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In Dance

In Practice: Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts’ Six Degrees of Freedom

Three dancers looking at one performer with an eagle head

Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts Photo by Stephen Texeira

First of all, full disclosure: the Wymore of Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts is kind of my boss—Lisa Wymore, Chair of the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at UC Berkeley, where I work as a Lecturer. The Smith is Sheldon Smith, Wymore’s partner in life and art. Six Degrees of Freedom is the duo’s latest choreographic adventure, which premieres at the end of this month at ODC Theater, the culmination of their ODC Artist Residency.

Two years in the making, Six Degrees is driven by an elaborate conceit: If an intelligent computer awoke from a dream compelled to make a work of contemporary dance theater, what sort of dance theater work would it make? For those of us who have known Smith and Wymore for their dance theater experiments with digital technologies, it comes as a surprise to discover that they do not engage the services of an actual computer for Six Degrees. Unlike earlier works that have been “directed” by computer algorithms (imagine the algorithm as the dice in a chance procedure), Six Degrees is, rather, a thought experiment.

Unsurprisingly, as a married couple that is also in artistic partnership, Lisa and Sheldon finish each other’s sentences. There’s a rhythm to their conversation—Sheldon’s slow, stretchy speech punctuated by Lisa’s staccato interjections—that I found mesmerizing. But what I’d like you to imagine while reading this interview are the little breathy laughs and delighted pauses that threaded through our conversation because, for Lisa and Sheldon, Six Degrees remains a mystery. Interviewing them was like watching a pair of lighthearted but mildly dystopian elves break apart the toys they had made, scattering their insides like runes to read for guidance on how to understand the impact of technology on our lives.

Two performers looking into a camera that is projecting the feed behind them

Smith/Wymore Photo by Stephen Texeira

Sima Belmar: Talk about Six Degrees of Freedom in relation to how you’ve used technology in the past.

Sheldon Smith: In the past we’ve used a number of random number generating systems, although very finely tuned and attuned to the needs of the work…

Lisa Wymore: …telling us how long the sections are, when to come in and out…

Sheldon: …it doesn’t work very well to deal with pure chance. If you’re purely dealing with chance there might be a version of the piece where the computer interacts with us once and we’re just milling around for forty minutes. So there are certainly artistic choices that we make along the way to Goldilocks the thing.

Lisa: We’re always playing with control, command, and agency.

Sheldon: This piece was an evolution through an ongoing interest in the relationship between technology and dance, technology and the human body, technology and our lives. We wanted to think more about the computer’s creativity. In other pieces, the computer is directing us, telling us what to do…

Lisa: …but we know it really doesn’t have the creativity…it’s almost like it’s programming us…

Sheldon: …we programmed it to program us. But in this piece we’re imagining that the computer really has its own creative agency. If you fed enough fragments and YouTube clips of dance theater works into neural nets, what would the output look like? To some degree you can do that now—people have explored this a lot with text…

Lisa: …the computer can take a whole book or script and pull it through its algorithm to create a new script. There’s this film…[1]

Sheldon: …in a sense the computer is trying to figure out what a script is, what a relationship between people is, but it’s always getting it wrong.

Sima: So if you put War and Peace into the computer…

Sheldon: …you would put everything written by Tolstoy into it and then see if it could write something like Tolstoy from what it’s digested from it. The computer looks for patterns. In Six Degrees, we are trying to build something with the aesthetic of computer-created work. But dance theater is so complex to begin with…

Lisa: …dance theater is already so esoteric and strange that if you were to plug in a bunch of postmodern dance theater works would it really look any different from the real ones?

Sheldon: The central question as we’re working is still, if we were a computer, what choices would we be making…

Lisa: …we’re pretending to be the sentient computer…

Sheldon: …we’re asking, if I fed everything I’ve ever done into a computer, how would I fuck that up and spit it out in a way that’s different from how I normally work? Where does it go wrong? And in looking at those places where it goes wrong, what do we learn about how close computers are to really understanding us at all?

Sima: Take me into a rehearsal, into the practice.

Lisa: We looked back at our older works and just went into the studio with these ideas based on past pieces. We knew we wanted to play with the randomization of text so we’ve been using what appears to be computer generated text but it’s not. It’s really odd and makes no sense to say, but we’re trying to make it [the text] make sense and then put movement to it—very grid-like movements that a computer might understand and command a body to do.

Sima: So it’s a combination of movement that you think a computer might understand and what a computer might do with a bunch of movement data.

Lisa: Yes, it’s playing with both sides of the coin.

Sima: But not playing much with the computer.

Sheldon: Not very much with the computer itself. We know the computer could look at the data and then spit out some variation on that, but the question is, what is the computer actually thinking aesthetically? Does it? Well it doesn’t, but if the computer were having some sort of aesthetic awareness in what it’s doing, what is that and at what point would it start to own its aesthetic choice-making and start to self-identify as an artist and have its own signature style. So in the case of Six Degrees, the computer has not gotten there, it’s fumbling around.

Lisa: The piece is inhibiting our own organic choices of what we’d normally make in a piece. We’re stumbling ourselves, challenging ourselves, juxtaposing what we never thought should or could go together. We haven’t chosen to say put all of our work in it. Well, we don’t know how! We don’t have the computer programs to do that. We would need a giant grant. It’s a provocation.

Sheldon: It’s a provocation. One of the things that has become interesting to me in working on this is how it’s coming full circle to Dadaism and neo-futurism and all these things that happened 100 years ago when people were exploring structure and language, chance juxtapositions of things, and the context of that, post-WWI, fascism. With Trump, we have the desire to make even less sensical work than we might otherwise make.

Sima: There’s a threat to sense that’s different now from prior threats to sense because it’s an explicit attack on the very notion of sense. Fake news, no truth. But in terms of political cycles, if artists have long been playing with language in order to break down habitual modes of sense-making and sense-perceiving, it seems to me that those interested in AI are interested in training computers, which currently make non-sense out of something that makes sense, to make sense of whatever logic of the world that you’re putting in it. But then you two come along and seem to be trying to make non-sense in relation to a project that would normally be trying to teach sense-making. Ok, now I’m lost.

Lisa: I think a lot of folks in technology think we’re getting close to getting computers to do a lot more for us, that the computer can be trained to understand our logic, to make ethical choices. But I think this piece is saying that we know that it can’t really, that part of why we’ve lost sense, and I don’t know if we’ll get this through the piece, is because the computers have been programmed to do all these things and we don’t understand what’s algorithmically coming at us.

Sima: Like we can’t tell the difference between a bot and a person?

Lisa: Right, and so the computer, for all that we’ve invested in it, is infiltrating our world and it will never be all that we are. So in a way this piece has a grimmer futuristic vision. We’re risking failing because we know it can never be right.

Sheldon: In the process of doing this we’re almost dehumanizing our artistic process…

Lisa: …or reprogramming it.

Sima: But if a human can align with computers, then that’s a human capacity, it’s not dehumanizing or less human necessarily. So I’m wondering about the language of the project.

Lisa: It’s more about the truth seeking stuff, what gets perpetuated, what gets put in front of our screens as we search. Small things, like why do I always see bras on my Facebook page, I don’t want to see any more bras on my page, but it’s telling me, it’s changing how I look, how I search, what I can even get access to, it will put stuff first, it will block things. I can’t get down into things because of these small iterative patterns that are constantly eroding away at us. I know its changed my art practice, how I go into the studio…

Sima: …but it’s so productive to get out of habits.

Sheldon: It’s incredibly productive. The biggest impact of our overarching concept, in practice, is forcing us out of habitual ways of working and taking away certain levels of responsibility about the outcome.

Sima: Will the piece have anything to do with Kevin Bacon?[2]

Sheldon: There may be some Kevin Bacon…

Lisa: The “six degrees” are all the different joint angles in robotics—flexion, extension, rotation, lateral side bending, etc. and if you put them together you get all the movement. It’s a system used in programming that affects us as humans. It relates to the Laban system of how we see our bodies in space. And in a way it’s limiting but at the same time it’s functional. It’s kind of the thing of the piece. Limitations are both creative and control your freedom.

Sima: Clearly you both feel that dance is a privileged site for exploring these questions and also, maybe, helping us make different choices about how we use and are used by our devices. Do you have hopes for the piece?

Lisa: Just to realize the power. Are we losing our freedom? Like our son gets some screen time every day. His sense of creativity is so different. Is he freer? I don’t know. In some way he can see all the movie references he wants to, go down some deep path, but in another sense he doesn’t get to wait to see the movie or read a book about the references or talk to a neighbor. What are we losing and what are we gaining?

Sima: I’ve never interviewed the two of you, so you may always be like this for all I know, but you do seem to be in a kind of mixed state of low level anxiety and delighted maybeness about this piece, which maybe you don’t always feel…

Sheldon: …that’s pretty accurate…

Sima: …which as an interviewer kind of makes me more interested in the work because, if they don’t know what they’re thinking, that takes the burden off the viewer to “get it.” It’s about doing, making and witnessing. And if you have a rigorous path, any kind, it’s very freeing. I feel like I’ve been put in a little bit of a freed up space just talking with you.

