing, so we were uninvited,” she says. “We weren’t sure if it was because we were women or American, or both.”

“The director was left with no choice but to ask us to perform at the milonga in lieu of the more important theater show,” says Christy. “It was a huge disappointment for our company, but we made the most of it.”

“Tango Con*Fusión is an amazing example of what a great idea combined with effort and talent can accomplish,” says Max Masri, producer/composer/singer of Buenos Aires-based Tanghetto. “Our award-winning music is not your mother’s tango, and they were able to put forth a great choreography yet have the innovative approach to suit the blend of music and dance to be performed at such emblematic theatres as Zitarrosa (in Montevideo) and Salon Canning (in Buenos Aires) full of tango purists, and the Queer Milonga full of progresistas.”

Injecting Social Commentary into the Dance

“As a company of women dancers, we like to work with themes that affect women, not only in tango but in life in general,” explains Debbie.

Some examples:

Ladies in Waiting, performed to Trio Garufa’s Desde El Alma, explores the dilemma women face when there’s a surplus of followers at the milonga. In the piece, frustrated by the lack of male leaders, the dancers break the traditional code and dance with another woman rather than be stuck on the sidelines.

In Escualo, Tango Con*Fusión takes on an unusual topic: the corset. More than just an item of lingerie, they portray it as a symbol of the repression and restraint of women.

In 2017, the company presented their theater production, Sex, Women and Tango at the San Francisco International Arts Festival. “The mere mention of Argentine Tango conjures up the iconic image of the macho-male and hyper-feminine female,” says Debbie, who directed the show. “Sex, Women and Tango challenges this outdated image.” In this production, the women explore issues such as body image, street harassment, same sex couples and social and economic equality.

Looking ahead

For their 2019 season, Tango Con*Fusion is creating a new work featuring live music by Bay Area composer/musician Charles Gorczynski of Redwood Tango.

The company will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a gala fundraiser on February 2, at Alma del Tango in San Anselmo, featuring a sneak preview of their new work in progress. The final piece will debut Saturday, May 25, at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, with live music by Redwood Tango.

In July, the company returns to Berlin to teach and perform. Tours to Seattle and Portland are also on the agenda. Tango Con*Fusión looks forward to continuing to grow artistically and expanding its presence in San Francisco, the USA and the world. According to Debbie, “We are intent on delving deeper into issues affecting the position of women.”

Dana Lawton Dances Takes East Bay Dance to Thailand

For 10 days in August, Dana Lawton Dances (DLD) embarked on a tour of Bangkok, Thailand. A multi-generational East Bay dance company with members ranging in age from 27 to 70, DLD is a company in residence at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Its founder, Dana Lawton, has been involved in the East Bay dance scene for over twenty years. A tenured professor at Saint Mary’s College of California, Lawton is also a faculty member at Shawl-Anderson and is the co-director of the Enchanted Ridge Dance Retreat. She established DLD in 2007 with a mission to celebrate social diversity and develop meaningful collaborations with other artists.

DLD’s trip to Thailand was the company’s third international tour in its eleven-year history. In 2014, the company performed at the Royère de Vassivière Festival in France and in 2015, DLD toured Belfast, Ireland to present their work Home (2015). The company’s trip to Thailand also marks the third time an international outing was inspired by one of its own company members. The 2015 tour in France resulted because of connections with the producers of the festival who are friends of Colin McDowell, a company member since 2012. When DLD took Home to Ireland, it was the first time McDowell’s mother had ever gotten to see him perform on stage.

Company member John McConville, who joined the company in 2013, had previously taught dance in Bangkok, Thailand for over ten years and established the dance program at the International School Bangkok (ISB). He facilitated communication between ISB and Lawton, and created the opportunity to bring DLD in as a company-in-residence for the first week of their new school year. Through McConville’s connections in Bangkok, Lawton was put in touch with Vararom “Tip” Pachimsawat, president and co-founder of the Friends of the Arts Foundation, which presents the International Dance Festival in Thailand every year.

Gearing up for any tour—let alone an international one—takes preparation, and this trip went through many iterations before the company even landed in Thailand. Lawton nicknamed the trip “The Fluid Tour” as their itinerary continually changed in the weeks leading up to their departure. “Three days before we’re all going to get on a plane to fly to Bangkok, we get an email letting us know the dance festival was cancelled. We were told that ‘we didn’t need to come,’” recalls Lawton. After learning of the performance’s cancellation, Lawton was faced with a reality that ten of her company members, who had requested time off from their jobs and paid for their own airfare to Bangkok, were about to board a plane at San Francisco International Airport in a mere 72 hours.

