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In Dance

Finding an eXquisite New Orientation

group of 5 dancers

eXquisite Orientation (from right to left) Nadhi Thekkek, Juliana Monin,
Nol Simonse, Anna Greenberg and Karla Quintero) / photo by Tony Nguyen

Early last year, Randee Paufve, a Bay Area choreographer known for creating intricately detailed, multi-layered performance, found herself working on distinctly different projects that addressed issues of gender. One was a series of discrete duets, each choreographed by and performed with men; another, six solos for women of varying backgrounds, using female archetypes to investigate each dancer’s particular physical expression of power. Against the backdrop of the vitriolic 2016 election, Paufve decided to throw these dances together under one roof in a mashup titled XO.

The show oversold, and the overwhelming, supportive feedback suggested that the qualities and feelings evoked by the work were relevant to audiences beyond an exploration of gender.

“The January performances revealed that we have the makings of an evening length work, rather than a showcase of discrete pieces,” Paufve said. “Post-election, we have found ourselves in a shocking new world, one that compels a shift in our focus. To reflect these shifts in our local and global circumstances, we moved towards a cohesive body of work that helps us locate and orient ourselves in a new world: XO = eXquisite Orientation.

XO explores archetypes and stereotypes as means of reorienting ourselves in these unsettling times. As familiar, albeit outdated and sometimes violent representations of our human incarnation, these images of humans relating and personal power can also act as a compass mapping out new coordinates for us all.

“What can we draw from stereotypical images, broken down and resurrected by the media that still rings true? Do we cling to or let go of archetypal aspects of our ‘self’ when they are placed before us, in full relief? While it is a crying shame that we need to reiterate such themes in 2017, our new world order tells us that we do still need dances where the men are tender and the women—Queens, Witches, Mothers, Warriors—are cauldrons of gorgeous power. XO is a dance woven from archetypal imagery and the need to tap into narratives inside and outside ourselves in order to move through the current times,” Paufve said.

XO seeks to reorient us, offering ways through critical times not evident at first glance.

Paufve goes on the say, “Dance is always an orienting activity: Where am I in space? Where am I in relation to others? How are these relationships constantly shifting and evolving? This is the orienting work: the work dancers, collaborators and the audience take on to create a world based on different politics of interaction and more sustainable ways of moving through our lives than current social/political circumstances present. While not overtly political, the process and performance of XO galvanizes us as artists, helping us to remain strong and empowered in our craft, creating and presenting work that allows audiences to meet, rather than abstract, their full spectrum of feelings.”

Juliana Monin experienced XO’s galvanizing impact while performing in the original mashup.

“I remember going into that show feeling like what I was doing was so frivolous and silly,” said Monin. “But then once we were there doing it, I saw how that piece was our protest. What we propose is more proactive and solution oriented: we need connection and relationship to heal this mess we are in.”

XO begins in the aftermath with Dream Dressed as a Husband, the mythic duet of Ceyx and Alcyone, choreographed by Nol Simonse, and danced by Paufve and Simonse. We witness the breakdown of an “ideal” relationship and sense an impending shift beneath our feet.

From the rupture in one archetypal relationship emerge five powerful female solos, which help guide our way through the wilderness.

A nod to recipients of bitch-mongering, Queen distills iconic stereotypes of female power/powerlessness while deconstructing dance vocabularies from classical ballet to vogueing. A dense, subtle solo, dancer Crystaldawn Bell incarnates regal power as she surveys the landscape.

Gestural Migration, a Bharata Natyam-meets-modern dance incantation performed by Nadhi Thekkek, signaling the start of a day and women’s work. Emerging as the sun, Thekkek is then brought down to Earth, having fallen into a women’s worldly duties.

A movement mandala performed by Juliana Monin, Mother taps into the pain, joy and resilient strength of our visceral connection to the earth via the power of mother as a life-bearing vessel. But this mother’s nature is sweeping and angry.

“The dance brings up some of the hidden struggles and challenges I have as a mother: the sacrifice, the urge to take on another’s pain, the fierce instinct to protect,” said Monin. “It is not the lovey-dovey joy of nurturing a wee one and feeling that all is right in the world. When I do this dance I feel like the mother who lifts a Mac truck to save her child. It is primal and wild.”

Witch offers a rapture that breaks the spell, upending notions of aggressive, power-wielding women. She is all women who weave, make things with their hands, cast spells, and move energy in tangible ways.

Dancer Anna Greenberg described her creative process embodying the Witch.

“I worked with dramaturg Beth Harris, who gave me hand exercises to do. Hands are where the magic and work is really channeled—holding the weight of the world, plucking, holding, banding things together,” she said. “Every movement is purposive; I am hunting, I am seeing, I am shape shifting, and I am casting.”

Completing XO’s quintet of solos, Warrior, performed by Mechelle Tunstall, emerges from the chaos as our new hope. She is Joan of Arc, the Archer, Diana, a benevolent protector and vigilante. She is listening.

Provoking ideas about empathy and the phenomenology of touching and being touched, Touch Faith is the evolution, the solution, the healing of relationship through vulnerability.

The only men in XO after the opening duet, the work reveals real life spouses Andrew Merrell and Rogelio Lopez’s intimate knowledge of relating, at turns tender and healing, though not fully reconciled or known.

“Randee asked Rogelio and me to pull more from our own personal story and who we actually are to each other,” said Merrell. “The show centers on female embodied archetypes, and Rogelio and I seemed to represent more the idea of love as an archetype by being who we are. We have danced many times before; he is my favorite partner to dance with, and I think it allows us access to parts of our relationship that are unspoken and exist purely in the emotional physical plane.”

Moon/Shadow, danced by Karla Quintero, offers the possibility of resolution, the fleeting movements of shadows multiplied by the mysterious, mischievous moon. It is a call to the full community to gather onstage, to gaze at the same moon, dance, and be in this brave new world together.

Set design by Lauren Elder coveys a natural, elemental feel, with tree limbs, passive rotating elements and randomness embedded in the design.

“The sets are nature as a metaphor for the forces being acted out on the human stage at this time in history,” said Elder. “We are using some version of tornado—unexpected, capriciously, randomly destructive.”

Power’s (mis)use lingers in the mind after XO’s final bows.

“What it is about power that is so attractive to those that gained it at the expense of the well-being of so many others,” asked Quintero. “Performance is power and my intent is to acknowledge this and perform the work in a way where audiences can hopefully have a more active, embodied experience, sharing in this power.”