Sheldon: I would say in almost every case we don’t know what the piece is trying to say until we’ve actually got it complete and put it in front of people and heard from people. To some degree what we’re telling you right now is a construct of several grant processes we’ve been through which have been helpful in the sense that they’ve shaped our process and put us on this rigorous path to make this work and it’s created some ideas that we’re following. At the same time, between now and November, I still hold open the possibility that what we think this thing is could be completely different.

Sima: Well it’s been a pleasure dancing around with you in your thought experiment.

[1] You can find the film, Sunspring, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LY7x2Ihqjmc.

[2] For those too young to remember, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is the movie buff mutation of the “six degrees of separation” concept.

 

Cal Performances Deepens its Commitment to Dance

Three dancers jumping

Camille A Brown Dance photo by Matt Karas

Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, Flyaway Productions, ODC/Dance, Dorrance Dance – such an astounding collection of dance artists recently hosted at Cal Performances. And that was just during the months of September and October! These early season performance engagements represent only a fraction of what the longtime Bay Area presenter has in store with its 2017/2018 dance programming. Between November and mid-April, Cal Performances will welcome ten more companies to Zellerbach Hall, the Zellerbach Playhouse and the Oakland Metro Operahouse. Saying this current season is jam-packed with dance offerings feels like an understatement. In fact, it’s one of the fullest schedules that I can recall over the past decade and a half. And it is steeped in diversity – diversity of style, diversity of genre and with both returning audience favorites and many first timers making their Cal Performances debuts, incredible diversity of choreographic voice and perspective.

“The dance season shows our commitment to an aesthetically broad point of view, to bringing innovative creation into our midst and inviting new voices into the dialogue,” says Cal Performances Associate Director Rob Bailis, “it’s not just more dance programming – dance is becoming more pervasive in popular culture again, and so we are responding with our targeted effort to provide bridges and greater context for what’s happening in concert dance.” Broad, indeed. Rhythm tap to contemporary ballet, narrative-based work to abstract musings, mixed discipline compositions to surprising collaborations, the trove of material is deep and varied. But one should not confuse breadth with randomness. To the contrary, every 2017/2018 dance engagement is the result of careful selection and thoughtful rigor, each speaking to the investment that Cal Performances is making in choreography, movement and physicality.

Group of men standing on stage with gumboots on

South African Dance photo curtesy of Cal Performances

There are a number of factors that are informing Cal Performances’ continued investment in dance, one of which is a re-thinking of an existing performance track. “Our World Stage series has, in the past, been primarily a world music platform,” Bailis explains, “now we are broadening that platform and taking more of an interdisciplinary approach, shifting World Stage to be as inclusive with dance as it is with music.” Living directly into this intention and vision, four world dance forms will be showcased this season. Tango Buenos Aires’ The Spirit of Argentina and the Festival of South African Dance will appear back-to-back in a single weekend mid-November. Ragamala Dance Company brings South Indian dance to the Zellerbach Playhouse in December followed by Eva Yerbabuena Company’s Flamenco concert in the Spring. In addition to these four dance performances, puppetry, acrobatics, theater and of course, music are all part of this year’s World Stage programming. Certainly a reflection of Cal Performances’ move toward a more expansive swath and scope of World Stage performing arts.

Another major lifeforce running through the current season’s dance programming is Berkeley RADICAL, Research and Development Initiative in Creativity, Arts and Learning. Launched in 2015, the initiative signaled a tremendous shift at Cal Performances, “Berkeley RADICAL is a change agent we introduced, enabling us to become more specifically focused on a particular line of artistic inquiry – through RADICAL, we make a commitment to works of excellence, diverse origin and deep relevance,” relays Bailis. RADICAL is organized into what Cal Performances calls ‘strands of curation’ or curatorial threads, which seek to provide audiences multiple opportunities to encounter creative work. Within the RADICAL frames, one will certainly find performances, but also an array of other events like community dance classes, lectures, panels, workshops and open rehearsals, all combining together towards a goal of increased artistic literacy, access and engagement.

Transcending Borders is the canopy title for 2017/2018’s Berkeley RADICAL season at Cal Performances, holding three distinct strands. Vaulting Walls joins music and theater works that are rooted in one geographical place and which simultaneously push audiences with challenging material and narratives. Another RADICAL throughline, Blurring Boundaries, invites a range of artists to confront perceived expectations and assumptions in their genres and fields. Two dance troupes, Ragamala Dance Company and Company Wang Ramirez, are part of this latter RADICAL strand. Artistic intersections are at the heart of Ragamala Dance Company’s full-length collaborative work Written in Water. Not only are ancient traditions placed within a contemporary container, there is an unexpected synthesis of movement vocabulary and music – classical Indian dance paired with Amir ElSaffar’s score, a composition that marries 21st century jazz and traditional Iraqi maqam. Then in February, Blurring Boundaries welcomes Company Wang Ramirez’s Borderline, a troupe and a piece that has innovative spirit in its bloodstream, continually testing limits and thinking beyond anticipated norms. “Company Wang Ramirez is inventing new vocabulary for concert dance. In this work they are drawing on elements of hip hop and social dance, infused with the physical properties inherent in flying; they are pioneering a new form,” Bailis shares.

Four couples each in a different Tango pose

Tango Buenos Aires Spirit of Argentina photo by Lucrecia Laurel

But for the dance community, it is the remaining Berkeley RADICAL strand, Joining Generations that may be of particular interest. A strand that is all dance, uniting four iconic African American choreographers: Reggie Wilson (Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group), Camille A. Brown (Camille A. Brown & Dancers), Donald Byrd (Spectrum Dance Theater) and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), under the Artistic Direction of Robert Battle. 2018 marks a very significant year for AAADT and Cal Performances – fifty years as residency partners, AAADT having made their first visit to campus in the late 1960s. Not only did Cal Performances want to commemorate and celebrate this golden anniversary, they also wanted to take the opportunity to mine and explore what has happened in and with dance over this five-decade period. It seemed fitting to do so with a dedicated Berkeley RADICAL strand, and so Joining Generations was born. “Joining Generations looks at the evolution of American Dance from the 1960s to the present, and does so through an African American lens – the arrival of post-modernism, the emergence of Dance Theater and the inclusion of pure pedestrian movement and even social dance on the concert stage,” Bailis describes, “and in the spirit of that first Ailey appearance at Zellerbach, we wanted to include new voices, artists making their Cal Performances debut.” If you missed Reggie Wilson in September, you can still catch the next three Joining Generations’ performances, as well as attend the myriad of related events. Camille A. Brown arrives at Zellerbach Playhouse in early December with BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, Spectrum Dance Theater’s A Rap on Race comes to Oakland Metro Operahouse in February, and AAADT’s annual Cal Performances’ residency begins April 10, 2018.

One dancer sitting while the other makes a exaggerated running shape

Donald Byrds Spectrum Dance photo by Tino Tran

Annual residencies have long been instrumental to Cal Performances’ dance season, and this year that tradition continues and intensifies. There are two major cornerstones, two long-term bi-coastal artistic exchanges: AAADT and Mark Morris Dance Group, who this December, is back at Zellerbach Hall with the fanciful, retro holiday fete, The Hard Nut. “We are deeply invested in both relationships; when they are here, the Hall is packed, people are coming to see dance,” notes Bailis. While the residencies are rich, voracious and incredibly successful in their own right, they are also catalysts that lead viewers to crave more dance, thus making them a driving force to the whole of Cal Performances’ dance programming. “One of the extraordinary benefits of having companies return every year is that the audience becomes fluent in the ideas of these artists and choreographers,” he furthers, “then, audiences start seeking out other works that bring context and reference, and the understanding of the form deepens – this fluency makes it possible to grow the dance platform.”

In addition to these longstanding partnerships, a new residency begins this Fall with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, led by Artistic Director Ashley Wheater, who, having had a lengthy career with the San Francisco Ballet is well known to Bay Area dance enthusiasts. Joffrey and Cal Performances have gone ‘all in’ on this endeavor, designing and forging a creative conversation that will unfold over the next five years. Three out of those five years, the Joffrey will be coming to Berkeley for a two-part residency, consisting of performances at Zellerbach Hall along with several days of open workshops. During these workshops, the company will be crafting new work, work commissioned by Cal Performances as part of the residency. And instead of an in-progress performance or rehearsal of the new work, the community is invited to share in a much deeper experience – the in-the-moment exercise of choreographic composition – and witness a dance being built. “This five year project is actually the rekindling of an old relationship, harkening back to the 1970s when the Joffrey used to come here every summer for six weeks, creating their works now known as The Berkeley Ballets,” Bailis adds. In November, Cal Performances and the Joffrey embark on this half-decade artistic discussion. Onstage, the company offers three performances of a mixed repertory bill – Mammatus by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, In Creases by Justin Peck and the West Coast premiere of Alexander Ekman’s Joy. And for 2017’s workshop component, the Joffrey will be working on a new contemporary dance by Nicolas Blanc, and again, the community is encouraged to come and get a first-hand look inside the creative process.

A robust platform full of inspired choreography – world dance, curated collections, residencies and so much more. Join Cal Performances this season to experience this striking artistic ingenuity, something that today, is so necessary and so important. For Bailis, as for countless others, this is a time to cling to the performing arts and look to them for questioning and discovery, for inspiration and healing, and for joy, “I hope Bay Area audiences will come out and see what’s in store. In these days that are filled with such loud and uninteresting provocateurs, it is ever more so the province of live art to be genuinely provocative, expressing through the body in real time what words cannot capture.”

