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Letters to the Revolution: Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Letters to the Revolution
This letter was published as part of Letters to the Revolution – an online platform where leading artists and activists from marginalized communities were asked to write letters of strength and focus in light of the new administration. To read more letters like this one, please go to

(I address the powers that be; I look at the ceiling)

  1. To the Masterminds of Paranoid Nationalism

I say, we say:
‘We,’ the Other people
We, the migrants, exiles, nomads & wetbacks
in permanent process of voluntary deportation
We, the transient orphans of dying nation-states
la otra America; l’autre Europe
We, the citizens of the outer limits and crevasses
of ‘Western civilization’
We, who have no government;
no flag or national anthem
the undoqueermented of Homoland Insecurity
We, the New Barbarians
in constant flux,
from Patagonia to Alaska,
from Juarez to Ramalla,
todos somos mojados
We, the seventh generation, the fourth world, the third country
We millions abound,
defying your fraudulent polls & statistics
We continue to talk back & make art

[Shamanic tongues]

  1. To those up there who make dangerous decisions for mankind

I say, we say:
We, the homeless, faceless vatos aquellos
in the great American metropolis
little Mexico, little Cambodia, little purgatory
We, the West Bank & Gaza strip of Gringolandia
We, the unemployed & subemployed who work so pinche hard
so you don’t have to work that much
We, whose taxes send your CEOs & armies
on vacation to the South
We, evicted from your gardens & beaches
We, fingerprinted, imprisoned, under surveillance
We, within your system, without your mercy
We, without health or car insurance,
without bank accounts & credit cards,
We, scared shitless at ground level,
but only at ground level
like a pack of hungry wolves
exploring the ruins of an empty mall
we continue to be… together

[Shamanic tongues]

  1. To the lords of fear and intolerance

I say, we say:
We, mud people, snake people, tar people
We, bohemians walking on millennial thin ice
Our bodies pierced, tattooed, martyred, scarred
Our skin covered with hieroglyphs & flaming questions
We, the witches who transform trash into wearable art
We, Living Museum of Modern Oddities & Sacred Monsters
We, vatos cromados y chucas neo-barrocas
We, indomitable drag queens, transcendental putas
waiting for love and better conditions in the shade
We, bad boy & bad girls over 50
We, lusting for otherness
We, mota, peyote Ayahuasca & cocaine
We, todos somos putos y putonas
We, ‘subject matter’ of fringe documentaries
We, the Hollywood refuseniks,
the greaser bandits & holy outlaws
of advanced Capitalism
We, without guns, without Bibles
We, who never pray to the police or to the army
We, who never kissed the hand of a bishop or a curator
We, who barter and exchange favors & talismans
We, who still believe in community, another community,
a much stranger and wider community
We, community of illness, madness & dissent
community of horny angels & tender demons
We, scotch, mescal and bleeding saliva
We, frail and defiant; permanently outraged but always tender
We shape your desire while you contract our services
to postpone the real discussion
We are waiting, still waiting for you to go to sleep
so, we can continue the party

[Shamanic tongues]

  1. To the Lords of Censorship

I say, we say:
We, the artists & intellectuals who still don’t wish to comply
We, who talk back in rarefied symbols & metaphors
against the corruption of formalized religion & art
We, critical brain mass
spoken word profética, sintética
We, bastard children of two humongous nuns:
‘Heterodoxia’ e ‘Iconoclastia’
We, the urban monks who pray in tongues & rap in Esperanto
We, who put on masks, penachos & wigs to shout
‘you just can’t take my art away’
We, who dance against the rhythms of the times
We, who suddenly freeze!
Standing still in our underwear
right in the center of the stage or the street
with the words carved on our chests:
‘Performance artist: will bleed for food’
‘Obsessive artist: will die for one idea’
We, critical brain mass
fuga inminente de cerebros y hormonas
spoken word profética, sintética
We continue to talk back… talk back… talk back…

[Shamanic tongues]

  1. To those who are as afraid of us as we are of them

I say, we say:
We, who have no name whatsoever in the news
We, edited out, pixelated, censored, evicted, postponed
We, beyond the video frame, behind the caution tape
We, tabloid subject matter par excellence
We, involuntary actors of ‘The Best of Cops’
eternally stalking mythical blonds in the parking lot,
We, mistaken identities in your computer memory
We, generic brown & black males who fit all
taxonomic descriptions
We, black & brown lives don’t matter
We, black & brown nude bodies in the morgue,
taxidermied bodies in the Museum of Mankind
We, prime targets of ethnic profiling & capital punishment
We, one strike & we’re out
We, prisoners of consciousness without a trial
We, of the turban, burka, sombrero, bandana, leather pants
We surround your neon architecture
While you call the Office of ‘Homeland Security’

Yes, we are equally scared of one another

[Shamanic tongues]

  1. To the share-holders of mono-culture

I say, we say:
We, Americans with foreign accents & purple tongues
We, bilingual, polylingual, cunnilingual,
We, los otros del mas allá
del otro lado de la línea y el puente
We, lingua poluta et disoluta,
rapeando border mystery; a broader history
We, mistranslated señorita, eternally mispronounced
We, lost and found in the translation
lost & found between the layers of my words
We, interracial lovers,
children of interracial lovers, ad infinitum
We, Americans in the largest sense of the term
(from the many other Americas)
We, from Patagonia to Alaska
From Sao Paolo to New York
in cahoots with the original Americans
who speak hundreds of beautiful languages
incomprehensible to you
We [Shamanic tongues]
We, in cahoots with dozens of millions of displaced
Latinos, Arabs, blacks & Asians
who live so far away from their land
We, trapped between ICE and organized crime

[Shamanic tongues]

We all speak in unison therefore you cease to be
even if only for a moment
behind the curtain of language
I am, US, you sir, no ser
Nosotros seremos
Nosotros, we stand
not united
& when we talk back,
you become tongue-tied pendejos

[Shamanic tongues]

yess! magister dixit:
the people you call ‘aliens’
are the original inhabitants of this continent

(I will now skip 3 pages for the benefit of the audience)

  1. To the masters and apologists of war

I say, we say:
We, matriots not patriots
We, rebels, not mercenaries like you
We, labeled ‘extremists’ for merely disagreeing with you
We, caught in the crossfire,
between Christian fear & Muslim rage,
We, a thinking majority against unilateral stupidity
against preemptive strikes & premature ejaculation
We reject your arms sales & oil deals
We distrust your orange alert & your white privilege
We oppose the Patriot Act patrioticamente hablando
the largest surveillance system ever,
the biggest prison complex to date
We, whose opinions are never on the front page
of your morning paper
We, who are never polled by Fox News
who never get to debate those TV pundits
We did not vote for you,
do not support your wars,
do not believe in your violent gods
do not respect your immigration laws
Standing scared but firm
We demand your total, TOTAL withdrawal
from our minds and bodies ipso facto