“What I’ve learned about Thai culture—and I’ve come to appreciate this—you never call anyone out for a perceived gaffe. Ever.” says Lawton. Looking to McConville for help, Lawton was coached on how to approach the situation by replying to their Thai contacts with, “We have ten people who are coming to Thailand. How should we solve this? They really want to perform.” Lawton, her production team, and Tip discussed featuring DLD outside of the International Dance Festival and rented a theatre in the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre for their performance. Tip, in turn, made a few calls to accommodate DLD. The company left San Francisco on August 1, and after twenty-four hours of travel, arrived in Bangkok after many conversations across international date lines. “Tip, who is a powerhouse, found us a theater in Bangkok to do a one-night show,” says Lawton.

On August 7, the company headed to the theater in downtown Bangkok for a tech, and then dress rehearsal. “The stage crew only spoke Thai, and John [McConville] was the only person we had who was fluent in the language,” says Lawton. “In trying to set up the lighting for the dances, I would speak directions into my phone, using my iTranslate app, and it would then ‘speak’ my directions, in Thai, back to the crew.” Some things got lost in translation, including lighting notes that DLD’s lighting designer had sent over a week earlier. Regardless, between the phone app and John, the company and crew were able to develop a lighting plot, sounds design, cues and technical needs to put the show together.

“In my pre-curtain speech, I greeted everyone in Thai ‘sawadee ka,’ and spoke about the importance of dance as a healing medium to bring diverse people together. I talked about how the multiplicity of human bodies dancing on stage can be transformative, and how the need to reach across borders to make new friend and connections is more important now than ever before,” says Lawton. After a nearly flawless performance Lawton was interviewed by True Visions TV, one of Thailand’s largest cable television providers. “Tip got us a crew. She developed publicity. She called all her friends to tell them come to the show, which included ambassadors, employees of the consulates in the area, and Thai officials. I actually got to meet the mayor of Bangkok,” says Lawton. “It was amazing.”

The following day, Tip arranged a master class, taught by Lawton, in a studio at a local racquet club. “We had about twenty-five people show up,” says Lawton. “Half of the people spoke English. About half of them were dancers. Some were people who had seen the show the night before and wanted to take class, having never taken a dance class before. We were all hugging by the end.” Even with the language barrier, Lawton had them participate in a technique she uses in her classes called ‘paired sharing,’ in which dancers pair up and watch each other, then give gentle and supportive feedback on technique and/or performance quality. “Not everyone spoke the same language, but they somehow figured out how to communicate with one another. Dance is its own language.

For the company’s residency, the International School of Bangkok chartered a bus to take the dancers from downtown Bangkok to the school, roughly an hour outside the city. The school, located in its own gated community fondly referred to as ‘the bubble,’ had its own grocery store, golf course, and even a man-made lake. “Most of the people we met at the school were expats from other countries,” recalls Lawton.

“I met with the ISB dance director, Jaleea Price (originally from Arizona, and has lived in Thailand for twenty years), who told me she had 13 dancers from grades fifth through twelfth who wanted to work with us,” says Lawton. The fifth graders, two boys who had never had a dance class before but were super enthusiastic. DLD company members taught class during the student’s regularly scheduled dance classes and then, as part of the after-school dance program, DLD worked on choreography for the performance at the end of the residency. “Never having seen them dance, I didn’t know if I wanted to create a piece just for them, or if I wanted to set a piece of rep.” says Lawton, “I had to meet them, see them dance and talk with them to figure that out.”

Lawton taught the ending of one of the company’s newest works, Holding Space (2017), a large group piece that culminates in unison. After watching the students Lawton decided that she would create interludes or preludes to the works that the company was going to perform in the show. Having the students perform in-between pieces worked out brilliantly. “My husband Jon [Lawton] was playing music live for the show, and he needed to re-tune between dances.” With the students performing interludes, Jon Lawton had time to set up for the next dance. “I thought of it like a big rug, a beautiful tapestry and there are multi-colored threads that are interwoven in-between, an accent color, but it’s integral to the larger piece,” says Lawton. “The ISB dancers were that beautiful accent.”

DLD and the ISB students performed for friends, ISB faculty and staff, and family. “As I was leaving the stage to head to a reception they were having for us, the Arts and Activities Director, Anthony Giles approached me, and he was in tears,” say Lawton. “He spoke haltingly ‘I didn’t know dance could do that—it was so amazing.’” Giles invited us back for the next year, with the possibility of having a four-week rotation between international schools in Manila, Singapore, and Taipei.

In looking back, Lawton says that she feels really lucky. “As busy as it was and as fluid as it was, I was never stressed out. Now there’s just more of us—in Thailand,” says Lawton.

What’s up next for DLD? Lawton is building a show of new work slated for a 2020 debut. The Farallons is a multi-disciplinary work which fuses dance, poetry, and live music inspired by San Francisco’s Farallon Islands and the lighthouse keepers and families who lived on the island in the late 19th century.

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