XO is deeply resonant with this time, standing up as people to believe in the work, ourselves, and art,” said Paufve. “I believe in our physical capacity as humans that we can poetically rise up by tapping into our power and tender sides. The body keeps the score, and not just for dancers. I seek to have some shared experience with audiences about the body expressing its deeper beauty in these times.”

In Conversation: Afrofuturism with Raissa Simpson

Dancer in white tunic, arm and leg lifted

PUSH Dance Company / photos by Matt Haber

Raissa Simpson is a socially conscious artist that holds community building at the core of her repertoire. Witnesses of her work have seen in-depth studies of topics ranging from Judgment in Milliseconds (2008), a dance about the misperceived perceptions of kinky hair to the Point Shipyard Project (2014) a brilliant work with youth of San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood; it is clear that her work challenges the norm. Her new work, a trilogy entitled Mothership, has been categorized under the term of Afrofuturism. Mothership II, the second installment of the trilogy, will premiere September 22-24 as part of PUSHfest at ODC Theater.

As an artist and long time choreographer for The Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble and co-founder/director of the Black Choreographers Festival, I have frequently been asked the question “What is Black Dance?” This is not a question I like and have yet to see or hear “What is White Dance?” There have been many conversations with fellow choreographers to ponder how does one “correctly” answer this question and why is there the need to consistently ask that question. Choreographers create work that is based in their experiences, that comes from the fiber of their beings. Whether a work has a particular culturally specific theme, it still comes from a cultural place of who “we” are as black people.

Afrofuturism (noun) “is a movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture.”

This movement is creating nurturing spaces to empower, talk about the grief, the beauty, and the struggle within the communities we are vested in, and to work together through challenges that are specifically calling to our resilience and resistance in America.

As a choreographer and director, Raissa has continued to respond to the call of digging deeper and doing more to create platforms for other socially aware artists that desire an outlet for their work. In 2014 she answered by starting PUSHfest. Within the myriad of ways to describe PUSHfest, in particular for those artists who participate, it is a cross-genre dance festival where artists come together to network and share ideas around dance-making.

I am thrilled to share a recent conversation with Raissa that provides a glimpse into the festival and her work.
Kendra Kimbrough Barnes: What was the motivation behind starting PUSHfest?

Raissa Simpson: During my career as an artist, I underwent a process of collaborating with different dance groups to form home seasons. What I learned is that I present a lot of dance and care deeply about giving artists opportunities to perform. The festival seemed like a natural step to help fulfill my Company’s core values. The other part of my motivation to form PUSHfest was to bridge the gap between emerging and midcareer artists. I find my work being labeled mid-career to be a little nebulous. I’m not exactly young enough to be considered emerging and not old enough to be established.

KKB: Tell me a little bit about Mothership I

RS: Like an intriguing Sci-Fi novel, Mothership is a trilogy of works that challenges cultural traditions and identities through the lens of Afrofuturism—an artistic movement that emerged in the mid-1990s and drew heavily on composer musicians like Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic. Afrofuturism re-imagines and reclaims the past, present, and future for Black lives. Afrofuturism often uses the framework of science fiction, speculative history, and Black diasporic mythologies as tools for reinterpreting cultural narratives to open spaces for Black experiences to thrive. My inspirations include Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migrations and Black Lives Matter, but the undertones of the work question America’s Founding Fathers and the future of Black lives.

Silhuette of 4 dancers against white background.

PUSH Dance Company / photos by Matt Haber

KKB: And Mothership II?

RS: The second series is adapted from a 2016 process I started to bring in more intercultural dialogue during the creation period and look at how my multicultural dance interfaces with topics of African American culture. With Mothership II, I grapple with the relationship between cultural identity for marginalized communities of color and the complex contradictions of an American national identity by creating spaces to imagine pasts, presents, and futures for people of color. The audience will see elements of indigenous slave cultures juxtaposed with African astronomy and outer space.

“Mothership” has different meanings. In relation to my work it can mean how African peoples were captured and shipped off to the New World or the distant alien ship come to invade the planet. The underlying question is that if Black people were once considered human or only three-fifths a person, maybe we are actually aliens? Or “mothership” symbolizes all the questions of whether or not Black people will be in space. I’m a sci-fi and Star Trek fan, but the representation for people of color in movies about the future can feel abysmal at times.

KKB: Why is it important to do work around racial identity?

RS: While working with a group of Black mothers this year on a separate project, I found it was almost impossible for us to conceive and discuss the future while we were focused on moments of survival. Whereas I’ve approached my dances in a survivalist form, this new work allows me to imagine marginalized bodies beyond the boundaries of this world. How we persevere is dependent upon having the capacity to use our imaginations.

KKB: Would you categorize your work as Afrofuturism?

RS: Afrofuturism is an essentially optimistic perspective and examining the optimism in my work is a new concept for me. However, any movement including Afrofuturism is a way to make the Africanist aesthetic in my work present. I present my works through the lens of a mixed race woman of African and Asian descent. It’s important for me to acknowledge this background and how it positions me in an ongoing conversation on Afrofuturistic themes and beliefs.

As noted in my inspirations to make the work, I am taking something already done and expanding upon it. Artists as far back as the 1970s like Sun Ra had been exploring these themes, which I think right now it is beginning to be acknowledged. George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic released an album called, The Mothership Connection in 1975. A subculture of artists like myself or those working in the AfroPunk movement are all being inspired right now. Is it new? No, but the Afrofuturism that we’re seeing today isn’t the same as the 70s or 90s, it’s something new.

Welcome

September In Dance cover with WelcomeBe Here Now — Here Now Be — Now Be Here

These three words, placed in simple rotation, could be tips given by a caring teacher in class, or book titles advocating the power of living in the moment. I equally picture these texts associated with the likes of Ram Dass, Jedi Master Yoda, and a Shakespearean character.

Like this re-arranging of words, artists and creative thinkers are rightly re-visiting, re-imagining, and re-engaging with the power of terms, including nonverbal expression. With the first eight months of 2017 skewing assumptions of a sane and just world, we’ve entered a phase in time arranged in ways that are anything but normal.

Reactions and protests to national and international events are also transpiring at twitter-neck-speed. Each informing the future of politics, the environment, and our melting-pot multi-cultural society: an upheaval of past advancements that’s fueled by hatred, ignorance, and exclusion.