[Shamanic tongues]

And when we speak in tongues, you disappear

  1. Finale:

[Finally facing/addressing the audience]

We, baaaad poetry, baaad art!
We, techno-pirates, Region 4
We, the shamans exorcising Enron
los brujos against Microsoft
poetas solitarios contra Wal-Mart
We, dervishes under the arches of McDonalds
radical clowns confronting the global police
immigrant teens torching the cars of the wealthy
We, los indignados y desterrados
El Movimiento Sin Tierra
Paracaidistas en Wall Street
the Other ‘99%’
We, the ghosts of the past
in cahoots with the future warriors
in cahoots with all innocent civilians killed
on both sides of the useless War on Terror
the useless War on Drugs
We, nosotros, going crazy to remain sane
literally dying for new ideas
performing against all odds
dancing on the edge of a crater
We, witnesses & willing victims of the End of Empire
We, Western World imploding disfunctionalia
history’s final chapter… colapso total!


We continue to talk back & make art

Tabula Rasa; take 2:

We, here we are, in (name of the city) mapeando,
mapping the immediate future
so you and I can walk on it
without falling inside the great faults of history.
You & I,
verbally walking together;
you & I,
ephemeral community;
you & I,
a tiny little nation-state;
you & I,
a one-hour-long utopia
titled ‘You & I,’
alone on stage,
fighting together the World Bank,
the IMF, the WTO & the G-8 cartels;
fighting avant-garde desire & the Patriot Act;
tu y yo, juntitos, bien abrazados,
fucking suavecito
fighting isolation & isolationism….
And art is our battlefield,
que otra?

And if we fall
we are caught in mid-air by a total stranger.

In Practice: Borderlines

dancer bends forward while walking on a line

Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz / photo by Elizabeth Boubion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEW VIEW: Julie Potter

Julie smiles in headshot

Julie Potter / photo by Robert Donald

Meet Julie Potter, the Director of San Francisco’s ODC Theater, who stepped into the role in the fall of 2016. Dancers’ Group has had the privilege of working with Julie as a writer for this publication and in her former role at YBCA. We were delighted to discover more about her many interests and inspirations.

Where is home for you and why?
I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is where my dance life started. Now I consider San Francisco my home – the place where I’ve created sustaining rituals, community and culture. I feel lucky to live in the same neighborhood as the ODC Theater, the Mission District, which allows me to closely experience the context in which the organization operates and the proximal publics.

How did you end up in this city?
I moved to San Francisco for love in 2009. Previously, I was living in New York and working at The Juilliard School at Lincoln Center.

What do you find important / special about the Bay Area dance scene?
I admire the generosity of knowledge transmissions and practice sharing among artists here. I think this porousness is particularly strong in the Bay Area. I’m inspired by the density of dance artists in the region and the rich ecosystem of performance sites from DIY salon environments, shared spaces and mid-size organizations to the institutional and academic. And if live gathering is the most essential counterpoint to screen-oriented lives, I feel like the performing artists in the Bay are also on the front lines of embodying the replenishment that expressions of the body bring to our contemporary culture.

How would you like to see the Bay Area dance community evolve in the next year? The next five years?
I think the dance community is really composed of interdependent clusters, pockets and nodes, which keep a generative circulation of ideas, practices and resources moving. Evolving would mean staying in process in a way that is attuned and awake to the moment in which we are living. This is not a time to isolate. Ideally, I would like to see this evolution be characterized by generosity where people are showing up for each other at performances, collaborating and continuing to ask questions.

What are your curatorial objectives for ODC Theater?
I hope to cultivate ways to look, to give attention, to be in community, and to make meaning. As someone passionate about potent experiences of contemporary performance, gathering and exchange, I am committed to nurturing that which is vital and embedded in this live art. Our core programs include a performance season, artist residencies as well as public engagement for amplification and connection.

I approach performance curation with an awareness of how legibility and visibility function, remembering that some aspect of the unknown is important for the field. Performance can offer a locus of possibility into the public imagination. Through this hosting, the theater offers opportunities to be with that which is life-affirming, and also to practice being with difficulty, and perhaps even finding the pleasure in that condition.

Being situated at the region’s largest dance campus, I plan to advocate for and share the vital activity of West Coast artists. In addition to a deep commitment to artists at the ODC Theater, I am also thoughtfully engaged with our publics, seeding both communities of affirmation, those in which we find belonging, as well as communities of dissonance, those in which we encounter difference, new perspectives and zones for discovery. Both are important if we are to contribute to a world in which change is possible.

Finally, I think of this role as continued care giver, approaching living as care and study as care. I host and think together with artists and audiences. About affective vulnerability. About assemblages and ecologies of individual creators and relationships. Mostly about dances.

Imagine you had unlimited resources, time, and money — what would you do at the theater?
Someone from a large foundation asked me a similar question a few years ago. The choices we make as arts professionals and the operations we put in motion are so contingent upon the conditions and times in which we are living.

So, the value in imagining a utopian environment for theater broadly leads one to identify enabling conditions in which a thriving vision of culture can land – one in which publics and influencers value cultural memory, transmission, expressions of the body and empathy. One in which artists have the resources, time and money to manifest a vision and live well. Every program we do at ODC Theater aims to continually help create these more conducive conditions both for performing arts and for artists. So that is how I see the long arc.

More immediately, I find myself inspired by strategies and perspectives offered by artist coach Beth Pickens, with whom I worked at YBCA. Pickens is currently teaching a workshop called “Making Art During Fascism.” Rather than imagining utopian conditions, she encourages looking squarely at our capitalist system, economics and labor in relation to the arts and strategically designing tactics with eyes wide open to a fraught reality.

Personally, I also think priorities should be guided by staying focused on the specific assets of the organization and how to do the most good by the instrument. How do you leverage and provide access to those assets? Some of the initiatives I worked on at YBCA with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Chinaka Hodge and Amy Vazquez around institutional relationship and access expanded both who was making work and who was coming to see work at the site. At ODC Theater I plan to do a lot of listening to be an effective match-maker in the flow of assets and needs.

Is there anything happening in the local dance ecosystem you feel is not visible enough?
I will take this opportunity to make visible the recent W.A.G.E. Certification of local art spaces including The Lab and SFMOMA. W.A.G.E. stands for Working Artists and the Greater Economy and their broad goal is to work toward the fairer and more equitable distribution of resources in the contemporary art field and in society at large. Spearheaded by Dena Beard and Claudia La Rocco at their respective institutions, W.A.G.E. Certification signals a vital conscientiousness around artist labor.

