Rachel Berman, former member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, is an easy person to like. We met at an event at Mills College where she is currently on dance faculty. When we sat down to talk about her move to the Bay Area, her transitory last decade, and her love of the hula, it was clear this vivacious woman and gifted dancer embodied the Aloha spirit of her childhood home.
Q: Currently you are on faculty at Mills College. When did you start at Mills and what brought you?
Rachel: I came last year so this is my fourth semester. I was living in Los Angeles, teaching at Cal Arts for the two years prior. I loved being in California but I wanted to move to the Bay Area. I have family here and went to high school here. I sent a resume canvassing for jobs and they called me. It was just one of those things—just when you need something, it happens. My now husband and I were very happy to move up to the Bay Area.
Q: How was the transition from working in New York to being on the West Coast?
Rachel: You know, I have to say I have come to accept it now. It has been ten years since I left the Taylor Company and I think life is just a transition. I mean being in the Company was the longest I have ever done anything in my life really! I went [to New York] in 1981 to go to college and stayed for my whole career until I left in 2005. It is part of me, even though if you asked me, “Where are you from?” I would say Hawai’i. I’m Hawaiian but New York is part of who I am.
Q: What were you doing before you came back to the Bay Area? Did you teach elsewhere?
Rachel: Cal Arts was the first full-time college faculty job [I had] and things come into your life for good reason. When I was there I was able to get my MFA at the same time. My job wasn’t contingent on it, but it was something I wanted to do.
Q: How are you enjoying working daily with students?
Rachel: Everything presents a challenge, every job, and there is a different culture for every place. It presents its challenges fitting into a liberal arts curriculum [like that of Mills]. This is the first time I have taught primarily grad students. It has been really great dealing with more mature, intelligent women that are in their own transitions. They are going to school to further their education, to go on to the next thing, whatever that might be, to choreograph or to teach. Most of them aren’t hungry to get into a dance company. I can’t speak for everyone, but the majority aren’t at Mills because they want to soak up every bit of knowledge that I have and then go burst onto the New York dance scene.
Q: Are you working on anything currently?
Rachel: I made a piece for our concert at Mills in the fall.
Q: The repertory concert?
Rachel: Yes, the rep concert. That was really fun to do. Once I get into it I really enjoy choreographing, and I am having fun teaching it, especially at the level that I teach. But otherwise I don’t think of myself as a choreographer. Again way back to somewhere in high school, I just knew, I am a dancer. And I still say that. It is funny, ten years into my transition when asked the question, “What do you do?” I still have to stop, “I am [a] dance … teacher.”
Q: What is it like setting Taylor works? What did I read—you are the only…
Rachel: No, not the only, but one of the few.
Q: What do you mean by “one of the few?”
Rachel: “Entrusted” [people to re-stage Taylor’s work]. And that is a good word because he definitely trusts us. He trusts that we will be true to whatever his vision is. Of course it is a little like playing telephone because things evolve and there is going to be my take on what his choreography is, but I love it. I love setting his work. Back to the transitioning and working with different levels of students, and things going in cycles. I have talked with other Taylor teachers and re-stagers, [asking] “Do people really care about this work still?” I think yes. In my teaching I want students to understand what came before in order to have a response to it: either by following that same path, or rebelling against it, or finding one’s own voice in the evolution beyond it.
Q: Will you see the Paul Taylor Company when they come to San Francisco?
Rachel: Of course, of course.
Q: What is your relationship with the Taylor Company now?
Rachel: I have a good relationship with them. I am going this summer to re-stage a duet for a ballet competition. I am as hooked in as one can be 3,000 miles away. I call Paul every so often. I saw him last April when he came for the premiere of the New Work Festival at the San Francisco Ballet.
Q: You started dancing at a local school in Hawai’i. What was it like growing up there?
Rachel: Growing up in Hawai’i is so diverse. I read this article recently that summed it up. You grow up whoever you are. You think of race differently. We are all mixed. My dad always laughs, “I am a Hawaiian, Chinese, Jew.” It is amazing. My Hawaiian/Chinese grandmother married my Polish/Jewish grandfather that’s where the Berman came in. And I identify more with the Hawaiian/Chinese part because I grew up in Hawai’i. I wasn’t brought up Jewish. But then living in New York—people assume certain things because they’d see my name.
Q: How has growing up in Hawai’i affected your life and dancing?
Rachel: I think unconsciously it has informed my dancing. Now that I take hula and I am trying to incorporate that into my choreography, I am fascinated with my history. And working with Patrick [Makuakane] is so great. I didn’t study hula as a child but it feels like it is ingrained in me. It is more important to me now. We are always looking for answers: Who am I and where did I come from? Maybe [it was a matter of] being in New York and having a Jewish name but not feeling connected culturally, then going back to Hawai’i—and in some ways I don’t identify there either because I missed the formative years by going to high school in San Francisco. I found hula and my Hawaiian contingent while in New York. There was a store in SoHo right around the corner from Taylor called Radio Hula. The owner became a good friend of mine. She started teaching hula classes. She was kind enough to let me drop in when I wasn’t on tour. It was nice to commune with them and have [a] Hawaiian community in the middle of New York City. It became the focus of my MFA.
Q: So your master’s program was where you studied hula and Hawaiian culture?
Rachel: Yes, the topic of my research was presented at ADF [American Dance Festival] and last year I went to the Hawai’i International Conference on Arts and Humanities. The [MFA] program I did was low residency with two intense summers at ADF. I did research on the history of hula, learned a lot, and followed two different people: Patrick Makuakane, and a very famous hula dancer in Waikiki. I wrote about how they are perpetuating this culture. Patrick collaborated with me on the piece that I presented at ADF which was the culmination of my thesis. I think we were successful. It was a social commentary on the hula girl and how she has been appropriated. The whole hula thing—grass skirt, coconut bra—was thought up by vaudeville. It had nothing to do with the culture, but yet it has been incorporated because things get mixed in. There is the touristy side and the cultural side, and where is the line? I incorporated as much as one can into the choreography.
Q: And when was this performed?
Rachel: We presented at ADF in 2007. I would love to find a way to do it again.
Q: You did a hula at your wedding?
Rachel: I did.
Q: How was that? Did you choreograph it?
Rachel: No, it was one we learned in class. Patrick was at my wedding. He came and chanted as part of the ceremony. The tradition is you ask your teacher or a family member to teach you a special wedding hula that you will do for your groom.
Q: What did it feel like as a native Hawaiian who has traveled the world and lived in a number of different places to see Barack Obama become president?
Rachel: It was amazing. I read something recently that he has the Aloha spirit, and we always talk about that in Hawai’i. It is a real thing. He is an alum of Punahou schools. My parents went there, and that’s the summer school where I first studied ballet. I hope even with Washington scraping at his door he retains the Aloha spirit. And how fabulous to have that beautiful family in there! My niece is named Malia, which is like Maria or Mary in Hawai’i. And now there is a Malia in the White House, very sweet.