Dance Educators Create Systemic Change

Article PageDance teachers create change. Daily we enter classrooms, centers, and studios motivated to share our passion with students who eagerly await the chance to move and liberate their bodies. In turn we witness students’ growth in confidence, skill, expression, and self-awareness. But our job is not easy. While bodies illuminate diverse expressions, the environments we teach in often contradict our labors, especially when we work in communities who suffer from systematic oppression. Our students can fall victim to punitive measures, lack of necessary government funding, and the fear of deportation, human trafficking, or imprisonment. These are unfortunate realities for teachers in the Bay Area and elsewhere.

For eight years I have worked as a dance teaching artist, spending the most recent five s an educator and arts administrator with Luna Dance Institute, a non-profit dance education organization in Berkeley. My duties include: teaching creative and modern dance improvisation to children of all ages in Oakland Unified School District and in Luna’s after-school studio lab composition program; working with moms and children in residential recovery homes and families in local libraries; and infants and preschoolers in early childhood centers. I participate in local city arts and culture meetings, sign petitions to advocate for funding and dance legislation, and maintain relations with government and grant foundations. I continue to do the work, because of a belief that teaching benefits all children, and I remain committed to aligning myself with equitable practices that take in account the oppression of our communities.

In the public schools I work in, children have little or no access to the arts, and teachers overwhelmingly lack the support needed for their students. I have witnessed numerous interactions between teachers and students that feel damaging to the school culture and counteractive to co-constructing a learning environment. Luna’s school classes require classroom teachers to be present during dance classes the entire time, so they see how teaching artists interact with the students, and deliver dance curriculum. They are also encouraged to participate and experience dancing for themselves as they work with artists to create a class that aligns with mutual goals and the best learning experience for their students.

While working with a 5th grade teacher I noticed a tendency for her to want to control students in their use of space and adherence to instructions. She struggled with embracing creative choices, and would often stop class numerous times to give a lecture. A couple of months into the class the teacher confided in me that she felt she was being too hard on the children. She had taught middle school years prior and she realized she was holding her 5th grade students to the same expectations. Watching them dance, which involved some play and student leadership, gave her a more accurate depiction of where they were in their socio-emotional development. Over time this teacher’s harshness decreased and she exhibited more laughter and partnership with her students. I will never forget when she asked her students to wait until after dance to discuss other topics, because she wanted to fully focus and participate in the dance class. I am sure these changes carried over into her interactions with students in the classroom.

As part of Luna’s MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) program teaching artists co-teach in recovery centers where the moms live and participate in programs to rehabilitate and regain custody of their children. When moms reach a certain stage of recovery they can reunify with their child and both live at the center. At one recovery center I co-taught at a mom had a personal love for dance, and when she spoke about her three-year old son she described him as being highly active, sometimes having too much energy. As she learned more about child development and its relation to movement patterns through Luna’s family dance and embodied parent education classes, her descriptions of her child shifted to include her understanding of him learning about his body in space, and becoming more acquainted with his weight. I saw this mom participate in classes throughout the session with less frustration especially when her son would run into something or surprisingly jump onto her back. There developed a mutual and beneficial understanding between them.

During the second year of teaching at the recovery center I and the co-teacher witnessed the same mom’s attitude about her son and his high energy stray. She was getting into trouble from the center’s staff and receiving flak from other residents about her son’s behavior. She was worried and anxious that he may act out in dance class. She did not want to be punished by her peers or the staff, so she would take him out of class. He would bang on the door crying to be let back in. We saw this situation as opportunities to help everyone at the center increase their knowledge of children, dance, and development. The entire staff at the center attended a professional development workshop we held, and we plan to include staff training as a regular part of the project to support news ways of seeing children’s actions and behavior.

In all of Luna’s programs, Schools and Community Alliances, MPACT, Studio Lab, and Professional Learning we hold examples of how teaching dance affects the larger system. In late September we taught a professional learning workshop for persons working in shelters, schools, and community centers. At the end of the class a special education teacher shared that she is going to add dance, music, and art to her students IDP (individual development plan) making it a responsibility of the district to provide art for her students.

In addition to teaching dance that is developmentally appropriate and providing examples for the partners within the institutions we work in, expanding our knowledge of race and equity and connecting it to practice, continues to be extremely important for Luna’s work in communities deeply affected by systematic oppression. As part of my role as Luna’s Chief of Staff and human resources manager, I introduce a multicultural communication tool that provides a guideline for multicultural interaction each month for faculty to focus on. I often hear from our teaching artists that their thoughts involving certain situations or incidents shift when they apply this multicultural perspective. Listen deeply, check out assumptions, and acknowledge that intent is different than impact are a few of the tools we practice.

Two years ago Luna contracted Tammy Johnson, a race and equity consultant, as well as a dancer, to lead us in faculty and leadership training on equitable practices. With her help the faculty has experienced organizational cultural shifts that have allowed more space to have difficult conversations. I also see greater confidence within staff to speak directly about race and its effects on our and our clients’ daily experiences. Internally we continue to have discussions on topics such as racism, privilege, bias, and cultural humility. By discussing these imperative subjects with each other, we are able to connect them to how we promote our programs, who we promote to, as well as how we understand and address the needs of partners.

Last year Luna held our dance and equity panel opening up conversations about equity and how it affects dance. In November Luna faculty will present our findings on equity work at the National Dance Education Organization Conference; we are hosting a site-visit and dance and equity panel for the National Guild for Community Arts Education Conference, and holding a free community forum on dance and equity at our studio in February 2018. Along with our deeper knowledge of the history and impacts of systematic oppression, our empathy for our clients and each other continues to grow and develop.

I love the work I do and truly believe that we as dance educators are making a difference. We have to negotiate a lot when we step into communities, especially those in the margins, but if we continue to dedicate ourselves to being agents of change working to combat oppression, our work will ripple into helping create a more humane and equitable system.

Innovative Artist and Traditional Teacher: the Passions of Cambodian Choreographer Charya Burt

Three dancers kneeling on the grass with their arms extended and have metal headdresses

Charya Burt Cambodian Dance photo by Craig Stewart

When I spoke with Santa Rosa-based dancer and choreographer Charya Burt, she had recently returned from the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in western Massachusetts, where her company (Charya Burt Cambodian Dance) performed in the Festival’s Inside/Out series. We began by talking about her experience in what she describes as “the most iconic outdoor stage” at what she laughingly called “the Pillow.”

Charya’s company performed work from within the Cambodian classical repertory, as well as the original and innovative work she has developed over the past several years, and she tells me that “it was an incredible honor to have my work presented there. It’s a space that I [had previously only] seen in pictures and videos of other dance company’s performances, so it was an honor to perform in such a beautiful and serene space.”

Experiencing Charya Burt’s vision of Cambodian Dance in a serene space is appropriate, because watching Charya and her company perform, I’ve found myself entering a headspace of attentive serenity. Her high-precision choreography, comprised of subtle movements and nuanced gestures, is as complex and intricate as the ornate hand-made costumes featured in Cambodian dance, which take up to three hours for dancers to be sewed into. Watching her work, you are witness to a demonstration of gentle power whose profound depths are only capable of being understood through the grace of dancer’s arm as it moves through space. Finding that serene feeling is how I want to experience dance, and it’s a feeling I’ve experienced watching Charya and her company.

Burt immigrated to the United States in 1993, after a decade of dancing with Cambodia’s Royal Dance Company, and several years spent teaching classical dance at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Living in Santa Rosa, she has forged a career that, as she puts it, “highlights the two passions that I want to share – the importance of the cultural preservation of Cambodian dance, while at the same time showing how innovation, which has been in most of my work, can take classical movements and gestures and inject new life into them.”

There’s much to unpack in the pieces I’ve seen Charya and her company perform over the past decade. She has always created memorable contributions for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, where she has performed 12 times, most recently in 2016, but she has also successfully performed in less obvious spaces for traditional dance, like CounterPulse.

Silenced, the piece she performed at CounterPulse, was about the life of Cambodian pop icon Ros Serey Sothea and wove 1960’s Cambodian pop music into its fabric. Sothea disappeared during the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, a period whose violence also resulted in the death of Charya’s father and numerous family members. In Blossoming Antiquities, she explored the 1906 visit of the Cambodian Royal Ballet to France and the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s obsession with them, and incorporated western music and live visual arts into this work. There is also Blue Roses, which took the character of Laura from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and reconfigured it as the story of a Cambodian princess.

At her Rotunda Dance Series performance on November 3rd, Charya and her company will share one of the pieces she took to Jacob’s Pillow: Heavenly Garden, a piece originally staged for the proscenium stage of the Ethnic Dance Festival, re-staged for the outdoor performance at Jacob’s Pillow, and is now being re-conceived a third time to take advantage of what San Francisco City Hall Rotunda’s grand hall offers. Charya expresses great excitement to me about the challenge: “I imagine we’ll begin in the middle of the staircase, floating up and down in formation, eventually coming to the landing, which although it is small, can still fit the choreography that includes re-formed exits and entrances within the space of the piece.”

Charya tells me that Heavenly Garden’s modern take on classical choreography will be preceded by a traditional piece that “begins with me singing a prayer to bless the audience, where a dancer tosses flowers to the audience for peace and prosperity.” This mix of the traditional and the modern encapsulates Charya’s artistic goals. She explains that “adding singing into the performance and adding narrative are the two most prominent ways I add innovation,” to performances and Heavenly Garden includes both components.

Her performance at the Rotunda Dance Series is just one part of a very busy autumn for Charya and her company. In November, she will be at the Palace of Fine Arts auditioning a re-staging of a longer piece for the 2018 Ethnic Dance Festival. She tells me that the biggest challenge for these auditions is always “re-shaping a longer piece into a 10 minute performance.” Also in November, she will debut a new work choreographed to Cinnabar Heart, a composition for marimba by acclaimed Cambodian composer Chinery Ung, as a part of his 75th birthday celebration orchestrated by UC San Diego.

With support from the UC Berkeley Critical Refugee Studies collective, she will also begin research for what she hopes will become a new documentary dance project. Tentatively named Children of the Refugees, Charya says that in this early stage of the project: “I will interview my dancers [who are children of Cambodian refugees] to dig into their family history and specifically focus on the way a refugee’s understanding of space and time and how that impacts their children.” Charya tells me she “hopes to take the research gathered over the course of a year and use it to develop dance choreography by using those stories.” While this nascent work seems sure to produce an innovative new dance performance, her hope is to reconnect with former students and apprentices through the process.

Charya’s other stated passion of cultural preservation finds an outlet through working with dancers in the Cambodian community. In addition to her teaching in the Bay Area, she frequently travels to Long Beach (home to California’s largest Cambodian community) to teach at the Khmer Arts Academy, founded and run by her sister Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. Charya will begin a new artist residency at the academy in 2018.

She credits the Alliance for California Traditional Arts’ traditional apprenticeship program for helping her expand her opportunity for cultural preservation. Charya states that “teaching classes and groups of students is important, but apprenticeships provide a one-to-one intensive training. You work with one student for six months and train them with the skills and techniques they need to become professional dancers. It’s different with a class. That level of detail,” which is necessary to ensure the apprentice is immersed in the form to a degree that ensures cultural preservation, “cannot be conveyed at a group level.”

Charya has had “four apprentices from the Cambodian community, who are all working as professional dancers now.” She continues: “I’ve also apprenticed Tara Catherine Pendaya who comes from a different background [dances of Central Asia], but was able to work together through a CHIME[1] apprenticeship in a meaningful way.” As someone who wants to help sustain Cambodian dance and culture in the U.S. Charya says she “feels fortunate to have had the experience working with committed artists who love what they do, and who want to keep the dance alive and keep it moving forward.”

Charya is excited that “in the United States, wherever you find a Cambodian community you find dance happening. Because dance is a bridge for Cambodians to connect to their heritage, connect to their culture, and especially for younger Cambodians to be proud of who they are and be proud of their heritage.”

She often finds that Cambodian dance groups in a community are formed by a group of young people “who have learned from watching Cambodian dance on YouTube and then they start teaching each other, and they dance at all kinds of different levels,” but what makes Charya hopeful is that she finds “that dance becomes important to these communities,” and that is happening at all is a starting point for keeping Cambodian dance alive.

Her ultimate dream is to have a touring workshop that assists these myriad dance groups throughout the country with the “professional training that they need. I think it’s so important that I [as an established dancer] help build connections to the different Cambodian dance companies so they can better serve their own communities.”

[1] CHIME is a program of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

Welcome

I’m obsessed with the possibility of creating more-space-for-dance. Other current obsessions include eating tacos, traveling on public, reading about the Dalai Lama, avocadoes, practicing T’ai Chi and anything to do with magic tricks. In my youth I dreamed of performing great feats of magic to amaze and inspire. My dancer life helped me fulfill some of that dream: I like to believe that performing provided moments of magic for the audience and me. Manifested through bodies in motion, responding to lights, and music – even if there was no music – that became mystic moments in space and time.

Time allows ideas to expand, contract, disappear or even reappear. Is movement invention the real-magic? Or like a good slight-of-hand, is it all about guiding the observer to connect to the images? Thankfully there are numerous theatrical devices, or “dance-tricks”, that become the artful moments, each crafted to reveal something unimagined in its original form.   

Creation can also be viewed as the process that produces something tangible where nothing existed before —mysterious to many, with audience often putting forth queries like: How did you do that? Where did you get that idea?

In addition to the artistic process, artists are hyper-aware of challenges in finding enough time and resources to create and that includes having the literal space to do so. Is the reality of making-do its own magic?

Berkeley based Cal Performances recently revealed a season that’s richly packed with dance options. Representing styles and traditions that will appeal to a broad range of audience. Heather Desaulniers’ profile of this venerable presenter reveals that this is an “investment that Cal Performances is making in choreography, movement and physicality.”

Charya Burt’s artistry, through her Cambodian dance company and cultural preservation work, is featured this month in a piece by Rob Taylor. Burt will entice us at a free presentation as part of the Rotunda Dance Series on November 3. Discover how “her high-precision choreography, comprised of subtle movements and nuanced gestures, is as complex and intricate as the ornate hand-made costumes featured in Cambodian dance, which take up to three hours for dancers to be sewed into.”

Delve into additional in-depth articles that speak to the vital work that Luna Dance Institute is taking on to address oppression, while helping students’ “grow in confidence, skill, expression, and self-awareness.”

SPEAK: Times Two

Bharatanatyam Dancer sitting and posed

Nava Dance Theatre photo by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi

Editor’s Note: 70 years ago, the 1947 Partition of British India resulted in the formation of present day India and Pakistan, causing one of the largest displacements in recent South Asian history. Almost 15 million individuals were displaced and more than one million lost their lives coping with the tragic communal violence that occurred in the months before and during August, 1947.

The 1947 Partition is the inspiration for Broken Seeds (Still Grow) the dance theatre and visual art production co-created by Nadhi Thekkek, bharatanatyam dancer and Artistic Director of Nava Dance Theatre, and Rupy C. Tut, Indian miniature painter and calligrapher.

The artists discuss their relationship and interest in delving into the complex history known to many as simply, Partition.

Calligraphy Art in the shape of Partition

Art by Rupy C Tut

Nadhi Thekkek: Though Partition has always been a part of my heritage, it had seemed relatively distant from me as a next generation American. No one my family knew had to move, no one they knew was torn from their ancestral homes.

Rupy C. Tut: My relationship with Partition began as a second-hand witness, a grandchild of people effectively displaced by it. Memories from my childhood spent in India are of stories my grandparents would often tell me, stories were about their life, home and friends left behind and lost overnight.

NT: My interest in Partition piqued after meeting with Guneeta Singh Bhalla from the 1947 Partition Archive in Berkeley (1947partitionarchive.org). She and her team have spent years collecting and archiving witness accounts from those who lived through that era. Since 2009 they have collected over 4,300 oral histories across 22 languages and 12 countries.

I began to see common themes in witness interviews: feelings of displacement and of being unwelcomed, the struggle to create new lives, leaving family behind, and even starting new families. Feelings that my family could relate to in part not as refugees, but as immigrants.

RCT: The tragedy of Partition is not only in the lives lost and uprooted but also in the ongoing grief and yearning for an unreachable homeland. I understood this at the age of eleven when I moved to the United States with my family and felt like we didn’t belong.

Like many hyphenated Americans, my own sense of belonging as a Bay Area Punjabi, Sikh-American has been challenged by the increase in anti-immigrant, anti-brown, and anti-minority rhetoric in the political and social landscape of our country. The rootless-ness felt by my grandparents 70 years ago is something I feel everytime I hear about violent hate crimes against Sikhs, Muslims, and South Asians – people who look just like me and my loved ones.

NT: Since South Asians have been coming to this country, the anti-immigrant sentiment has taken various forms, the most terrifying being violent incidents motivated by hate. Recent incidents include the killing of six individuals at a Sikh place of worship in 2012, and the killing of Srinivas Kochibotla, a South Asian immigrant, in a Kansas restaurant last year, and countless others documented by SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together), the Sikh Coalition, and others.

RCT: Through Broken Seeds, we’re exploring what makes us belong to a place. How do we claim a homeland? How do we move forward with our ancestral histories, language, and culture? How do we honor these elements and keep them relevant to our lives?

NT: Can the experiences of our ancestors help us navigate today’s political climate? How can we create positive change in our communities, even if we may not always feel welcome? What can we learn from Partition to prevent unrest or violence in our communities today?

RCT: Each artistic component in Broken Seeds is a reflection of these inquiries. The literature, poetry, and text that have inspired the multilayered story of Broken Seeds is in several different South Asian languages and English. These languages are infused into my calligraphy highlighting the importance of words as means of both comfort and pain when speaking of Partition and hate crimes.

NT: Interpreting these narratives using bharatanatyam is the most honest way I can connect deeply to what moves me. Early Hindu scriptures say that bharatanatyam originated with the Gods and was passed on to humans as a way to understand life beyond spoken language.

The dance form itself consists of three performing elements: nritta – or intense footwork, nritya – or expressive dance, and natya – or theatrical interactions. Traditionally, a bharatanatyam performance blends these elements to present elaborate stories rooted in Hindu mythology. However, these timeless elements also make it possible for this ancient art form to tell contemporary histories.