I think it’s also important to continue make visible how notions of safety and sanctuary translate to various performance sites differently across cultures, legalities and ideologies. If safety is a precondition for receptivity and participation – in performance and in relationship – I want to encourage more inquiry and awareness regarding what this entails for a variety of publics and sites.

Finally, I believe in the body as a site of healing, and want to make visible the life-changing and life-saving modalities of those who work in dance and body-based practices to guide somatic re-patterning. Many practitioners in our local dance ecosystem do amazing work in this area and are still too often met by medical, psychiatry and psychology professionals as being “woo” or “out there.” The incredible multimodal intelligence and sensitivity of dance practitioners has so much to offer in this vein. I hope the rigorous work of people bridging fields such as Besser van der Kolk can shift perceptions of integrated body healing practices closer to the center.

Who is Besser van der Kolk and what’s this work like?
Besser van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts and his findings and interventions are summarized in his writing, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” This work is compelling to me because it recognizes the vital role that embodied practice plays in shaping wellness and how those actions communicate with the nervous system.

What’s coming up at ODC Theater that you can’t wait for people to experience?
I’m excited for people to experience the work in this June’s Walking Distance Dance Festival, which will feature mostly premieres by Bay Area artists: Alex Ketley, Charles Slender-White and Liane Burns, Monique Jenkinson, Maurya Kerr, Joanna Haigood and Laura Ellis. The Kate Weare Company will be at ODC Theater in the fall—a collaboration with visual artist Clifford Ross. I’m also working with artists to develop the 2018 season, which I’m excited about, tracing humor and criticality, creative habitats, grand gestures and modern love.

What is an instance in dance (recent or long ago, local or far away) that you return to for inspiration?
So many live performance moments! Some inspiring and particularly memorable instances onstage that come to mind include Lemi Ponifasio’s Tempest: Without a Body, Taylor Mac’s Comparison is Violence, Aristi?des Vargas’ La Razon Blindada, Kyle Abraham’s The Radio Show, Mariano Pensotti’s The Past is a Grotesque Animal, Sarah Michelson’s Devotion and William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar.

I also remember learning phrases from master teachers as a young dancer and the exhilaration of that immersive study. I remember Twyla Tharp teaching retrograde, Donald McKayle teaching Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, Daniel Lewis teaching Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane. I still enjoy taking class and return for inspiration. The value of repetition is a sort of persistence, and I appreciate the cyclical practice and ritual of return.

Give us a shortlist of other inspirations: people, places, artists/artworks, authors/ books, movies, classes, exhibits, shows, anything! (in or out of dance)
Volcanoes are my hobby. I find the geology endlessly fascinating and awe-inspiring. I listen to (and love) the Call Your Girlfriend podcast. I also have a pretty serious book problem and always try to keep some fiction and poetry going. I recently enjoyed The Brain Electric by Malcolm Gay, which is about prosthetics. Alley Cat Books on 24th Street in San Francisco is the best. Joe Veix makes excellent humor projects and takes elements of performance to the internet. You’re Going to Die is a strange and wonderful salon series. Sandra Chinn’s class for ballet. Annie Carpenter’s class for yoga.

Is there anything else you’d like to share as you step into this new role?
I am so grateful to all the artists and colleagues who have been generous in sharing insights and encouragement as I begin my work at ODC Theater. Thank you and see you at the dance!

The Artistic Ensemble at San Quentin Prison

Men jump mid-air

The Artistic Ensemble / photos by Peter Merts

EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2013, the Insight Prison Project, a Restorative Justice organization, approached artists and educators Amie Dowling and Freddy Gutierrez about their desire to bring a dance theater workshop into the Prison. After the 16 incarcerated men who participated in the initial 12-week program expressed a wish to continue, a collective of inside and outside artists, The Artistic Ensemble, was born. Today the group collaboratively generates and creates dance theater, which is presented inside the Prison to audiences comprised of currently incarcerated men and invited guests from outside the Prison.

San Quentin State Prison, opened in 1852 , occupies 275 acres of Marin County, just north of San Francisco. At the time of writing, the four large cell blocks of San Quentin hold 3,760 incarcerated men.

The Artistic Ensemble meets and works together weekly, and has written collaboratively about how the members develop their work within the context of incarceration, including an interview with three who volunteered to share their experiences of participating in the group.


Movement throughout the institution will be regulated by a procedure called controlled movement. The purpose of controlled movement is to ensure that the movement of inmates is orderly. Controlled movements will begin five minutes before the hour and extend for five minutes after the hour. The beginning and end of each move will be announced over the loudspeaker. During this ten-minute period inmates may move from one area of the institution to another.

Inmate Information Handbook, Federal Bureau of Prisons


The imprisoned body is the primary site of carceral control, an elaborate choreography of containment and segregation. Behind prison walls, regimented rituals of eating, cleaning, labor and leisure curtail individual freedom of movement in the service of “orderly” systems. How, then, do we, an ensemble of inside and outside artists, work within these constraints and confinements?

This article seeks to smuggle inside voices out, and to invite the dance community to engage with incarcerated artists as thinkers and makers.

The Artistic Ensemble at San Quentin Prison is a group of 16 currently incarcerated artists, who, working with five outside members, explore social inequalities through language, sound and movement. As inside members, we turn our constraints and boundaries into new perspectives about how we, and our art, are seen. Our stories cannot be properly told without the echoes of our voices; you cannot picture our world unless we are behind the camera. There is nothing about us, without us.

Questions that shape our work include:

  • How do we as artists begin a collective process, where inside and outside artists are working side by side?
  • How does transmission occur when stage and audience are separated by a system of mass incarceration that disappears certain bodies?
  • How do we use our subversive roles as artists to dismantle the systemic oppression and racism that underlie mass incarceration?

How the Work is Made
After each performance, audience members ask us to explain how we made the work. Often the process is described by what it is not: it is not a play, it does not have characters or a script, it was not made by one individual, it was not easy.

Men stand pulling at shirt collars.

The Artistic Ensemble / photos by Peter Merts

We are striving to create an artistic space within a punitive, regimented, linear system. In this system, a single logic of order prevails—is relied upon—as a means by which rules, hierarchical placement, and right and wrong are deciphered. Our creative process is not linear; inspiration comes from multiple sources—personal story, writing, world events, movement metaphors. Performative structures for those ideas are brought to the group by inside and outside members and developed over months of experimentation.

The three performances we have created are assemblages. Waterline (Nov 2014) was followed by Faultline (Nov 2015), which explored the almost geological weight, time, and pressure of incarceration. In this piece, the collective 334 years served by the Artistic Ensemble members appear both as a crushing total and as a series of daily prison rituals. “What makes us visible?” “Is it possible not to disappear?” These opening questions framed Ways To Disappear (Nov 2016).