Thankfully there’s a renewed vigor to question authority and policy, with urgency framing each moment. Artists are positioned to provide voice to those targeted and attacked— verbally and physically—for their perceived difference.

While not all artmakers will consider their practice as politically based, all art is political. Especially art based in abstraction, which encourages creative thinking, allowing a multiplicity of interpretations. The viewer, or interpreter, is given agency to reflect on impressions and concepts that determine their stake in what is presented. With the moving body placed at ground zero, its own human stake that signifies a continued claim for liberty and justice for all. A provocation for more discourse and a demand to be seen.

A chorus of ideas resides in this September issue. If I were to pick a theme that connected the unique articles and features within, it would be the theme of perseverance. Persevering as a commitment to dance-making while digging deep. Persevere to identify resources (space, dancers, money, audience, and even accolades) that make the moments possible.

Kendra Kimbrough Barnes, the co-founder/director of the Black Choreographers Festival and director of her own company, talks with choreographer Raissa Simpson about Afrofuturism and Simpson’s work presenting artists during the now annual PUSHfest. We learn about Vanessa Camarena-Arredondo’s recent appointment at the Akonadi Foundation to further funding strategies that will support cultural work in Oakland for people of color. In a piece that pays tribute to the legacy of teachers, Eric Kupers asks questions about the move to increase class sizes in the university setting and puts a spotlight on reflections that speak to the power of giving back.

Since the death of founder Michael Smuin (1938-2007) perseverance has been a calling for Celia Fushille, the artistic director of Smuin Contemporary American Ballet, to continue the legacy of her mentor. Heather Desaulniers reveals the numerous paths that await the company, guided by Fushille’s passion.

Michael Nugent, a new writer to In Dance, is in conversation with choreographer Randee Paufve. They each bring their perspectives to XO, a mashup performance piece that is informed by today and tomorrow’s challenges that explores “archetypes and stereotypes as means of reorienting ourselves in these unsettling times.”

Always, my hope is that the words within provide touch-points to be in conversation, while inspiring and motivating each of us to deliver our message.

Dance and see dance with perseverance and delight.

Did You Know: The Meadow

Dance Studio, lots of light and a piano

The Meadow / photo by Liz Tenuto

A new space for dance and music has opened in North Oakland. Now open for rentals, choreographer Liz Tenuto shares her thoughts on The Meadow.

Tell us about yourself and your artistic practice/s.

I’m Liz, a Bay Area based choreographer. I create original dance pieces for film and theater. My practice is centered on the combination of listening and creating. I start the day with energy work (crystals, meditation, aromatherapy, etc.). I spend most of my time developing a physical language for a piece…like mixing a palette of paints. I love to get the exact colors I want for each work. Afterwards, I compose and arrange the material which I often draw out in a notebook. Once a piece starts to take form, I invite other artists into the space to try ideas with before bringing it into a rehearsal.

What is The Meadow?

The Meadow is my studio space in North Oakland. It has 30 foot ceilings and is filled with light. When I came to see the space initially it had great energy and felt like it appeared out of a dream. The name is a term in classical music that means ‘the transcendent space.’ Going to the meadow is the feeling of the state of creation to me.

What do you work on in the space?

Mostly choreography. I also play drums here daily. My partner is a songwriter so the space has a lot of music in it. We have a band (Casey Lee Hurt & The Natural Causes) with my brother that we rehearse here.

Favorite moments in The Meadow?

I put a few prisms in the space and when the sun is out, rainbows fill the room. It delights me every time.

What is a challenge for the space?

Hmm…there’s no air conditioner. Just a fan and a big garage door to open. It can get sweaty!

What is a list of a few dream ‘pieces’ you imagine happening there?

I have a vision of The Meadow being a hub for creation. Like a think-tank or a lab. It has been and continues to be a really inspiring place for me to make a lot of different pieces. I’m curious if it could be a sort of inspiration box for other artists as well. There is something really beautiful and fulfilling to me about creating the type of space that expands people’s visions and dreams.

How does it feel to have your own space?

Dream come true! It’s really shifted how often I create. And when. Sometimes my best ideas come late at night and it’s wonderful to have space to act on it as it happens organically.

If The Meadow had a favorite song, what would it be?

Heaven I Know by Gordi

What programs or activities do you have coming up at The Meadow?

We are starting to rent out the space to other artists through Bay Area Performing Arts Spaces, which I’m really excited about. I’m workshopping a new piece here this summer that will premiere in Brooklyn. I’m also creating some choreography for a couple plays [Shakespeare In Love (Marin Theater Company) and The Farm (Theaterfirst)] and have band practice. Lots of song and dance will be happening.

New View with Vanessa Camarena-Arredondo

Vanessa Camarena-Arredondo headshot

Vanessa Camarena-Arredondo / photo by Jean Melesaine

Originally from East Los Angeles, Vanessa Camarena-Arredondo was raised by a single mother who is a native of Mexicali, México. She credits her hometown with forming the base of her creative interests. East Los Angeles was a hub for Punk Rock music and it definitely carried its own brand and sound with many Latino and Black musicians deeply involved in the scene. Prior to that it was her grandmother’s porch that cemented her love for Mexican music.

Vanessa has worked as a consultant for the arts and served as the Arts & Culture Fellow at The San Francisco Foundation under the leadership of John Killacky. While at The San Francisco Foundation, Vanessa made over 200 grants and helped to raise $1.5 million to support Bay Area artists and arts non-profits. She spoke on the need for inclusion and diversity in the arts and helped to direct funding and support to artists and communities of color. She is now the Beloved Community Fund Program Officer at the Akonadi Foundation.

Vanessa shares her reflections on her work in the Bay Area.

 What drew you to wanting to work with the Akonadi Foundation?

I have followed Akonadi’s work for many years. It was founded in 2000 by Quinn Delaney, and her husband, Wayne Jordan as an extension of their commitment to racial justice. They have been great advocates within philanthropy and have pushed the field toward thinking more critically about how race is central in determining social outcomes in this country.

I’ve also found inspiration in the contributions of Melanie Cervantes from her time as Akonadi Foundation’s Senior Program Officer. In 2016, after 11 years, Melanie left the foundation to pursue her dream of art-making full time with Dignidad Rebelde. During her time at Akonadi Foundation, Melanie spearheaded prioritization of funding strategies to support cultural work in Oakland for people of color, and received support from Akonadi’s leadership to pursue this work institutionally. This was transformational for Oakland’s art and cultural communities, and, personally, for the small art space I was running at the time, Studio Grand. Akonadi’s Beloved Community Fund met a huge need in Oakland, through supporting public art and cultural events rooted in communities of color in Oakland that advance racial justice.

I admired the incredible team at the foundation, including Gina Acebo, Lateefah Simon, and an active and supportive Board. When the opportunity arose to apply for the Program Officer position, I knew that this was an incredible opportunity to do deep, meaningful work in Oakland.

What were you doing before joining the staff at Akonadi (what’s your background)?

I was running Studio Grand, a beautiful performing and visual arts space located in the Grand Lake area of Oakland, founded by my dear friend Holly Schneider, who we lost shortly after she opened the space. In addition to Studio Grand, I was working with individuals and organizations as a coach and consultant, both within the arts and culture sector as well as other sectors.

Tell us about your artistic practice.

I was a vocalist with a Bay Area group called Las Bomberas de la Bahia for eight years. We were a nine-piece, all women group with dancers, vocalists, and drummers. We practiced the Afro-Puerto Rican tradition of Bomba, which is a cultural and musical tradition that originated on the plantations of the Island and was created by the African prisoners of war or enslaved peoples and the native Taino peoples. It is both a spiritual and a liberatory tradition that is very much alive today. Although I am not Puerto Rican nor am I of African descent, I came into Bomba through the work of some local practitioners who were encouraging women to sit at the drum and be part of a resurgence of the form here in California.

What’s rewarding about your work?

I tremendously enjoy working with a team of amazing people who are committed to racial equity and building power in communities of color in Oakland. I also love working with our grantee partners. I was very recently one of them, so I know what it’s like to hustle while also staying inspired and having hope. I love being able to support the really incredible and powerful cultural workers and artists in Oakland. It’s the dream, really. There is a lot of work to do, but for all the right reasons.

How would you describe what it’s like to live and work in the Bay Area right now?

I love the Bay. My commute is 15 minutes max on foot. There are so many artists, culture builders and small businesses who are doing great things in our communities. Alyah Baker is the owner of Show & Tell, a sweet boutique on Broadway, next door to Anyka Barber’s Betti Ono Gallery. We have Town Biz, which uplifts Oakland born entrepreneurs through their business incubator. Those are just a few examples. There’s so much beauty and life here in Oakland, and at the same time a lot of struggle and heartache. The economic pressures, housing issues and displacement have deeply affected our communities. It’s a very hard situation. I know that the Bay Area we’ve all come to love was created by a multitude of communities, many of whom now need our support to stay in their neighborhoods.

What’s your neighborhood/community? Where do you spend your time?

I’ve lived in West Oakland for about eight years. I can’t claim West Oakland as my neighborhood but I do love it and I love the people who established the cultural legacy of the neighborhood. West Oakland has a rich cultural history rooted in the Black community. There were and are many Black musicians, artists, and community members who created what, today, we think of as a Black Oakland legacy. My job is to make sure I don’t take up too much space in West Oakland and claim it as my neighborhood but rather support and uplift the Black community that has been here for a very long time.

What event(s) will we find you at this fall?

 Through the Beloved Community fund, we have the privilege of financially supporting and attending very dynamic and impactful community events in Oakland. I am very excited to attend as many events as I can. One of the events I plan to attend includes Lower Bottom Playaz’ production of Behind and Beyond. Led by Ayodele Nzainga, this project begun by engaging formerly incarcerated men and Black youth in healing circles, and collecting stories and creating and presenting staged readings of that work. The production will be a culmination of this work and will be occurring in venues throughout Oakland.

What’s an early dance memory?

Definitely trying to learn Michael Jackson moves during the moonwalk era. Followed by a curiosity of how to freak, which was planted by my older sister’s parties in East LA backyards.

Do you have a dance idol?

So many and everyday there are new ones. I love old school grandma moves that recall different genres and periods of time. I love the constant inventing of contemporary dancers creating new styles in West and East Oakland, such as turf dancing and ghost riding. I love the gestures and movements of Samoan siva dancers. I love Alonzo King’s dancers and his choreography. I love the drama and intensity of great drag shows. I love how Alyah Baker is bringing ballet into people’s lives here in Oakland at her Ballet for Black and Brown Bodies class at Studio Grand. I love all the dance that Nkei Oruche is creating space for and how it affirms Black and brown bodies through The Afro Urban Society. I love how Carmen Roman of Cunamacue is blending modern dance with traditional Afro-Peruvian rhythms and movements. I love the vigor of Son Jarocho practitioner Lolis Garcia who is bringing along a whole cadre of young people in the tradition out in Richmond at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. I love the communication across genres. I love to see the babies and little ones dancing. I love to see people moving and free.

Shortlist of inspiring people, books, moments, classes, etc.?

Jean Melesaine, Frank Ocean, Kamaiyah, Young Women’s Freedom Center, Silicon Valley DeBug, Nekeya’s Flava’s class at Studio Grand, La Santa Cecilia, Bobi Cespedes, Sarah Lewis, Ani Rivera (Galería de la Raza), Ruthie Dineen (East Bay Center for the Performing Arts), Tyese Wortham, Kamaiyah (The Queen of Oakland)

What’s a hope that you have for the arts ecosystem of Oakland?

My hope is that, by supporting art and culture, we can continue to build voice, power and self determination for communities of color in Oakland. My goal is to deepen investments by the philanthropic sector so that people of color have the space and agency to thrive in strong communities free from violence and punitive policies. Within this, I hope that artists of color have the support and the resources to continue to inspire and push our ability to imagine the political and social transformation of our world.

What advice have you been given that you still hold on to today?

Listen before you speak.

SPEAK

SF Carnaval King and Queen

Tiombe Valone and Antoine Hunter / photo by Robert Werner

It has been a blessing and honor to be King of the San Francisco Carnaval in 2017. I couldn’t help but to fall in love with the Bay Area all over again. I cannot thank my community enough for their support, love, wisdom, food, hug, laughter and dancing!

It’s not just dancing. It’s the celebration of life. It’s the celebration of our culture. It’s the celebration of our different traditions. It’s the celebration of color, it’s celebration of the growth for our children and ourselves, it’s the celebration for all those we lost and remember their name, it’s the celebration of every battle we’ve lost and won, it’s the celebration of our community.

No one is turned away or rejected. Tall, short, big, small, disabled, gay, straight, able bodied, weird and weirder. Hey, I’m Deaf.

While I’ve been a part of previous SF Carnaval celebrations I never thought I would be King one day. It’s an honor to be the first Deaf King of Carnaval. They didn’t vote for me just because I am Deaf. Last year I competed and won 4th place. Nevertheless I decided to try again and didn’t give up. I trained for a whole year to get ready to compete. I asked for great music from DJ Lamar, I practiced and I won first place. That’s proof that the community chose me because I believe in what I do.

Someone asked me what does the King of Carnaval do? Carnaval King/Queen duties include to act as ambassadors, perform at SF Giants Carnaval night, Carnaval VIP Party at Calle-11, meet and greet at Cha Cha Cha – Mission, dance at Bissop Baobap, promote Carnaval during an in camera interview with CBS, perform in stage shows and last represent Carnaval in the Grande Parade on our own float. However I must add, I do so much more than this. I represent my community and I outreach to find ways to support and highlight our cultural diversities.

Queen Tiombe [Valone] would like to add:

From preparing to compete and winning the crown, to fulfilling my duties as queen, to preparing to perform during and after the grand parade, my experience has been one I wouldn’t trade for the world, it’s been wonderful. The support of my family, friends and the community has held my heart and touched my soul.

 April 15, 2017 I was crowned Carnaval SF Queen. It has been a whirlwind. All the experiences I had were positive. Getting to know more people from the community, various comparsas and the staff and volunteers of Carnaval SF has truly been the highlight. There is nothing like walking onto the field at Pacbell Park to dance.

 The King is very handsome caring man. I love spending time with him.”

I have to admit that I forgot about the night life associated with Carnaval SF and these people party all night. The Grand Parade was spectacular. The streets were full of colorful people from all ages. Dancing, singing, over 100 comparsas in the parade and over 100 performances on stage. The music was Latin, Afro, Brazilian and more. Color everywhere, smiles everywhere, booty shaking everywhere! Me and Queen Tiombe will never forget this time. Next year will be the 40th Carnaval in San Francisco. As 39th King, my Queen and I invite you to come to the 40th Carnaval. If you plan to compete, you better work it and dance with your heart.

Thank you Oakland Carnaval for inviting me to be a part of your Carnaval by leading your parade and performing on stage as SF King Carnaval. To SF Carnaval for allowing me to be your King, and thank you all for the amazing love and dancing with me. Be safe and baile!

Approaching a Quarter Century at Smuin

Ensemble of dancers lunge upwards on stage under colored ropes

Smuin’s Oasis / Photo by Keith Sutter

“How does it feel to be on the cusp of Smuin’s 24th season?”

This was the first question I posed to Artistic Director Celia Fushille during a recent conversation about the ballet company’s upcoming 2017/2018 programming. And what an amazing season they have planned! Between September and June, Smuin will bring a glorious marriage of classical and contemporary movement to audiences all over the Bay Area. Two triple bill programs (Dance Series 01 in the Fall/Winter, Dance Series 02 in the Spring) featuring regional firsts, world premieres and returning repertory favorites and then, in December, their yearly festive holiday revue, The Christmas Ballet. “It’s pretty incredible,” Fushille responded, “when I look back at what we’ve been able to achieve as a company, I have a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction, and I know how happy Michael would be.”

Fushille is of course referring to Michael Smuin, the highly revered and incomparably talented dancer/choreographer/director who founded Smuin Ballet back in 1994 (the company has since changed its official name to Smuin, Contemporary American Ballet). “I had always thought that today, I would be at Michael’s right hand as his Associate Director,” Fushille said. But tragically and suddenly, Smuin passed away in 2007, leaving the group without its beloved leader. Fushille, a founding ballerina with the company, stepped up to take the reins. And for the past decade, she has managed to achieve an intricate balance, one that can be very elusive – moving and guiding Smuin into the future while simultaneously honoring the importance of the past.

As Artistic Director of a sixteen-dancer company with a ten-month performance season, Fushille has an array of roles and responsibilities to juggle. But all of them, whether administrative or creative, onstage or in the studio, are informed by one core principle: maintaining Michael Smuin’s legacy. A key component is restaging pieces from his extensive choreographic canon. “I always enjoy revisiting Michael’s work and telling his stories, it makes the dancers feel like they know him and the tradition of the company continues,” notes Fushille, “and his movement, while very demanding, is so organic and has such an ease to it.” 2017’s Dance Series 01, which has its first run from September 22-October 7, features one of these pieces—Smuin’s 2004 salute to the music of Frank Sinatra, Fly Me to the Moon. Timeless elegance and graceful beauty abound in this dance suite set to cherished Sinatra treasures; from the lyrical, youthful Moonlight Serenade duet to the potent, raucous That’s Life solo. “The Sinatra Ballet is so fun, and we are very excited to share it with this year’s audience, some of whom may be encountering it for the first time,” Fushille adds.

But choreography is not the only part of Smuin’s lineage that Fushille wants to sustain and cultivate. “Michael established such a special, incredible culture in the studio – a lack of fear, an attitude of respect, a place where the dancers are supported by the artistic leadership and by one another,” she explains. Fushille is deeply committed to facilitating this nourishing, inspirational environment for the entire Smuin family, today and for years to come, “I want the dancers to feel that their time at Smuin was well-spent, that they were able to grow artistically and have the satisfaction of an artistic journey well-traveled.”

Couple dancing, female dancer in a side lift

Smuin’s Serenade for Strings /
photo by Keith Sutter

Fushille also knows that legacy is more than just looking back, and that ensuring one is equally about being in the present and advancing forward. One essential piece of that puzzle is seeking new repertory that is in line with Michael Smuin’s style and vision. “I strive to bring in works that emulate, complement or include elements of Michael’s choreography, whether entertaining, whimsical, daring or passionate,” Fushille describes. Over the past ten years, the company has amassed an impressive repertoire from a varied and distinguished group of choreographers, or as Fushille calls it, “a wealth of artistic riches.” From new commissions to existing repertoire, there are so many exceptional examples to point to – work by Ji?í Kylián, Trey McIntyre, Val Caniparoli, Helen Pickett and Smuin’s current Choreographer-in-Residence Amy Seiwert. Dances from Caniparoli, Pickett and Seiwert will make up Spring 2018’s Dance Series 02 (running April 20 to June 2) with Caniparoli creating a new world premiere along with the return of Pickett’s Oasis (2016) and Seiwert’s Falling Up (2007).