RCT: Indian miniature painting is also a centuries-old visual art form that employs intricate brushwork using natural pigments to create forms and shapes that are unique to this style. The result is a layered, often colorful narrative produced within a usually small scale canvas. Each step of the ancient methods of preparing these paintings – paper washing, pigment grinding, coloring, burnishing – is both a physical and a mental challenge. One 6 inch by 8 inch painting can take anywhere between 30-50 hours.

NT: Seven dancers of Nava Dance Theatre including myself and five musicians, anchor the ensemble work. Rupy’s artwork is projected onto various surfaces, made possible by video designer Darl Andrew Packard. The dance and artwork interact with subtlety and in support of one another. The lyrics, researched and chosen by both Rupy and me, are multilingual and the music by GS Rajan is multiregional, reflecting the diverse experience of our entire production team.

RCT: Creating Broken Seeds with Nadhi has been a true exercise in constant self-reflection, and I hope audiences are able to connect with their own feelings of home, separation, longing, and belonging.

NT: The South Asian American experience is certainly not the only one fraught with targeted anti-immigrant, anti-minority sentiment. However we believe these stories, like many others, need to be heard, and art representing these struggles must be made visible in our cultural landscape. Lately, as a nation, we have been struggling to build empathy across political, cultural, racial, and religious divides; this creative inquiry may create a unique space for a discourse on how both internal personal prejudices and openly hateful rhetoric can affect the community at large.

Expanding Expressions: Madhuri Kishore brings Kuchipudi to the Landscape of Bay Area Indian Dance

Line of dancers displaying a standing position in Kuchipudi

Madhuri Kishore School of Kuchipudi / photo courtesy of school

Traversing the landscape of Indian dance forms practiced in the San Francisco Bay Area, it can be easy for the curious explorer to become overwhelmed by the variety of traditions being sustained here. There are the eight different classical traditions, all tied to the Natya Shastra, a 2,000 year-old set of texts that serves as a guidebook for creating art within Hindu culture, but each developed to have precise and important distinctions that can be hard to see initially. There are also the various threads that connect each dance to the many deities who hold court in Hindu culture. And outside of all of that, there are the many non-classical, folk dance forms like Bhangra, that have become popularized through pop culture variations.

And Indian classical dance has deep roots in the Bay Area, relatively speaking. Kathak gained an early foothold here through the efforts of the late Chitresh Das and that tradition has continued to be sustained by his students and acolytes. KP Kunhiraman and his wife Katherine brought Bharatanatyam to the very first San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 1978, and their company Kalanjali just completed their 42nd summer season. And as more immigrants from India continued to settle in the Bay Area over the past four decades, practitioners of all eight of the Indian classical dance forms have set up shop. So yes, delving into the many different forms can seem daunting, but if you love dance, the Bay Area offers opportunities for discovery that can’t be found in such close proximity anywhere else.

One of those who have staked a claim to sustain Indian dance in the Bay Area is Madhuri Kishore. Born in Hyderabad in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, she came to the US in 2000 to work in the tech industry. Her passion was always for dance. As a young child, her father took her to see performances quite often, and she recalls that from a young age she “remembers feeling a passion for the dance…there was an aura to the dancer that appealed to me.” She loved all the classical dance forms she saw, but the one that most strongly impressed her was Kuchipudi.

One of the eight classical forms, Kuchipudi also originated in Madhuri’s home state of Andhra Pradesh, and is based in a grammar of facial and body movement described in the Natya Shastra. While Kuchipudi features rapid footwork and graceful movement that also characterize other Indian dance forms, what makes Kuchipudi distinctive is its focus on dance-drama storytelling. Dancers use highly evocative facial expressions and stylized hand movements to tell a story. Madhuri explains me that Kuchipudi is also unique for incorporating choreography where “dancers dance on the rim of brass plate with pots on the heads which is a salient feature of Kuchipudi dance.”

Kuchipudi dancers can form strong emotional bonds with audiences, even in large theaters. “I’ve performed in theaters with over a thousand audience members, and when we cry, we can see the audience responding with tears as well. We use make-up that focus attention the ways our eyes move that increases the connection from the stage, but would frighten you if you saw it up close,” she tells me, laughing.

Asked when she knew she wanted to make a life of dance, Madhuri recalled being in the audience of a Kuchipudi performance when she was five or six. “It was a piece that addressed the injustice of class structures in India and the plight of those in the untouchable caste. When the dancers cried, I cried with them. They made me feel what they felt.” Having experienced the ability of Kuchipudi to give a young girl an understanding of social injustice far beyond her years, Madhuri felt a desire shared by artists of many forms: she wanted to be part of creating that experience for others.

Madhuri trained at the Lasya Priya Dance Academy in Hyderabad, with Dr. Uma Rama Rao. Madhuri recalls that her guru “was one of the legendary artists of Kuchipudi with many, many awards and titles to her credit. She dedicated her life to dance. She passed away last year, but I will always be grateful to her, as she is the sole reason for who I am today and for what I am doing today in the field of dance.”

After moving to the United States, she continued dancing as a soloist in performances at the Indian Consulate and at community centers and temples around the country. But what turned her into an evangelist for Kuchipudi was seeing how many second generation Indian youth did not know their culture. “I observed that kids are learning to dance but they actually do not understand the essence of the Abinaya (or the ‘expressions’) aspect of the art form,” she tells me. “I don’t blame them as the kids are born and brought up here and they might not relate to the same stories that we grew up with listening to,” and with this in mind Madhuri decided to make her contribution to sustaining Indian culture in the US by training young people in the aspect of Indian culture that she herself knew best. So in 2005, she began teaching.

It came with costs. She was also thriving as a software engineer, and Madhuri knew something was going to have to give. “I had been working at Google for 5 ½ years and I knew that if I was to follow my heart and grow my school I wasn’t going to be able to stay there.” One day she and her husband began talking over teaching more at lunch and by the end “I had decided that I was going to leave Google to make it happen.” Today she works for a smaller company that allows her a more flexible schedule to run her dance school and work with her students.

This is a work/life balance she needs, because Madhuri has over 200 students and dancers. These include dancers who began with her when they were six years old and are still coming back once a week for class, even though some are students at far away locations like UC Davis. She has also had children of her own since starting the schools, and says that experience has reaffirmed her commitment to the path she is on. “Kuchipudi has a grammar and set of movements like all Indian dance,” but as she explains to me, “something I learned from my guru is that you look at each dancer as an individual and as you compose the movement, you sculpt it onto that dancer based on their strengths.” The result has been deep emotional bonds with students that she is profoundly grateful to have.

Having built the school up over the past decade, she tells me that while the Indian dance community is very strongly connected through a web of community centers, newspapers, online groups, and temples, “what is missing is the outreach to the non-Indian audience, which is why I so strongly respect events like the [San Francisco] Ethnic Dance Festival, because that is exactly what it is doing – bring dancers from different background together to discover each other’s dance.”

On October 6th, audiences will have an opportunity to discover Kuchipudi for themselves at San Francisco’s City Hall as part of the Rotunda Dance Series, and the three-act performance will be an excellent introduction to Kuchipudi for the curious dance enthusiast. “We will start with an invocation item on Goddess Saraswathi,” Madhuri tells me, “followed by a piece called Kamakshi – The Divine, a narrative dance which will feature the plate and pot choreography which is a such salient feature of Kuchipudi.” The performance will conclude with Thillana, a fast paced dance consisting of complicated and graceful movements”

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked about her plans for the future, and she recalls the impact of the performance she saw as a young girl in Hyderabad. “My dream is to develop a dance drama that address social issues, particularly children’s and women’s issues,” she tells me. Despite Kuchipudi’s regular subject matter of gods and goddesses, based in movements codified in a two thousand year-old text, Madhuri, like many Bay Area dancers of all backgrounds, will begin to use her art form as a way to explore what is going on in our world right now.

REST/UNREST: Latina/o/x choreographers provide community and craft to strategize, recover, and resist.

Group of dancers holding one above their heads

Tranze Producciones / Photo by Uziel Elim Perez

BOUBION AND ALDAPE ARE THE CO-DIRECTORS OF THE 4TH ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF LATIN AMERICAN CONTEMPORARY CHOREOGRAPHERS, (FLACC 2017)

Liz: The number four typically represents stability and order. It is a sacred number for the Pueblo people of New Mexico, representing four directions, four seasons, four elements and four corners of the earth. In a vulnerable time of political unrest, FLACC 2017 is balancing on a precarious, yet comforting sense of stability as we enter our fourth festival year with the theme of “REST/UNREST.” As a Chicana and queer choreographer, I founded FLACC in 2014 as a project of my company, Piñata Dance Collective. With the support of several Bay Area artists and community partners, FLACC has been building a platform of visibility, inclusion and innovation, featuring over 30 Latina/o/x and Native contemporary choreographers from the U.S. and Latin America. Ernesto Sopprani, Diana Lara, Cathy Davalos, Zoë Klein, Eric Garcia, Juan Aldape and our fiscal sponsors at the Mission Cultural Center are among many FLACCistas who are helping to keep the “FLACC flag flying.” I see this arm-in-arm collective response as part of the resilience embedded within Latino, Native and Queer culture in the U.S. Thankfully, with increased funding this year, we are able to offer more support to FLACC organizers, and distribute the weight within a shared leadership model that continues to unfold.

Though the festival is still quite young, we have had to grow up really fast in order to respond to a catastrophic presidential election, meet the needs of our artists and be accountable for the impact we’re having on our families and communities. One of our goals is to increase Latina/o/x audience, leadership and visibility within the Contemporary dance sector. This directly affects our artists communities, our credibility, and opens up challenging conversations about identity politics and cultural equity. We also aspire to make Latina/o/x experimental performance and pedagogy more accessible to underserved populations. We have several strategies for this both structurally as an organization and artistically as a highly intersectional diaspora.

With “the orange man” signing papers to build a wall on the US/Mexican border, I decided to offer the position of FLACC curator to Juan Manuel this year. He is a formerly-undocumented Mexican choreographer and dance scholar who has been working with FLACC while writing his dissertation at UC Berkeley. Not only was he already choreographing work about growing up undocumented in this country, but he and his family (as well as several other FLACC artists) have been under direct attack by current anti-immigration laws. I felt that increasing his leadership in FLACC would bring an essential perspective to the festival.

Two half naked male dancers wearing luchadores masks

Alfonso Cerveda and Irvin Gonzalez / Photo by Irvin Gonzalez

Juan Manuel: The idea of the number four provokes me to think about the years that my family and I hold out for immigration reform. After the election, I called my mother to express my anxiety. She said, “we have been doing this fight every four years for many decades.” Her comment reminded me of the longue durée of anti-immigrant policies enacted at the federal level that began in the U.S. with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

For me, as curator I want the theme “REST/UNREST” to highlight the varied strategies that Latina/o/x and Native choreographers use to regain their energy in the company of each other, to take care of each other in the face of oppression, and to acknowledge the people and places that have been lost due to police state violence and the silencing of our community members. This choreographic event will be a community meeting to honor artists that use their bodies and their performances as the frontlines against White supremacy and oppressive policies that target specific bodies.

The featured choreographers will include visiting artists: Alfonso Cervera and Irvin Gonzalez from Los Angeles, Tranze Producciones from Mexicali, Mexico and local choreography by Violeta Luna, Caleb Luna, Zoë Klein, Vincent Chavez, Piñata Dance Collective, and Davalos Dance Company. These artists have been impacted by anti-immigrant, sexist and anti-LBGTQQI policies that predate this current administration, but their work is a needed choreographic defense line against an administration that deems bodies such as theirs to be dangerous, obstacles, and unnecessary. I am interested in providing space, care, and energy for subjects whose artistic/daily lives dissent with their bodies because they are Black, Brown, fat, queer, or gender non-conforming and who use dance and performance genres that range from burlesque to dance-theater to ritual.

*  *  *

REST/UNREST: Coreógrafos latino/a/x ofrecen comunidad y arte para crear estrategias, recuperar y resistir.

BOUBION Y ALDAPE SON LOS CO-DIRECTORES DEL 4TO FESTIVAL ANUAL DE COREÓGRAFOS CONTEMPORÁNEOS LATINOAMERICANOS 2017 (FLACC por sus siglas en inglés). Traducido por Natalia Velarde.

Liz: Tradicionalmente el número cuatro representa estabilidad y orden. Es un número sagrado para la gente de los Pueblos en Nuevo México, representa las cuatro direcciones, las cuatro estaciones, los cuatro elementos y los cuatro rincones de la tierra. En un momento vulnerable de agitación política, FLACC 2017 se equilibra en una precaria y a la vez conmovedora sensación de estabilidad al iniciar nuestro cuarto año con el tema “REST/UNREST”. Como coreógrafa chicana y queer, fundé FLACC en el 2014 como proyecto de mi compañía Piñata Dance Collective. Con el apoyo de varios artistas del área de la Bahía de San Francisco y socios comunitarios, FLACC ha construido una plataforma de visibilidad, inclusión e innovación, presentado a más de 30 coreógrafos contemporáneos latinos/x e indígenas provenientes de los Estados Unidos y América Latina. Ernesto Sopprani, Diana Lara, Cathy Davalos, Zoë Klein, Eric García, Juan Aldape y nuestros patrocinadores fiscales en el Mission Cultural Center están entre los muchos FLACCistas que han ayudado a mantener la bandera de FLACC en alto. Veo a esta respuesta colectiva como parte de la resiliencia en la cultura latina, indígena y queer en los Estados Unidos. Este año, afortunadamente con mayor financiamiento, podemos ofrecer más apoyo a los organizadores de FLACC y logramos distribuir de mejor manera el peso de este proyecto mediante un modelo de liderazgo compartido que continua desarrollándose.

Aunque el festival sigue siendo muy joven, tuvimos que crecer rápidamente para responder a una elección presidencial catastrófica, satisfacer las necesidades de nuestros artistas y hacernos responsables del impacto que estamos causando en nuestras familias y comunidades. Una de nuestras metas es ampliar el liderazgo, visibilidad y audiencia de los latina/o/x en el sector de la danza contemporánea. Esto afecta directamente a las comunidades de nuestros artistas, nuestra credibilidad, y abre las puertas a conversaciones complejas sobre políticas identitarias y equidad cultural. Aspiramos también a que el performance experimental y la filosofía de la comunidad latina/o/x sean más asequibles para sectores de la población con menor acceso. Para esto, hemos desarrollado varias estrategias, de forma estructural dentro de la organización y de forma artística como una diáspora altamente interseccional.

Con “el hombre anaranjado” firmando documentos para construir un muro en la frontera mexico-estadounidense, este año decidí ofrecer la posición de curador del festival a Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz. Previamente indocumentado, Juan Manuel es un coreógrafo y académico de la danza mexicana, quien ha trabajado con FLACC mientras escribe su tesis en la Universidad de Berkeley, California. No solamente Juan ya había creado coreografías sobre lo que es crecer como un indocumentado en este país, sino que él y su familia (así como varios otros artistas de FLACC) han sido atacados directamente por las leyes anti migratorias actuales. Sentí que al incrementar su liderazgo en FLACC esto traería una perspectiva fundamental para el festival.

Cowboy dressed dancer lift hip and flicking wrists

Vincent Chavez / Photo by Meryl Francolini

Juan Manuel: El número cuatro me hace pensar en los años que mi familia y yo esperamos una reforma migratoria. Después de la elección, llamé a mi madre para expresar mi ansiedad. Ella me dijo, “hemos estado viviendo esta lucha cada cuatro años durante muchas décadas”. Sus palabras me recordaron la longue durée de las políticas anti-migratorias, que promulgadas a nivel federal, comenzaron en los Estados Unidos en 1882 con la Ley de Exclusión de Chinos.

Como curador, quiero que el tema de “REST/UNREST” resalte la variedad de estrategias que los coreógrafos latinos/o/x e indígenas utilizan para restaurar su energía al lado de sus colegas, para cuidar los unos a los otros haciendo frente a la opresión y para reconocer a las personas y lugares que se han perdido debido a la violencia policial y el silenciamiento de los miembros de nuestra comunidad. Este evento coreográfico será un encuentro comunitario para honrar a los artistas que utilizan sus cuerpos y su arte como frente de batalla contra la supremacía blanca y las políticas opresivas que tienen como blancos a cuerpos específicos.

Entre los coreógrafos que presentará el festival se encuentran los artistas invitados: Alfonso Cervera e Irvin González de Los Ángeles, Tranze Producciones de Mexicali, México y la coreografía local de Violeta Luna, Caleb Luna, Vincent Chávez, Zoë Klein, Piñata Dance Collective y Davalos Dance Company. Estos artistas han sido afectados por políticas anti-inmigrantes, sexistas y anti-LBGTQQI previas al gobierno actual, pero su trabajo es una línea de defensa necesaria contra una presidencia que los considera obstáculos, peligrosos e innecesarios. Estoy interesado en proporcionar espacio, cuidado y energía para aquellas personas cuyas vidas artísticas/cotidianas disienten con sus cuerpos porque son negros, marrones, gordos, queer o género no conformes y quienes se expresan en géneros de danza y performance que van desde burlesque a la danza-teatro y al ritual.

LIZ DURAN BOUBION, MFA, RSMT is the Artistic Managing Director of FLACC. Liz has been choreographing and teaching dance in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2001 and offering Tamalpa based Somatic Movement Therapy since 2007. After she founded her experimental dance company, Piñata Dance Collective in 2011, she founded ¡FLACC! Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers in 2014. As a second generation Chicana and Queer choreographer, her work embraces the temporal nature of the body and a shapeshifting attention on identity politics, mental health and strategic cultural design. She teaches dance classes to youth and adults and works with elders with neurodegenerative diseases.
LIZ DURAN BOUBION, MFA, RSMT Directora Artística de FLACC. Liz se ha dedicado a la coreografía y enseñanza de danza en el área de la Bahía de San Francisco desde el 2001, ofreciendo Terapia de Movimiento Somático estilo Tamalpa desde el 2007. Después de fundar su compañía de danza experimental Piñata Dance Collective en el 2011, fundó ¡FLACC! Festival de Coreógrafos Contemporáneos Latinoamericanos en el 2014. Como chicana de segunda generación y coreógrafo queer, su obra abarca la naturaleza temporal del cuerpo, con un enfoque dividido entre políticas identitarias, salud mental y diseño cultural estratégico. Liz enseña danza a jóvenes y adultos y trabaja con ancianos con enfermedades neurodegenerativas.