As inside and outside artists, working in an inhumane system, we strive to develop a creative process that supports our humanity—one that considers the way we make. The way we attend to ourselves and each other matters: the day-in- and day-out-ness of the work is given as much weight as the day of the performance.

Below are excerpts from an interview with Artistic Ensemble members Anouthinh “Choy” Pangthong (AP), Emile DeWeaver (ED), and Antwan “Banks” Williams (AW).

How would you describe the Artistic Ensemble (AE)?
AP: We are a collective of individuals who created harm in our communities. Today we create works of art that speak to the harm left in our wake. However, there is a greater societal discussion we attempt to provoke through our art, covering socio-economical disparities, gender inequalities, racial differences, racial similarities, immigration, and the like. I’ve been incarcerated for 20 years. Life in prison can become mundane, doing the same thing over and over. Sparks of violence would break the monotony. When an opportunity came to do something different, I jumped at the chance. My life since AE is anything but ordinary.
ED: The Artistic Ensemble is both an artist’s collective and a performance company. We’re seeking supportive space in which to develop creative skills and social connectedness. We’re marginalized people who are blessed to speak universal languages (dance, poetry, song, anguish, desire, joy); in this regard, we’re ambassadors.

How long have you been a performer? What are your influences?
AP: In my teens, I learned how to break dance with cousins. We videotaped ourselves in my uncle’s living room. The movie “Beat Street” had a big influence. And in the backdrop, hip-hop would blast out from sub woofers.

ED: I was a performing musician for seven years before beginning as an actor at San Quentin. Then, through AE, I became interested in dance. My strongest stage influences are incarcerated men: Juan Meza, Antwan “Banks” Williams, and Julian Glenn Padgett. But if I could be anyone on stage, it would be Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee. I’ve loved the way they move since I was a kid. Poetry in flesh.

How do you make work?
: Sometimes it’s a zen thing where there’s a sustained intent to create until something comes out. Then I approach the raw material like an editor—mine meaning, and shape it. Other times I’m energized with a feeling or an idea, and then it’s just a matter of scoring a medium—text, movement, music—and exploding. The latter process is rare and a bit of a junky high I chase.

AP: For the most part, our work is collaborative. An idea or concept emerges and what follows is the exploration—developing content, through writing, movement, or group discussions. The exploration piece is probably the most exciting part as an artist, because it allows me to be in creative mode.

men sit with times on whiteboard

The Artistic Ensemble / photos by Peter Merts

In today’s political environment why does art matter?
AW: Art can change the perspective of those in power.

ED: We live in a polarized nation. The hard lines that divide liberal from conservative, believer from non-believer, white male supremacist from incarcerated black female, are deep. But art is a bridge that allows us to experience another’s life, which is the foundation of empathy. Art is a medium capable of confronting its consumers with the human condition, and when we’re confronted by a human face that penetrates all the barriers we create to deny our fraternity with the “other,” the hard lines dissolve. Given all this, art can create a space for dialogues that aren’t happening, dialogues that run across the hard lines.

What do you think about the fact that artists in prisons cannot be compensated, despite how much money is raised for a project?
ED: I think artists should be paid for their work. If they cannot receive money directly, then the money should go into trusts for them to accomplish various things: (1) to support a college education for the artist’s children, (2) as a nest-egg for when the artist paroles, (3) to keep artist in touch with family by paying for phone calls or visiting expenses, (4) to invest (which helps both the economy and the artist), (5) to help support the artist during incarceration (quarterly packages, restitution debts).

Do you consider the work that the Ensemble does as political and/or activist? If so, in what ways?
AW: The work is political/activist. Just because we are in prison does not take away our need/wish to change a society we will ultimately return to. We create pieces that highlight police brutality, immigration and racial inequality. We understand the causes, factors and consequences that lead to and result from the divide and hatred among us.

AP: There are political aspects to our work; however, I believe our core is advocacy for those who suffer injustice created by human hands and institutional establishments. And what I love about AE is that we advocate for hope, compassion, and humanity.

ED: I consider our work political. The politics of fear, retribution, and supremacy that support xenophobia, sexism, and racism are unsustainable in the space our art creates. The Ensemble is devoted to expanding this space, and that is a political act.

How can artists and arts organizations on the outside support your work?
ED: Artists on the outside can support my work by contacting me and inviting me to participate in their communities, by being willing to carry me, like my brothers in the Ensemble do. Artists can support my organization, Prison Renaissance ( We have a mentorship and collaborations program that unites incarcerated and free artists to create more space where the politics of fear can’t exist. We take donations through our fiscal sponsor, Impact Justice ( Arts organizations could partner up with re-entry programs to basically hold my hand back into society. They could employ me for 6 months while I get on my feet. They could build art or education programs in the free world where they train and pay family members. They could provide credentials like an MFA.

AP: The biggest support artists on the outside can give us is to acknowledge that there are talented artists on the inside. Prisons confine and separate, but the art that is created on the inside can reach a wider audience with the support of artists on the outside.

Turning Thirty: Joe Goode Performance Group Celebrates a Very Vital Enterprise

Dancer with face collaged

Molly Katzman in Nobody Lives Here Now / photo by RJ Muna

When a dance company reaches its 30th birthday, this is cause for celebration. It usually means they’ve managed to stay afloat in unstable economic periods, weathered artistic storms, and nurtured fertile working environments for decades.

In the case of the Joe Goode Performance Group, which performs its 30th anniversary season in June at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, there’s extra cause for celebration. A distinguishing factor of the Group is its longterm relationships: dancer Marit Brook-Kothlow has been with the Group since 1990, and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello since 1996. At YBCA they will perform an excerpt of a work they first performed in 2004 called Grace.

Such longevity is rare for companies, not only because of the tolls that dancing takes on our bodies but also because of the vicissitudes of funding that sustains employment. Goode says fondly, “These people stuck with me for an amazingly long time. Had I been getting a new cast every two years, I would not have made it to 30 years. They sustain me: they are my friends and part of this very vital enterprise where you’re bonding and taking risks together. You have to have each other’s backs, and that bonding unit becomes, in itself, a totally addictive and pleasurable thing.”

Joe Goode and Liz Burritt in Remember the Pool at the Best Western / photo by Marty Sohl

One of Goode’s original company members, Liz Burritt, who was a member of JGPG for 21 years, will join the company for the YBCA season. Burritt and Goode will perform an excerpt from 1991’s Remembering the Pool at the Best Western. “The pleasure of being on stage with Liz is kind of like the safest space in the world for me” says Goode. “It’s safer than real life: it’s a very generative but also generous space to be in. I feel held.”

