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Contact Improvisers Consider #metoo

The West Coast Contact Improvisation Jam in Berkeley (wcciJAM) has been a hub for the investigation of the form for over 25 years. Contact Improvisation (CI), which grew out of choreographic experiments in the early 1970s, is a relational dance form in which dancers improvise around touch, weight exchange, and the physics of equilibrium and falling. CI challenged assumptions about dance, but has since developed into a form practiced widely by both professional and recreational dancers around the world. “Contact Improvisation’s influence can be seen throughout modern and postmodern dance choreography, performance, and dance training worldwide, especially in relationship to partnering and use of weight” (Contact Quarterly)

Contact Improvisation’s open-ended physical dialogues between dancers offers a platform for critical inquiry of movement possibilities. Can it also cultivate a questioning of the cultures we inhabit? In wcciJAM 2017’s Statement on Inclusivity and Assumptions, teachers and organizers created a statement acknowledging that while our dance is not enough to change the larger sociopolitical context, we must grapple with the issues that are present in the room at every jam. Each of us arrives at the dance with our own personal histories, at an intersection of specific identities. Can awareness of how culture and socioeconomic structures inhabit our bodies, minds, and habits, help us avoid perpetuating inequities? How do we continue to question both our dancing and the subculture that we’ve built to support its practice? What are the form’s potentials for disrupting oppression and privileges based on identity?

The practice of CI is uniquely positioned to offer a space for the investigation of how we express our personal boundaries through touch and movement. A statement most often attributed to dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton says that CI should deal with “physics, not ‘chemistry.’” Nevertheless, this boundary is not always respected, nor is it easy to define. The dancing body and the social body coexist. Learning CI can involve learning to navigate complex experiences and interactions where a strong sense of personal agency is called for. This can be particularly challenging for younger women, gender non-conforming folks, dancers with disabilities, or other structurally disadvantaged groups. In this moment of #metoo, we – Cathy, Rosemary, and Miriam along with the rest of the team organizing the wcciJAM – are committed to empowering dancers to maintain healthy boundaries, to cultivate self-care and agency in their dance relationships. With that in mind, “De/constructing Power” was chosen as this year’s festival theme.

What follows are responses to the question, “How do you see the #metoo movement impacting the CI community, or not?” from some of this year’s female-identified teachers:

Jo Kreiter:

I stepped away from the contact community in 2004 when my son was born and came back to it in 2016, when he was old enough to stay home alone for a little while, so I could go to the jam. When I came back, I was so delighted to see a younger generation had taken up the form, and to see tremendous thoughtfulness around inclusivity and power. There are many more brown bodies on the dance floor then when I left. And gender non-conforming bodies. There is spoken, articulate language, and even written declarations, for how to be in a jam with respect for all. I think dancers are some of the best creatures on earth, so I am not surprised by these evolutions of thought and practice. Sadly though, I still hear from young women about the ‘creepy guy’ factor at jams. Women, especially younger women, are still feeling a need to dodge certain men at certain moments. So we do have some work to do, still, as a community. What gives me hope is that the jam is a place where I learned to practice strong boundaries and to keep myself safe. It is a fertile learning ground for finding one’s best self.”

Taja Will:

“I personally have not seen it impact my primary CI community but I’ve been hearing from other communities that the #metoo movement has liberated incidents and feelings around safety and respect in their communities, some folks have been called out for recurring behavior that makes others feel unsafe.”

Anya Cloud:

“It impacts everything. As dance artists I believe that we are the material of the work. And that includes our complex histories that often relate to trauma. I think it is exposing the need for more explicit and nuanced consent practices with CI. I think that the #metoo movement is facilitating some space for more transparent questioning/discourse of patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity that can be quite pervasive in the CI community. It is ongoing and incremental work to move against these dominant systems. The current statistics are that someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. We can’t ignore this within the CI community. And I do notice people talking more about power, consent, agency, predatory behavior, gender, and assumptions now than I have in the past. We can do better. It is vital and important work in terms of visioning and manifesting the kind of CI culture and practice that we want in the future. It is all quite intense and necessary.”

Cathie Caraker:

“I can’t speak for the whole CI community but I can say that my own approach has changed. I’m much quicker to speak up now when my ‘ick radar’ goes off. I recently approached an organizer who had invited me to a workshop with a male teacher who’s long had a reputation for being one of “those guys” who hits on female participants. I told the organizer that I wasn’t comfortable being at an event with this teacher, and told him why. His response was quite defensive. However, he passed on what I’d said and that teacher reached out to me. We ended up having a very good conversation, in which he shared with me that he’s been working on changing his behavior. It was one of those moments where I felt a clear shift because I’d spoken up. It feels awkward and even scary to stick your neck out. As women we’re socialized to be nice. We want people to like us. We’re afraid of offending, or god forbid, making a mistake. We can teach young women about healthy boundaries and consent and blah blah, but we’re still not addressing the core problem, which is patriarchy, male entitlement. The imbalance of power is very old but we can change it. We can support female-identified artists and boycott dance institutions that don’t. We can ask our male peers to take a step back, to listen more and ask how they can help. We can facilitate discussions on diversity and power sharing at our dance festivals. It’s happening – there is a sea change afoot.”

Diana Lara:

“Even though I found the facts and roots of the #metoo movement very valid, I think that the press and social networks have found, again – as in previous social movements – another way to sensationalize it and commercialize it. I hope that in general the movement provides more awareness in the population and the CI community about the social norms that perpetuate sexual harassment and violence. Only by being aware of these social norms, can we have more accountability. I am a fan of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, and I agree that we have the duty of understanding the systems and mechanisms that perpetuate the status quo in order to change it.”

Ronja Ver:

The #metoo movement has emboldened me, as a teacher, to bring up the issue of boundaries in every class, and to have a chat with every new student. I feel strongly about this, because what I constantly hear from young dance students is that they love CI, but would never go to a jam because the one time they went they were touched inappropriately by an older, more experienced male dancer.

I’ve been hearing a lot more requests for education and guidelines around touch and consent in the CI communities. It seems like this time around some of the cis male facilitators are also getting on board, which is a huge step forward. I’ve sat in circles where women who were violated by unwanted inappropriate touch in a CI setting have spoken out, and where the perpetrators have actually been barred from coming back. This is a change from the age-old system of denial and victim blaming, but it will take time for people to also start trusting facilitators to take action against violations and assault. It is still necessary for a network of sisters to warn each other about teachers and dancers with whom they’ve experienced hurtful or uncomfortable situations.”

Jen Chien

Before answering this question, I first need to state that I don’t necessarily feel like I am part of the “CI community.” I have practiced CI for a long time, and it’s meant a whole lot to me as a human and as an artist, but I don’t necessarily feel like part of a community based around CI. It’s not fun to be the only POC in a room, and that’s unfortunately been all too prevalent in the communities that arise around CI. I’m not mad at it, it’s just felt like it’s not for me.

What I would hope for, in terms of the #metoo movement’s impact for the practice and teaching of CI, is for us all to be more and more aware of how gendered and sexual power imbalances operate at all levels of our lives and experiences, even when we have the best of intentions, even when we are purposefully trying to create spaces that stand apart from society’s ills. CI is a practice that intentionally crosses normative socialized physical boundaries, in a mostly unstructured way. This can bring a lot of stuff up for people, good and/or bad. And if/when there are sexual or sexualized energies present in a dance, we need to be able to talk about it, and to negotiate and respect boundaries and consent, just as in any other physical interaction. Personally, my practice of CI is completely non-sexual, and that’s part of what I love about it. I know that other practitioners may have other thoughts, feelings or opinions. Knowing that there’s a range, it’s important for us to not bury this stuff under the rug just because it may be uncomfortable to talk about.

I myself had a #metoo moment, early on in my practice of CI, at the Tuesday night jam at good ol’ 848 Divisadero. I and another young female friend were dancing in a trio with an older man who we both felt was behaving in a sexually violating way. We confronted him directly in the moment, he apologized and also denied what we were accusing him of, and then my friend and I processed it together later. I feel lucky that I and my friend experienced the same thing at the same time, and we could empower each other to speak up and state our boundaries. If it had just been me, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do so, or even to trust in my own experience of what was happening. This person was a regular attendee of the jam, and we had mutual friends/acquaintances. It did not end up turning me away from the practice, but I will say that at the time I didn’t feel comfortable sharing the experience with more than one or two close friends. I hope that the spirit of clarity, honesty, and accountability the #metoo movement has brought forth can inspire more discussion and empowerment for everyone and anyone who practices.”

Cultivating Freedom and Power in the Dance Classroom

I’m watching my two year old dance. He’s spinning fast, letting the full skirt of his dancing dress ripple around him, arms splayed, eyes closed. He sometimes spirals into the floor, momentum never stopping as he rolls and jumps up to spin again. Something about him tells me he’s in his zone, his flow – the repetition, concentration and intention, the fact that he can’t be interrupted, his internal focus. He only looks at me when the song ends and he exclaims, “Again!”

I ask him later about dancing. What does he like about it? He answers emphatically: “I like dancing, dress-up, running really fast!” It’s true, high speed is characteristic of his dancing because it is relatively new. Half his life he was dependent on me to move him from place to place. So now that he can go on his own, and has built up strength and confidence, he’s going fast, and it thrills him.

