Purple Moon Dance Project Turns Spotlight on Lesbian and Women of Color Artists

By Neelanjana Banerjee


I came to know the work of the Purple Moon Dance Project within the first few weeks of moving to San Francisco in 2000. Everything was different then: I had just arrived from Ohio and my legs were still getting tired from walking up the hills, leaving me always slightly out of breath and elated with newness. The White House was just about to be taken over by an entirely different regime and the change was palpable in the air. I was a lowly reporter at a local Asian American newspaper and I covered every story with relish, excited to be discovering a community that was so diverse and complicated. One of my first major assignments was to cover a groundbreaking forum on queer Asian American women. But this was no silly little panel discussion–the issues discussed here were headed right to the top.

One of the last things that President Clinton did in his administration was to create an Asian Pacific Islander (API) Commission that would examine ways to increase public, private and community involvement in improving the health and well-being of Asian Americans. Along with a series of town hall discussions across the country, the API Commission came to San Francisco to hear the needs of the Asian American LGBT community. I remember forum moderator Dipti Ghosh saying: “This is a historic day. We are all sitting in this room with someone to listen to us, and not just anyone, but a direct line to the President.”

Along with panels on family and immigration, the event featured performances by local queer women and one of those women was Jill Togawa, the founder and artistic director of Purple Moon. There was something in the way she captured a love and intimacy for women in her gentle hula-inspired movements that brought together the diverse strands of the day for me. Less than a year later, Togawa and I sat down over cups of tea to discuss Purple Moon’s tenth anniversary celebration. That week, I found myself sitting in on rehearsals and attending the powerful performance–featuring everything from capoeria to Taiko drumming–at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason.

Purple Moon’s work was interdisciplinary, intergenerational and all about putting women of color and queer women in the spotlight. In those early interviews, Togawa–who had already been dancing professionally for nearly two decades–told me how she started Purple Moon in 1992 because she found herself often performing with dancers of color where she would be the only lesbian. “Then I had the opportunity to work with gay and lesbian choreographers and I was one of two people of color,” she said. Purple Moon Dance Project stemmed from the desire to bring these parts of Togawa’s world together. She told me that Purple Moon’s work is really about: “exploring the continuum of intimacy between women. Not just lovers, but all of the different ways we are intimate–as friends, sisters and sometimes even the way we are intimate with ourselves.” But the mission of the company goes beyond just art and hopes to affect social change and healing through their work.

I have to admit, I came in as a journalist, but I left as a supporter. It wasn’t long after that, when Togawa asked me to join Purple Moon’s Circle of Directors. I’ve spent the last few years doing everything I can to support the work of Purple Moon, whether it be their annual shows or raising funds for the healing movement programs they do with women who have terminal illnesses or who are in recovery. The most exciting aspect of working with Purple Moon is working with a community of women who are interested in changing the world through art.

In fact, it is this impulse for community that led Togawa and the other members of the Purple Moon team to come up with the idea for how to celebrate the company’s 15th year. “It seemed like a natural opening, a next step,” Togawa said. “We wanted to move forward with our mission around visibility and supporting the work of lesbians and women of color and honor women.”

The event, “In Honor of Our Dreamspeakers,” will be held on April 5th at the Zeum Theater in San Francisco, and will honor 10 women artists from around the Bay Area. The list, taken from nominations from the community, includes women like long-time Taiko drummer and activist Ellen Reiko Bepp; Rhodessa Jones, co-artistic director of performance company Cultural Odyssey; renowned glass artist Nancy Otto, and Sarah Crowell, executive director of Oakland’s Destiny Arts Center, among others.

Togawa compares the impulse behind the “Dreamspeakers” event to the impulse that led her to starting Purple Moon. “When we started Purple Moon, I used to go to performances and feel like an outsider,” Togawa said. “Now, I sometimes feel the same way when I go to awards celebrations and they aren’t honoring artists and especially, women of color artists. I wanted to change that.”

Togawa said the women being honored are women who really represent the mission of Purple Moon. She said they chose women whose work was about the experiences of women and lesbians of color, artists whose work also had a direct focus on social change and healing. “For example, take one of our honorees Melanie DeMore. For years, she has worked with young people, directed a youth chorus, worked with the Cultural Heritage Choir in Oakland. And she’s just a really wonderful artist in her own right,” Togawa said.

DeMore says that she is excited about being honored, but her work is what keeps her going. “I just do my work. It’s like breathing,” DeMore told me in her husky voice. “My whole purpose as a teacher and a performer is to really help people discover and connect so they can live in their most biggest, possible selves.”

Taiko drummer and visual artist Ellen Reiko Bepp, who collaborated with Togawa in Purple Moon’s 2006 performance “Mahina”, spoke about how she first began taiko drumming in the early 1970s as a way to get in touch with her Japanese heritage.

“A lot of what we were trying to do was to create our own music, with a lot of emphasis on developing our own identity,” Bepp said. “For me, it began as more of a political statement than a musical statement.” But some 30 years later Bepp continues to push the art form and work intergenerationally with other taiko groups.

Togawa hopes that this celebration of women will become a bi-annual occasion. “What makes me most excited about the event, is when I picture the group that’s going to come to the theater as this beautiful group that represents our community, a lot of women of color, a lot of lesbians,” Togawa said. “I hope people will come away feeling inspired by the women that you see. Come in your finest. It’s something that we want to be really fitting of the women of the women being celebrated. In a way, we are celebrating ourselves.”

“In Honor of DreamSpeakers,” a performance and awards Gala, takes place Thursday, April 5 at 6pm in Yerba Buena Gardens’ Zeum Theatre. Awardees include Anna Maurine Lara, Arisika Razak, Ellen Reiko Bepp, Madeleine Lim, Melanie DeMore, Nancy Otto, Neela Banerjee, Pam Peniston, Rhodessa Jones and Sarah Crowell. For more information visit purplemoondance.org.

This article appeared in the April 2007 issue of In Dance.

Neelanjana Banerjee spent many years performing in Bengali folk dance dramas under the tutelage of her mother. She is the managing editor of Hyphen magazine and the editor of YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia