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Woman in pink dress jumping while being surrounded by people in chairs faced forward

KAMBARA + DANCERS / photo by RJ Muna

I’d like to think I have become a mature dancer. After a 12-year professional career, I don’t get nervous anymore. As I perform, I enjoy the clarity of being on stage and the hyper-meditative awareness I experience. I can feel my skin prickle when the audience’s attention perks as they cross the fourth wall of the stage as they engage. Or conversely, the hilarity when I see a person in the front row falling asleep while I am upside down in a challenging lift. Being able to serve someone else’s vision, and imbuing meaning to their movement is an incredible experience. As a performer and muse, I can often see how I am  perceived in the world through the eyes of the director.

My time in the studio has always been the most fulfilling. I love making phrase work and duets. Being creative and solving physical problems comes naturally and I have learned to love resolving musical cueing and counting challenges when dancing in groups.

Towards the end of my career as a company member with ODC/Dance, I became less interested in my own performance. I still perform with Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions to keep up my physical practice and to stay relevant in our performance field, but I’ve become more driven to create and present dances that represent stories and themes that I find pertinent to my perspective as an artist.

When I was only a dancer, I never fully appreciated what it takes for choreographers to produce their work. Coming up with the movement ideas, dancing with your friends, even the dramas/struggles in the studio are manageable compared to the grant writing, press release, audience cultivation, and putting together the production calendar. While at ODC I was lucky to get to know the folks in PR, Development , and Marketing departments. It’s only now that I have begun to understand their nuanced and difficult work. I founded KAMBARA + DANCERS in 2015 as a vehicle to produce my work, and now I do most of the ‘backstage’ work myself. Writing has never been a particular strength of mine but it’s now the bulk of what I spend my time doing. To make it more appealing, I try to liken it to teasing out the perfect unison or making an agreement with momentum and gravity while trying to defy it. Both writing and dancing are modes of expression, and my central hope is that both will evolve as I continue to produce work.

If I only choreographed commissioned ballets, I might create work without the grant writing, fundraising and cultivating audience. But I also learned from Julia Adam, a choreographer that’s commissioned to set work around the country, that there are drawbacks in commissions, too. Commissioned choreographers don’t get to choose their dancers, and they might also find it harder to take risks when choreographing.

In November I created to.get.her, a commission from Dance Brigade/Dance Mission Theater for their home season Adelante!. I was able to get to work with a cast of my choosing, and Krissy Keffer gave me the opportunity and freedom to try something new. The dearth of female ballet choreographers has been much discussed, and to.get.her is my response to this sad fact. I tried something new; I made a women’s pointe piece. to.get.her is for the champions and cheerleaders in our lives who challenge us to reach our goals, especially when times feel dark. Jaimelyn Duggan created the costumes and they even have a gelato colored cape-like flourish as a counterpoint to our current darkness.

Given the current discussion of divisiveness in our country, I find it pressing to work on choreography that creates a space for empathy and dialogue. In a world becoming alarmingly more conservative and segregated, taking time to choreograph with a diverse cast of masterful dancers is my way of preserving optimis. Dance can represent the ineffable resiliency of the human spirit to continue in the face of uncertainty.

For our inaugural home season, January 18 and 19 at ODC Theater, I am currently working on IKKAI: Once (ikkai is Japanese for “once” or “first floor”), a piece about the Japanese American internment. I became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2011 and as a Japanese-American immigrant, I feel an urgency to share the stories of the Japanese internment, particularly now with President Trump’s executive order to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries and the deportation of  our immigrants who make up the heart and soul of our country. Members of the Japanese-American community were seen as war criminals during World War II, and I am afraid we are inflicting similar atrocities on our immigrant communities and their children again. I’ve been very fortunate and inspired by being able to interview 3rd generation Japanese Americans: Janice Mirikitani, Satsuki Ina, Norman Fumiyo Ikeda, as well as use the Densho Archives (a free online resource about the history of the Japanese American incarceration experience). I’ve also collaborated with Japanese American Visual Artists Dana Kawano and Weston Teruya. Dana Kawano has created our costumes and she is also creating a visual installation in the lobby in collaboration with Weston. Weston will be creating installations in the bathrooms of the ODC Theater.

It’s been refreshing to take time to research by conducting individual interviews. Information is readily available online and I am grateful the Densho Archives can keep the first hand experience alive when sadly many of the survivors of the interment are no longer with us. It’s been gratifying sitting with people and hearing their personal stories, being welcomed into their homes, offices and and hearing younger Japanese Americans share their hopes for our future.

I am also working on a piece that is inspired by living in this current technological climate. We mass communicate via social media or text messages. We sit in front of our technological devices, order goods online for delivery, and then race from one commitment to another. In Near and Dear, I ask:  What impact does this have on our ability to empathize with and understand each other?

As a parent, I am constantly struggling to make sense of the world not just for myself but for my young girls. With the dark cloud of the threatening political climate we all feel, it’s challenging for us all to make sense of the world. My creative life in the studio is my anchor and my float.

I have instinct around movement and composition but lack the finesse of a mature choreographer and often second guess my decisions. I am an emerging choreographer and much like a young dancer, I make unplanned decisions which might be provocative, but that are ultimately impulsive like I am putting out flames. As I charge into 2018 with our inaugural home season, I refuse to see anyone fall asleep in the front row! As a performer, I can laugh it off since I am merely the vehicle of someone else’s vision but as an emerging choreographer I am more fragile.

Being Good is OVERrated: Creating a Pray-Ritual

Two dancers peeling oranges

Joy Cosculluela and Diana Lara / photo courtesy of artist

I am remembering my dad when he left me in the parking lot of Tegucigalpa’s tiny airport when I was 14 years old, and he said “always remember your country.” I honestly forgot my country and my family –consciously and unconsciously – while I was living in Mexico. My father died almost 20 years ago, and my mother two years ago. Now that both are gone, I just cannot stop thinking about my country. It is like the mother land is calling me and supporting me in the absence of my parents.

I am a migrant and an artist like many others in this country. I have migrated multiple times, since I left Honduras, the country where I was born. I started my performance-choreography career in Mexico, yet while I was there, I never felt compelled to reflect, write or create dance pieces about my identity as a migrant or as Honduran. Maybe youth and survival mode masked the symptoms of “cultural shock,” and made me numb to the disadvantages of being Honduran and the discrimination I faced based on my origin, gender, and spoken accent.

Every migration began by seeing myself in opposition to the dominant culture. It didn’t matter if I was arriving to a new country, or a country where I’d lived before, there has always been an “I am not like you” phase within a rocky transition. After nine years living in Mexico, I returned to Honduras, and to my surprise, I was totally unprepared to fit into Honduran culture. I was robbed and touched by men in the street multiple times. My senses did not read danger, and my reflexes could not act to protect me. After two years, I returned to Mexico City, I broke into tears in my ride from the Mexico City airport to the apartment where I would live for the next two years. Looking out through the window I felt totally unprepared to deal with the immensity of that noisy city. My best friend who picked me up from the airport asked me why I was speaking so slowly, and I noticed that she was speaking very fast. We had been living in cultures that move at different paces.

When I relocated from Mexico City to San Francisco nine years ago, I felt that somebody was scolding me all the time. Then I realized that I was not used to seeing written rules around me telling me the right way to do things. I didn’t know if I should laugh or take seriously the “watch your step” sign in the MUNI bus. Since my English was deficient at that time, I felt that I should try to understand every sign or otherwise I would break an important rule or miss some important information. After a few months, I relaxed into the normality of public display of warnings.