I watch him and imagine – or perhaps I remember – this must be what new found freedom feels like. Running through fields, rolling down hills, spinning and swirling so fast you can’t keep from smiling. Feeling the blood pulsing through your body, skin tingling as the wind rushes all over you. Nothing to stop you. He runs over to me when he’s done, wrapping his arms and legs around me in a big squeeze. I feel his heart racing against my chest; his exhilaration is palpable. I wonder, do I feel like this when I’m dancing?

It seems silly to ask. I mean, I’ve been dancing for most of my life and have chosen dance for my career, shouldn’t I feel this thrill all the time? Or have I been doing it so long that I’ve forgotten why?

two toddlers dancing in long skirts

I ask another expert in dance – my five year old – about why she does it. “I just like it,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “I feel like anything when I dance. I feel like everything.” I think about how I’ve sneaked glimpses of her dancing alone, brows furrowed and lips pursed, hands carving powerfully through space, spine snaking. Or how she creates endless stage names and personas for our family dance parties. I’m often asked to introduce her with something like: “Welcome to the stage Aurora, Queen of the Moon and Stars. She’s really, really tall and powerful and has a kitten and a baby.” In her dancing, she seems to be embodying choice and identity, and a kind of omnipotence that she’s discovered in herself, in her body.

I observe kids discovering their freedom and power through dance in my teaching too. A colleague and I recently watched a video together of a creative dance class I had taught at Luna Dance Institute. After exploring lots of locomotors and shapes, I asked my students to dance however they liked. In the video they moved without hesitation – they knew exactly how they wanted to dance and just went for it. Something happened in that moment of free dance that felt substantial. We rewound the video to watch again. It wasn’t so much what they were doing, but how they were doing it. The dancers were fully embodied and smiling, internally focused and tuning into themselves, each doing their own thing so intently, and claiming their dances as their own. “Wow, they’re really in it. They’re really gettin’ it. Look at them go!” we remarked.

A student has said: “When I’m taking dance class, I just feel so able. I feel like my body can do anything; like I’m Wonder Woman or something.”

I remember saying things like that too. I feel like my best self while dancing. I come home to myself when I dance. And I remember the sensation of finding my flow, of my body channeling the message of my heart. For me it is electric, all cells listening and tingling and responding, riding a surging wave that may send me spiraling, tipping, scooping, suspending through time and space. And it may feel like . . . nothing, or everything. Emptiness and fullness simultaneously.

Why does any of this matter? Is dancing, to express my soul’s truth, just an indulgent self-serving act? Does it contribute anything to the world, the greater good? I don’t know, maybe it brings me closer to nirvana. But as I listen to the news and contemplate systems of injustice and oppression playing out in stories of #BlackLivesMatter, #metoo, school shootings, deportation, child abuse, human trafficking, I feel less and less interested in my own personal transcendence. Instead I wonder this: what if everyone could feel this free? What if everyone could feel this powerful in their bodies?

When I consider this, it shifts how I teach dance. My overarching goal now is to cultivate an environment in which students can experience freedom and express their power through their bodies. As a dance educator working in schools where children, particularly children of color, are often disciplined and controlled, I feel a sense of responsibility to nurture their freedom. I continue to wonder what does it take to do this? What do people need in order to feel the exhilaration of freedom and power in action? This is what I’ve observed so far:

  1. It requires a feeling of safety, so that dancers can allow themselves to be vulnerable, take risks, share something of themselves. Spending time building class community can assist with this, as can clarifying class flow and expectations, or creating a sacred container for class through a beginning and ending ritual. Even more essential is emphasizing individuality over right/wrong movement, and celebrating what each dancer brings to the class.
  2. It also requires a full exploration of all that the body can do, the endless possibilities of moving through space, time and energy. Plenty of chances to try again, stretch a little further, attempt it from another perspective, helps dancers trust their bodies, and their potential to express something with their bodies.
  3. Dancers need opportunities to create, to improvise and choreograph. There is power in making.
  4. And dancers need to be seen – and they need to see each other. Allowing myself time in each class to step back and witness students as they open up and claim their own power is exciting. When students witness each other in their flow, gettin’ down, and when they know that they are being seen by their peers, there is a kind of magical respect and trust established. A secret is shared, they view each other in a new way, and they can recognize and honor each other.

group of children dancing and posingThere is another critical component in cultivating freedom and power in my teaching, and I’m remembering it as I watch my children. I’ve got to cultivate this within me. When I dance now, I see myself consciously practicing my freedom, stretching my power like a muscle. Because I don’t want to forget it, or take it for granted, or slip into inertia as I just go about the motions of planning my next dance class or choreograph my next piece. When I am overwhelmed by all that is happening in the world that feels so out of my control, I can do this – I can dance, and access my force, and refuse to be silent.

Dance then becomes an act of resistance. History tells us that dance has long played this role, often being the first art form to be prohibited when a civilization was conquered. Complete control could not be achieved if civilians were accessing their innate creative power through dance. These days we seem to be dominating bodies in different ways: over-diagnosing and overprescribing for ADHD; reducing recess; limiting movement to sitting at desks, standing in lines, repetitive workouts at cubicle-like treadmills/yoga mats, and reducing it to the smallest possible tap, slide, click of our fingers as we stare, mesmerized into a world of screens. As a culture we remain fearful of bodies doing anything out of the ordinary. We deem it chaotic and suspicious, and react with restraint, discipline, violence, and police brutality to regain control.

So fellow dancers, fellow activists, dance on. Practice sharing your freedom with others, and invite your students and collaborators to join you. Witness each other get down, and celebrate our collective creative force as we embody resistance.

A Lifetime Of Achievement for Lily Cai

The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and as part of the festivities, the Festival will be awarding the Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement award to choreographer Lily Cai. Lily is a well-deserving recipient of the award, not only for the signature beauty and power of her voluminous body of work, but as the leader of a dance company that has been such a regular part of the Festival. As the Festival enters its 40th year, Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company is turning 30. Both entities have helped one another on their journeys.

And according to Lily, “it’s a great journey, one I really enjoy. You know many times parents will say this [being a dancer/choreographer] is not a real career. Parents think a real career is either a lawyer or doctor or technician working in the computer field.” For Lily a career means to be “stubborn like myself [and] speak to what it means to be human, not just only the money making career.” Is it rough? “Yeah, it’s a challenge. It’s not easy, but [there’s] a lot of excitement.”

portrait of choreographer, Lily Cai

Lily’s journey began in Shanghai, where she danced as principal dancer with the Shanghai Opera House Dance Troupe before moving to the US in 1983 and founding her dance company in 1988. Her father died when she was young and wanted her to be a doctor to help people who were sick like him heal. When I point out that the young girl who was guided towards a career healing bodies as a doctor has become the woman who works with the bodies of dancers to bring joy and transcendance to audiences, she agrees there may be a parallel there. She credits much of her persistence towards her career to her mother. Growing up they made their own clothes, and Lily would often want to give up midway through a project. “If I started knitting a sweater, and wanted to give up, oh she would be so mad!,” she says, “and that kind of dedication is something I pass on to my own dancers.”

Lily’s journey reached her next important milestone when she began teaching dance at Galileo High School in San Francisco in 1986. It was primarily with dancers she worked with during her Galileo experience that she formed her dance company in 1988. This was what she called her “first generation” of dancers and as the company grew its reputation during the 90s, she began attracting her “second generation,” dancers who came to her with more professional training and experience, primarily in ballet.

One of the dancers that started with her in 1986, Phong Voong, is still in the company and shares that when she started taking Lily’s class as a high school freshman in 1986, “I knew nothing about dance before taking Ms. Cai[’s] class. Once I stepped foot into her class, I’ve never stopped dancing!” Lily says Phong is her best dancer, and one the other dancers look towards for guidance. She says “Phong is a beautiful dancer, she is my delicious soup that has been simmering and getting richer over time.”

Over the decades the company has toured around the country and internationally, as well as presenting new work every year in her home season. Lily has received commissions from the Santa Fe Opera, Memphis Ballet, and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. She has received support to create new work from Creative Work Fund, San Francisco Arts Commission, and the Rockefeller Foundation. And of course, every year she creates new work for her home season.

Regarding her strenuous work ethic, she tells me “that’s not easy…[but it] gives me the opportunity to do my dream, challenge myself, put my passion on the stage, in a studio, and that kind of journey is so much fun. But it’s not easy, it’s never easy… when they say ‘it’s easy’ that means they’ve never done it before.” She continues: “this is our 30th anniversary. I do a new show every year [and] just like a chef has a delicious new creation on the table for your guest to enjoy with you,” so does Lily create something special for her audiences. She is also adamant that she shares her lifetime achievement award with “my dancers, Gang Situ [her musical collaborator], it’s not just me. People say ‘you’ve been doing this for so many years,’ I say yeah, I’m stubborn. But Lily Cai being stubborn doesn’t make it happen. You need a great team to make it happen.”

A lot of our conversation was about her method for developing choreography that she’s developed over a lifetime of refinement. She explains that “there is something culturally different [between Western and Chinese dance forms], just like writing. English writing is through the space. Chinese writing is in the space.” Lily holds up some notes written in the respective languages. “Can you tell? I think this makes a wonderful world, not all the same…It’s apples and peaches, which one is more beautiful? Both of them are beautiful.”

