Freedom and Community: From The Wallflower Order to the Dance Brigade

By Keith Hennessy

November 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Thirty-five years of feminist dance advocating for radical social change, and it’s time for a huge celebration! With a free dance concert in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Novellus Theater, The Dance Brigade charts a history of building community through the arts. From the revolutionary fervor of the feminist dance collective Wallflower Order in 1975 to today’s thriving urban dance center Dance Mission, Krissy Keefer and The Dance Brigade have struggled, survived, and even thrived in the fertile yet contested intersections of art and activism. The upcoming free performances are intended to celebrate not only the amazing women of these pioneering dance organizations but the communities of artists and audiences that constitute the fertile ground of their work.

Wallflower Order
The Wallflower Order Dance Collective emerged from a vibrant hive of alternative culture in Eugene Oregon in 1975. At the center of this dissident and experimental culture was a network of collectives and cooperatives that attempted to embody and promote the radical social and political ruptures of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Governments and large institutions had proven that they were incapable of actually serving the needs and desires of the majority, so it was time to drop out of the mainstream and construct alternatives in every aspect of everyday life. Critical of the Vietnam War, imperialism, and what bell hooks would later identify as “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” these collectives were organized around radical self-reliance, food-for-people-not-for-profit, resistance to hierarchy and domination, art as a vehicle for social change and identity politics, alternatives to corporate media, and a generally critical relationship to the network of government, academia and corporations that comprised the military industrial complex. Additionally, a second wave of feminists, reeling from the sexism and homophobia of most progressive activist and artist organizations, developed an almost parallel network of women’s collectives, study groups, music festivals and art spaces around the country. From this hotbed of social experimentation, five young women, unaware of what their impact on dance and women’s history might be, became the Wallflower Order Dance Collective. They were Laurel Near, Krissy Keefer, Linda Rose, Alex Dunnette, and Lyn Neeley. Krissy describes their earliest intentions, “I suppose at the beginning it was about strong women dancing. Not ballerinas or skinny modern dancers, but athletic dancers who did not shave their legs or wear make up, that had authority with a sense of humor and worked as a collective.” (Z Magazine, 2010).

The Wallflower Order Dance Collective toured nationally until the early 1980s. After a contentious split, two of the co-founders, Krissy Keefer and Nina Fichter, moved to the Bay Area and founded The Dance Brigade as a multi-racial feminist dance company. The company continues today under the direction of Keefer, and also operates a thriving dance complex of studios and a theatre called Dance Mission. The Wallflower Order, one of the nation’s first feminist dance companies, intended “to provide an expanded artistic landscape for women in the 20th century.” (Keefer, 2004). They were inspired by Isadora Duncan’s disruptive feminism and solidarity with the Russian revolution, Martha Graham’s foregrounding of female heroes, and the political dances created by female choreographers affiliated with socialist and labor movements in New York in the 1930s (Tamaris, Maslow, Sokolow, New Dance Group). From this base in modern dance and modern ballet, Wallflower were early innovators of cross-disciplinary performance, integrating martial arts (women can fight!) and text (women/dancers can speak!).

In a 2010 Z Magazine interview, women’s music icon Holly Near wrote, “That was 1975 and your work seemed to change the course of dance or at least have a huge effect on dance in America. You challenged the way we looked at women’s bodies in dance. Your art mixed all the genres from dance to theater to martial arts, sign language, and gymnastics.”

Krissy responded, “I think that we were the first dance company to use the word feminist to describe what we were doing and the first to express explicit lesbian sensibilities and concerns. I also think our content-driven work made us unique and accessible to a wide range of people who would not normally see themselves at a dance concert. We did dances about the environment, the war in El Salvador, about class and race and gay rights.”

Paul Parrish, in a 2004 memorial for Nina Fichter, wrote, “The Wallflower creative process was heated, angry, intense; they were all strong-minded, and the results were pithy, unmisunderstandable. The aim was to radicalize people, not to entertain the already converted. Their rhetoric has come to seem dated and it can be hard to remember that it was fresh once. But the work’s in a tradition of high-minded idealism that included the movies of Eisenstein, and their aim was to bring to popular art their training in the high arts.”

One of the most misunderstood aspects of Wallflower is their relationship to the audience and to building community with the work. The modernists (which includes most postmodernists who were just as individualistic and ‘original’ as the dancers they allegedly broke from) seemed to disdain audiences, especially popular audiences. But Wallflower was alive with folk forms, traditions, representing women’s traditions in particular, and celebrating spectacle (from virtuosity to camp) as a way to reach out, connect, inspire, teach, and be connected to social movements. This audience as community, and the community as a new way of being in the world, is not easy to speak about in terms of aesthetics. For many politically-engaged dancers, building a social movement is more important than trends in style or the muscular relaxation of a dancer’s leg.

