Bold New Strokes: The Inauguration of the Performing Diaspora Festival

By Kate Law Hoflich

November 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

California has a very rich traditional dance and performance community. The Bay Area alone has over 300 ethnic dance groups. Along with this rich diversity comes support for traditional art to be performed, such as the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Some traditional artists, however, want to innovate within their form and there is little support for experimenting within tradition. That is where CounterPULSE’s Performing Diaspora festival comes in.

Created in partnership with several local and statewide organizations, Performing Diaspora is more than a simple festival, it is a statewide 2-year initiative featuring dance, music, theater, media and interdisciplinary artists who are using traditional forms as a basis for experimentation and innovation.

According to Sherwood Chen, of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, who is also a curator for Performing Diaspora, this initiative is important for several reasons. “It is important not because the approach—that of tradition-based artists actively experimenting and/or innovating within their respective forms—is new. The importance emerges in addressing the gaps which exist for artists’ work that falls within this often difficult-to-categorize realm,” explains Chen.

There is a dilemma that artists innovating within a traditional form face. Chen elaborates on this catch-22, “Predominately, traditional arts advocates are challenged by work that may not be ‘traditional’ enough, due to deliberate innovation, inspiration, adaptation and new considerations which impact the creation of work and are in direct tension with the mandates of the lineage, traditional form, and politics of cultural expression…Conversely, programming, curatorial and funding resources which emphasize ‘innovation’ as a key criteria often overlook tradition-based work because one can too easily and inappropriately dismiss it as too ‘traditional.’”

Performing Diaspora, therefore, was created as a model to carve out space for reflection, critical community and ultimately artistic development for tradition-based artists within this rich and risky realm of creation. These artists have previously been left out of opportunities for support. CounterPULSE has a history of being a creative safe haven for artists who want to push the boundaries of their form. According to Jessica Robinson Love, the Executive Director of CounterPULSE, “We were blown away by the overwhelmingly positive response we received, and by the quality and range of the applicants—it underlined the need for this program as traditional artists are pushing boundaries like never before.”

From the large pool of applicants thirteen were selected. They are Adia Whitaker (San Francisco), Danica Sena Gakovich (San Francisco), Charlotte Moraga (San Francisco), Gema Sandoval/Danza Floricanto/USA (Pasadena), Ana Maria Alvarez/ CONTRA-TIEMPO (Los Angeles), Opal Palmer Adisa (Oakland), Colette Eloi (Oakland), Sri Susilowati (Pasadena), Yannis Adoniou/KUNST-STOFF with Catherine Clambaneva & Leonidas Kassapides (San Francisco), Dulce Capadocia/Silayan Philippine-American Dance Company (Los Angeles), Prumsodun Ok (Long Beach), Devendra Sharma (Fresno), and Wang Fei (Union City). The forms that these artists are working within range from hip-hop-inspired Filipino folk dance to Greek rembetiko music with shadow puppets, to a political take on Nautanki a North Indian folk theater tradition.

In addition to Chen, the program has two other experienced and well-respected curators who will help to shape its impact. Chen, Laura Elaine Ellis of the African and African American Performing Arts Coalition and Debbie Smith of the Arab Cultural and Community Center were chosen by Robinson for their expertise in traditional forms. They have acted as guides throughout the application process, artist selection, and content creation for the symposia and discussions.

Marc Vogl of the Hewlett Foundation, another key contributor to the Performing Diaspora program, underlines the value of the program, “While there are many organizations and events that exist to preserve the artistic traditions of the region’s immigrant groups, there are not enough outlets for artists to experiment and challenge the precepts of such cultural work.”

So what exactly is Performing Diaspora going to do for the artists in the program and the audiences who are interested in what they are creating? The program has several important components: an artistic residency, symposia, performance festival and commissioning program.

The artistic residencies support the actual development of new works. This development support comes in the form of rehearsal space from June through November 2009. Bay Area artists received rehearsal time at CounterPULSE—especially valuable because it enables them to rehearse in the space where they will perform—while non-Bay Area based artists get rehearsal stipends to rehearse locally. The artists also have been participating in monthly work-in-progress showings to receive and offer feedback on each other’s work.

In addition to the support for the development of new work, there is also a community and educational component to Performing Diaspora. This consists of a number of symposia where artists will be invited to discuss issues related to their work as well as a symposium focused on innovation within traditional performance. A major component of the community aspect of Performing Diaspora, which is in itself an innovative concept, is the idea of a “virtual residency” through blogs and online forums.

Catherine Herrera, Performing Diaspora’s Program Coordinator, explains, “technology makes it possible to engage the audience in the creative process, inviting them to join the online conversation and shape how performance art is seen in the future. In this way, the impact of performance art is multi-layered.”

The harnessing of new technologies is major component of the program. According to Robinson, “Hosting a statewide residency program provides CounterPULSE with new challenges, but also huge opportunities. Our artists will engage with their local communities as they develop their work, while they’ll also be getting feedback from each other and presenting their work online. Our website will host videos, photos, interviews, artists’ journals and lively discussions.” This project deeply investigates the Diaspora of culture, community and traditions and at the same time places it in the very modern context of the internet.

The cap of the project’s first year is the Performing Diaspora Festival Performances. The work developed during the residency will be presented during a three-week festival, November 5-22, 2009 at CounterPULSE. CounterPULSE is covering the production costs and the artists will receive payment for their work. After the performances the project moves into its second phase in which some of the participating artists may be selected to receive a second year of support, which includes the commissioning and presentation of a full-length performance work.

As Performing Diasora is nearing the culmination of its first year, I asked Chen if any of the outcomes so far have been surprising. The first surprise, a pleasant one for the curators and CounterPULSE, was that there was such a large response from different tradition-based artists who identify with what Performing Diaspora is about. Chen elaborated “that many of the artists we are working with this year have deep understanding of their traditional roots and lineage while pushing their respective, sometimes personal, considerations around artistic process. That is, just because you are an innovator does not compromise how traditional of an artist you can be, and I have found that many of the Performing Diaspora artists have a fluency to toggle between traditional pathways and experimental ones, and at times, ride a sometimes delicious, uncomfortable, fresh, risky place that holds both paths at once.”

If you want to check out the premiere of fresh and possibly risky perspectives presented by thirteen innovative artists from around the state, then mark the Performing Diaspora Festival at CounterPULSE in bold on your calendar. The Festival takes place Thursdays-Sundays, November 5-8, 12-15, and 19-22, at 8pm. If you want to visit the blogs of participating artists or find more information on Performing Diaspora visit

This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of In Dance.

Kate Law Hoflich is a dance artist, aerialist, and co-director of Bow & Sparrow. She loves writing about and being involved in the dance community.,