“For me it’s about the body,” and when she says the word “body” she enunciates it slowly, imbuing the word with the weight and significance of someone who has dedicated a life to understanding how a body can express an idea or an emotion. She pauses for a moment after saying the word “body”, and then continues: “What people see are body motions – the body comes first, and [her dancers] are award of their body. That’s why many times people say our dances are very sensual.”
“Movement is a result. I train my dancer on how to arrange the energy in their bodies, and the movement comes from from how that energy is arranged. And you never make movement from thinking – you making from feeling.” She continues, “Feel it, don’t think. Thinking is a scientist’s job. Scientist says 1+1=2, but an artist says 1+1=100.” People sometimes watch dance for the physicality of it, for reasons that I think are somewhat similar for why other people watch sporting events. They are looking to see bodies test their limits. But dancers know that the process for getting to that point where the audience says “wow” requires a complicated internal workflow. The deeper that internal process takes a dancer, the more subtle and nuanced a performance can be. Lily’s method for creating work is based on an extended and creative rehearsal process that allows her dancers the freedom to take an inner journey, and is a key element contributing to her exquisite choreography.

I spoke to a couple of her dancers to get a better idea of what the process of working with Lily is like. C-oNe Tong, who joined the company in 2008, describes an organic process built out of an extended, improvisatory rehearsal. She says, “we spent a lot of hours in the studio, as if we were in a lab researching our own bodies…there aren’t any counts that you can follow, it has to be from your breath, from your spirit.” Lily records her dancer’s improvisation, and studies them with her dancers. When C-oNe, watches the videos, “the way I learn best is to study the breathing aspect, as opposed to the timing, I’m not even thinking about the music.”

Alexandra Nguy became entranced with the Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company when she saw them as a high school student, and a few years after college she joined the company. She says Lily is “a visionary when it comes to her creative direction, using many different metaphors and methods and life experiences” to illustrate what she wants her dancers to do. She also credits Phong Voong: “we all strive to be like her. When I joined the company, I had to unlearn a lot of what I thought was dance…and having Phong in the company is wonderful – Lily’s technique is in her body already and it comes out like Tai Chi.”

As Lily’s dancers describe her method, it reminds me of the methodology of the late film director Robert Altman. Lily gives her dancers a concept, they improvise around that concept, and then Lily sets the work on the dancers using the movements they’ve discovered that she finds most compelling. Lily’s vision guides the entire process, and the final result is strong and fully formed, and she is a master of her medium the way Altman was a master of his.

woman in a red backless gown on the grand staircase dancing with a parasol

After the lifetime achievement award is given to Lily Cai at noon on June 8th at San Francisco City Hall, Lily Cai Dance Company will perform Silk Cascade as a part of the Rotunda Dance Series, re-staging the site-specific work that won her an Izzie award in 2016.
Creating a performance that integrates the grand staircase is a particular challenge that Lily is proud of having achieved and earned acclaim for doing. “When performing [on the staircase] when you go up it’s not too difficult, but when you go down you need to go very slow, because the steps, they’re all the same color, no difference, no edge mark. And we can’t mark the edges, so when you make big movements they [the stairs] disappear and it creates dizziness. It’s very difficult, but when I asked my dancer’s if we should use the staircase or the floor, they said “staircase, staircase.”

“My goal is to create signature work, so that when people see it they say that is Lily Cai’s work. My own signature is beautiful, powerful, one-of-a-kind, and unique. Every year is getting richer…I’m accumulating experience…knowledge…wisdom. It’s like a warehouse that’s constantly getting bigger.” This warehouse will not stop expanding anytime soon, “it’s so exciting…I look back at [what was created] five years ago, or even one year ago and I think about things differently now. I’m just constantly working on new developments and new discoveries.” She tells me she never even thinks of taking a year off, so while she may receive a lifetime achievement award this year, we should expect to see new Lily Cai work for years to come.

In Practice: Tonya Marie Amos

In a 1993 interview, Toni Morrison said, “The people who practice racism are bereft. […] It feels crazy. It is crazy. […] If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”[1] I thought about Morrison’s words as I sat in the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts theater on June 25, 2017, witnessing Grown Women Dance Collective’s annual Juneteenth celebration, Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars.

The performance combines concert dance and a multimedia presentation to honor the Black musical artists we’ve lost since 2000. When I saw that much talent on display in a society that works hard to vilify the bearers of that talent, combined with that much loss, the cognitive dissonance of anti-Black racism was laid bare. I realized I was listening to the sound of social life in social death, the sound of uplift, the sonic landscape of Black joy— and the soundtrack of my life, to this American life. In the face of the sheer dominance of these voices, I could sense in my bones the crazy Morrison describes, the pathology and supreme waste of time of white supremacy—to work that hard to build yourself up by shooting down what so clearly soars.

My generation’s K-12 history books never mentioned Juneteenth, so Tonya Amos, Grown Women Dance Collectives’s artistic director, had to educate me.[2] In sum, on June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Texas to read the proclamation and make official that which slave owners had sought to keep secret: slaves were now free. Jubilation among former slaves ensued, followed, unsurprisingly, by a tenaciously adhered to revisionist history. So, white folks get to honor Lincoln, the white man who freed the slaves without any muddy chronology to contend with. On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday, and there appears to be a steady rise in consciousness and celebrations nationwide.


In the spirit of In Practice, this interview focuses on the labor of Amos’ dance journey, and the love that established and maintains GWDC’s Juneteenth project. It’s about Amos’ dance training history and how it reflects the racializing and racist history of American concert dance. GWDC is comprised of concert dancers, currently between the ages of 48 and 54, who come out of retirement each year for Fallen Heroes—from my point of view, they only get better with age.

Amos, like so many dancers, was hesitant to talk to me, afraid to expose things about elite concert dance company culture. Many, many dancers grin and bear it for the chance to dance. Amos and I spoke at Peet’s coffee on College Avenue on August 22, 2017.

In Dance is publishing our interview now to coincide with the 9th Annual Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars Juneteenth performance at the Malonga Center, June 23-24.


Sima Belmar: You’re a Bay Area native. Tell us about your early dance life here.

Tonya Amos: I grew up in San Francisco, Sunnydale neighborhood — no running water, no electricity, no food. My parents put all of their money towards our education. I went to fancy schmancy schools, and I took ballet classes, acting classes, and all this stuff that kids in the projects didn’t do.

SB: Where did you take these classes?

TA: When I was a kid I was at ACT. For dance, I was at San Francisco Ballet. We’re talking about the 1970s. I was literally the only child of color in the studio. Every other kid in the school got to be in The Nutcracker, but I was never allowed on stage. So, after three years my dad went and spoke with the director of SFB and they were like, Yeah, Blacks can’t be on stage. I remember my dad saying something not very nice, and then, “We’re going elsewhere.”

SB: Where did you go after your dad took you out of SFB?

TA: So this was pre-BART and there was tons of traffic in northern California, unlike now [laughs]. My parents were in the car all the time trying to make sure we had access and to minimize the racial trauma of being a Black kid in the 70’s. I ended up at Diablo Gymnastics in Walnut Creek (the kids were horrific to me there). A woman who was watching practice said to my mother, “Why isn’t she dancing?” This was Lareen Fender of The Ballet School. Lareen approached me with my mom’s permission and said, “You’re beautiful. You should be dancing.” And I said, “I don’t want to dance anymore.” And she asked, “Why not?” And I said, “Well, Blacks can’t be on stage.” I was 9. And she said, “Nonsense. You can be on stage with me.” So Lareen trained the hell out of me for a couple of years. She was wonderful to me and made sure to never let the racial undertones that were thrown out by kids and their parents become overtones.

At the same time, I was going to school at Nueva Day in Hillsborough with people who had 18 burners in their kitchen and horses. Anybody like me was cleaning someone’s house. Meanwhile, in my house it’s pouring rain and my whole family is in my bedroom because it’s the only room that doesn’t have water pouring through the ceiling—mom, dad, two sisters, two dogs, and the cat.

When my mom got pregnant with my third sister, she couldn’t drive me to Walnut Creek anymore. So I went back to train in the city, bouncing around between pretty major academies. One of them is gone, a boarding school for ballerinas, LaNova Academy [Ballet Celeste International of San Francisco].[3] I didn’t live there, but ballerinas came from all over the country to study there. I remember there was a Nutcracker audition. I was about to go home when people asked why I wasn’t auditioning. I was like, Well, Blacks can’t be on stage, and they were like, “Oh, that’s right. Ok! See you next week!” They were kind of glad—the little girl with the leg behind the head and the three pirouettes en pointe at age 11! But on my way out, one of the moms said, “I hear what you’re saying, but Ms. LaNova is very open-minded. You should go talk to her.” So this old Russian woman looks at me and says, “Nonsense, dear. Blacks can be on stage. There’s a black snowflake in Nutcracker. But we already have our Black this year, dear. You should come back next year.” And “that Black” was Eurydice [Ross], one of the original members of GWDC. She was the only Black concert dancer I’d ever seen in my actual conscious memory.

solo african american female dancer in purple flowing dress


SB: What happened after you missed your chance to be the single Black snowflake?

TA: I went to Janet Sassoon’s Academy of Ballet. Richard Gibson had just come from the Joffrey. I walked in, this little 12-year-old with flawless turns and arabesques behind my head, 42 pounds in the 7th grade. I was skin and bones, which is why my ballet teachers loved me…

SB: …because they could see the lines…

TA: …right. American teachers often had been really mean to me. But Richard, who was really nice to me, jumps me to the 15-17 year old girls, until Janet comes in and says I’m in the wrong class and puts me back with the 12-year-olds—and I was thrown to the wolves. Then, one day Janet looks at me and says, “Dear, your hair is very ethnic.” At that point I was 13 and starting to notice what I looked like in the world. I never went back. I couldn’t enter another dance studio for 7 years.