Goode’s connections with these artists shifted his initial resistance to the retrospective season: “A nostalgic walk down memory lane is something I hate,” he says. “It just feels like you’re trying to put on skin that doesn’t t your body anymore. I try to make work in the moment that feels contemporary to everyone in the room. To come back to it 10 years later, or even 6 months later, makes me wonder, ‘Why are we doing this?’”

As difficult as it may be to revisit these older creations, they hold resonance today that makes them powerful and poignant moments of connection. Goode says Remembering the Pool was created “when one of my best friends was dying. The piece asks, ‘How do you talk to this person? How do you keep that connection after the lights go out?’” Such questions about relationships and survival continue to propel Goode’s projects. When we spoke by phone in early March, he was in Boston to speak at a conference called, “Art in the Service of Understanding.” The presentations highlighted the importance of the arts as catalysts for social change. For instance, AXIS Dance Company, a physically integrated dance company based in the Bay Area that also marks its 30th anniversary this year, performed Goode’s acclaimed to go again at the conference. This performance, his third creation for AXIS, addresses the ability to be “resilient in the face of really catastrophic circumstances,” says Goode. At the Boston conference he spoke about his process with AXIS dancers, as well as his work with combat veterans through an initiative he created, called The Resilience Project. For Goode, his process for to go again began with “interviews of combat vets returning from Iraq, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. We asked them questions about how they were adjusting and if they were learning to be resilient. The answers were varied and we found that people were so eager to talk, so eager to give voice to their experiences.”

At YBCA, his company will perform a new work, accompanied by the Thalea String Quartet (the first-ever quartet in residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music), which Goode says is “quite dance-ey.” Called Nobody Lives Here Now, the piece is, in Goode’s words, “about gender and loss of a clear gender container, which I have always felt, but I think is a more acknowledged feeling today.” This work also addresses experiences of aging and the feeling of “not being your former self no matter how hard you try.”

Two excerpts from evening-length works, one from The Rambler (2011) and the other from Wonderboy (2008), complete the program and give a sense of the range of Goode’s creations: The Rambler presents, in Goode’s words “a restless, peripatetic soul who can’t stay put,” and Wonderboy is a collaboration with puppeteer Basil Twist. As different as these performances may appear, Goode describes the through-line of his career as honoring personal stories, especially when they present “the stank of human experience.” When Goode founded JGPG in 1986, he “felt ostracized, marginalized and stigmatized by who I was. I knew I wanted to make work about that, to explore it and to own it. I also knew it didn’t make sense for dancers to be mute or denude themselves of their own personal histories.”

The impact of Goode’s performances and teaching extends far beyond his company and their audiences. In 2011 he opened his space called the “Annex” on Alabama Street in San Francisco that has become an incubator for Bay Area performances and workshops. He also teaches at the University of California, Berkeley where he has been a tenured faculty member since 2001. When asked if these other projects inform his performances Goode answered, “Absolutely and I think the work I make informs these other people and places. Our methodologies, the ways we enter the room, are about generosity and asking questions, as well as a willingness to try something that may fail. That point of view informs how I teach at Berkeley and how I run the space.”

As a student in Goode’s classes in 1992 when he taught at the Harvard Summer Dance program, I remember his insistence on stripping away formulas or imitations to get at why each of us moves and feels certain things. This pursuit of harder questions instead of pretty shapes was new to me as a classically trained ballet dancer. I remember being both terrified and excited by the possibilities of speaking and moving as well as shedding comfortable habits. Almost 20 years after the Harvard Summer Dance program, I called Goode to ask if I could interview him for an article about dancers and sexuality. While he was generous in making time for the conversation there was also a bit of reluctance to be pigeon-holed as an artist who only makes performances about what it feels like to be gay. Goode’s performances speak to many different identities and experiences, inspiring diverse communities and insights, while they address varied audiences.

Goode says he wants to be “in an intimate conversation” with audiences that “hopefully will dislodge somebody from their complacency or their locked-in perspective on the world or on themselves. I am in dialogue with the viewer all the time. I don’t make work just for us.” A current that runs through Goode’s projects is the sense of intimacy fostered by the vulnerability of his performers and their willingness to explore more difficult aspects of human lives.

His ability to connect with disparate groups is another through-line of his teaching and choreography: his ongoing curiosity, his inability to be satis ed with an easy answer, is also an inspiring model for how we may live our lives and treat one another. As life presents us with moments that are unexpected and at times painful, we are called upon to think and act creatively and generously.

For more than two decades I have admired Goode’s unwillingness to subscribe to a recipe, because it provides an example for how we can show up in our relationships and careers. Are we willing to venture into unknown territories and ask ourselves how to be present for one another as well as ourselves? Do we foster communication and compassion or settle for convenience? In a country where people encounter violence driven by prejudice, hate, and ignorance, these questions point to the power of performance to foster awareness and understanding. They are necessary inquiries, and they remind us of why Goode’s performances are both political and vital.

Gaining Perspectives, Changing Perceptions – Article #3: The Illusion of Borders

7 students pose with teacher, Farah.

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh (pictured center) / photo courtesy of the artist

EDITORS NOTE: In this ongoing series for In Dance Farah Yasmeen Shaikh writes about her experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American woman Kathak artist and her work teaching and performing in Pakistan. Article #1: How Politics and Power Shaped Dance in Pakistan can be found in the December 2016 issue and Article #2: Our World in Constant Motion in the March 2017 issue.

When I first titled this series of articles, I was reflecting on how my work in Pakistan has allowed me to “gain perspective” and “shift [my own] perceptions,” as I had my own prejudices and assumptions about the environment, how I would fit into it, and what the overall response would be to performing and teaching there. I went into this work with my own personal goals of challenging myself to represent an art form and my training in it, my personal background as an American born to Pakistani immigrants, and to own my identity as a Muslim, but being fully aware that I may not be seen as such due to my relatively progressive lifestyle. Personally and professionally, so much was at risk. I’m proud to have been able to abandon my own doubts about having a presence in Pakistan to now truly feeling like I can comfortably call the country a second home. Having completed four trips in just one year, and with plans to continue to perform and teach in Pakistan, my increased awareness and comfort, and thus experience of working in this environment positions me to further embrace the previously unforeseen responsibility of bridging the gaps that we innocently and often unknowingly create through our misconceptions.

While working in Pakistan, and sharing it through various mediums (social media, these articles) a catalyst has been put in place for many unexpected conversations and responses I’ve received about my experiences. In Pakistan itself, it has been a matter of breaking through the perceptions of dance – ones of stigma, of being un-Islamic; of Kathak as an art form that some see as “Hindu” dance which due to continued animosity between India and Pakistan some view Kathak as not having an appropriate place in Pakistan. This has happened most frequently through my experiences teaching in Pakistan.