JUAN MANUEL ALDAPE MUÑOZ served as a FLACC Artist in 2015 and a FLACC Panel Moderator from 2015- present. Juan Manuel is a working-class, formerly undocumented choreographer and researcher born in Guanajuato, MX. He is pursuing his Ph.D. in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. As a choreographer, his work focuses on movement, migration and mapping discourses related to undocumented bodies, citizenship, and choreographic processes. Aldape holds an MA in International Performance Research from the University of Warwick (UK), as well as a BFA in Modern Dance and BA in Anthropology from the University of Utah (USA).
JUAN MANUEL ALDAPE MUÑOZ presentó su trabajo como artista en FLACC 2015 y se desempeña como moderador del panel de FLACC desde el 2015. Nacido en Guanajuato, MX, Juan Manuel es un coreógrafo e investigador previamente indocumentado. De momento, Juan Manuel prepara su doctorado en Estudios de Performance en la Universidad de Berkeley, California. Como coreógrafo, su trabajo se centra en el movimiento, la migración y la cartografía de discursos relacionados con indocumentados, ciudadanía y procesos coreográficos. Aldape obtuvo su maestría en Investigación de Performance Internacional en la Universidad de Warwick (Reino Unido) y BFA en Danza Moderna y BA en Antropología en la Universidad de Utah (EE.UU.).

The Call: San Francisco Native Margaret Jenkins Always Moves Forward

Dancer on red square reaching upwards is being ignored by a surrounding circle of dancers

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company / Photo by RJ Muna

Margaret Jenkins, known to the dance world as Margy, has been making dances for most of her 75-years. She trained at the leading edge of performance with Judy Job, Welland Lathrop and Gloria Unti in the Bay Area and with Twyla Tharp, James Dunn, Gus Solomons, Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others in New York. For the 43rd anniversary of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, she has commissioned the company’s seven dancers (Brendan Barthel, Kristen Bell, Corey Brady, Alex Carrington, Margaret Cromwell, Kelly Del Rosario and Chinchin Hsu), in collaboration with visual artists David and Hi-Jin Hodge, poet Michael Palmer, lighting designer David Robertson, costume designer Mary Domenico and composer Thomas Carnacki, to present portraits of intimate and public life through Site Series (Inside Outside)(2015) and the world premiere of Skies Calling Skies Falling.

 

Ann Murphy: Margy, what’s your overarching intention for this concert run?

Margaret Jenkins: When I started to think about how I could turn the force of this dramatic political moment into a work that moves beyond this instant––that both reckons with it and suggests alternative ways of moving forward––the question for me became: what are the skies bringing or threatening? What are they calling? What’s falling? Where am I at this particular time? I realized that the work we began performing in homes and other intimate sites about 2 years ago––Site Series (Inside Outside)––could be an interesting partner to a new work, Skies Calling Skies Falling.

 

AM: Talk about Site Series and how it differs from Skies Calling.

MJ: Site Series is a 30-minute set work creating a Beckett-like imaginary living room. It inspired us to have conversations about the kinds of conversations that occur in different living rooms, and especially ones own, or ones family’s. Obviously, since we are from very different generations and backgrounds, we have had very different experiences, not only because of what is going on politically at any given time but also because of the different character of family itself among my company. Someone like Chinchin Hsu, who was raised in Taiwan, grew up experiencing a very quiet, almost held mood in those living room exchanges. Since I was raised during the height of the McCarthy period, my family’s conversations were intense and full of passion, concern, fear, disagreement, and strategy. We always had lively, animated exchanges. So it’s the nature of intimate conversations as revealed through movement that shapes the work.

 

AM: And Skies Calling?

MJ: Most of the people I know experienced a degree of shock and bewilderment as the result of the US presidential election and what has flowed from it. There is a kind of destabilizing of the state underway. It feels different from Bush; it feels different from other times. It’s a blatant dismantling of truth. So the question becomes: How do you find balance? How do you make sure that you’re looking at the reasons for working together? Are they for the sake of the work itself? Or are they also for something that you might shed light on? A number of people in the company say: “Look, most of my friends are having a hard enough time with what’s going on that they don’t need to see a work about how hard it is.” They want to see some affirmation of the human spirit. They want to have the experience my generation has had where there have been extraordinary highs and these extraordinary lows.

This particular moment in our history has asked the dancers and me to begin very regular conversations about how we want to physicalize our reactions in a cohesive way. Very very important to the people in the company, and to me, is: how do we propose hope? It’s so interesting for me, being almost 75, in this roomful of young people of different races, different sexual orientations, and different points of view. I have dancers who have family members who feel differently from you and me. What are these artists having to deal with? How do you relate to people you deeply love but feel so differently from? We’ve been looking at how to cast light on the present; about what is the purpose of art making and how can the language of dance bring some information into conversation?

Skies has a seven-minute video prologue and it was filmed in India Basin in San Francisco in a huge granary shot 400 feet above by a drone and directed by Hi-Jin and David Hodge. The audience will see this right before live dancing, and one of the fascinating things for me is it juxtaposes intriguing and unlocatable space in relation to the specific space of performance. It expands the meaning of each so when I watch the video, I have a conversation between the kind of movement the dancers do outside and the kind of movement they do live on stage. It complicates the plot, and asks the question: who are these people, where are we, is this an abandoned city? I like that it’s not a gimmick—it’s additive. We launch into this spatial ambiguity and then move into live dancing [with footage as visual landscape] where the dancers will take care of one another as they question how safe they feel caring for one another. What might get proposed is that there is a way to move forward with optimism.

I certainly don’t feel that a dance changes the landscape in which we all live but I do think that by throwing light on things we become enlightened, that there’s a kind of artistic insistence that outlives tyranny. I’ve seen that throughout my life.

 

AM: Your family of origin embodied both the activist and the artistic life—your father a renowned labor leader and your mother a poet. How does this work reflect that?

MJ: The thing that I really loved about my parents was their capacity to change their minds as was necessary to keep on effecting change. They didn’t hold on to didacticism and dig their feet in. When the Khrushchev Report came out on Stalin they left the Communist Party. Even though I was too young to “get” it, what I did get was how they lived their lives, how they surrounded us with poetry and opera and dance and conversation, that they were always looking for the windows—the gates into another way of seeing; another way of living. They represented a kind of larger arc, and they never got stuck in one place. Antonio Gramsci wrote about “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will” and I love that idea. Those of us who are artists and who are encouraging others to do work are always having to bring those forces into balance.

 

AM: How do you go about finding something true in the dance that has a fixity to it but is also fluid and admits of possibility?

MJ: Well, I’m interested in working with the body, talking about how movement gets generated and where physical action comes from. When we started talking we had a conversation about different kinds of shock. There’s shock when all the blood goes out of your body or when you hear something you didn’t expect to hear, and you become silent. For Skies we took different people’s reactions to the concept of shock, and what would it mean to be taken aback. Then we started talking about what would it mean to make duets that embraced this idea of being taken aback. What would happen with the body if you were trying to create an environment where you wanted to physicalize the experience of vanished feelings such that the body could no longer stay upright? What would amplify some of those ideas?

It’s also the result of years of understanding this world of physical exploration—how you partner, how you care for someone, how you create chaos. Some of my dancers have been with me now 10 years. We create the equivalent of lots of sentences that make interesting paragraphs and then look at what the physicality is telling us. I think the intellect tells you one thing, but the physicality tells you something else.

 

AM: What is physicality telling us?

MJ: I feel there are limits to language and there are limits to the body. One of the reasons that I often work with Michael Palmer [poet] is that I like the collision of those two worlds and how much they can inhabit in relation to one another. The body has its own truth. For instance, when I’m looking to take a new dancer into the company I’m interested not only in whether they want to create in a way that interests me to create, but whether they trust their bodies to be taken to some new place physically that it hasn’t been. Are they willing to throw themselves at someone and trust that they’ll be caught? Are they strong enough to catch somebody?

I think the act of both surrendering to what the body can do and then resisting the first impulse is very different than putting words together. And I trust that the language of dancing, of the body, moves emotion to a different place. It’s been found that dance opens people up in ways that other expressive mediums do not, and for good reason.

 

AM: MJDC is the first dance company to perform in these spaces in the War Memorial Building?

MJ: Yes. We will perform Site Series in the Education Studio [part of Wilsey Center for Opera] at the War Memorial–a huge room that’s about 60 x 60’ with wonderful vaulted ceilings and allows us to be in the round. It will also have a red floor. After intermission everyone will move to the Taube Atrium Theater, which is a more traditional proscenium space with raked seating, for Skies Calling Skies Falling.

Site, which has a prologue always created for the specific location, typically asks the dancers to dance in 15 by 22 foot spaces, and this necessitates a certain kind of dancing–dancing that eats up space and gallops across different environments is not really viable. It is a piece that is portable and affordable, as wells as adaptable and responsive to different environments. Whether it has been in someone’s living room, the Catherine Clark Gallery, or the Presidio’s Officers’ Club it always created a situation in which the audience’s relation to the action was up close and personal, not unlike what happens when audiences hear chamber music in a salon environment.

This conversation between audience and dance action, and this conversation between audience and drone imagery throws us back on what is our call to action. I don’t know the answer. I know that the place that I feel I can make the most impact and I can learn the most about myself is in the studio with the dancers—that’s the place where I can’t wait to be and that gives me sustenance. There is something about this flammable moment just asks me to be in the studio where we as artists can meet the call, whatever that call is.