SB: So you just stopped dancing?

TA: Yes, until 1986 when I left for UCLA. I was the first person in my lineage since slavery to go to college. I went to UCLA because in that time period all of my friends were being murdered and locked up under Three Strikes for a joint in their pocket. The depression and survivor’s guilt is really bad when you come from an environment where people are actually being targeted to not make it.

When I transferred to Cal in 1989, I bought $5 rush tickets to Cal Performances—Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Garth Fagan, and Bill T. Jones with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’m one of the only brown folks in the theater and just crying. In that moment I realized you can create social change with the arts.

In my junior year there was a company called Voice the Movement, a project put together by Anne Reeb, daughter of the white minister [James Reeb] who was killed during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1989, she made a piece about Medgar Evers. Reggie Savage was Medgar and I was his wife, Myrlie. During this process, I figured out that people can actually do this as a job. So my senior year, instead of scooping ice cream on campus, my job was dancing.

SB: Did you dance with the Graham folks at Cal?

TA: I did not. I was an Anthropology major. I was studying African American history and taking Egyptian hieroglyphics. I was like, we need Black people who can read primary documentation, so I did three years of glyphs, which when I moved to NY in 1991, two weeks after I finished college, kept me out of trouble because I had like $200 and had no place to live, no job, no food. I would go to the Met and pay 24 cents to get in and I would spend 8 hours and just translate stuff off the walls.
When I graduated from Cal in 1991, people kept telling me to take [class] with Alonzo [King]. And I was like, Who is this Alonzo? Finally, someone dragged me in there and I was like, He’s Black! Why didn’t anyone say he was Black! None of the Black folks in his class had done any ballet but they were just so happy to be in his presence. And he treated everyone with loving respect. He encouraged me rather than flattening my already low self-esteem.


SB: But you chose NY over SF, and you went to NY to dance, not to be a museum docent, right?

TA: I went to New York to dance. My first Ailey audition was for the company, at Zellerbach [Berkeley]. I made it through a cut and then Ms. [Denise] Jefferson, who was the head of the Ailey school at the time, pulled me aside and asked me to come to the audition for the Ailey school’s Summer Intensive in NY. She saw my really good ballet foundation from years before. Years later, I worked for Ms. Jefferson—I was her student assistant, her house sitter, her friend. She was the one who built that school. She was my mentor and I loved her so much, my NY dance mom. Several women were accepted into the summer program, but—two of us, myself and Phyllis Byers—were asked to attend the scholarship audition in New York. This moment changed the entire course of my life. There were 600 girls at the Ailey school audition. They give 35 scholarships a quarter, and they try hard to make sure that African American dancers are represented in that group. I auditioned for the scholarship and got it.

SB: So what was it like at the Ailey school for you?

TA: I would not have danced without Ailey. I owe Ailey a lot. But back then, Black women couldn’t have braids, locks, twists—the same reason I was ousted from ballet was happening there. My generation got that changed. Ms. Jefferson went to the International Blacks In Dance conference where somebody talked about self-hatred, and she came back and changed the policy. All the higher level ballet classes were mostly white. I’d be put in the back line, told by a (non-Black) teacher, “You’re fat, you’re lazy, you’re never going to dance.” It wasn’t always like that but even in a Black organization, that European body type is preferred, that ballet line. I defended my scholarship for 9 semesters. After a year and a half I looked around and everyone else was gone. And I kept defending it. They make you audition every single semester.

SB: Talk about precarity.

TA: If your lines and turns don’t keep getting better, you’re gone.

SB: So who did you dance with during the New York years?

TA: During the New York years, I danced with Cleo Parker Robinson (in Denver), one of the Black rep companies. Basically all the repertory gets shared between Cleo, Dayton Contemporary Dance, Philadanco, and Ailey—we all did Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, Katherine Dunham. For example, I was a soloist in McKayle’s Nocturne, which was Sylvia Waters’ role at Ailey, but during a different time period.

SB: Was this supporting you?

TA: Oh yeah. Once I went to New York all I did was dance professionally. When I was at Ailey I did three hours of answering phones in the morning. But I was at Ailey 12 hours a day. I was off on weekends. I taught some gymnastics on the weekends just to make some extra money. Once I was in New York, I was a dancer. I never got a “real job” ever again. I danced with Cleo in Colorado from 1994-1996. Back in New York, I danced with Footprints, an Ailey spin-off, and Amy Pivar, a Bill T. spin-off. It was all concert dance, until the last four years. I had a career-altering abdominal surgery, I’d say career-ending, but it wasn’t really career-ending, I just couldn’t do concert dance anymore because it was 12 hours a day of hard core physical work and partnering. I couldn’t support weight on my pelvis anymore. I didn’t trust my body at that point. I’d be okay for two weeks and then I’d be doubled over in pain, I didn’t realize that for years I was working with scar tissue and internal bleeding. I was just in pain all the time. So my last four years in New York I turned to musical theater, because I could be a dancer but not be a dancer. So I did the international tour of West Side Story and some other Broadway tours and reviews, including playing Ernie in a ginormous, hot costume in the national tour of Sesame Street. I did a lot of fitness modeling, so when you see someone flying through the air in a business suit, that was me.

an african american couple leaping in the air

SB: So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back?

TA: After 9/11, my husband and I backpacked through Latin America for a year. When we came back to New York, my apartment was sublet, so I stayed in California after visiting my parents. I’d been trying to retire for 10 years. At that point I had convinced myself that dancing was the only thing I was good at. I couldn’t start over. I [didn’t] have any real skills. The dance career is really bad for the self-esteem—you’re yelled at non-stop, people are throwing chairs at you and cussing at you, with the occasional getting swatted on the butt by a choreographer. That abuse over a long time, that’s in your nervous system at that point. There was one other choreographer that I still wanted to work with and then I found out he was doing the same thing to his dancers so I was like, Yeah, done.

I was using my return to the Bay Area as an excuse to do something new. At this point I’m 35 years old. After two years trying actively to teach, I opened a Pilates studio in Concord. I opened in 2006 with no business experience.

From concept to opening day was six weeks. I wasn’t supposed to make it out of the projects. I definitely wasn’t supposed to have a 15-year dance career after not dancing for seven years. I wasn’t supposed to have a really successful concert dance career as a Black dancer, period. Luckily I had people around me saying do it. I’ve won five business awards—Small Business of the Year, Best Woman-Owned business of the year, Female Entrepreneur the Year, 100 influential women of Pleasant Hill, and Best Pilates Studio.

SB: No one had related to you that being a dancer involves a whole range of skill sets…

TA: …I had no idea! I went from a ballerina to the Ailey institution, and whether you like it or not, when you’re part of the incredible Ailey institution, you don’t know anything else is out there, that’s the only thing that’s legitimate. You go out into the world and you can dance circles around everyone else but if you stand next to Desmond [Richardson] every day in class, of course you think you suck!


SB: So what drew you back to dance and the formation of GWDC?

TA: After opening my studio, I started getting really itchy artistically. At the turn of the millennium, we were losing some really kick-ass people in the African American community—Ossie Davis, Gregory Hines, Nina Simone, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King. Michelle Ned, who I danced with in Voice the Movement, and I thought, someone has got to do something to honor these people. We decided to make a show, just bring our friends and family to see it. I called Eurydice and Marisa Castillo. My husband, who’s a computer geek, put together a multimedia to tie the dances together and holy shit, we have a show!

Our first year was at Laney College in 2009. We had 150 people in the audience. They were mostly all my clients. So we moved it closer to my studio to leverage my clientele. For the next six years we did [it at] Pleasant Hill and Concord, we sold out our shows, 600 people, lines down the street. In 2015 we moved the show to a new theater in Pittsburg to try to reach the Black community there. But folks didn’t know concert dance and because we don’t have funding, the tickets were too expensive. We always sponsor 100-150 kids, but I couldn’t get the tickets cheaper than $28. Then, most of my clients wouldn’t come to Pittsburg because there were too many Black people. Y’all want a dance history concert but you don’t want to be around black people! Black people were afraid to come to Pleasant Hill for fear of being pulled over. White people were afraid of Black people. So I moved the show to Impact HUB in Oakland 2016, and this year [2017] to Malonga. I think it will stay there. My dream is to get it in a bigger space and make the tickets $5.


SB: For those who’ve never seen Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars, the multimedia presentation of images and songs by Black musical artists alternates with dances choreographed by GWDC. And the dancing is amazing.

TA: I only work with people who are kick-ass dancers who I trust intimately because I’ve worked with them in companies.

SB: I feel like your story demonstrates that dancing is not about ability, but about a commitment to changing approaches over time. Aging dancers teach audiences that it’s not about being in shape…

TA: …it’s about sharing wisdom. The power you have in your little finger, the experience you have in your body. If you can walk onto the stage and snatch the air out of the theater, then I trust you.

Tonya closed her Pilates studio this past March to focus on GWDC and expanding Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars to create a robust Civil Rights program. “As a dancer I didn’t have voice. Now, I know: I started something from nothing. There’s a part of me that needs to go back to dancing, not for the sake of dancing, but to use dance as a modality for social impact and civil rights work. We are grown-ass women, carrying on the Black tradition of protest, agency, and providing access. We can do anything we put our brains to. It might be hard, but we’ll figure it out.”