Two dancers standing on oranges

Joy Cosculluela and Diana Lara / photo courtesy of artist

Migrating as an adolescent is not the same as when you are an adult. Everybody knows that. But more importantly, it is different to migrate when you have more awareness and somatic training in your body. My body told me every day how different San Francisco was from Mexico City. First, I realized how heavy the doors were and that I needed more strength in my upper body to open them. Second, my ears felt clean and open with an authentic desire to hear after being retracted for about twenty years in the noisy Mexico City. In those first years in San Francisco, it was refreshing to feel universal, and to have the possibility to reinvent and expand my heritage, my story, myself.

Then, I began managing a research project that involved Latinas who had to fill out surveys with questions about race and ethnicity, generation, language of preference, and other indicators to measure acculturation. Many women chose to mark the “other” option and wrote down the name of their countries in the blank space. Was that an indication of rejection of those artificial categories? or was that a way to reinforce their uniqueness? I wondered what option would have felt more accurate for myself. Maybe “none of the above.”

With all these questions in mind, I felt this huge and growing need of making dance pieces about classification, identity, fragmentation, immigration, and grieving from faraway. That is what I have been doing in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the support and collaboration of artists Joy Cosculluela, Rosemary Hannon, Joyce Lu, Christine Germain, Bonner Odel, Aya Chigusa, Kim Campisano, , Liz Boubion, and John Rodgers, among others.  I feel embraced and inspired by many other artists in the US who have paved the way for this inquiry. This never-ending exploration that makes life so rich and empty. This never-ending need for an anchor, and a ground to hold the heaviness of our hearts. This joy for all the experiences and souls that we encountered here and there. This joy for this universal breath, for the support of millions of cells, for the possibility of dissolving and creating again.

Last fall, I embarked on a new project with Philippine migrant choreographer Joy Cosculluela. We both have been reflecting on our identity as immigrant choreographers, performers, and somatic practitioners in the US. Discerning what we are here and now, brought us to the cultures in which we grew up. In specific, we have been reflecting on our common catholic upbringing and schooling in our Spanish-colonized countries. Although our countries of origin are geographically apart, they are very close in the dominance that catholic church exerts on the society, the lack of choices to study outside of catholic schools, and the pervasive stigma for those who do not follow catholic rituals. We both have a shared experience of those who were educated in catholic schools, a common guilt and shame, a common tolerance for sacrifice, a common desire of wanting to be good and accepted even at the cost of betraying ourselves.

Two dancers squishing oranges

Joy Cosculluela and Diana Lara / photo courtesy of artist

In the studio, and in conversations at cafes, Joy and I have been exploring the different ways in which we continue carrying the weight of catholicism in our body, and we have been trying strategies to peel away the layers of guilt, and shame through writing, reading, interacting with objects, and of course dancing, and improvising. We have concluded that the antidote for shame and guilt is in fact to pray for its disappearance. Something like homeopathic medicine principles: like cures like. So, we are creating the antidote pray-ritual, expressing it in movement and stillness, articulating its content and rhythm, hoping to bring healing to ourselves, and to those who have had similar experiences. We are in the process of creating a new form of praying in which we peel oranges with hands, peelers, knives; we roll, kneel, balance and smash the oranges; we peel the skin to discover the bones, and to recognize the faces that were buried somewhere.

Through this process, I am questioning why it is valued to be good, and why undervalued to be real, and live true. I am calling my land, my parents, and grandparents to bring acceptance and protection, while I discover who I am without those layers of guilt and shame. I am remembering and honoring the support that my parents gave me to believe or not in catholicism or in any other religion. I am embodying a pray-ritual that culminates with the statement being good is OVERrated.

In Practice: Body Nerds: Judith Butler and Monique Jenkinson

Two performers standing talking

Monique Jenkinson, left, and Judith Butler in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

On November 3, 2017, philosopher Judith Butler took to the CounterPulse stage and, be still my beating heart, danced. Joined in mutual illustriousness by Monique Jenkinson in a tempered version of her drag persona, Fauxnique, the duo of theory queens performed Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body[1], what will go down in my personal history as the greatest lec-dem of all time.

Picture it: two queer icons alone together on the dance floor, step-touching their way through theories of gender, embodied identity, and precarity. Their dancing demonstrated that the philosopher has a body and the dancer has a mind—in other words, everyone is a bodymind—and the toll dancing and scholarly labor takes on the body was made visible by their talk about it. For years I’ve been arguing that talking and dancing are never mutually exclusive enterprises, and both talking and dancing flesh out theory. Are we understanding something different about the same thing when we investigate that thing through non-verbal movement vs. through words? Can we arrive at the same understanding of the same thing from different sensory and cognitive approaches? Is that even a desirable goal? What do we want when we say we want to bridge the gap? Butler and Jenkinson chose to perform the gap, to wade in, swim, tread water, float, and play chicken in the gap—though there wasn’t a spirit of knocking opponents off shoulders.

Dance is a popular metaphor among philosophers, including Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but there was nothing metaphorical about these two dancing bodies theorizing. When Jenkinson mentioned the pelvic clock, she was referring to a somatic practice, not some idea about waning fertility; when Butler, discussing the body as a set of interrelationships, said, “Oh fascia, who knew? Fascia is the center of the universe!” she was locating the web of connections in her body as a source and a source of healing for her chronic joint pain.

And yet, of course, Jenkinson and Butler were also illustrating the webs of the social through this bodily discourse. But before I turn to those connections, allow me to linger a bit longer on the subject of the philosopher’s body.

When French critical theorist Evelyne Grossman visited UC Berkeley in 2010, she gave a seminar entitled, “An Authentical Body of Sensibility,” in which she discussed the drawings of theater director Antonin Artaud. In it, a student asked, “Why do you think Artaud drew pictures of teeth falling out?” And Grossman replied, “Because he had so much electroshock therapy—all his teeth fell out.” Later that same year, I took a seminar with Ramona Nadaff (whom I’d first met in dance class at Shawl Anderson—dancing scholars unite!) and discovered that Marx suffered terribly from carbuncles.

Learning that Butler suffers from her own “systemic joint disease,” and hearing about her embodied practices—yoga, meditation, walking, swimming, getting up from the computer every 20-40 minutes to move—brought me back to her 2009 Hegel seminar. I got into the seminar on the basis of a proposal to study the relationship between the Alexander Technique discourse and practice of “non-doing” and Western philosophies of the Self. Somatic practice meets critical theory.

Bookended by a little bit of Kant and a little bit of Marx, the course focused on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which we read very slowly and very carefully. Despite this loving approach to the text, I took very little away in the way of Hegel’s philosophy (or Kant’s, or Marx’s). In fact, it’s a good thing there are no final exams based on content in graduate seminars because what I remember most from the course are Butler’s gestures. I often wouldn’t hear a word she was saying, so fixated was I on the symmetry of her hand gestures and the way that symmetry would break down as she held an idea in one hand and used the other hand to demonstrate its complexity. Any gesture studies scholar will tell you that the gestures of a philosopher have much to tell us about their thinking. We get to know something else or something more, even if that knowledge escapes verbal articulation—we enter the phenomenological feeling space of being together. But attending to the philosopher’s body does something else as well: it reminds us they have a body in the first place, and that they’re vulnerable, and that they give and require care.

So, even before witnessing her James Brownesque shuffles and a move I’ll call “schlumpy chicken does the Hollywood hula,” Butler was already, for me, a species of dancer. And just like my experience in her seminar, my notes from her performance with Jenkinson are largely incomprehensible and my memory deeply selective. Here’s a selection:

  • Butler’s left fingers twitch as she lies on the stage, the seemingly involuntary gesture revealing layers of movement inscription—all the writing, all the typing, all the touching.
  • Butler erupts into a lasso maneuver amidst her rhythmic step-touches and says, “Well, some of us didn’t really want to dance but here I am.”
  • Jenkinson matches Butler’s step-touches and remembers the many conversations she has had “in this state, over the music, queering the conversation.”