Another favorite creative presence is Garrett Ammon, whose Serenade for Strings joins Fly Me to the Moon on the Dance Series 01 program. “Everyone at Smuin really loves Garrett’s movement quality, but we also just so enjoy working with him; the thoughtfulness and sensitivity in how he coaches ballet is remarkable,” Fushille relays. Originally choreographed in 2013 for his Denver-based company Wonderbound and last performed by Smuin during their “Untamed” program in Fall of 2014, Serenade for Strings employs ten dancers and is set to a highly memorable Tchaikovsky score. With its dramatic descending and ascending scalic motif, ballet enthusiasts will instantly recognize the piece as the same music George Balanchine used for his 1935 masterwork, Serenade. For Fushille, Ammon’s bold choice to choreograph to this iconic score immediately caught her attention, “it is so daring to use this music, but Serenade for Strings has really carved out its own identity – it certainly utilizes ballet-based movement but there is also subtlety, quirkiness, speed, precision as well as exchanges between dancers that are genuine and authentic, moments where you get to see two people that are truly being charmed by each other.”

Smuin will soon welcome yet another esteemed choreographic voice to its table, that of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose ensemble composition Requiem for a Rose (2009) will have its West Coast premiere on Dance Series 01. A longtime fan of Lopez Ochoa, Fushille recently had the chance to meet up with her in New York, “I loved our connection and her fiery spiciness; I immediately knew that she was going to be fun to work with.” Created on the Pennsylvania Ballet, Requiem for a Rose places romance and love into a theatrical container, challenging the audience to see a conversation between the two states, consider their relationship to each other and explore their very different journeys. As such, contrast is a huge part of the ballet. “So many aspects drew me to Requiem for a Rose – how the contrast of the opening solo shows real love versus romantic love, how the piece beautifully captures both the emotion and the tension of the music, and that it is very representative of the work Smuin is doing right now where classical [ballet] technique is juxtaposed against contemporary [dance] technique,” recalls Fushille, “and the lyricism and passion of each duet is stunning, something which Michael so excelled at too.”

The coming 24th season, a growing choreographic library and the continuation of an integral artistic legacy—Smuin has much to celebrate. And running alongside these significant achievements are even more aspirations and plans. One longer-term goal is infrastructure. “We’ve never had our own space, so hopefully a new building may be in the near future, where we can have control over the schedule and grow the organization; not necessarily into a bigger company, but perhaps with additional tracks like a trainee program,” Fushille outlines. In the shorter-term, there is next year, the 2018/2019 Smuin season and the commemoration of the company’s 25th anniversary. “As with every season, we always look forward to creating programs that the dancers love to dance, because when they have a sense of drive and joy, it extends to the audience and they in turn, feel that joy and integrity,” shares Fushille, “but the 25th anniversary will definitely be momentous – it will represent Michael, showcase what we’ve done to foster a new generation of dancemakers and highlight how Smuin is constantly working and striving to be a permanent fixture in the arts culture of San Francisco and the Bay Area.”

Direct from the Source

As a university professor I consider it a crucial part of my job to question the teacher-student relationship, and what makes for effective teaching. This questioning has grown increasingly pertinent, as my colleagues and I have been pressured to increase enrollment and to move some classes online in order to accommodate 60 – 90 students. My gut shouts “No!” every time we are asked to do this, and lately I have been directing my questioning towards my reaction. Is it important for teachers and students to be in the room together, for one-on-one interactions? What’s lost in huge classes?

I was struck recently by something master teacher Ruth Zaporah said in a workshop, and I’ll paraphrase it here: “My most important teachers taught me through their presence, through being in the room with them–not by anything in particular they did or said.” This moved me to examine my most important learning moments. I saw clearly that my memorable and influential lessons came from direct transmissions of my teachers’ living experience.

Here’s some of my salient learning memories:

  1. During summer intensives in the 1980’s with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company in Southern California, there always came a day when Bella herself would teach our technique class. Watching her walk into the room, this tiny woman, 80 years old, in her dark, knitted unitard, and being nearly knocked over by the fierce presence she commanded, I saw first-hand the power and integrity that can come from a life devoted to dance. I aspire to be like Bella in my 80’s—teaching and performing with my own fierce presence.
  2. The days as a teenager in which I was the only one to show up to my after-school dance classes with Charles Edmondson (my foundational modern dance and ballet teacher from the Lewitzky tradition) and the honor of having 1.5 hours with him all to myself. He gave me the same amount of energy and focus that he did for a full class. It was terrifying, and at the same time so validating to have someone demonstrate their belief in my abilities so sincerely.
  3. Performing a piece I created in a 1996 Joe Goode workshop. The piece was about sorting through difficult issues with my dad, and I decided to lead the audience out of the studio during the piece, pick up the office phone and actually call my dad. I remember standing there, having just dialed the number, and looking back out at Joe and my fellow students. The expression on Joe’s face was burned into my heart forever. He was completely “there” with me, with intense curiosity, fear, wonder, and trust. Here was this artist I looked up to immensely, accompanying me personally on my journey into the creative unknown.
  4. Mel Wong, one of my college mentors would come to see work I created with Dandelion Dancetheater in the early days of the company. Every time he saw our performances his comment would be something like, “Good work. Keep going.” At first I was frustrated that he wasn’t giving us more specific, in-depth feedback—that he didn’t “gush” more. But then I saw that he was transmitting something much more vital. He was guiding us to not get too caught up in any one piece, but to see each one as part of a life-long, ultimately mysterious process, through which we have to make vast amounts of work in order to grow.
  5. Looking back on the years I danced in the work of my primary choreographic mentor Della Davidson, I am most struck by my memories of how she witnessed our improvisations. We would begin most rehearsals with improvisations that would sometimes last up to two hours. After giving a basic structure, she wouldn’t say much at all, but would just watch and listen. Something about the quality of her attention, evoked outpourings of our subconscious feelings, ideas and movement languages. She really loved watching. And that love came through her eyes. The energy that she generated in that room was one of the most healing landscapes I have ever traveled through. She invited authenticity through her simple and direct interest in us.

 

Reflecting on these potent learning moments, I’ve become curious to hear from others. Are there key aspects of teaching and learning that are universal? What does this impart about the educational process? What might be lost if students have less direct access to their teachers in real time and space? I asked a number of colleagues and collaborators which moments stand out for them in their dance journeys. I received many wonderful responses, more than I could include here. Here’s a collage of selected transmission recollections and musings from dance artists and teachers.