Traveling and Touring

2017 was a big year for us, with our first large-scale domestic tour. Together with choreographers Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener we premiered Tesseract at EMPAC in January and went on to have shows at the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, On the Boards in Seattle, and REDCAT in Los Angeles before a homecoming performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of their Next Wave Festival. With support from the National Dance Project we were able to travel the country with a work that had significant technical needs—Act 1 is a 3D film and Act 2 included live video capture and projection—and a large group of performers and crew. As General Manager I coordinated each leg of the tour: working with presenters, funders, and the creative team to organize over twenty performances in six cities. I loved traveling to new cities, experiencing working environments in different theaters, and getting to return to the same piece again and again. And yet, even amidst a successful, dream-come-true tour, it was hard—financially, administratively, and emotionally when we were away from home for weeks at a time. The rest of the team had more extensive experience touring, whether as part of stalwart dance companies like Merce Cunningham’s or Shen Wei’s, with huge Broadway productions, or smaller projects with choreographers like Rebecca Lazier. Speaking with the team it became clear that touring in dance has changed dramatically over the past fifty years, shifting in relationship to funding structures, political climates, and artistic tastes. I set out with this article to explore when, why, and how touring has changed for American choreographers and dance companies, with an eye towards illuminating the factors that made our experience presenting Tesseract across the country an increasing anomaly.

Tracing the changing tides of funding deftly illustrates the ebbs and flows of dance touring in this country, beginning with the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. The NEA immediately began to fund dance touring, with their first act sponsoring a national tour for American Ballet Theatre. Program Director June Arey started the Coordinated Residency Touring Program the following year, supporting four modern dance companies to travel throughout Illinois giving performances, teaching workshops, and offering lectures to communities across six host cities. Following this initiative’s success the program grew each year, making the NEA the most important source of touring support for primarily modern dance companies in the 60s and 70s, and nearly singlehandedly ensuring the rise of dance across the country, with the number of dance companies increasing exponentially over the next few decades.

The NEA’s notable emphasis on local communities and building regional networks across states was matched by the emergence of Regional Arts Organizations and the creation of the National Performance Network in 1985. Regional Arts Organizations started in the 60s with Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas banding together to support exchange and touring. These multi-state conglomerates were further institutionalized with support from the NEA in 1973, with ultimately 40% of the NEA budget being funneled to State and Regionally-based funders who allocated it to local communities through re-granting processes. Some regions, like the Mid Atlantic, support travel abroad for their local dance companies, with annual grants covering transport, visa, and housing costs. Other regional organizations including WESTAF (Western States Arts Federation) and South Arts bring groups from other regions to their areas, with South Arts launching a Dance Touring Initiative last year. The grants seem to be tipped in support of companies based in New York—giving them opportunities to travel abroad and to come to other venues across the country, rather than having each region provide equal support for their local companies to travel farther afield.

In 1985 David White, then the director of Dance Theater Workshop, founded the National Performance Network to address what was then termed a “national dilemma: artistic isolation and economic restraints that constrict the flow of creative ideas within and among communities, independent artists, and locally-engaged arts organizations in the United States.” Starting with fourteen organizations NPN created a network of presenters across the country, encouraging organizations to work together to support consecutive touring dates for companies. NPN continues to be a critical source of support today, with currently 77 members in the network and new initiatives for international performances as well.

In the late 70s and 80s dance touring internationally grew rapidly, with increased government funding and foundation support presenting dance as an important vehicle of cultural exchange and diplomacy. Anna Kisselgoff, writing in The New York Times in 1985, described the 1960s through mid 80s as a “dance boom”—a period of fervent activity with significant growth in the number of dance companies and viewers. She credited much of its expansion to government funding and increased touring that developed audiences across the nation while artists like George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and Martha Graham were at the heights of their creative achievements. Indeed, the NEA budget in the 1970s grew exponentially, expanding by 1400 percent throughout that decade as government charting of dance companies increased from 37 in 1965 to 157 in 1975 (which I would argue still seems low all around).

During this growth period the government increasingly turned to dance as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy. Claire Croft details in her 2015 book Dancers as Diplomats: American Choreography in Cultural Exchange the State Department’s sponsorship of Alvin Ailey’s tour of the Soviet Union in 1970, making the company the first American modern dance group to perform in the region. As the Cold War continued to intensify this presentation of Alvin Ailey—billed as the “Cultural Ambassador to the World”—served to demonstrate the supposed freedom and tolerance of the American people, even as the civil rights movement continued to demonstrate the abiding racism embedded within the United States. Employing a similar tactic, in 1979 President Carter founded the International Communication Agency to “present the diversity of American culture to the world and deepen our appreciation of other cultures.” Initially focusing its diplomacy in China, it quickly grew to encompass Eastern Europe and sponsored a series of performances organized by The Kitchen, including dance by Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane as part of the 1980 American Now exhibition in Bucharest, Romania. Its success led to subsequent multi-week tours organized by The Kitchen with government support across Europe with mixed bill programs that exemplified the range of artistic practices (dance, music, theater, performance, video) that were regularly seen at its NYC home. Other American organizations also began to sponsor international tours for dance, notably the Suitcase Fund based out of Dance Theater Workshop. Also founded in 1985 by David White, the initiative focused on performance and research abroad, facilitating cultural exchange and research for artists and administrators on a global scale.

In the 1990s funding from the NEA dipped dramatically, and even as other financial support structures rapidly developed to fill this gap, changing company structures and audience tastes led to decreased touring overall. By 1985 the Dance Touring Program sponsored by the NEA had stopped, and with the brewing culture wars of the early 1990s funding significantly declined. Notably, changes in legislation mandated that the NEA could no longer grant to individuals beginning in 1996. By limiting support to nonprofit organizations, independent, unincorporated artists who depended on government support to finance tours were left without support, leading them to increasingly reach out to larger organizations like NPN and the newly established National Dance Project (both of whom received re-granting funds from the NEA) for assistance.

Created as a direct response to the NEA’s decline, the National Dance Project began as a regional program to support touring in New England in 1995 and quickly expanded nationally in 1996 to support the creation and production of work in addition to its touring and presentation. In this climate of scarcity choreographers increasingly began to work on more of a project basis, hiring dancers as needed for performances and working with administrators who managed a number of artists. This sharing of resources and division of labor signaled the decline of the boom period in dance that was further cemented by the deaths of significant choreographers and dancers (many of whom passed as part of the AIDS pandemic), the rise of European dance theater as the American imprimatur declined abroad, and increasing pulls on audience attention leading to declines in ticket sales.

Nevertheless, there have been a number of new initiatives in the last five years that show increased support for dance touring, both abroad and locally. The State Department renewed its support for dance with the establishment of DanceMotion USA in 2010. Billed as “dance diplomacy for the 21st century” the program works with the Brooklyn Academy of Music to facilitate international residencies that focus on cultural exchange and engagement, with recent participants including Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in Kazakhstan and ODC/Dance in Southeast Asia. Seeking to increase the presentation of American choreographers internationally, Andrea Snyder and Carolelinda Dickey founded American Dance Abroad in 2011. They host an annual symposium in the States to show international presenters American choreography, bring American artists and administrators to international marketplaces, and provide crucial rapid response grants to help cover travel and visa costs. Meanwhile, both the National Dance Project and National Performance Network have begun to focus on local and regional efforts—putting in place systemic initiates like NDP’s Regional Dance Development Initiative and NPN’s Leveraging a Network for Equity that identify long-term strategies and build networks amongst presenters, artists, and administrators in specific geographic areas. This year NDP also established a new, annual fund for grantees to support additional touring partners in regions that usually receive less dance touring including the South, Southwest, Midwest, Hawaii, and Alaska.

While new sources of touring support have developed in the last few years, choreographers continue to face a number of challenges when trying to tour work. Notably, costs of living have increased while touring fees have remained somewhat consistent over the past decade, making it more challenging for touring to be a profitable enterprise. While touring in the 1970s and 1980s could be a viable source of income and a means of amortizing creation costs over multiple years, it now often barely enables a choreographer to break even without significant grant and fundraising support. Moreover, when working with freelance dancers it can be hard for a team to commit to multiple weeks on the road as they balance additional work, teaching, and family schedules. Overall there seems to be a sincere relationship between the diminishing stability of large-scale companies and touring support—with touring increasingly a financially risky endeavor large companies are less able to support consistent work for dancers, leading them to take freelance jobs that destabilize the market and complicate schedules, making it even harder to tour when the rare opportunity arises. There are few large companies—Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris Dance Group, and Paul Taylor being examples—that continue to have stable, consecutive company models, primarily because of their robust touring schedules.

As January approached after a successful 2017 touring Tesseract domestically together Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener and I considered participating in APAP. The annual conference of the Association of Performance Arts Professionals in New York City is a high-intensity convening of presenters and dance companies from around the world who, in the span of 3-4 days, go to countless performances and meetings in hopes of making connections that will lead to touring opportunities. Begun in the 1960s as a consortium of college-based presenters, it has grown into one of the largest international marketplaces for performance, with its frantic pace often leading to partial showings in cramped studios and hurried conversations that, at least in my experience, rarely lead to future commissions, though I know artists for whom it has been fruitful. Nevertheless, with a desire to make the leap to international touring we screened the 3D film (technical requirements of the work made it impossible to do a partial staged performance and dancers were busy with other showings) and hoped for the best. While receiving financial support makes touring possible, the first step is always capturing the interest of a curator or presenter, a process that I imagine has in some ways remained consistent over the past years and in other ways radically changed as the landscape for touring has shifted.