Butler and Jenkinson’s discussion revealed biographies that overlapped in ways that might have been surprising had the two not been performing with such synergy. Both are best known for pioneering work from decades ago (Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990, Jenkinson won the Miss Trannyshack Pageant in 2003; I think Jenkinson spoke for them both when she said, “I’ve done a lot since then!”). Both went to Bennington College. And both have a long-standing and always evolving relationship to drag—Butler remembering the “gorgeous, fabulous, perfect freedom of expression” of the drag performers upstairs at Partners Bar in New Haven, Connecticut in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the lesbians were “dancing, debating separatism, and breaking up” downstairs, Jenkinson noting that ballet is also drag, “a codified way of being feminine.”

Two performers leaning against the floor or wall

Monique Jenkinson, left, and Judith Butler in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

Turning now to the social body, Butler told the story of how she and dance writer Wendy Perron, during their Bennington days, used to walk around Greenwich Village, “body slamming” into and sliding down the windows of fancy restaurants: “We would lose our balance, we would die, and wait to see if the good bourgeois people were alarmed—no one ran out.” These “choreographies of collapse” (Jenkinson quoting Perron) drew the discussion away from gender performativity and towards Butler’s theories of “precarious life,” “bodies that matter,” and “performative assembly.” This hilarious section (see photo) rubbed against the most somber of subjects, of “who might catch you, where you might land.” Jenkinson and Butler stumble walked together and fell together in an exploration of ground. “No one stands on their own,“ Butler said, and everyone requires ground on which to move—a floor, insurance, shoes, well-funded infrastructure: “The ground is part of the living that lets us live.”

Lying on the floor in the somatic X, the two performers discussed the ordinary practices of the radical body and ways to find the radical in the ordinary, “How we help each other persist” (Butler). Jenkinson tried to explain the Feldenkrais Method, which she practices with Augusta Moore, saying, “It’s kind of this,” what we’re doing,” i.e. lying on the ground barely moving. “And then Augusta would say, ‘All right, now rest, that was a lot.’” Jenkinson’s Feldenkrais humor issued peals of recognition-laughter from the audience, and she called us all “body nerds.” I’ve never felt more understood in all my life.

One performer holding another's head

Judith Butler, left, and Monique Jenkinson in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

After Jenkinson reflected on the wonder of the pubic bone being not a bone but two processes and a symphysis, the dynamically attuning duo got up to share some weight, took a minute of silent stillness each, inviting themselves to be seen[2], and took turns holding each other’s heads (see photo). This last precious exchange quieted the room—the intimacy of it, the performance of care. As Butler cradled Jenkinson skull, she wondered whether anyone would “speak with invective” if they were holding a head. Reflections on what constitutes a grievable life, a loseable life followed. And then, Butler asked Jenkinson, “How heavy was my head,” to which Jenkinson responded dramatically, “Unbearably heavy.”

It is not my intention to make naturalizing associations between the body of the theorist and the theories she produces, but to remember that the theorist has a body and that the body of the theorist theorizes. As we age, we are forced to practice, to move, to think differently, finding our sensory capacities limited and expanded, in other words, changed. We change and the world changes for us. As I watched Butler and Jenkinson attend to their changing bodies in real time, physically and verbally, it seemed clear to me that their new attunements would undoubtedly affect their cultural products.

But the ground of it all is life, liveable and grievable life. Just days after her performance with Jenkinson, on a visit to São Paolo, Brazil, Butler was met by a mob of violent, far right Christian protestors who burned her in effigy[3]. A deeply frightening experience and yet, Butler is confident that “this contemporary sexual conservatism or what we might understand as a reactionary sexual politics is an effort to take us back to a world that will never come back. […] So we shouldn’t be worried that all of our steps will be reversed. They’re trying but they will not win because our side is on the side of greater acceptance, greater understanding, it offers more recognition to more people, and people want to live with freedom, they want to live with joy, they don’t want to live with shame and they don’t want to live with censorship, so we have joy and freedom on our side and that is why we will eventually win.”[4]

Bearing witness to Monique and Judith, cradling each others’ heads, caring for and protecting the body of the dancing philosopher and the body of the philosopher dancer, it seems we have already won.

That was a lot. Now rest.


[1] “Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body” was the opening night performance of Hope Mohr’s 2017 Bridge Project: Radical Movement: Gender and Politics in Performance, which was inspired by the question, “What does it mean to have a radical body?” and which deserves way more than a footnote. (Hope and I are in the midst of finding a time to talk so stay tuned.)
[2] “What if every cell in our bodies (100 trillion) at once has the potential to invite being seen choosing to surrender the pattern of facing a single direction while perceiving all of the space in which I am performing (and time is my music…all of my movement is music).” (Deborah Hay, quoted on the PICA blog,
[3] See Scott Jaschik’s “Judith Butler on Being Attacked in Brazil” on Inside Higher Ed,
[4] “Judith Butler no Brasil | Quem tem medo de falar sobre gênero? [legendado],” TV Boitempo, published November 8, 2017,

Moving in Space: Considering the Spring Season

In thinking about the upcoming season, the theme that came to mind was space. We don’t have enough of it around here, for living or dancing. And the powers that be seem hell-bent on controlling specific spaces: bathrooms, body cavities, voting booths.

Spaces matter a lot, both literally and metaphorically. So dancing in spaces matters a lot. Gathering to watch dances in spaces matters, too: The communal ritual of sitting down (or standing or moving, as the case may be) together to receive another person’s offering of art, of joy, of love or resistance or vulnerability, is profound.

The next few months bring many opportunities to enter new spaces and revisit familiar ones, whether that means seeing dance in an unfamiliar venue or opening your mind to another person’s culture or emotional world, as they express it through dance. Does their work take on unexpected shades of meaning in a particular performance space? Is everything site specific in its own way? What does it mean for secular modern dance to take place in a cathedral, or abstract performance art in a bar, or ethnic dance in the Opera House? We may not find the answers this season, or perhaps we’ll arrive at opposing conclusions, but pondering the questions is a good start.

This list captures some of the season’s diversity in place, time and concept, but is admittedly incomplete—please understand that In Dance has only so much space. Dates, times and ticket prices are subject to updates.

FRESH Festival: A month of workshops, community events and Friday-Saturday performances: Jan. 5-6: ALTERNATIVA, Tara Brandel and NAKA Dance Theater; Jan. 12-13: Rachael Dichter + Allie Hankins, Keith Hennessy and Sara Shelton Mann; Jan. 19-20: Larry Arrington, Kinetech Arts and Brontez Purnell; Jan. 26-27: Christine Bonansea, Violeta Luna and Abby Crain, Layton Lachman and Mara Poliak. 8pm. Joe Goode Annex, SF. $25-$35.

Winter Dance Salon: Cozy up to new works by Hayley Bowman, Julie Crothers, Ann DiFruscia, Carol Kueffer, Alivia Schaffer and Chingchi Yu. Sat, Jan. 13, 6pm & 8pm. Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley. $15.

SF Movement Arts Festival: With artists and companies performing in 12 stations from the high altar to the side chapels, you just have to trust your higher power to lead you on the right path between Marika Brussel, LV Dance Collective, Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company and 50+ more. Fri, Jan. 19; pre-show starts just after 6pm, performances at 7pm. Grace Cathedral, SF. $24.

KAMBARA + DANCERS: Welcome Yayoi Kambara’s fledgling company in a debut triple bill including IKKAI: Once, a reflection on Japanese-American internment and recent travel bans. Fri-Sat, Jan. 19-20, 8pm. ODC Theater, SF. $10-$35.