We all live under one sky, but depending on ones perception and point of view, there are different skies. And it isn’t just the sky calling––different elements are calling. People are calling. The Republic is calling. And the art is calling.

The Artist’s Search for Support (Bay Area Existential Crisis Edition)

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Jason Ditzian’s Article The Artist’s Search for Support (Bay Area Existential Crisis Edition)

What does an artist have to do to survive here in the San Francisco Bay Area, circa 2017? As the world keeps on changing and Bay Area cost-of-living inflates out of control, it’s becoming increasingly unclear how independent local artists will manage to keep living and producing art here.

I’ve held out here in the Bay as a full time independent artsy person since I shed my last “job” (Yerba Buena Gardens Festival staff) in 2004. In that time, I’ve seen many folks (old stalwarts and young upstarts) succumb to economic reality and move to cheaper frontiers. Each time it feels like a small tragedy, then life goes on. But how much longer can things go on like this? The Bay Area is poised to lose what’s left of our once vibrant local artist class.

Models of Support

Since time immemorial, a thriving artist class has been vital to the fabric of societies.

How the heck have artists survived through the ages? Somehow or other, in most places through all of knowable history, there have been artists and their respective communities have supported them through various economic models. I thought it might be helpful to think about different models of support that have worked in the past:

Court – lineages of artists are supported and patronized by the royal/ruling class. As in the old days of India. Not sure if this is happening much anymore, but many wonderful artistic “court” traditions like Japanese Gagaku are still performed today.

European – the state devotes resources to the livelihood of its artists. The people pay high taxes and the bureaucrats dole out funds to artists and venues. No one is getting rich off these funds, but there is an ecosystem of support within which the artist can freely produce their work.

Traditional “village” – the people give their time, labor, and money to create an event together. They do this not only for themselves but also for the village’s perseverance and protection. There is less of a defined professional artist class and more of a shamanic/healer class trained in multiple artistic modalities. Everyone participates in the music, dance, ritual making of the culture, as a matter of course. What we think of as art is manifested in ritual form. The village model has been wiped out in most places, but there are still places like Bali, Indonesia where this way of life lives on.

Part timer – Artists work a day job and can self-fund their weeknight/end artistic practices, with no economic imperative to make a living from their art.

Private donors – big and small, they lurk elusively at the periphery of our universe. We know they are out there – we see them in every nook and cranny of the city – and they’re looking back at us – for a cause and tax break (not necessarily in that order).

Dohee Lee Puri Arts

For the last seven years I’ve performed with and managed the Oakland-based organization, Dohee Lee Puri Arts. We produce multi-disciplinary performance pieces rooted in Korean-shamanic based practices, under the artistic direction of Dohee Lee.

Dohee Lee’s home of Jeju Island, Korea is an example of what is happening to most locales where the village model once thrived: these ritualistic practices are becoming rare as the indigenous peoples lose their connection to their land and their myths. Traditional practices are being supplanted/appropriated by tourism/capitalism and aggressive forms of Western religion.

Dohee emigrated to Oakland in 2002 after many years of training in traditional Korean arts practices. Leaving behind a touring career as a master traditional artist, she came to the US to follow her vision of creating a new art form that blends ritual with elements of post-modern immersive art performance. She has been creating genre-defying performance works in the US since 2004.

We are a contemporary performance organization with an international reputation rooted in Oakland. Here at home, we are working with Oakland immigrant/refugees, using art to heal past traumas and build healthy communities. This work embodies everything I’ve hoped to do through performance. In many ways, I feel like I’ve made a successful career here. I get paid to perform and produce amazing, socially relevant art. Though coming from completely different origins, both Dohee and I are living out that same dream that drew so many of us from afar to San Francisco/Oakland to see where our creativity might carry us.

Papier-Mâché Peaches

What’s the model of support today in the USA? These days, us creative folks take a mishmash of approaches towards garnering financial support. The not-so-free market rewards a handful of artists with unfathomable riches. The rest exist in a persistent state of scarcity, fighting over the tiny pool of money leftover from the Lady Gagas, SF Symphonies, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theaters of this world. The budget of any of the above – just one of their performances – would fund several years of operation for a tiny organization like ours. The federal government doles out some crumbs of support, but most state funding was gutted during the Reagan era. San Francisco has Grants for the Arts and is in some respects better at providing general operating supporting to a range of art organizations than most cities; Oakland city funding was slashed during the financial crises of 2008 and never bounced back. Corporations throw big sponsorship money towards marketable projects. Theaters and some big art orgs work the subscription model. Foundations fill in the gaps as much as possible.

It’s all fine and dandy, right up until cost-of-living outstrips available resources.

For the last seven years, we’ve been eking maximum value out of every dollar and often putting in our own dollars when need be. We have chased grant money and made papier-mâché peaches to sell at performances. Our approach has been stubbornly non-commercial and so have the results!

The strength of our work garners awards to fund the next project. But each project grant we get highlights the absence of a path towards sustainable operational funding to run our three-person organization. $50,000 looks like a lot of money at first, but it’s not ever enough pay an actual Bay Area living wage. It’s just enough to keep us afloat until the next project.

An organization like ours is resigned to forever hustling to draw from the same pool of money as the likes of a Kronos Quartet (a world-class ensemble with a fulltime development staff), every newcomer on the scene, and everything in between. We’re all vital to the thriving artistic eco-system, and yet all living hand-to-mouth from one fiscal year to the next.

This financial mishmash was adequate when rent was cheap. I lived in the Mission for 13 years, through the entire 2000’s, and never paid more than $350-a-month in rent. The economic imperative behind my choices was minimal. It was in that environment that I decided to follow my dream of playing in a klezmer band and running a Korean shamanic community arts organization. But those days are gone. Take my old rent and multiply it by 10. And there isn’t 10 times as much funding. There’s less funding than in those days. It shouldn’t surprise anyone where this is headed.

It’s only a matter of time for this structural imbalance to eventually starve out the entire artistic ecosystem.

Are the affluent denizens of the Bay Area – the ones who can afford to stay and enjoy the luxuries of SF 3.0 – going to let this happen? Will they even notice? Admittedly, there will still be lots of cool performances to go to. Just not the sort of community work made by local artists that we’re doing. Maybe that’s okay? But I’m hoping not everyone feels complacent about this.

Community Support

As part of our work at Dohee Lee Puri Arts, we’re not just producing shows and workshops, but also, trying to reimagine what sustainable support might look like moving into the future.

In the so-called “village” model, the artist didn’t have to go asking for money. The people themselves would go to the shaman/healer, “We need a good harvest!” and the shaman would say, “If you want this sort of harmony in the community, these are the resources I need to make the ritual.” And the members of the local community would come together and provide those resources. They had to do that because their very health and vitality was at stake. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in tree spirits or ancestor ghosts or anything like that. It’s not about the specific details of the religion/practices – these are the concepts that function as the universal crazy glue that holds people together and sustains the community through hard times.

Somewhere along the way from the village to the urban metropolis, this dynamic got subverted. Nowadays, the artist goes palm extended to their community for the resources to make their work.

The community that Dohee Lee Puri Arts works with – predominantly immigrants and refugees living in East Oakland – they give what resources they can. Proportionally from what they have, it’s an immense sacrifice/commitment. But it’s nowhere near enough to keep doing the work we’re doing. Not here in the Bay Area.

We’re torn up about how we ask for money. Not only that we have to ask, but how we ask. About the tchotchkes and access we offer in return for these tax-deductible “gifts.”

It’s painful to think how say, $150,000 – a pair of Warriors playoff tickets – someone’s fun-night-out play money – could fund our operational budget for a year.

Is going for this money the only path for our organization to become a sustainable endeavor? Are we willing to go there? Everyone wants that money. So many people need that money. It’s awful to put ourselves in the position of needing that money. It makes me feel like I would rather be doing something else or living somewhere else.

I’ve worked in various capacities for Bay Area non-profit arts orgs for 15 years. I’ve raised millions of dollars in arts funding for small projects from foundations and local/national government. I’ve almost never asked individuals for money. Why the resistance to courting individual donors? For sure, there’s pride in not wanting to have to jump through the hoops that the wealthy often demand to their suitors.

But more than mere pride, we continue on our current path because of hopefulness. There is a hopefulness in our hearts that if we persevere and keep doing this work, that if we’re sincere and dedicated and keep working and striving, that our community will keep growing, and that together, community and artist, will find a way to sustain this relationship. There is hopefulness that we can revive some version of the village model of mutual support for our modern times. This doesn’t mean we would stop writing grants or selling peaches, but that this dynamic between community and artist, this interdependence, could provide a foundation to sustain the work we do and, in doing so, amplify its impact.

The Google Option

Another option of course is going to work at Google where we can utilize our artistic talents and insight into the human condition to make their products more engaging and addictive. At Google our work would reach billions of “users” and have true lasting impact on the world, with the bonus that we’d be able to afford to live in Oakland! I hear the food is soooo good there and if we weren’t too tired, we could still perform on the weekends. Not the worst deal in the world…

But someone has to stand up to the flickering screen fixation. To the instant gratification industrial complex. To the mini slot machines that most everyone on earth carries in their pockets. There must be some unrestrained voices – local voices – community voices – to remind us of human connection that exists beyond social networks. This can be our offering to our home, if we can find a way to stay here.

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