Have you ever looked at those lists that match up gift ideas with specific anniversaries? For every year from one to twenty-four and then every five years from twenty-five to ninety, there are traditional and modern suggestions for what you might present to your significant other. To celebrate three years, the traditional choice is leather, while the modern is crystal; year twenty-four’s recommendations are opal (traditional) or musical instruments (modern). Sometimes the two opinions converge, like with rubies for a fortieth anniversary, or emeralds to mark fifty-five.

What about year twenty? To commemorate two decades, the traditionalists opt for china, and the modernists, platinum. I find this pair particularly striking: china, with its uniqueness and fragility; platinum, with its robust durability and resilience. Sure sounds like the distillation of any twenty-year relationship. Something that is distinctive, that takes strength and perseverance to maintain, that has seasons of vulnerability. And of course, it is rare. Surviving and thriving for twenty years is getting less and less common everyday.

For San Francisco/Bay Area contemporary dance companies, weathering every year seems cause for celebration, especially amidst this region’s stark financial realities. So to make it to twenty years? Wow. GERALDCASELDANCE is excited and thrilled to be marking this significant milestone in 2018. They are commemorating the occasion by looking back at and reflecting on the company’s twenty-year history. By premiering an evening of new work at ODC Theater in June. And by celebrating GERALDCASELDANCE’s commitment to ask penetrating questions about society and the human condition through collaborative contemporary performance.

It was the late 1990s when GERALDCASELDANCE first surfaced on the contemporary dance landscape, founded by dancer, teacher and choreographer Gerald Casel. After seven years performing with Stephen Petronio’s company, Casel was anxious to explore new artistic avenues and he ventured down one of these paths in 1998. “My first choreography concert was in 1998 in New York City, at a studio called Context in the East Village,” Casel recounts, “they asked if I was currently choreographing and if so, they’d love to host an evening of my work.” As it turned out, Casel was making dances at that moment. He decided to go for it and presented a double bill: The Waltz Project for six women and There’s a Place For You Beneath My Pillow, a duet for himself and Chris Bergman, a fellow student he met while at Juilliard earning his BFA in dance. This program signaled the start of something new – the birth of GERALDCASELDANCE. “Back then, the trend was to call your company by your name and put dance at the end,” he says, “we’ve kept it that way because when applying for grants, the consistency matters; but there has always been a tension for me with the company’s name – every artist I work with is a co-creator; GERALDCASELDANCE has never been solely about me and my vision.”

Over the next ten years, Casel enjoyed a full and varied artistic journey. He returned to Stephen Petronio’s company in 2001, and remained there for an additional four years. He completed graduate school, earning an MFA from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2007, after which he began teaching full-time, first at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. All along the way, Casel and many collaborating artists, including composer Edward Ratliff, lighting designer Ben Stanton and costume designer Maile Okamura, continued creating new work that GERALDCASELDANCE debuted at a number of different venues. One particular highlight came in 2008, as the company marked the end of its first decade – Border, their first ever evening-length work, presented at the Joyce/Soho. For Casel, Border was a turning point, both structurally and conceptually. “I had never done an evening-length work before, and this one had eight dancers, live music (by Robert Poss), costume design and lighting design,” he explains, “and it was a response to the Bush administration’s desire to put surveillance along the border; it gave me such a visceral reaction, even in urban, diverse New York City, we still felt the repercussions of such actions.”

Eventually, Casel settled in the Bay Area, and joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz where he is Associate Professor of Dance in the Theater Arts Department. GERALDCASELDANCE settled here too, and began introducing Northern Californian audiences to their work. While the company has performed throughout the Bay Area, they found a home base of sorts at ODC in 2015, when Casel was named an ODC Theater Resident Artist. During these past three years (the residency ends in 2018), Casel and the company have been developing a triptych of work that investigates racial politics. Part one, Splinters in Our Ankles, premiered in December 2015. “Splinters in Our Ankles takes its inspiration from Tinikling, a historic Philippine dance; it’s about cultural amnesia and omitted forgotten history,” Casel shares. The following year, GERALDCASELDANCE previewed the triptych’s second section, Cover Your Mouth When You Smile, a collaboration with artists Na-ye Kim and Peiling Kao. This work will have its official premiere in the company’s upcoming 2018 home season.

two dancers lying down flat with faces on the floor

Cover Your Mouth When You Smile explores racial melancholia and racial mimicry among Asian immigrants”, describes Casel, “when you are a naturalized immigrant, you assimilate a new culture and mimic that culture where you are now living; when you do that, you forego your original national/ethno-cultural identity and neuter your mother tongue.” Collaborating with Kim and Kao on this dance over the past year has been rewarding for Casel, a chance to delve into their three individual journeys and notice the places where the paths converge. “The three of us have similar experiences – born in Asia, growing up and training in predominantly white spaces – Na-ye is Korean and trained at The Royal Ballet before going onto to earn an MFA from NYU (Tisch) and PhD in Dance Education from Seoul National University; Peiling is from Taiwan and after training at Taiwan National University of the Arts, went on to receive her MFA from Mills College; and I [Casel] was born in the Philippines and trained at Juilliard,” he adds. Cover Your Mouth When You Smile may have moments of abstracted movement, but is not an abstract work. It’s a collage of personal stories, one that the trio hopes will confront assumptions and patterns of thinking. The notion of ‘upending’ is even finding its way into the project’s structure. Casel is taking the opportunity to challenge his own patterns of creation and composition, expanding his movement language and experimenting with theatrical devices like objects, text and song.

The third chapter in GERALDCASELDANCE’s current triptych will also make an appearance on the June program, a preview glimpse of Not About Race Dance. The in-progress ensemble composition considers two major contemporary works from 1994, Neil Greenberg’s Not About AIDS Dance and Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here, both of which premiered just a few years before GERALDCASELDANCE’s first concert. “The two shared vulnerable subject matter around disease, death and AIDS, but they had very different receptions; Arlene Croce’s infamous article [Discussing the Undiscussable, published in The New Yorker] characterized Jones’ work as exploitive victim art,” Casel recalls. With Not About Race Dance, GERALDCASELDANCE contemplates why this happened, and connects that line of inquiry to the present day. “We are examining how racial politics in contemporary dance and the predominance of whiteness in postmodernism underscored these events of decades past, and how today, there is still an urgent need to question the marked and unmarked power structures in dance and critique the normalized hierarchies,” states Casel.

solo asian american male dancerLike any in-progress endeavor, the company is unearthing more and more as they continue to dive in. One discovery is that other parts of the post-modern lineage also have connection to Not About Race Dance, works like Trisha Brown’s Locus Solo (1975). “When I learned Locus last year I felt that it didn’t fit or suit my brown body because in Locus, the ‘white’ body is literally and physically centered,” remembers Casel, “Not About Race Dance calls attention to this invisibility of whiteness in postmodernism.”

With the premiere of Not About Race Dance set for 2019, the next year or so is already planned out for GERALDCASELDANCE. As to what may be in store after that? Stay tuned. But whatever projects arise in the future, you can be sure that they will be driven by GERALDCASELDANCE’s longtime vision: to make art that asks critical and impactful questions.


To live in the San Francisco Bay Area is to reckon with striking paradoxes. Rising wealth contrasts with persistent homelessness. Socially progressive values butt up against NIMBY (not in my backyard) individualism. Residents of “Sanctuary” cities continually face biased policing. Conversations abound about racial equity while the sizes of local black communities are shrinking. This list alarms me, yet is incomplete. We are far from being untethered from historically damaging ‘isms’ – classism, sexism, racism. Within this context, the current landscape of social movements like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter is long overdue – worldwide, nationwide, and locally.

When #metoo started gaining steam, I celebrated as abusive men fell from grace. I winced when those I had respected were called out. I had multiple soul-searching conversations with fellow female-identified friends about what consent means to each of us. We talked about desire, women’s lib, and deeply socialized tendencies to feel responsible for other people’s emotions. And I groaned at the reality that as a society we need a hashtag to raise awareness of the lived experience of no less than 50% of the population.

In contrast, I find myself humbled to be learning more about the ‘isms’ I am privileged to ignore at my choosing. Being white, the #blacklivesmatter and concurrent racial justice movements have illuminated aspects of the lives of people of color I hadn’t previously considered. This is particularly the case in news stories involving police interactions but expand beyond that quickly, to day-to-day agressions. In a recent interview with Terry Gross, comic Roy Wood Jr. described his dismay when a white cashier at a Best Buy was adamant that he didn’t need a bag for a small purchase. Wood’s response was similarly adamant: as a black man, he would never leave a store without a bag and a receipt in hand, for fear of being accused of theft. Needless to say, I decline bags and receipts all the time without recourse. This anecdote is also worth a groan: how could I be that oblivious to the lived experience of so many?

It is no one’s job to teach me, or anyone who is part of a structurally advantaged population, about the ways in which systemic oppression and injustice reveal themselves in daily life, yet I am grateful for any opportunity to continually learn and grow. This is why I’m particularly excited for readers to dig into this month’s issue of In Dance. Several of the articles within grapple with these social realities and the broader context within which dance artists practice, teach, create and present work.

Heather Desaulniers writes of Gerald Casel’s eponymous company as it prepares for its 20th anniversary season, with work that interrogates the racial politics of postmodern dance. Casel’s Not About Race Dance will have its first showing, calling attentions to what he describes as the “invisibility of whiteness in postmodernism.”