Kathak dancer

Noorani Dance / photo by Naveen Nelapudi

Noorani Dance & EnActe: Britain’s forced division of Pakistan and India in 1947 displaced 15 million people, led to two million deaths and created a rift between Hindu and Muslim communities. The Parting revisits the tragedy, and reunites diverse cultures, in theater, music and South Asian dance. Fri-Sat, Jan. 19-20, 8pm; Sun, Jan. 21, 2pm. Z Space. $26.25-$100. In the South Bay on Fri, Mar. 23, 8pm, and Sat, Mar. 24, 6pm. Hammer Theater, SJ. $10-$100.

SF Performances’ PIVOT Series: It’s SoCal vs. NorCal with Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project performing on Tue, Jan. 23, and Joe Goode Performance Group showing a work in progress on Sat, Jan. 27. 8:30pm. A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, SF. $25-$40.

SOULSKIN LAB: An evening of short works by Khala Brannigan, Tanya Chianese, Jamielynn Duggan, Emily Hansel, Erika Hassan, Courtney Hope, Alyssa Eve Mitchel and Leyna Swoboda. Sat, Jan. 27, 7:30pm. CounterPulse, SF. $20.

8x8x8: You drink, they dance, things get crazy. Randee Paufve’s 11th annual-ish performance party includes Nol Simonse, dana e. fitchett, Aviva Rose-Williams, Evie Ladin and Bandelion. 21 and over. Tickets at the door only; go early because it always sells out. Thu, Jan. 25, 8pm. Uptown Nightclub, Oakland. $8.

Kristin Damrow & Company: Looking past Charles and Ray Eames’ midcentury-modern furniture designs, EAMES digs into the timeless issue of sexual politics of home, work and the marriage of equally brilliant minds who were treated unequally. Thu-Sat, Jan. 25-27, 8pm. ODC Theater, SF. $30.

Three South Indian Dancers reaching towards audience

Nava Dance Theatre / photo by Shashak Deshpande

When Eyes Speak: South Asian Choreography Festival: Two programs of Indian classical dance, curated by Preethi Ramaprasad: Friday includes a lecture/demo and performances by Vidhya Subramanian and Taniya and Puneet Panda; Saturday features Sri Thina Subramaniam and Nadhi Thekkek and Nava Dance Theatre. Fri-Sat, Jan. 26-27, 6pm. SAFEhouse, SF. $15-$20.

13th Floor Dance Theater: Sent on a dangerous mission by the government, seven travelers plot a rebellion in Space Pilots in Spaaace. Fri, Feb. 2 & 9, 8pm; Sat, Feb. 3 & 10, 5pm & 8pm. Joe Goode Annex, SF. $15-$40.

Spectrum Dance Theater: Legendary choreographer Donald Byrd collaborated with playwright Anna Deveare Smith to create A Rap on Race, based on a discussion between anthropologist Margaret Mead and novelist James Baldwin (portrayed by Byrd). Their conversation took place 50 years ago, and has never been more relevant. Fri, Feb. 9, 8 p.m.; Sat, Feb. 10, 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Oakland Metro Operahouse, Oakland. $63-$68.

Nancy Karp + Dancers: Sonsherée Giles, Sebastian Grubb, Amy Lewis, Megan Lowe and Charles Slender-White perform On Beauty, a site-specific exploration of nature, diversity and creative process. Stop in Mondays through Jan. 30, 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., for open rehearsals. Fri, Feb. 9, 8pm; Sat-Sun, Feb. 10-11, 6pm & 7:30pm. David Brower Center, Berkeley. $18-$35.

Robert Moses’ Kin: RMK’s home season takes inclusion and access to heart in Bootstrap Tales: The score includes music by participants in the Bootstrap Project, Moses’ new outreach program that encourages SF foster youth to pursue the arts. Fri-Sun, Feb. 23-25, 8pm. YBCA Theater, SF. $19-$55.

Two dancers falling

Wang Ramirez / photo by Frank Szafinski

Company Wang Ramirez: In Borderline, Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez blend hip hop with Tanztheater and use aerials to create illusions and visual metaphors. Glossy, for sure—they’ve performed with Madonna, Akram Khan and Rocío Molina—but unvarnished, too. Sat, Feb. 24, 8pm; Sun, Feb. 25, 3pm. Zellerbach Hall, U.C. Berkeley. $25-$68.

Black Choreographers Festival: New works abound in the annual festival curated by Kendra Kimbrough Barnes and Laura Elaine Ellis, who showcase the African Diaspora’s traditions and innovations with classes, events and performances: Feb. 17-18 at Dance Mission Theater, SF; Feb. 24-25 at SAFEhouse, SF; Mar. 3-4 at Laney College Theater, Oakland; 7:30pm. $10-$20.

Company Wayne McGregor: The Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer does some of his most interesting work on his own company: Autobiography incorporates McGregor’s own genomic sequence and music by Jlin, a steelworker-turned-footwork-composer from Gary, Indiana. Thu-Sat, Mar. 8-10, 7:30pm. YBCA Theater, SF. $40-$65.

Person lying under a sheet of paper

PunkkiCo / photo by Raisa Punkki

punkkiCo: Expect sensory immersion during Raisa Punkki’s Controle, a collaboration in movement, sound, dancer-controlled light and shadow, costume and art, including live painting by Alice Malia in response to the vibe onstage. Thu-Sat, Mar. 15-17; details TBA. ODC Theater, SF.

Christy Funsch: For her 15th anniversary season, Funsch reached back a century to the California Dancing Girls, an early all-women troupe in SF, to create Mother, Sister, Daughter, Marvel with Chris Black, Aura Fischbeck, Nina Haft and seven other women dancers over 40. On Thu, Mar. 15, Muriel Maffre leads a discussion at the Museum of Performance and Design. Thu-Sat, Apr. 5-7, 8pm. ODC Theater, SF. $20-$35.

San Francisco Ballet: The world will descend on San Francisco for the highly anticipated Unbound: A Festival of New Works; the commissions from 12 choreographers will delight, surprise and, in some cases, polarize. Take your pick of four programs: (A) Alonzo King, Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck; (B) Myles Thatcher, Cathy Marston, David Dawson; (C) Stanton Welch, Trey McIntyre, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa; (D) Edwaard Liang, Dwight Rhoden, Arthur Pita. Apr. 20-May 5. War Memorial Opera House, SF. $28-$362.

AXIS Dance Company: Oakland’s physically integrated pioneers have earned international renown over the past 30 years, but are only now making their SF debut. The triple bill combines stellar pieces by new artistic director Marc Brew and Amy Seiwert, and a premiere from former AXIS member Nadia Adame. Fri-Sun, May 4-6; details TBA. Z Space, SF.

San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival: In its smashing Opera House debut last summer, EDF claimed that stage for dance forms long excluded from it. Expect an even bigger celebration this year, when the world-renowned festival returns to celebrate its 40th anniversary season. After an opening performance at City Hall on Fri, Jul. 6, EDF runs Fri-Sat, Jul. 14-15 and 21-22; details TBA. War Memorial Opera House, SF.


Cover of In DanceFrequently entering unknown territory, even dangerous terrain, is a skill artists have cultivated. While working in the unknown can shape an artistic resilience and a tenacity of spirit—indispensable qualities to navigate a career in the arts—this effort requires fierce dedication. I often have the opportunity to articulate to politicians, funders and those that advocate for the arts that dancers and choreographers traverse moments of uncertainty with finesse and are savvy business people. Translation: they know how to stay within a budget, even one that can suddenly shrink due to unforeseen factors like not getting a desired grant.

This makes me think about ways artists navigate well-being and bringing resources to their self-selected dance family: words like security, safety and family have distinctive meaning singularly or combined.