Students of Farah moving together

Kathak students / photo courtesy of the artist

In some settings, students involuntarily took my class as it was a requirement put in place by their educational institution or department. For the most part, students were open and welcoming to this experience, but there were some who expressed hesitation and resistance, mainly due to their own religious interpretations of how dance would be disrespecting their belief system, and/or if they felt an aspect of what I was teaching was displaying too much reverence to aspects of Hinduism. Navigating these sensitivities while simultaneously being true to the integrity and history of Kathak has been challenging to say the least, but also the source of important dialogue and lessons on how to teach in such environments without isolating or ostracizing myself or the students. I’ve also had the honor and huge responsibility of quite often offering the very first dance class that many of the participants had ever taken – ever. Keep in mind, most of my work has been with high school and university level students.

I know I’m not alone in thinking, as my GuruJi, Pandit Chitresh Das, used to say “Arts and culture bring peace and harmony.” However, imagine being in a situation where I could potentially reinforce one’s prejudice against dance, its history, or its cultural and religious influences, depending on my approach to teaching and reaching the students. The greatest joy has come from numerous accounts of transformation from students who had expressed hesitation in taking the class for reasons described above, to at the end of their time with me sharing how much they “loved” the experience.

Here is one such sentiment from a student at a university in Karachi:

“This is the first time I’ve actually danced in my life. Before that I used to see people dance, but it never touched my heart until now. It made me feel more close to myself and I feel more confident in myself.” —Shahzadi.

And for those who of their own desire had enrolled in one of my classes, it has been an honor to not just introduce them to Kathak, but to instill in them the desire to have more such experiences.

The various movements we learned improved our posture and increased our confidence, especially in the way we walk and talk to others. And the history surrounding Kathak enlightened us about our own [culture]”—Aleezeh and Natalia, high school students in Karachi.

I realize that I now have a unique vantage point that I’ve obtained through a deeper understanding of Pakistani politics over the decades, the country’s ongoing (strained) relations with India, and the numerous positive developments Pakistan has undergone—and the parallels of all of this to that of what we are witnessing take place around the world. I could have never predicted that working abroad would happen at a time when our global state of affairs, and specifically the political chaos that has developed in the US, would make my work in Pakistan, and my upcoming artistic presentation, strangely and somewhat sadly, relevant.

In the fall of 2016, I received funding from the CA$H Grant to support my upcoming work, The Partition Project, focused on the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Based on the stories and testimonials from witnesses of Partition, this will be a collaborative presentation with EnActe Arts and the 1947 Partition Archive, told through dance, music, theater and multimedia (premiering at Z Space in San Francisco, January 2018). A pivotal time in the history of South Asia, the Partition is when British rule ended in India and a divided India and Pakistan was based on religious lines, with Pakistan created as an Islamic nation. During the transfer of power, and the mass migration to the other side of these newly formed borders, 15 mil- lion people became homeless, making it the world’s largest mass human displacement (see footnote #1).

Creating work on such a heavy topic – one that is only 70 years old, and that still has a huge impact on the neighboring countries of India and Pakistan with regards to their own relationship as well as their standing with the rest of the world – requires me to find as many opportunities as I can to connect and feel the historical side of Partition as well as its present day relevance.

With the support of the grant, during my trip to Pakistan in January 2017, I made plans to travel from Karachi (the city where I spend most of my time in Pakistan) to go north to Lahore. Just outside Lahore is a small town, Wagah, which serves as a transit terminal for goods and a railway station between Pakistan and India. It lies on the old Grand Trunk Road between Lahore, Pakistan and Amritsar, India. My hope and intention in visiting the border was to absorb, reflect on, and document through photos and video. Here is my account on social media of my experience:

“Yesterday my daughter and I went to the Wagah border of Pakistan and India. I had heard of the pomp between the rangers from each country, but needed to witness what it felt like to visit this visible and physical separation between two countries that not too long ago were one.

The experience was overtaken by what I can compare to a school rally. Attendees from either side were trying be louder than the other. The rangers were competing by kicking higher than the other and puffing their chest broader than their opponent. I tried to mute the cheers and clapping, and blur the flags waving and instead focused on the lack of sentimentality.

High security seemed to be the only thing reminiscent of the state of relations between the countries. But where were the hardcore facts of Partition, of the tragic human displacement and unprecedented loss of lives in such a short period of time? Where was the account of how people migrated across on foot or by train in 1947, and how families were forced to leave their land, belongings, businesses, to never be able to return to their birthplace and the only homes they had known? Instead we watched men in embellished uniforms perform goofy routines of high kicks and awkward marching sequences.

There was a moment in this comedic display in which a handshake from representatives of each country takes place. But that too was all for show as the gates opened for the human contact, but were quickly closed again once the backs were turned.

One beautiful moment: seeing the flags of Pakistan and India almost become one as they crossed each other on their respective strings.

I know we cannot rewrite history, but when are we going to own it? When are we going to dissect and break down the many ways in which this tragic history continues to divide us? When are we going to rise above and not let a handshake just be for show?

The hope is that The Partition Project will at least provoke open, honest dialogue about our history, how it continues to shape us, and sadly not for the better.”

As I continue to reflect on my work as an artist in this tumultuous world, I am grateful for the perspective that I gain through doing work internationally. On a daily basis we bear witness to populations from around the world having to (sometimes forced, sometimes by choice) flee their homelands, and then observe the various governments from other countries determine who they will “welcome,” let alone who each will allow to simply visit or return to the places they now call home. I am struck by how many examples we have right in front of us—Pakistan and India being one of them—of how conservative and oppressive political regimes can take populations back hundreds of years in thought and practice. And how we can look to the fallout from such examples to guide in decision making that should and could so easily be based on humane practice that will not result in racial or religious prejudice, violence, displacement, loss of lives and degradation of culture.

One of the highlights from my January 2017 trip was an invitation to perform in Lahore at Faiz Ghar, the home of the late renowned Urdu poet, revolutionary and human rights activist, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

It was a tremendous honor to perform here, and timely yet again, as his work was often a response to political oppression. One of his works in particular comes to mind as I think of him, his vast contributions, the poignancy of his words even today. This piece is titled Hum Dekhenge, meaning “We will see.” Originally in Urdu, this is an English translation of an excerpt from the poem:

We will see
It is certain that we too will see
When the cruel mountains of injustice Will blow away like cotton-wool Beneath the feet of (us) the oppressed This earth’s heartbeat will pound And above the heads of the rulers Lightning will crackle

We will see



may in dance cover screenshot 2017San Francisco, and the surrounding Bay Area, is known throughout the world for its weirdness and fabulously-unapologetic-radical-queerness. It has long been a sanctuary for migrants (documented and not), LGBTQ communities, the homeless, left-leaning politicos, and artists. Those who don’t agree with capitalist, heteronormative, “polite” society. Within such a context, dance-making reflects this Other-ness. It is unruly, political, disabled, sensual, black, brown, female, spiritual, provocative, and profound.

