A Closer Look at the “Unconventional Dancer”

By Maya Gurantz

September 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Developed in collaboration with homeless youth, choreographer Isak Immanuel’s newest piece, Illegal Echo, is a process-oriented work “concerning the themes of peripheral identity, transience and memory.” For Immanuel, the themes reach beyond abstract ideas.

“I myself have been homeless in the past, to the point where I was sleeping outdoors on and off,” says Immanuel. “This leaves a strong imprint on one’s sense of both body and movement.” Illegal Echo is part of a series of projects collectively known as Floor of Sky, in which Immanuel explores the physical relationship between distance, uprootedness and memory.

Illegal Echo builds on Immanuel’s first work with street kids in 2004, as a mentor for First Exposures, a local photography program for formerly homeless youth. One of his former students, Ivan Fernandez, has continued as a photographer, and is providing images for the project.

Choreography with “non-dancers” has been popularized in recent years, most notably by Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, whose approach attempts to democratize the form of modern dance by using it as a community-building activity with dancers and non-dancers.

It would initially seem that this is the work Immanuel is doing with Illegal Echo, which will be performed this month as the culmination of Immanuel’s Summer Residency at CounterPULSE. Immanuel began the process by initiating dialogue with local shelters and organizations dealing with homelessness in the Bay Area. He invited people to take part in workshops “exploring what could be dance as it relates to their own life, body and sense of personal and public memory.” After his initial contact with potential participants, Immanuel has been meeting and working with a small, interchanging group of individuals. Most of the participants, Immanuel notes, “quickly defy the common conceptions of homelessness,” as they come from a range of backgrounds.

But Immanuel’s work goes beyond just making a piece about homelessness with homeless people, and in doing so, challenges the Lerman model. The very act of using this population, who “do not have the stability in their own lives to make a consistent commitment to a process,” becomes part of an inquiry about dance, art making, and movement, and a motivating factor for Immanuel. “Their absences are a constant reminder of the luxury and separateness” that most of art, dance or theater requires.

Immanuel is explicitly trying to “develop a study of what could be ‘outsider dance,’” examining movement in daily life, how daily movement is impacted by various kinds of privilege or lack of privileges, from “the mannerism of social affluence” to “disabled body patterns.”

Using what might be considered “non-conventional dancers” isn’t the point; for Immanuel, it is integral to the piece itself, extending his choreographic work outward from the studio or high art context “into the lives of people generally subjugated to invisibility.” He enjoys “the unperformative honesty” that some of the participants bring to movement, and the styles and stories that others bring.

“The key for me is simply to open to a connection,” Immanuel says. “Then we can begin to evaluate the space in between the perimeters of dance and the perimeters of affluence and civic space.”

Co-Resident Christy Funsch similarly rejects the more trendy and overtly political elements of using “non-traditional dancers.” “Diverse?” Funsch says, skeptically listing words that might be applied to her work. “I guess so, but that to me implies some kind of agenda.”

“I suppose ‘integrative’ is the word I am most comfortable with. Though that word has a socio-political tenor to it, it at least keeps in the positive, and gives me license to blend styles as suits each work.”

That being said, Funsch’s turning point as a choreographer came similarly from observation and connection to movement-in-life, as opposed to movement-in-studio. Her breakthrough came after months of traveling, observing people and landscapes. “I kept asking myself, ‘what is immediately communicative here?’” Funsch says. “I began to envision dance works that were more informed from experiential physicality than virtuosic dancers.”

“I was intensely intrigued by style, by individuality, by the way those manifested in movement outside of formal dance studios.”

Her fascination with style continues with her latest piece, developed during her CounterPULSE residency. To Mifune follows a loose narrative arc of a cowgirl’s dream journey to meet and pay respects to her samurai idol. Based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 film Yojimbo, To Mifune combines hip-hop, the Yojimbo sound score, and Patsy Montana’s music, which will be mixed live during the performances by local DJ K808. “When we create a little truth for ourselves, a way we want to be seen — style — we are usually seeking empathy,” Funsch says.

“This impulse connects us, regardless of the diversity of our movement choices.”

While Funsch works with self-identified “dancers”, many of whom share her training, her ensemble includes Skorpio, a hip hop dancer with a wildly different movement vocabulary. Skorpio brought Glenn Curtis, a 67-year old performer and practitioner of Chinese acrobatics, to a rehearsal one day; Curtis is now part of Funsch’s ensemble.

“Bringing Skorpio and Glenn into my work shifted me towards a more theatrical trajectory, and heightened the individuality of the rest of my performers, but it really was accidental,” Funsch says. “My company members may be idiosyncratic, but I do not consider them “non-dancers.”

Which is, maybe, the point. To include “non-dancers,” you have to believe in the “dancer” vs. “non-dancer” model. Funsch and Immanuel, by creating work without the context of those boundaries, are creating new ways of thinking about dance.

Christy Funsch’s To Mifune features hip-hop dancer Skorpio and cellist Alex Keitel. Isak Immanuel’s Illegal Echo explores ‘outsider dance’ through a collaboration with local homeless youth, musicians Odessa Chen, Kanoko Nishi and photojournalist Robert L. Terrell. Thursday through Saturday, September 6-8 at 8pm at CounterPULSE.

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

Maya Gurantz is a theater director, writer and the artistic director of Ten Red Hen. Her newest community-generated work interrogates Silicon Valley and toxic Superfund sites