Our relation to safety changes all the time and our bodies are constantly assessing how protected we feel, which so often is informed by others. Other(s) is such a omnipresent word —someone not known to you, someone who is alien. And then there’s the politics of being a foreigner, an immigrant, which is all too often being leveraged as divisive rhetoric and has been aligned with “being illegal.” These thoughts are too often associated with distasteful and disturbing conversations that try to divide us into known and unknown—safe and threatening.

In the context of presenting dance, the objective of providing a safe and comfortable place to observe skillful creations has been the norm. Yet, does the comfort of a theater seat create complacency for an audience? Is it even the role of the artist to provide comfort and care? Does the artist become complicit by presenting work in theatrical spaces that have power and privilege as their historical lineage?

Recently, the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture—a grassroots action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging—is asking all individuals and organizations to open public events and gatherings with acknowledgment of the traditional native inhabitants of the land. You can learn more about their efforts at At events like the Rotunda Dance Series, Dancers’ Group is starting each performance with this announcement: “We would like to begin by acknowledging that San Francisco City Hall and today’s performance is being held on the traditional lands of the Ohlone People.” More can be found at Honor Native Lands: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgement.

The few times I have made this statement have felt healing, and probably because of where we live, the audience response has been warm.

I think of this statement as a bit of disrupting norms. To take moments to acknowledge that the places where we perform, live, work, have a complex and all too often ugly past, that should not be washed away but acknowledged so as to not forget. Actions of questioning and disrupting, invite an acknowledgement of her/his/they/stories so that past definitions of power, inclusion, safety and family are expanded and help end the erasing of truths.

As you enter into the unknown of 2018, treasure actions that inspire and heal.

The 2017 Fires: Reflecting and Preparing

Checklist of Disaster PreparednessIn October of this past fall, swaths of Napa and Sonoma Counties were burned. Like so many, Dancers’ Group staff smelled the smoke from our office in San Francisco, more than 60 miles away. Thankfully, none of us experienced direct personal loss, but we struggled to grapple with news, and reports from loved ones and colleagues suffering.

As the fires raged, Dancers’ Group shared resources via email and social media, while also trying to be sensitive to something we heard from our colleagues at Dance Source Houston – their local dance service organization – in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey: information is everywhere, and putting out additional or repeated content can quickly add to overwhelming those recovering from a disaster.

We reached out to several dance artists who live/work in or near the affected areas, inviting them to reflect on some of their experiences from the fires. Two graciously shared their thoughts along with basic emergency preparedness plans, and we’ve shared some information here on the [right …update once in the issue].

How did the fires impact you?

Tanya Bello, the artistic director of Project. B., a ballet and modern dance-based company.  
The fires came very close but we didn’t lose our home and we had family to help us during the evacuations [in Santa Rosa]. Your life gets turned upside down but my husband and I kept reminding each other that our family is safe so you push forward. We had to find normalcy for our four year old son but seeing the community as a whole lose a lot is very emotionally draining. We tried to volunteer and organize donations as much as we could, trying to balance family life and work, along with being evacuated.

However, we continue to worry about our quality of living. Air quality, toxicity levels, water quality, etc. Do we stay, do we have other options? What happens when construction begins?  How does this affect us then?

As I mentioned, we were one of the lucky ones. A lot of our neighbors lost everything and some had to leave the area because insurance placed them in hotels 1.5- 2 hours away from their home and work, which means that their children had, or will have to, switch schools. Although many are very positive as they deal with all of the upcoming hurdles, there’s a lot of applications, filing claims, understanding how to rebuild, understanding what help is available, how to get help, and how to filter what is legitimate and what is not, etc. You feel very vulnerable.

Charya Burt, master teacher, dancer, and choreographer in traditional Cambodian dance: Fortunately, my home [in Windsor], my husband and my cat are all safe. My mom and my sister who watched the fires burn a short distance from their home in Santa Rosa are safe. Unfortunately, some of our friends and several other people we know well had their homes burned to ashes. I can’t imagine what they are going through. It is simply indescribable.

My husband and I were on alert to evacuate, as we were less than a mile away from the mandatory evacuation zone for the entire week the fires were out of control. Our friends from just a few miles away had minutes to evacuate and spent the week in our garage/dance studio not knowing, for several days, if their home was still standing. Everyday we followed Cal Fire updates, receiving texts from the Sonoma Sheriff’s Department so that we knew what was going on each and every moment. During the week of the fires, I had no time to think about work or my dancing except for determining what costumes/jewelry/headdresses could fit in the back of our car if we were forced to evacuate. All I was focused on was the safety of my husband, our cat, our home, and myself.

October 9, will forever mark this horrific disaster. The fires felt apocalyptic. As a child, I grew up during the Cambodian genocide and then moved around from place to place not having my place I called home. The closest thing to a home I had was the bed I slept on during weekdays when I boarded at the School of Fine Arts. When I immigrated to the United States in early 1993 I finally had my own home. Through all the ups and downs of my life, I thought I was finally safe and protected here in California. All of sudden, that insecurity, the uncertainty, and that feeling of having to constantly be on the look-out, all came back – all at once. I was thrown back to all my old memories of how life can sometimes be unforgivingly cruel. But it also reminded me how important it is to appreciate each and every moment of life on earth.    

Did you feel prepared? If yes, how so? If no, what have you learned for next time?

Tanya: Two weeks prior, my husband and I felt urgency in preparing an earthquake kit which also includes copies of all our important papers, policy numbers, etc. But we were really not that prepared. We have insurance [for our home] but never looked at the policy until after the event. We never took the time to understand what our policy covered and whether or not it could even cover rebuilding our home.

We never took photos of our belongings and the house prior to the fires nor do we have an inventory of things we own. And even when we snuck into our home during the mandatory evacuations to take photos, there were a lot of things I forgot about. As far as Project. B., I need an inventory list and photos of costumes, sets, etc. that are in my garage.

We had time to evacuate and we were able to take a lot of important items with us. This was not the case for many even, if they had a disaster kit. Compiling this information and having it in a safety deposit box in a bank or other institution is our next move.

Our car only had 1/4 tank of gas. All the gas stations were closed during the evacuation. We were lucky to find one before we went on empty. (It took 5.5 hours to get from Sonoma County to Marin County) We were also worried that we didn’t have cash on us.

Charya: We were lucky. Unlike our friends who came to stay with [us] who had only minutes to leave their house because the fires were chasing through their neighborhood, we had time to pack and prepare ourselves mentally for a possible evacuation. Our friends came only with the clothes on their backs and a wallet and a purse. They didn’t even have time to grab their medications. By seeing what they went through, we learned that we have to be more prepared in the event of any disaster. It didn’t hit me until mid-day on Monday that the winds could change and we might have to be evacuated as well. I started to pack all my dance costumes, jewelry, headdress, props, and other valuable items that were irreplaceable. I was so worried about my costumes that it took me until the next day to pack my everyday clothes.

Did any part of the experience impact your dance-making practice, or shift your perspective?

Charya: By going through this intense emotional rollercoaster, I realized how important it is for me to start paying more attention to environmental issues that impact our planet. Maybe in my next dance piece I will explore issues related to how important it is to protect our environment.

I now know exactly where all my irreplaceable dance and personal items are located so I can quickly grab them in the event I need to evacuate. Going through the process of determining what to take and what I might need to leave behind was very eye-opening. It also reminded me that anything can happen. You just never know…

Tanya: Taking away anything unnecessary. Moving forward but not forgetting. Helping the community the best way you know how. When feeling vulnerable, learning to breathe and focus.  –- both in dance and in life.

* * *

In Dance is grateful to Charya and Tanya for taking time to share their experiences. Their reflections provide a brief insight into how they navigated this disaster, and there are many more stories from those impacted by last year’s fires around the Bay Area and other disasters. Our deepest wishes for a speedy recovery here, nationwide, and worldwide.