For artists in a social movement, an engaged community functions almost as a dramaturg, as a critical outside eye that directly influences the work. Krissy recalls, “We’d perform for 300 women in the round at the WOW Hall and women would come up to us immediately afterwards to give feedback, to tell us what they liked and didn’t. There was an active back and forth dialogue: what is women’s culture and how did women want to be seen and to express themselves and what agenda did we want to set for the women’s movement?” Seeing their audience as “vital to creative health and growth,” the Wallflower Order explains in a 1977 collective statement how “Audience questioning and criticism of the group’s politics, beliefs, and work process often lead to fresh artistic expression and to a more conscious articulation of the collective’s ideas and philosophy.” (Hedges & Wendt, 1980) Reflecting today, Krissy states, “We are just a reflection of the community that we’ve continued to work with and build on both the artistic front and progressive front.”

In an effort to share resources, promote multicultural visibility, and build solidarity with other politically-engaged dancers, the Dance Brigade created Furious Feet, a festival of dance for social change. From 1986-1990, the festival presented more than 30 national and international companies. Dedicated to the ethics of diversity, multicultural community, and shared resources, Krissy started a theater in San Francisco, first on Brady Street and then at the corner of 24th and Mission. It quickly blossomed into a program of African dance arts, a huge children’s dance program, adult dance classes, a 140-seat theater, a home for the Dance Brigade, and rehearsal space for countless dancers and companies showcasing everything from hip hop to salsa to modern dance and taiko drumming. The women who dance in the Brigade also work in the office and were instrumental in building Dance Mission, the school. A central component of the school is the next-gen incubator, the Grrrl Brigade, an intensive dance/leadership development program started in 2004 designed to provide high quality dance training, performance opportunities, and a sense of self-empowerment for San Francisco’s girls ages 9 to18. Krissy points out that there are three social change dance schools in Northern California, and that they each came out of the Wallflower/Dance Brigade tradition: School of Performing Arts and Cultural Education in Ukiah (Laurel Near), Destiny Arts in Oakland (Sarah Crowell), and Dance Mission (Krissy Keefer, Nina Fichter).

Great Liberations
When asked about the changes in the work since 1975, Krissy laughs, “I can’t jump like that anymore.” More seriously she continues, “I practice Tibetan Buddhism. I needed a way to deal with my habitual responses – mostly anger.” The current Dance Brigade project, The Great Liberation Upon Hearing, reveals the influence of Keefer’s contemplative practice. Their fists may still be raised in the air, and the physicality of the dancers may be as fierce as ever, but the inclusion of male dancers and the invocation of goddesses have complicated the content and the process of the work. After two of Keefer’s close friends died of cancer, including Dance Brigade co-founder Nina Fichter, Krissy “found great comfort in the Tibetan Book of the Dead” and developed Great Lib from that book and those experiences. Fresh from a successful NY tour, Great Lib features the thrilling taiko drumming that raises the politics of the Brigade into a visceral and energetic ritual experience.

Active in anti-militarist campaigns throughout the Wallflower/Dance Brigade history, Krissy organized several dance events in the early 2000s protesting the current oil wars. With the violent suppression, media dismissal, and Obama’s betrayal of the anti-war movement, Krissy will focus the next Dance Brigade production on veterans. “I am broken hearted about what we did in Iraq, how many people are still dying and now we are bombing Afghanistan…” Discussing an artist’s political potency, Krissy is aware that the US artist’s low economic and social status prevents folks from understanding “how powerful we (artists) are in exacting social change.” Sounding more like a contemplative wise-woman than a raging revolutionary however, Krissy emphasizes that, “Personally I am very happy and grateful for this incredible life I have been able to lead.” In a truly alternative world, Keefer would already have been awarded the MacArthur (genius!) award, but meanwhile there’s a historic and actual community to honor and celebrate and that is its own reward.

The Dance Brigade presents The Great Liberation Upon Hearing, an acclaimed work of “sumptuous dancing, explosive taiko, and delicious fun” plus selected iconic works from the Wallflower Order, with special appearances by the Grrrl Brigade and other artists active at Dance Mission. Nov 18-20, Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF.

This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of In Dance.

Keith Hennessy was born in a mining town in Northern Ontario, Canada, lives in San Francisco, and tours internationally. He is an award-winning performer, choreographer, teacher and organizer. Hennessy directs Circo Zero, a laboratory for live performance that plays with genre and expectation. Rooted in dance, Hennessy’s work embodies a unique hybrid of performance art, music, visual and conceptual art, circus, and ritual.