Sima Belmar’s “In Practice” features a conversation with acclaimed performer and producer Tonya Marie Amos, who recounts the racism she encountered throughout her ballet and modern training in San Francisco and New York in the not-so-distant past. Her annual Juneteenth show in Oakland seeks to remember and celebrate black artists.

Seven female-identified teachers at the upcoming West Coast Contact Improvisation Jam respond to the question “How do you see the #metoo movement impacting the CI community, or not?” Their responses are varied and rich, reflecting the complexities of participating in a physical and oftentimes intimate movement practice.

And on the back of this issue is a piece by Jochelle Pereña, who considers how her teaching practice relates to the “systems of injustice and oppression” that her students are growing up within. She asks “What do people need in order to feel the exhilaration of freedom and power in action?” and forms strategies for the classroom.

I continually learn from choreographers, teachers, performers, and writers – among many more – who bravely share perspectives each month and all year long. Thank you!

Bringing the Minkisi Home

It was unexpectedly and on foreign land that Byb Bibene encountered a nkisi nkondi for the first time. During a visit at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, where he was on tour in 2006, the Bay Area-based choreographer was taken by the power of a wooden sacred statue, which he learned was a nkisi nkondi (nkisi is loosely translated as ‘medicine’, nkondi as ‘hunter’) and originated from his native land, the Congo. He had never seen nor heard about it back home.

Carved in wood, minkisi (plural of nkisi) were found in the kingdom of Kongo, which was located in West central Africa, in what is now known as northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the southern part of Gabon. The kingdom was mostly an independent state from the 14th to the 19th century, until it was broken apart by colonial Portugal, France and Belgium. Independence was reinstated in the 1960s, although by that time, years of foreign domination had caused devastating damages throughout the Congolese culture, politics and economics.

In pre-colonial time, minkisi were power figures activated by a nganga or healer at the request of an individual, a family or a community to help with public or private matters such as sealing a contract, resolving a conflict, curing a disease or casting off evil spirits. The nganga would activate the nkisi by placing spiritually charged substances inside its hollows, thereby calling the divine spirits to inhabit it and offer their guidance. Minkisi came in various shapes, mainly anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures, but also vessels or shells. The nkisi nkondi stands out among other minkisi, as one in which the nganga would insert and leave a sharp object – nail, blade, shard – for each request made to the spirits.

Deemed as superstitious ‘fetishes’ by Christian missionaries, minkisi were for the most part destroyed during colonial times. Those that were spared were looted and later reappeared in private collections and museums, primarily in Western Europe and the United States. In addition, by imposing their language and education onto the native populations, colonists systematically eradicated traces of indigenous practices. This is why Bibene, although born and raised in the Republic of the Congo, never knew about minkisi.

An economist by trade – he holds a BA in finance – Bibene only started to pursue dance as a formal study in college: “In Congo dance and music are part of everyday life. I grew up surrounded by traditional ethnic dances, social dances like rumba or ndombolo, as well as American hip-hop. But it was not until I went to college that dance and acting became a big part of my life,” Bibene shared. He started a company in Brazzaville, the country’s capital, and in 2005 it was selected to compete in a dance competition in Paris. He won two prizes and began to travel frequently, mostly in Europe and the United States, where he relocated in 2009.

one male dancer on the floor wearing red dance pants

Encountering the nkisi nkondi in Paris fostered Bibene’s insatiable curiosity and planted the seed for his new work Nkisi Nkondi: Sacred Kongo Sculpture, presented at ODC Theater in May, followed by performances at the Museum of the African Diaspora in June: “I became obsessed and started researching. It took me to revisiting the history and spirituality of my country before colonization.” Bibene began developing the piece two years ago, as part of his thesis for his MFA in Dance at Saint Mary’s College. It started as a duet with Congolese dancer Chris Babingui, before morphing into a quintet. The piece now includes twelve dancers, and live music by Colombian flutist Adriana Rueda as well as music by Bayaka Pygmies and composers Henry Torgue and Serge Houpin.

Featuring text and videos about the creative process and the history of minkisi, the piece recreates some of the dances that might have been used in the process of calling for the divine spirits to inhabit the body of the nkisi nkondi. “I don’t know if there was a specific dance used by the nganga when performing the ritual, but I deducted so because ceremonies always involve dance, music, chanting or clapping. I don’t think that a small matter such as two people sealing a contract with the help of a nganga included dancing, but a larger matter involving the whole community might certainly have,” Bibene commented.

In Nkisi Nkondi, Bibene is not only drawing from the ethnic dances of his country but also from the photos of the minkisi that he came across during his research: “I’m creating from what the minkisi are telling us, from the power emanating from them. In the studio I may ask dancers to choose two of the minkisi’s positions and activate them.” For Bibene this work is an excavation into a cultural heritage that was taken away by colonial powers. “We are remembering history and honoring the spirit of the minkisi. With this piece I’m creating something that is my own internal ritual, connecting with my people’s history, which I didn’t know growing up. There are still a lot of things that I need to learn.”

This process of excavation raises ongoing questions: “What would have happened if people had held on to their beliefs and their healing practices? What if people didn’t embrace Christianity? The people whose heritage minkisi are a part of don’t even know about their existence. Considering that I had to pay a museum entrance fee in Paris to see a nkisi for the first time in my life, what is the economy of this cultural heritage? Do we bring back the statues to where they belong or do we ask for compensation?” Bibene asks. A firm believer that the key to Africa’s advancement rests in the acknowledgment of its indigenous knowledge, author Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu advocates for the return of stolen art to Africa, as a first step in restoring a sense of identity to communities whose traditional practices and history have been partly erased: “It is very important to understand that while Africa’s artwork resident in museums across Europe and America hold mostly aesthetic value in the hands of their current owners, the value it holds for Africans are completely the opposite. Africa’s artifacts hold the collective history and memory of several communities that make up the continent. It represents Africa’s pride in her past, the absence of which has robbed the continent of a clear understanding of its present situation and the will to chart a veritable path to her future,” she stated in an interview with the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad.

Dancer in traditional Congo dance attire with outstretched arm

Bibene hopes that his piece encourages audiences to delve into their own history: “I want the audience to realize how important it is to know one’s history. A lot of issues we face in our society come from the fact that people have abandoned practices that were demonized by settlers – different forms of healing or documenting history, for example. I am also hoping to encourage my brothers and sisters in the African American community to connect with their roots.” My conversation with Bibene about Nkisi Nkondi inevitably brings me to consider the colonial history of my own native country. As a white woman originally from France, whose ancestors, and the generations following, if not directly responsible for colonizing Bibene’s land, undisputedly benefited from it, I am confronted with these implications and my own position in regards to the aftermaths of France’s colonial past.

After a two-year hiatus from his bi-annual trips home to complete his MFA, Bibene will return to the Republic of the Congo this summer. He is building a cultural center on the coast, in Pointe-Noire, and continues to oversee the Rue Dance street festival that he co-created in Brazzaville, which is held every two years with international guest artists who come teach and perform. While bridging cultural dialogue through artistic exchange, Bibene hopes to keep on unearthing parts of his people’s heritage and returning them to his community. “For me encountering the nkisi nkondi was the start of a personal revolution, similar to a rebirth. My research and this work have taken me closer to my culture in a way I couldn’t imagine. I started questioning everything, each aspect of my life. It is hard to trace our history, I am only discovering components of it little by little. It will certainly be a lifelong project.”


The only thing more powerful than private funds is public will. When YBCA describes its mission as generating culture that moves people, the bet that we are making is that we can activate how art influences the public imagination, and that we can design a process whereby highly dynamic inquiry spawns culture. The Transform Festival is artistically a concentrated slate of global performance works presented in the heart of San Francisco, but civically, Transform is a curated opportunity for our community to refine, reframe, and respond to the erosion of our country’s moral infrastructure.

A pre-dawn tweeter most likely can’t sleep, and a man who can’t sleep, can’t dream.

3 dancers draped over a large metal circular prop

You’ll forgive me if I glance over history to presidents past…I am newly awakened to the significance of two presidential acts. The first is a speech, offered by JFK in May of 1961 in which he announced the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy reminds us that the future is made of stumbles, hubris, and innovators who are humble enough to pursue it. He asks us to apply un-invented systems of science WHILE inside the swirl of social tumult. He asks us to dream, together, in public.

In 1965, Kennedy’s caustic and controversial successor, Lyndon B. Johnson instituted the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA was ratified into lawful existence via Congressional Act, a portion of which reads:

“The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States…

Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located, masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”

YBCA is an arts center in service of free thinkers and earnest leaders. About 20 months ago, an immigrant architect named Teddy Cruz addressed us at the YBCA100 Summit. At the time of his talk, we were 5 days away from the 2016 Presidential election, and I remember that the air outside tasted like stale hope. Inside our Forum though, I found myself electrified and sharply determined in response to one of Teddy’s questions to us that day. He centered us in the thought that public space is where beliefs are physicalized and constructed. He observed with us that we are stuck in a civic pattern where top-down resources rarely interfaced with bottom-up agency. And then he pleadingly asked us …“Where is our public imagination?”

two dancers caressing each other's faces in a dim room

I can’t rightly say if any of the artists in this Spring’s Transform Festival are unequivocally answering that question with their art, but I CAN say that art almost ALWAYS answers that question best. Even as Kennedy invoked a collaborative path to the impossible, he presided over an era of nuclear brinksmanship. Even as Johnson endowed the arts with federal resources, he amplified the country’s military scale in Viet Nam. Artists are the leaders among us, generally more driven by mission than market, whose job is to codify inspired thought for public consumption. Their ideas intersect with our political world, but they design experiences that ask us to imagine ourselves conjoined in the politics and physics of a creative moment. We imagine ourselves at the synaptic second of inspiration, or inside the bubble of digital love, or at the specific frequency of a Black woman rocking out on her guitar, or as collectively vulnerable, but still a collective.