Isadora Duncan Dance Awards Committee Announces Nominees and Honorees for 2016-2017 Performance Season

The Isadora Duncan Dance Awards Committee celebrates 32 years of honoring local dance artists by acknowledging their outstanding achievements in dance.

During each 12-month performance cycle, running September 1-August 31, the volunteer “Izzies” Committee collectively views over 400 eligible performances. The final nominees and honorees are selected at an annual voting meeting held in September. Member profiles and lists of previous nominees and award winners are available online at

The Izzies acknowledge exceptional creative achievements in the performance and presentation of dance. Awards are given in nine categories to honor the dancers, choreographers, designers, composers, dance companies, dance scholars and other individuals who have made important contributions to the San Francisco Bay Area’s thriving dance community. The winners will be honored at an awards ceremony, which will be held in the spring.

The following is a list of Nominees and Honorees by awards category:

Outstanding Achievement in Choreography

  • Kim Epifano, Last Blue Coach in the Sky: Street Stroll Section, Epiphany Dance Theater, SoMa District Streets, San Francisco
  • Lizz Roman, Sunset Dances: Architectural Meditations II, Lizz Roman & Dancers, home salon performances, San Francisco
  • Amy Seiwert, Wandering, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, Cowell Theater, San Francisco
  • Rudi Soriano, Birds in Flight, Likha Pilipino Folk Ensemble, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Myles Thatcher, Ghost in the Machine, San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Outstanding Achievement in Performance – Individual

  • Isaiah Bindel, Les Verités, dawsondancesf, YBCA Theater, San Francisco
  • Frances Chung, Frankenstein, San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Megan Lowe, Grace and Delia Are Gone, Flyaway Productions, Firehouse at Fort Mason, San Francisco
  • Ben Needham-Wood, Be Here Now, Smuin Ballet, YBCA Theater, San Francisco
  • Tegan Schwab, What we carry/What we keep, ODC/Dance, YBCA Theater, San Francisco
  • Amara Tabor-Smith, Black/TIME, Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco

Outstanding Achievement in Performance – Ensemble

  • Delvis Frinon, Adonis Martin, and Edisnel Rodriguez, Defection-Deflection-Devotion from Love in a Bitter Time, Part II, Dance Brigade, YBCA Theater, San Francisco
  • Christine Funsch and Nol Simonse, Prelude from Le grand spectacle de l’effort et de l’artifice, Funsch Dance Experience, ODC Theater, San Francisco
  • Mary Starr Hope and Karla Quintero, The Two Sisters from Grace and Delia Are Gone, Flyaway Productions, Firehouse at Fort Mason, San Francisco
  • Arvejon Jones and Will Woodward, Sweet Time from Boys Bite Back, Sean Dorsey Dance, Z Space, San Francisco
  • Vitor Luiz and Joseph Walsh, Act 3 pas de deux from Frankenstein, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Outstanding Achievement in Performance – Company

  • Abhinaya Dance Company of San José, Vaanara Leela: Monkeys in the Ramayana, School of Arts & Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, San José
  • Ballet Folklórico México Danza, La Revolución, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Flyaway Productions, Grace and Delia Are Gone, Firehouse at Fort Mason, San Francisco
  • Lizz Roman & Dancers, Sunset Dances: Architectural Meditations II, home salon performances, San Francisco
  • ODC/Dance, Giant, YBCA Theater, San Francisco
  • San Francisco Ballet Corps de Ballet, Acts 2 and 4 of Swan Lake, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Outstanding Achievement in Music/Sound/Text

  • Tatsu Aoki, Melody Takata, and Frances Wong, The Eye of Compassion, Lenora Lee Dance, Donaldina Cameron House, San Francisco
  • Dan Cantress, Jordan Glenn, and Darren Johnston, Time’s Arrow, Deborah Slater Dance Theater, Studio 210, San Francisco
  • Claire Cunningham, Jess Curtis. and Alva Noë, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, Jess Curtis Gravity, CounterPulse, San Francisco
  • Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Tommy Shepherd, /peh-LO-tah/, Living Word Project, YBCA Theater, San Francisco
  • Lowell Liebermann, Frankenstein, San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Outstanding Achievement in Visual Design

  • Yoshi Asai, Singsong Kim, Dana Kawano, Dohee Lee, and Alenka Loesch, ARA Ritual I:Waterways, Dohee Lee Puri Arts, CounterPulse, San Francisco
  • Tatsu Aoki and Lenora Lee, The Eye of Compassion, Lenora Lee Dance, Donaldina Cameron House, San Francisco
  • David Finn, John Macfarlane, and Finn Ross, Frankenstein, San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Brian Jones and Susan Roemer, Wandering, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, Cowell Theater, San Francisco
  • Ian Winters, King Tide, Nina Haft & Company, Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco

Outstanding Achievement in Restaging / Revival / Reconstruction

  • Krissy Keefer, revival of The Great Liberation Upon Hearing (2009), Dance Brigade, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
  • Diane Madden, restaging of Locus Solo (1975)/Ten Artists Respond to Locus, Hope Mohr Dance, YBCA Forum, San Francisco
  • Patrick Makuakane, revival of The Natives Are Restless (1998), N? Lei Hulu I Ka W?kiu, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
  • Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, restaging of Le Temple de La Gloire (The Temple of Glory) (1745) by Jean-Philippe Rameau, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
  • Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, revival of Monkey Gone to Heaven (redux) (2013), EmSpace Dance, Ashby Stage, Berkeley
  • Richard Tanner, revival of The Prodigal Son (1929), San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Special Award Honorees

  • Antoine Hunter, for the 2017 Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival, which united exceptional deaf and hearing dancers and increased their visibility in the Bay Area

Sustained Achievement Honorees

  • La Tania, for her mastery and fostering of flamenco in the Bay Area as a teacher, choreographer, and performer for the past 24 years
  • RJ Muna, for his artistic contributions to the community that capture the choreographers and dancers of the Bay Area through photographic excellence
  • Harry Rubeck, for over 20 years of outstanding contributions supporting Bay Area dance artists through the field of lighting design

“It’s More Than Learning the Steps”: Grace Torres and Luis Leon sustain Nicaraguan Culture through Dance

Dancer in blue performing on stage

Nicaragua Photo by RJ Muna

One of the wonders of the San Francisco Bay Area is the breadth of cultural dance forms being sustained here and available for audiences to experience. The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is one of the best places to witness that breadth, and highlighted that role in 2016 when they presented Nicaragua Danza, Hijos del Maíz, a local company led by Artistic Directors Luis Leon and Grace Torres.

Nestled between performances from two Festival mainstays (LIKHA – Pilipino Folk Ensemble and Dunsmuir Scottish Dancers (such is the mercurial world of an Ethnic Dance Festival), Nicaragua Danza, Hijos del Maíz introduced Nicaraguan dance to the wider dance community at the Festival in a trio of pieces collectively titled Somos Nicaragua Multiétnica (We are Multiethnic Nicaragua). It was a vibrant introduction to dances from Nicaragua’s Atlantic coastal region, the Miskito Coast. The pieces included traditional indigenous Miskito dances, dances drawn from Afro-Caribbean cultural traditions, and a Creole mixture of African and European dance forms that formed during the era during the 18th and 19th centuries when Britain was a dominant presence in the region.

When I spoke with Grace, she began by explaining that the company’s name, Hijos del Maíz, which translates to “Children of the Corn,” was chosen because corn is a central commodity incorporated into almost every meal, and has strong cultural currency in Nicaragua. “As a cultural-folkloric group, we wanted our name to have a connection to that culture,” Grace further explained that “there’s also a song, [“Somos Hijos del Maíz”] from a member of the Mejia family, which is this famous musical family in Nicaragua, [that] lists all the ways corn is important to the country.” The company seeks to honor all of corn’s many cultural references.