Debby Kajiyama, co-director of NAKA Dance Theater (Oakland/San Francisco, CA):

“It’s funny which moments stay in your memory. Some of them seem so insignificant. I was in rehearsal with Kimiko Guthrie when she was working on her MFA thesis at Mills College. We were showing in-process material to some advisors, and I remember doing a very short solo and getting comments from Molissa Fenley. She has an astonishing ability to witness, to perceive so deeply, and to convey what she perceives without a value judgment. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I do remember the feeling of being witnessed. That was over ten years ago.”

Tracey Panek, Director of Maori Mo Ake Tonu (Concord, CA):

“When I reconnected to Maori performing arts after college, working with Kaea Lorna Te Ope Martyn was a turning point. Sitting by Lorna as we made poi, responding to her powerful vocal karanga, perfecting the wiri of our hand motions together, and above all—her physical presence—reignited the love I felt as a child learning about my Maori roots from my mother. Under Lorna’s guidance, our performance together at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival was a highlight of my early career. I credit Lorna, and the personal time she spent with me, for much of the success of my work today directing my dance troupe, Maori Mo Ake Tonu.”

Christy Funsch, director of Funsch Dance Experience (San Francisco, CA):

“When I first arrived into the graduate department at Arizona State University, I admit I had only a vague sense of who Daniel Nagrin was. I registered for the only class he was teaching my first semester, a class called ‘Jazz Forms.’ So we end up working with Daniel on highly detailed precision, and it’s going okay but sometimes I think I am milking my personality to make up for my lack of ability. And one afternoon we’re all running through something and he screams for us to stop and he stops the music and approaches us, shaking in what seemed like a rage. ‘Funsch!’ he yelled, ‘Do that again!’ and I’m terrified; first because it seems he knows my name and here I thought I had been successfully hiding from him, and second, I am new in the department and not keen on making an ass out of myself. But I do as he asks and he screams again ‘You stole that from me!’ which stuns the room into complete silence—it’s like we all inhaled and are suspended mid-breath. Oh no, I’m thinking, I’m totally lost, I shouldn’t even be here, and I start spiraling down into an inner monologue of self-doubt. Daniel then breaks into a grin and lets out a huge, warm laugh ‘well done,’ he says, ‘that’s it.’ And it took me a while to figure this out, but I now realize that in dance learning we are so often in mimetic embodiment—so preoccupied with ‘getting it’ through imitation. Daniel was so demanding, but what he was asking for was not imitation. It was for us to bring ourselves – our whole, complicated, articulate selves – into our dancing.”

Jack Gray, co-founder of I Moving Lab:

“I have been contemplating that the main reason I am the way I am is because from a young age (18 years) I was a product of full-time dance training. I will never forget the collective growing, the discussions, disagreements, difficulties and breakthroughs. Dance is a measure of our human capacity to bear witness to each other and ourselves. I learnt through all my teachers about how to deal with my ego, how to see their comments as helping me become a more robust artist, and how to recognize the development that was occurring. Because of these direct experiences – good and bad – I was able to foster my own teaching pedagogy. From a mentor, Charles Koroneho, I learnt how to be truthful to what I was seeing and what was happening and how to demand clarity in terms of bringing ourselves authentically to the creative experience. So long I had been unsure about how to work with my peers in the way I wanted. His direct, strong and supportive tone, along with the uncanny knack of confronting what needed to be confronted without pulling back made me able to position my role and responsibility as a leader to facilitate the best outcome. I am still developing this skill.”

Reese Johnson, ensemble member of Bandelion and MeND Dance Theater (Hayward, CA):

“I got the great opportunity to work with singer Ysaye M. Barnwell from Sweet Honey in the Rock, and I remember… we would all just sing without books or song sheets. We would just sit, and sing. Since I was a little girl, I’ve been a singer, and I always strived to be perfect in everything that I would do, and try to fit some type of mold with my singing. I remember talking to Ysaye about it and she just said, ‘If you want to sing don’t worry about what note comes out or what it sounds, just sing.’ And she told me that she learned how to sing just by ear, and that she never used song books or learned how to read music until later. That conversation just enabled me to let go of the inner fears, the inner conflicts and the criticisms.”

From Trina Nahm-Mijo, Professor of Dance, Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i, Hilo and Hawai’i Community College (Hilo, HI):

“The ‘direct transmission experience’ which stands out to me occurred when I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and taking modern dance classes with David and Marni Wood in the beautiful studio on Bancroft Way. David used to be Regisseur in Martha Graham?s Company and was known for his strict discipline and demanding ways as a teacher. He used to pick on me quite relentlessly in class. One day I mustered up the courage to make an appointment to see him in his office and ask him ‘Why do you keep picking on me in class?’ ‘Well, I only pick on the ones who have potential’, he roared. I was surprised by his answer which changed my life.”

Kristin Heavey, Director of Element Dance Theater and arts education consultant (Reno, Nevada):

“When I was eighteen years old I was working at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY—I had just spent a year living on the west coast and was seeking. Dancing was not on my radar until I met Angela Caponigro, Laura Dean’s long term collaborator, and a stunning dance artist in her own right. Angela taught Kundalini yoga and a dance breathing class. I was completely transfixed by her presence and teaching. She taught a meditation and improvisation class, and she told me I needed to dance. The biggest moment of transformation was when I asked her about dance training and she said to me it is being completely conscious—she demonstrated moving a teacup from the table to her lips. I have been working on that one lesson ever since.”

As I read and re-read these stories I find myself filled with exhilaration and curiosity. I am reminded that the most impactful teaching I do exists in the realm of mystery and not-knowing, in exploring my ever-changing connections with students, moment by moment. There’s a pull to get back into the studio as soon as possible, to court this living, breathing teacher-student dance. And I am re-dedicating myself to defend small classes at every stage of dance education.

In Practice: Colleague-Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Out of Your Niche

One of the lures of San Francisco in the 70’s for me was its robust number of world dance practitioners. Contemporary choreographers were entering a significantly pluralistic era. San Francisco boasted the widest range and most enthusiastic population of world dance participants and enthusiasts. With the advent of the Ethnic Dance Festival, their productions bec­ame hugely more polished and ambitious. They seemed to triple in number but that’s what happens when a door is opened. The festival was that door. I think this festival is a treasure; it stands as a beacon of value for our region, our wholehearted embrace of a broad and deeply imaginative world of traditions beyond our borders. We are not only a sanctuary city but also a celebratory city. —Brenda Way, Artistic Director/Founder of ODC/Dance


Next year is the big one. But moving into the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House now (July 8-9 and 15-16), as an overture to its 40th anniversary next summer was not such a bad, in fact courageous, decision for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (SFEDF).