In Dance, Dancers’ Group’s platform for writing about movement ideas and practices, spans 19 years, during which time the social landscape in which dance artists make work has shifted dramatically. In many ways, we have progressed, seen in advances in LGBTQ rights and clean energy, for ex- ample. But, progress comes in fits and starts, marked by counterpoints that shift, push us back, and perpetuate Other-ness.

Of course, Other is relational, relative to an always shifting mainstream. Whether intentionally topical or not, art is necessarily responding to and being witnessed from its broader context. Take Farah Yasmeen Shaikh’s teaching Kathak in Pakistan: she must reckon with her own identity as a Muslim-American and the historical and current geopolitical standing between Pakistan and India. Her reflections on her work and its context are part of an ongoing series of articles, “Gaining Perspectives, Changing Perceptions.”

Joe Goode and his eponymous Performance Group began 30 years ago, in a time when making performances as an out gay man was perilous, even in San Francisco. His 29 Effeminate Gestures was therefore groundbreaking, depicting a man embracing his femininity while wielding a chainsaw. Decades later, Goode continues to shine a light on the nuances of relationship and the politics of the intimate, all in his playful yet potent, allegorical style. Writer Kate Mattingly covers Goode’s upcoming 30th anniversary season.

Scholar Sima Belmar continues her series “In Practice” with a discussion of borders and immigration. She speaks with Juan Manuel Aldape Mun?oz, a previously undocumented immigrant from Mexico and current movement artist in Berkeley, CA. With the Trump administration’s focus on immigration across our Southern border, Mun?oz’s studies on anxieties, sweating bodies, borders, and migration become all-too relevant.

Since the Nixon administration, the United States has fought a brutal and flawed “War on Drugs,” one of several policies of a criminal justice system that has led to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and other people of color. Several incarcerated men from California’s San Quentin Prison have written about their performance work with The Artistic Ensemble, a collective of artists creating within the walls of a penitentiary.

As a counterpoint to these in-depth articles is Dancers’ Group’s annual Summer Workshop Guide. Dance practices are, after all, embodied, and as Mun?oz says, “when I think I sweat, when I move I sweat—it’s a way of knowing and relating.”

I implore you: don’t put this issue down without reading Chicano performance artist, writer, activist, and educator Guillermo Go?mez-Pen?a’s Letter to the Revolution. I carry his words with me in this unpredictable time when society seems to be heading backward towards Other-ing: “We continue to talk back & make art.”

SPEAK: Reaching Further

I was first introduced to Della Davidson’s work when she was a performer and choreographer with the San Francisco Moving Company (1983-86). Whenever viewing her work I was struck by the powerful imagery, truthful storytelling, the boldness of movement, and the way her dancers conveyed the message of the choreography. I also marveled at and appreciated her open mindedness, care and attention to detail—the sense of freedom that was so much a part of her work. Among her many standout pieces I especially remember Tongues and Shrine for their social/ spiritual integrity and breathtaking theatricality. The latter was a piece she choreographed to honor and celebrate dancer Tracy Rhoades. Della always approached her layered choreography with an undaunted bravery that revealed the complexity, texture, and variability of life and living.

The power of her work encouraged and inspired me. Energized by it, I continued to listen to my own voice and bring my truths to the stage in spite of persistent questioning and criticism: how and why would an African American dance company present work in multiple genres? Why use spoken word? Why incorporate storytelling? Just do your traditional dances… Do not explore…Don’t be so serious about a expressing a world view…Simply shake, just jump, stump, and smile. Entertain only! so we can be thrilled and titillated but not really think about culture/community.

Most of Dimensions Dance Theater’s work explores dance/music forms and fusions from throughout the African Diaspora. Long ago I understood that there was so much to explore, and that there were many barriers to overcome and dance past.

There were many Bay Area artists that were instrumental in my unleashing of what I wanted to bring to the stage. Bay Area pioneers like Ruth Beckford, Frank Shawl, Victor Anderson, Marian Van Tuyl, Eleanor Lauer, and Ed Mock were all important mentors and teachers that played a significant role in my emerging years. They pushed me to explore and find the freedom to go beyond what was expected in the world of Black Dance.

In the early 1970s co-founders Elendar Barnes, Shirley Brown and I realized it was time to bring our dance experiences and point of view from the African Diaspora to the main stage. We blended styles and presented a mixed dance vocabulary with live music, spoken word, and numerous collaborators. Traditional ethnic dance forms at that time got little recognition, and sadly that remains true today. The idea of exploring tradition was not popular then; moreover critics did not have much insight or understanding of African dance let alone a unique and relevant African American dance perspective. I wanted to break that barrier and not be stereotyped or put into a box. My travels throughout West and Central Africa, the Caribbean, South America, Asia and the United States helped me realize I did not need permission from the mainstream dance world to validate or approve my vision. My motto became “Just do the work!” I gave myself permission to collaborate with dancers and other artists, firm in the knowledge that we had a wealth of enduring stories, dances and traditions to investigate and present. Through the company’s collaborations I explore how the African Diaspora spans and reverberates throughout the world and speaks to the human condition. Fortunately, the world of dance has changed, become more open, is more diverse, and now more interested in artists of color. Through it all Dimensions has become widely recognized for its collaborations, presentation of both traditional dances and contemporary choreography drawn from African, Jazz, and Modern dance idioms., and youth programs to give a voice and platform for the next generation of artists.

Dimensions Dance Theater’s mission is to create, perform and teach dance that reflects the lives and historical/cultural experiences of the African diaspora. We are community-based and our overarching goal is to transmit and provide the transformative power of the arts through the medium of dance.

Today our neighborhoods, communities and the world are in an unpredictable state of flux. As we navigate through these challenges I believe—now more than ever— that art is urgent and a life line to many. Art penetrates the mind, heart, and soul, and touches the essence of humanity. I say to all artists of every genre that we have always been thinkers and these times require that we continue to do our work. Create, perform, and present in every medium. Our voices provoke, anger, sadden, and bring joy. We must be fearless, and bold. Dance, speak, act, write, sing. Listen to your inner voice, create, perform, present and forge another way. Support local artists. Know that the power of art and creativity is unstoppable!

What if Della was here now? How would she speak to these times? What would she be creating? I am sure she would encourage us to move forward, to steer, push the envelope, reach further, etching our truths into this landscape. She has certainly left her mark. She is a force that continues to inspire of us.

Thank you Della Davidson!