Grace was raised in the capital city of Managua, on Nicaragua’s Pacific side, and she didn’t visit the Atlantic side until relatively recently. Nicaraguans are introduced to dance as a national cultural form very early. She tells me that, “unlike here [in the U.S.], where dance is an elective… in Nicaragua, dance is part of your regular curriculum from a young age and the dance that is taught is folkloric…everyone learns these songs and the basic steps as little kids,” in school.

While she was in school, Grace trained with Blanca Guardado who was also founder and director of one the national Nicaraguan folklorico ballets, Ballet Folklórico Tepenahuatl. “One day when I was about 17 I asked her if I would be good enough to be in that Ballet, and when that would be,” Grace explains, “she laughed and said, ‘well, you can do it now.’” That was the beginning, and for Grace there was nothing better than the experience of being part of a large dance company, performing on a regular basis.

When I asked her to share something from her mentor that she now seeks to instill in the dancers she works with, she explains that it’s all about the repetition. “I’m focused on making the dancer better. I focus on the practice. In dancing, it’s all about the repetition – your muscles need to know the choreography so if your mind goes blank in the middle of a performance, your body will still push through.”  

Group of performers in blue bending at the waist

Nicaragua Photo by Steven Blumenkranz

Despite her love of dance, there was a long break from dancing after Grace moved to the U.S. in 2004. After a few years she began feeling the urge for what she calls the “structure of group dance with rehearsals.” She continues, “the rehearsal part, the process, that work is what really excites me. That process of seeing how a few steps and some patterns can create something so big and beautiful to watch.”

She was stymied in her attempts to find a Nicaraguan dance company. “There was one group that did it a little bit,” Grace acknowledges, “but although the person who ran it did it out of a love for Nicaragua, she honestly didn’t know much. It felt like she was looking at videos on YouTube and trying to mimic them. But I didn’t want to be the dancer telling the director, ‘you’re doing it wrong,’ so I just didn’t go back.” Instead, Grace danced with other companies that practiced Afro-Haitian and Afro-Peruvian traditions. Then one day, Luis Leon got in touch with her.

Luis, now Hijos del Maíz’s primary director, had danced in one of the other large Nicaraguan dance companies, Ballet Folklórico Nicaraguense, led by Francisco González. He had moved to the Bay Area and had heard that Grace had danced with Ballet Folklórico Tepenahuatl. “He came to my house, and we started talking – he and his wife both dance,” she explains, and very suddenly they decided to form the company in 2011. “We started very small and now we have a nice group of people.”

The company originally had four directors, but as one might expect that wasn’t a sustainable model. “It was too many people saying, ‘no I want to do this,” so we decided we need one director, and whatever that person says goes,” she tells me. So “we decided that Luis is the director and I am the right hand.” Grace further explains that “Luis and I share responsibility with the adult company, and I am very big on cleaning up the movement and making sure that we are connecting and turning at the same time. But Luis takes care of the kids and does all of the choreography for them, the costumes, everything.” The company’s rehearsals are very structured and focused on upcoming performances, so she says that “it’s very rare that we just work specifically on movement, there’s always a show that we are preparing for, especially the kids, the kids dance a lot, even more than us.”

Their Rotunda Dances Series performance at San Francisco’s City Hall on December 1st will feature both companies. They are bringing their youth group to do five short folkloric pieces. Then the adult company will perform a piece from the Atlantic coast, that was set on the company by choreographer Cleopatra Morales, who was a college instructor of Luis’ in Nicaragua and is well known for opening the dances of the Atlantic coast to a wider audience.

I ask Grace about their hopes for the future of their company, and she shares that “we really want to help our students – kids and adults – grow as dancers…we would also love to be able to take our dancers to Nicaragua.” As a start they recently invited Cleopatra Morales to work with the company, and Grace says “it was hard financially but we made it work and it was doable. We want to do more of that.” The company – like so many others practicing cultural dance forms in the Bay Area – is also on the lookout for space. “we are looking to create more stability to have space to create and practice our cultural forms with young people,” Grace continues, “so that Nicaraguan groups—not just us, but other companies coming up have a space to create.”

When I ask Grace about her personal hopes she reveals that “since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a dancer. I decided a few years ago that I’m not going to be able to live off of dancing. My husband is a Salsa teacher and has the blessing of making living out of it. But Luis and I have our 9 to 5 jobs, and we do this out of love.” And to that end, she says that “I feel fulfilled as long as I can keep doing what I’m doing. As long as I can dance, and keep learning, and work with other dance companies, and can see my group growing, that fulfills me and that’s enough.”

At one point in our conversation, Grace tells me that when she was member of Ballet Folklórico Tepenahuatl in Nicaragua, her focus was on “the steps and the movements, but I didn’t know much of the history of that piece. I didn’t ask enough questions.” But, she tells me that “from Luis I’ve really learned to not just be a dancer, but to ask questions to try understand why we dance, and why the dance exists. It’s more than just the steps.” She conclude by saying, “I think if I put a little more effort on that side, and making sure all our dancers have that knowledge too, the dancing will keep getting stronger.”

In Practice: Sue Li Jue

Selfie of Sue Li Jue

Sue Li Jue Photo courtesy of artist

When I was writing dance reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and other local and national publications in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I thought I was one of the more dancer-/choreographer-friendly critics. But looking back through those reviews, I did not find a dancer’s dance critic there. I found neither an open mind, nor a diplomatic pen, nor a generous heart. Instead, I found a voice performing its authority. And I rue many of those journalistic performances.

One of the reviews I regret the most was of Sue Li -Jue’s Facing East Dance & Music (FEDM) performance of The Nature of Nature (2001). I won’t go into detail about the ways I would write that review if I could turn back time. I was mean. I didn’t understand. I was mean because I didn’t understand.

When my review of The Nature of Nature came out, Sue called me right away. “Why do you hate me so much?” she asked. Hate her?! Well, revisiting the review I can see why she felt that way. So we met for coffee. I was humbled by her willingness to confront bad press head on and face to face. I still wasn’t totally convinced critics and choreographers should be having those sorts of conversations, but my grasp on the relationship between these two historical adversaries had begun to slip.

Fifteen years later, I contacted Sue to process again. (She was over it. I was not.) I wanted to let her know that I’d thought about that review and our conversation numerous times during my graduate training—in fact, it was while writing my dissertation that I came upon Yutian Wong’s critique of my review in her excellent book Choreographing Asian America, sparking an extended reflection on my dance critical career and the role of the dance writer. As she had fifteen years prior, Sue met me with generosity and openness. She’s rather badass that way.

During our conversation this past May, I learned that after 32 years, Sue is retiring from the Physical Education Department at UC Berkeley. So this article now has a dual purpose: to offer readers insight how The Nature of Nature came to be—giving it the attention I now believe every work deserves, attention to process—and to pay tribute to Sue’s service, her unwavering commitment to dance in higher education, and her enduring love of dance.  