The Transform Festival doesn’t uniquely honor or highlight any particular demographic or genre of performance. Curatorially we are as provoked by dance as by theater or music. The dominant frames for our festival choices are a rabid curiosity and a complicated sense of beauty. We don’t seek to program ‘for’ a demographic, but in solidarity with a psychographic that shares our sense of urgency, inquiry, and aspiration of social equity. As such, you’ll find DJ’s making symphonies to soundtrack climate change in the Arctic, and playwrights deconstructing liquor store culture in the Tenderloin. We’ll feature a dance company like Capacitor that’s celebrating 20 years of making work in the Bay Area, and Okwui Okpokwasili, who has visited us with Ralph Lemon and Nora Chipaumire, but has never come to YBCA as the artistic director of her own project.

Transform reflects an ethic of activating artists in our midst in a different way. We lean on questions to organize intentional communities rather than objects to magnetically lure audiences. We center relationships built on shared inquiry to re-imagine how an arts center can function as an activist citizen in its own community.

portrait of Marc Bamuthi Joseph

The Transform Festival was not dreamt into the air by a sitting president, but by a soaring question… “Where is our public imagination?” How might we envision Kennedy’s moonshot speech if his aim was not space, but education, or public health, or equity. If Kennedy’s “moon” was actually immigration, what would be the role of art in getting us there?

It is indeed #sad that our elected officials aren’t asking us these questions. What kind of person proposes military parades and the abolition of the federal art economy in the same week? How does the public respond to a kind of weaponized neurosis in executive form? At this festival, through the lens of provocative artists, let’s imagine that the beautiful city is not a bubble. As we take our seats, we remember that views don’t make a revolution, bodies do. As the lights dim to signal a creatively pitched reality, we might find our minds racing in the dark like a night under the shadow of a new moon.  

Jo Kreiter: Artistic Activist/Activist Artist

If you are like me, you want artists who have an individual voice and the expertise to articulate it cogently. Some develop gradually; in others a special spark asks for attention from the minute you encounter it. Jo Kreiter is one of them. Maybe you first noticed her as a member of Zaccho Dance Theatre as a moving speck sitting on the numeral nine of the Ferry Building’s Clock Tower. It happened in Joanna Haigood’s 1995 Noon, which had the performers also rappel some two hundred vertigo-inducing feet to the ground. Two years later, Kreiter’s own dancers were hanging off windowsills and fire escapes in Sparrow Alley to live music by Pamela Z. They surprised both passers-by and residents.

A Political Science Major at Duke University, Kreiter came to San Francisco without any dance training. It was the city’s long activist tradition that attracted her. She stayed, and it became a good decision for her and the local dance community. By now Kreiter has some twenty-three choreographies to her credit, the vast majority of them are what she calls “aerial” or “apparatus-based” dance. Her budgets have grown; her accolades and grants are numerous.  

Still, she has had a few setbacks. Some odder than others.

For her 20th anniversary concert in 2016, she created Grace and Delia Are Gone about violence against women. The music was based on murder ballads, many of them from 19th century folk traditions. The National Endowment for the Arts denied the grant proposal because as the panelists apparently said that these women should have gone to local shelters.  

Right now Kreiter is hard at work on her largest site-specific project yet. Tender (n.) A Person Who Takes Charge (June 7-16) will be performed outside the Cadillac Hotel at 388 Eddy Street in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods.

Yet Kreiter is restless.

woman in cream-colored dress with red hair dancing on a fire escape

She easily acknowledges that her site-specific works have allowed her to engage in her two passions: social activism from a feminist perspective and dance. She is also aware that her outdoor installations greatly limit their touring potential. “I would like not to be known as a regional artist,” she muses in her kitchen in the Portola District before a meeting with long-time set designer Sean Riley.  She would like Flyaway Productions to really take flight. “For instance,” she says, “it would be so nice if somebody, let’s say in Tennessee, had heard about what we do and called to explain that they had a certain situation, and would we like to come.”

Yet she already has come a long way. In 1990, still performing with Zaccho, she became a member of ODC’s first Pilot Project that encourages young choreographers to develop their potential. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she recalls but she does remember the supportive environment and that she wanted to make a “piece about wildness and that it was OK to be wild.”

Early on she also received much support by what she calls San Francisco’s “Senior Women Artists”: Haigood, Margaret Jenkins and Brenda Way. “I remember one day Brenda called me up and said she had heard about me; let’s have lunch.” And they did. “I wouldn’t be here without them,” Kreiter modestly acknowledges.

Her trapeze work with Terry Sendgraff and performing with Haigood had given her a framework of what she might do. She likes objects, any object, small, huge, round, pointed, fixed, floating. Kreiter embraces them because she sees possibilities. “My creativity is very naked without an object, “she admits. The simple act of walking vertically up a pole, for instance, exhilarated her. The gravitational pull became horizontal, and the vertical became the place on being grounded.

In addition to choreographing for her own group, for the last twelve years Kreiter has given summer workshops, “GIRLFLY” for underserved teenage girls. “They are body-focused,” she explains, “we address the body has a site of disempowerment and how they can change that.” She might not quite use that language, but the girls already have lots of stories to share about what it means to be male or female.

Looking for performers, Kreiter soon learned that traditional women’s dance training left them woefully shortchanged in upper body strength. That offended her feminist sensibility. To this day Flyaway is an all woman company. Her choreography is risk-based and demands upper-body strength, it is also dance-based, and many dancers already have acrobatic tendencies. Current company member Sonsherée Giles, for instance, is one of them. Experience has taught Kreiter that training dancers in her discipline is easier than training aerialists for dance. Laura Elaine Ellis, a “mature” dancer as she calls herself, wanted to broaden her skill set even as she was, as she says “attracted to the stories [Jo] she seeks to tell through her aerial dancing and apparatus.” As for her Flyaway training? “I am still working on strengthening and developing my aerial skills.”

3 women dancing on fire escapes outside of a hotelWhat about someone with fear of heights?

“Not for me,” Kreiter laughs.


As she has moved her creative energy to the Tenderloin, the subject matter has become increasingly dire.” For Tender she is working with immigrant Vietnamese people, the Tenderloin Museum and local Vietnamese community leaders. She will also include an employment component for local residents.

None of her works offer easy answers much as we would like them. But at the very least the stories about homelessness, about being ignored as women, about being exploited in the work force makes you (almost) believe that art and politics can have a symbiotic relationship. To see these dancers embrace the moment, and the sheer effort of their work instills hope even in a relatively straightforward work such as the 2003 How to be a Citizen. She had researched the decades old history of social protests along Market Street. She built a ramp on the lower part of the street on which the dancers struggled, climbed, slid and fell. But the ramp bent upwards as the women reached the end. A simple image perhaps, but potent and even hopeful.

Kreiter opts to work in the Tenderloin because “this is ground zero for income inequality in this City and this country. We don’t take care of the neediest people in our society, and they are there on the streets everyday.”

Not that it’s always easy. For example, rehearsing for the 2015 Needles to Thread meant working in an alley that functions as a public latrine. Yet even difficult can yield moments of beauty. A conversation with a resident about the work gave Kreiter feedback: “this is me.”

On a very hectic recent day as garbage was thrown around and a refrigerator kicked down the street, the neighborhood appeared to be a cauldron of fighting and screaming. Then dancers, in costumes for Tender, made their way to a photo shoot on a fire escape. All of a sudden, Kreiter remembers, “there was this moment of incredible calm and beauty even among all the chaos and pervasive trauma of an invasive street culture.”

Over the years Kreiter has developed a clear structural approach to each work. A year before the premiere, she starts collecting oral histories. For Tender, which looks at the experience of Vietnamese immigrants, she is working with seven dancers, drag artist Honey Maloney, the Asian Art and the Tenderloin museums, community and health organizations.

These stories will provide the work’s conceptual frame work. The material then gets divided into sections—four of them in the current piece. Then comes the music. For Tender the choreographer works for the first time with Emmy-winning composer Vân-Ánh Võ who also plays the zither, which functions prominently in Vietnamese culture.

If she knows and already is comfortable with a composer, the music’s creation can be very smooth. Pamela Z, who has worked with Kreiter since the 1996 Sparrows Alley, appreciates how very early in the process “Kreiter knows how the sections of the piece will be divided – with very precise durations, particular moods, tempi, and subject matter.” So Z often composes the score on her own. She finds it fascinating that somehow the different elements smoothly fit together.

The dance making comes at the very end of the process because the performers cannot command the site-specific space for long enough to realize the choreography. “My ideal,” Kreiter says somewhat dreamily, “is to create a work a hundred percent on location because the piece would have more longevity and, hopefully, engage the local residents more extensively.

Looking into the future, she repeats that, “I would really like to be invited rather than imposing myself.” To help the process along, she is designing a self-sustaining circular set for next year’s premiere that can be taken on the road.

Kreiter currently is a Rauschenberg Artist as Activist (2017-2019).  This fellowship allows her to create—unusually—a very personal work. Waiting Room examines the love of women living with an incarcerated loved one. She knows whereof she is talking. “I am one of them,” she says. “My husband was incarcerated for six years.”

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