Touching Bass with Lisa Mezzacappa

This April, Risa Jaroslow & Dancers are back at ODC Theater to share a new work with Bay Area audiences, the world premiere of Touch Bass. A collaboration between choreographer Risa Jaroslow and composer/bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, Touch Bass features a cast of nine – three dancers, three musicians and three upright basses – all engaging in conversation within a single theatrical container. Recently, Mezzacappa and I sat down to talk about her journey with this project, providing a unique glimpse inside its collaborative spirit and creative process. And describing how over the past year and a half, her upright bass has simultaneously acted as a musical partner and a dance partner.

Heather Desaulniers: Tell me about Touch Bass…how would you describe it?
Lisa Mezzacappa: That’s a great question because it forces me to take an aerial view of the work. So…this piece is about bodies and basses and all the different ways that we interact in space. It is about relationships emerging between the nine players in the cast, which includes the basses. It is about the dynamics and sub-plots that these relationships generate. It is about the way we handle the bass instrument as somewhat of a metaphor for how we handle ourselves and each other. It is about the similarities between making dance and making music. All of these things are being explored in the work. I think the exceptional thing about Touch Bass is how deeply collaborative it is – on the choreographer/composer level as well as on the dancer/musician level. That feels really special. And that it centers around this outrageous instrument that I play and carry around. The bass is so big, which I think is the first thing that everyone notices. But it’s also very fragile. I think Risa [Jaroslow] saw a parallel between bodies and instruments in that way.

HD: When did the project get underway? Were you involved from the very beginning? What did those early stages of development look like?
LM: This is an interesting part of the story. I first met Risa when I was part of the music ensemble for her company’s Resist/Surrender performances at ODC in Fall of 2015. We [the musicians] had been rehearsing separately from the dancers for quite a while; the music was extremely challenging so we were very single-mindedly focused on it. At the first rehearsal where everyone was finally together in the space, Risa came up to me and said, “you are in this!” We hadn’t met each other before and I think seeing a woman holding this instrument was a moment for her. Her mother was a professional upright bassist. After that production, she suggested that it would be fun to get together sometime and within a few weeks, we were in the studio with dancers. Just trying things out, with no specific plan or no idea that it would come to anything else. So that’s how it started, organically, with this series of experiments.

HD: You mentioned the collaborative nature of the piece; I’d love to hear more about that…
LM: I believe the reason why these initial experiments developed into something was because there was a great spark of energy between me and Risa. From the very beginning, there was a lot of curiosity, an openness to trying things and also a deep honesty. We were very much listening to each other. So that cultivated a great environment for ideas to develop. We would also have conversations outside of the studio, and those conversations would often be a series of ‘what ifs’. That spirit has been such a part of this from the very start and the reason why I think it’s grown into something more.

HD: And what about the different roles that you are taking on in Touch Bass?

LM: I’m the composer in the sense that I’m responsible for the musical vision, keeping my eye and ear on the overall sound. I’m also a performer in that I’m performing my music and interacting with the other musicians. And then the last part is that I’m a member of the cast, moving through the space, having to memorize sequences of movement. That part of Touch Bass is totally new for me. But it’s not just dancerly vocabulary. Risa’s sensitivity to musicians is amazing and she’s interested in the things that we already do, our musician-based movement vocabulary and the practical ways that we play our instruments.
HD: In thinking of those different roles that you just described, in which capacity do you feel most comfortable?
LM: Well, my m.o. as an artist is that there is always a level of discomfort! Though, once I’m done solving the puzzles in the music composition, it will be fantastic to just play and perform in the space with these wonderful musicians [Eric Perney and Matt Small] and dancers [Scott Marlowe, Tara McArthur and Lauren Simpson].
HD: Which is the most challenging and why?
LM: The most challenging thing, by far right now, is the composer part. At first, it was just me playing solo with the dancers and so I could react, respond and improvise in the moment as the movement shifted. But now we have added two other bass players, so I need to set things more formally. And that brings up questions. How much do I want to leave unsolved so that there can be an organic conversation between us? How much do I want to x, so that it’s more predictable each time? Improvisation is at the center of all of my work, and the question for each project, each situation is, how much do I need to control or shape that improvisation for this piece to be successful?It would have been very easy for me to be intimidated by the dancing, but Risa has been very wise in how she’s created the movement component for the bassists. She doesn’t ever make us feel awkward, or like we are trying to be dancers. And so much of our physicality in the work is coming from what we do as bassists – an amplification, abstraction or derivation of actual playing. So it doesn’t feel separate to me. Which has been surprising!

HD: I was fortunate to be able to see the work-in-progress showing of Touch Bass last fall and was struck by a number of elements – the crafting of an egalitarian container where dance and music co-exist without hierarchy; the interactive conversation being fostered between the movement and the sound; how the bass instrument seemed to be inspiring phrase material and vice versa and lastly, how the bass really became a cast member. Does any of that resonate with you?
LM: I think the egalitarian aspect is really perceptive because that’s the way Touch Bass developed – a constant and mutual interaction between the two disciplines. In terms of movement coming from sound and music, that has been an amazing surprise. Risa has had all these choreographic ideas just from watching how I play the bass! And yes, Risa’s vision that the basses are part of the cast is essential and vital – in this container that has been crafted, when they speak, you have to listen to them, because they are one of us.

HD: Of course, I’m guessing that the work has changed significantly from that showing. One thing I noticed is that Touch Bass has grown from the cast of four at the work-in-progress to nine, with three basses.
LM: I remember Risa saying very early on that she would love to have multiple basses in the piece. And truthfully, I kind of tried to temper that desire because bassists are so busy and it’s tricky for them to commit to this kind of rehearsal schedule. Dancers rehearse a thousand times more than musicians. This schedule [for Touch Bass] is so out-of-the norm for musicians. So I really didn’t think we would be able to get bassists with the right combination of skill, personality and openness, who were also available and up for the project. Then we invited a bunch of bass players to the showing in the fall and it was incredible how those that were interested ended up being perfect matches, so well suited to how we are working in this piece. They came into the process in mid-January and everyone’s having a lot of fun.

HD: What has this experience taught you as an artist?
LM: It would have been easy very early on to be too busy to get together in the studio. Sometimes when you get to this mid-career stage, you become so focused on juggling your own existing projects that you can forget to be receptive to something that is open ended, experimental or a new relationship. It’s a great reminder – to stay open, allow for new surprises to emerge and make room for them. Being okay with something that isn’t so defined, and letting things organically grow and develop, just as they have with Touch Bass.

Lisa Mezzacappa is a San Francisco Bay Area composer, bassist and music producer. In addition to leading her own ensembles, which span ethereal chamber music, electro-acoustic works, avant-garde jazz, and groups from duo to large ensemble, she collaborates frequently with visual artists for sound installations, multi-media projects and live cinema events.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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