The Nature of Nature: Backstory

The Nature of Nature was born out of an encounter with a San Francisco Examiner article about fashion designer Colleen Quen and her husband, furniture designer Rick Lee. Quen, who has designed costumes for several of Alonzo King LINES Ballet works, was discussing a 2000 collaboration between her and Lee around the theme of the five Chinese elements—metal, wood, earth, water, and fire. Sue said, “She made gowns and he made furniture. My husband, Richard, read the article and said, ‘You have to read this. It sounds like a mirror image of us!” (Richard, an optometrist by day, had been making sets for Sue since the founding of Facing East Dance & MusicFEDM in 1999.) Inspired by Quen’s story, Sue gave her a call: “We talked for 45 minutes. I had been considering a piece about the five elements—how they relate to nature, personality, physicality—so I asked her if she wanted to do the costumes. And she did.” Quen also made the costumes for FEDM’s 2003 Held So Close, a piece about Angel Island, which Sue worked on for two years in collaboration with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

With Asian American scenic collaborators, Sue also came into contact with Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble—“At the time, it was like, Wow! Taiko! Who does that? Now, everyone!”—and decided to hire only Asian American dancers. But she got significant pushback from presenters, granters, donors, dancers, and both artistic and academic mentors: “A lot of people were saying, ‘You’re not making Asian American dance, you’re just making modern dance.’ And some people were like, ‘You really ought to get off the Asian thing.’ And I thought, Wow! You don’t think it’s necessary that I explore this?” I asked Sue what she makes of this response with 20/20 hindsight: “I’m not really sure what they meant, but it was very important to me to have all Asian dancers, yes, for a visual look, but it was also an understanding. I mean, I’ve never picked rice in a rice field, I’ve never lived in China, but there’s some kind of a thread there, through your parents, through your genealogy. I’d say my more successful years were those beginning years when I was hot and heavy to do that. When I loosened my grip on the importance of an all Asian company and doing every work about Asian Americaness, I felt less urgency and focus for making dances.”

Despite ramping down her choreographic practice, Sue continues to face East to keep herself grounded and inspired.

Physical Education at Berkeley

Sue started ballet and tap when she was six, and took her first modern dance class at Mills College with June Watanabe, whose company she joined in 1982. While dancing for June, company member Aida Pisciotta, who had been teaching in the Physical Education department at UC Berkeley, declared that she would be moving to New York “to seek her dance fortune.” The department hired Sue for one semester to teach jazz and modern. Aida stayed in New York; Sue stayed at Cal.

Sue spent her first two years at Berkeley as a Visiting Lecturer, becoming a Continuing Lecturer after the campus changed their policy: “They said that they were losing too many good lecturers with the two-year cap. I had to reapply through a search and I’ve been there ever since.” Once Sue completed six years as a Lecturer, she was given a renewable three-year contract, and considers herself “fortunate” to have had her contract renewed over and over again

Within the context of adjunct precarity, Sue and her colleagues also carry heavy course loads. When she began, PE dance lecturers taught 10 two-hour classes a week. Then it went up to 11. Then 12. “When it got to 13 we were all dying and injured, so they brought it back to 12. Jason Brittoen [PE Lecturer] rallied through the union to get us down to 11. So that’s where we sit now. That’s a lot of dancing.” Plus, those are 11 different classes, e.g. modern dance levels 1-4, jazz levels 1-4, etc., taught to as many as 40 students at a time.

When she first came to PE, it was a degree-conferring department with graduate student instructors (GSIs, also known as TAs), comprised of lectures, labs, and activity sections. At the time, you could get a Bachelor of Science degree in PE with a specialty in dance. But then the tenured faculty, who were teaching science-based movement classes, moved out of PE into Integrative Biology/Molecular and Cell Biology, taking their lectures and labs with them. PE was left with the activity sections— tennis, swimming, dance, etc.—and these courses became “merely” recreational, offering elective credit towards graduation. The disestablishment from department to program meant the remaining faculty “had no leg to stand on.”

When PE director Kathy Scott, the program’s last tenured faculty member, stepped down as director two years ago, Sue stepped up—unwillingly. Having no aspirations to becoming director, Sue put her name forward under the assumption that she would be co-directing with another colleague. When that colleague neglected to put her own name forward, Sue was hired. “I’d always said there’s no way I’m ever going to direct this department. But I said, all right, I’ll do it for a year.” A year became two, and although the pay raise is nice and teaching 4 rather than 11 classes a week a relief, Sue finds herself “administrating like crazy. It’s not really me.”

When Sue decided to step down as director she realized she’d have to retire because she couldn’t imagine going back to teaching 11 classes per week. But Sue is hardly done moving and shaking. She is recently certified in Kinesiological Stretching Techniques and feels like she has a second career in her: “Maybe I can share this work with students who, these days, are so out of their bodies.”


When I encountered The Nature of Nature in 2001, I had neglected to consider the concept of hybridity. I was looking for a certain authenticity, which now is the dirtiest word in the book, because what the hell is it and who the hell gets to decide? Further, back in the day, I didn’t think backstory should be part of a critical view. Now I have the exact opposite opinion. Pretending a work exists in a modernist vacuum is ridiculous. By reaching out to me to discuss my review, Sue became the first catalyst for my turn away from writing dance criticism from a position of authority to writing dancing as a conversation with dance makers and thinkers. And for that, I am forever grateful.


Dec In Dance 2017 Cover

Look up and what do you see—an image that inspires? What are you thinking now?

Through images and words curiosity arises and inspiration abounds.

Dancers’ Group’s staff has frequent and lengthy conversations about what artists, events, and topics we will feature in In Dance. We grapple with a wonderful problem of having more content—ideas for articles—than we have space for in the publication. If you’re a regular reader you will have discerned a prioritization of writing about San Francisco Bay Area artists and companies. This not only supports Dancers’ Group’s mission to promote and make visible the abundance of dance in our region; it also showcases the exceptional artistry taking place here and adds to an expanded and rich discourse that illuminates dance. And there are at least a gazillion types of dance to cover!

I’ve been reflecting on this year’s articles and my head spins recalling the 63 pieces—available in print and online—that represent an ever widening range of topics that showcase what it means to move and be moved by artists in our community.

A highpoint of curating content for In Dance continues to be the opportunity to engage with writers that are as passionate about dance as the subjects they cover—such as the beloved critic/writer Rita Felciano. Her informed analysis has brought us articles that featured Dance Brigade’s 40th anniversary and the 39th season of the SF Ethnic Dance Festival, as well as reflections on the waves that Judy Smith has made during her tenure as artistic director of AXIS Dance Company. Writer Robert Avila has provided readers distinct and fresh overviews that look to disrupt borders, while choreographer Nancy Karp penned a first person piece as a reflection and response to the refugee crisis, which was the impetus for her work Memory/Place.

In 2017, we ran three distinct articles written by Farah Yasmeen Shaikh about her experiences of performing and teaching in Pakistan. This series provided a forum in which she could discuss how artistic practice is a tool for combating the spread of fear of the “other” — in her case, being a Muslim-American woman.

As a frequent contributor to In Dance, Heather Desaulniers has brought an innate curiosity to pieces that shed light on a diversity of aesthetics and dance traditions. Her smartness ensures readers will connect with artists like Miriam Peretz, the artistic director of Nava Dance Collective—a group of women who perform dance and ritual from Central Asia—and learn about Celia Fushille, the spirited and determined artistic director of Smuin Contemporary American Ballet. Heather’s interview with La Tania, which brought attention to the artist’s illustrious performing career in Flamenco, is one I have revisited.

A regular column now appears each month called In Practice by Sima Belmar, a highly regarded local critic, educator and writer. Her conversations with artists, before during and after making dances, continues to reveal a commitment to discussing the complexities of covering dance—a discourse and dialogue that will continue in 2018.  

Our continued thanks to a roster of regular writers that include Rob Taylor, Patricia Reedy, Kate Mattingly, Claudia Bauer and Ann Murphy. Each has helped us expand our coverage of artists working in traditions and those that take on the mantle of new forms of movement, education and performance. These conversations consistently break down barriers that some see as dividing disciplines, while others inform the freshest viewpoints, which can only continue to inform hearts and minds.

We are already starting to plan our feature articles for 2018 and we hope you will send us your story ideas to consider—or maybe even step forward to add your thoughts to these pages.

Wishing you moments that are filled with wonderfully warm seasonal fun.

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