Male dancer leaps with hat and cape

Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza / photo by RJ Muna

Was it serendipity that brought dances born in village plazas into this new venue, one of the temples of “high art?” Perhaps, but it’s good to remember that before they thrived in salons and court theaters, both opera and ballet had put down roots in popular culture. For the SFEDF, or as the dancers call it, “the Ethnic,” the new venue this theater offers a welcome opportunity to stretch its reach and claim its place as one of the Bay Area’s preeminent cultural institutions. After all, it was in this Beaux-Arts palace that countries from around the globe gathered in 1945 to found the United Nations. Also, if new museums, just by their very existence, dramatically increase their visitor count, there is no reason why SFEDF should not become more alluring to a wider audience and practitioners of other dance genres.

Yet this change of venue came only after several years of uncertainty and struggle for World Arts West (WAW), which produces the SFEDF. Executive Director Julie Mushet, always positive and who might be considered an SFEDF lifer—especially as she gets excited looking at the latest programs submitted by this year’s participants—recalls her frantic search for an appropriate SF theater. WAW had had high hopes to be considered as one of the developers for a revamped Palace of Fine Arts, their home for the last 23 years. “They didn’t even consider our proposal,” she explained, “because we didn’t have twenty millions in cash. Are there any non-profits who even have that kind of money?”

As it turned out the two potential hotel developers for the Palace of Fine Arts dropped out, as did the third candidate—for a museum. Then Mushet found out that even after the parking lots at the Palace of Fine Arts would be re-opened, the theater would no longer be available to them. So Mushet hit the phone, and finally called the Opera who not only invited them in, but also confirmed that they would be welcome for the festival’s 40th anniversary celebration (July 14-15 and 21-22, 2018).

Did the Opera give SFEDF a break on the cost to rent the theater? “No,” Mushet smiled, “we pay full price.” The rental fee will be around $250,000, compared to the Palace’s $103,306. During the last six years, because of limited or nonexistent parking at the Palace, WAW lost close to $500,000 in ticket income. Considering the way the funding situation is these days, one has to admire the guts and willingness to move forward by Mushet and her board of directors. “We understand that the Opera House is a bigger venue with a moderately larger fixed cost than was incurred at the Palace of Fine Arts. However, with its much more convenient location and the cachet associated with the Opera House we are anticipating a larger audience. Fingers crossed that this comes to pass!”explains SFEDF Treasurer Sydney Firestone.

seated and standing women play traditional instruments

Zena Carlota + Mahealani Uchiyama / photo by RJ Muna

A few years ago, SFEDF practically dominated the month of June with its four weekends of performances. Now their overall budget has shrunk by 20 percent, and many funders—both corporate and foundations—have disappeared. Mushet remembers a recent conversation with one potential donor who told her that SFEDF was behind the times and that they should turn it into a competition, in which the audience would determine the winner. “Does everything we do,” Mushet lamented, “have to be a competition? Isn’t there room for getting together and enjoying something beautiful?”

Over the last decade or so, SFEDF’s artistic quality has consistently risen. The dancers perform with expertise and commitment. The staging has become more proficient. The shows flow more smoothly. SFEDF presents dances to live music, “whenever possible,” Mushet clarifies. It is also be worth remembering that this summer might be a first for the Opera House: performers on stage who only dance for the love of it. No dancers get paid. SFEDF pays the companies a small honorarium according to their size. Maybe this is one reason that in 2012 an East Coast, post-modern choreographer, acquaintance of mine asked herself what she had carried away from a program she had just seen. Her answer, “They performed with such joy.”

Woman dancer lunges while swinging orange skirt

Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza / photo by RJ Muna

Directors of Bay Area world dance ensembles often return to the sources of their artist inspiration to deepen their knowledge and performance practice. Mushet recalls that in 2007 SFEDF received a small grant to send LIKHA Pilipino Folk Ensemble’s Artistic Director, Rudi Soriano to Palawan, Philippines to study with his Batak mentor. The following year the village chief participated in SFEDF and videotaped San Francisco’s artists. Upon returning to the Philippines, he discovered that his previously lackluster students began to develop a new appreciation for their own culture.

Choreographer and San Francisco Ballet Character Dancer Val Caniparoli has “attended the SF Ethnic Dance Festival for years and still is in awe of the diversity and the many ethnic organizations that thrive in the Bay Area.” In 1994, when he was working on his SF Ballet commission Lambarena: Bach to Africa, he sought out Diamano Coura West African Dance Company’s founder/directors Zakariya Diouf and Naomi Gedo Diouf. Still full of admiration, he recalls them as “amazing mentors and collaborators. They have affected how I choreograph—with a newly found sense of freedom.“ (on July 8, Naomi Gedo Diouf will receive this year’s SFEDF’s Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award)

three dancers, one drumming

BITEZO BIA KONGO / photo by RJ Muna

For the last 12 years the two Co-Artistic SFEDF Directors, Carlos Carvajal and CK Ladzekpo, have planned the programs with artists chosen from the pool of those qualified from the auditions. Carvajal, folk dancer in his teens before Ballet and choreography claimed him, explains; “I have European and some Asian experiences; CK knows all about dance and music of Africa and the African Diaspora.” Through their work curating the festival they have grown so close that they call each other “brother.”

dancer in blue crouches by upright dancer in red traditional Japanese costume

San Francisco Awakko Ren / photo by RJ Muna

Guiding the dancers through the process of trying to reach the Opera House’s 3,200 potential audience members—the Palace seated 966—did provide some challenges. Carvajal, who has performed in the Opera House many times during his time with SF Ballet, thinks the deeper stage will work beautifully though. Production values, however, had to be improved. Dancers will need to project more. Because of the theater’s size, some intimate dance forms could not be accommodated. Current programming had to be reduced to two weekends of two programs with two performances each. For the first time, some artists were invited without having to audition since the Festival considers them important to widen its audience appeal. 24 acts are scheduled, some of them in pre-performance settings.

SFEDF at the Opera House sounds good but that’s not the end. What the organizers really dream about is an International Festival of World Music and Dance—in the Opera House, and the rest of the City. As Caniparoli said, “I believe the sky is the limit on how this Festival can unite and affect all in the Arts community.” And its audiences.

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