Modern Mixology: Cocktails and Contemporary Dance Mingle in 8x8x8

By Claudia Bauer

November 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“It’s in a bar?” asked my incredulous friend. “And you can drink?” That’s a common double-check when people hear about 8x8x8 for the first time. Relaxed and a little rowdy, the grassroots, DIY showcase has brought dancing and drinking together for over ten years, to intoxicating effect.

The brainchild of Paufve Dance’s Randee Paufve and Rebecca Johnson, 8x8x8 launched in 2003 at Oakland’s Stork Club with a little bit of planning and eight very game local choreographers (more on the significance of “eight” later). That first sold-out audience included friends, family, dance fans and Stork Club regulars who just happened to be at the bar when the dancing began.

After a few years at Berkeley’s Starry Plough, 8x8x8 settled, in 2011, at the Uptown Lounge, where it now accommodates even-larger sellout crowds. Paufve and Johnson still wing it, and it still works—8x8x8 just keeps getting more popular, and this year’s edition has 8pm and 10pm shows that include Amy Seiwert, Anne-Rene Petrarca and hip-hop by Stance Dance.

Shaken, stirred or straight up, 8x8x8 is simply the friendliest, most fun evening of dance around. It’s even fun to talk about, which quickly became apparent during this interview with Johnson and Paufve.

Woman is falling horizontally in front of a man standing in Pin Shape Form.
Amy Lewis / Photo by Lynne Fried

Claudia Bauer: It’s so counterintuitive—dance in a bar. What’s the story?
Randee Paufve: I wanted to create a program in an alternative venue and shine a focus on the East Bay as a center for dance. We were responding to the lack of suitable, affordable venues for dance in the East Bay. I was interested in small stages and in control over a show, over an environment, over work.

CB: Apparently you struck a chord.
RP: Something like 200 people showed up—the line was around the block. We had to figure out where to put them all! The emcee nearly lost his mind trying to get people to take their places and sit. It was one of the most exciting evenings of performance in my life.

CB: And the name…
RP: The name came about because I have absolutely no sense of space. I remember eyeballing the stage and saying, “Oh, that looks like 8×8”—it was actually more like 9×11. And it costs $8 to get in. My father still wants to know why we would name a dance show after the dimensions of a prison cell.

CB: At the Starry Plough you actually taped out an 8×8 square.
Rebecca Johnson: We experimented with it once. And then we decided that the abstraction of the concept was probably better than the audience being right up against the box!

CB: Has the venue situation improved since 2003?
RJ: NO [laughter]. There are studios that you can turn into venues, but when you’re in a space that always has live performance, it has a different energy. I think that’s why the first event was so successful. The energy was so intense. And the dance audience brought people who would not normally go, with the idea that “Hey, we’re going to this punk club.” It was rough, the floor was dirty.
RP: They waxed the floor for us. Usually it’s us scraping the gum off the floor.
RJ: We basically asked our dance audience to go way outside their comfort zone. Half of them were excited, and half of them were petrified. Dance is often site-specific and couched in this intellectual way. The first show had more of a rock-n-roll feeling to it. And we’ve always tried to maintain that.

CB: But right away you needed a bigger space.
RP: We put our feelers out, and the Starry Plough jumped on it. It was really interesting in that it has a bar clientele. Every time  we did it there, there were people at the bar for their Tuesday night drinks, and they’d be peeking out of the corners of their eyes at our rehearsal. When it came time for the show, I just started handing out programs. People were like “What is this?” We got a lot of audience that way.

CB: Do you think you’ll expand even more?
RP: It’s funny. Some people have talked to us about doing it more often, or formalizing it a little bit. Making it grow. I’ve really resisted that. I feel like this thing is really, really special as is, and it doesn’t need to be any more than it is. It has a special place in the Bay Area dance scene.

CB: What’s it like on the night of the show?
RP: We never know what’s going to happen! I’m in the sound booth, Rebecca’s on the floor, people are running the door, and there’s no communication between us all. It’s nuts. That’s what I mean by not trying to control anything. The choreographers are winging it too.

CB: Let’s talk more about control.
RP: Of course we have to have some rules, like dancers have to keep their clothes on [laughter]. I’m serious! It’s problematic in a bar. But basically we tell the choreographers what they’re getting themselves into as much as possible. We ask them to visit the space, but beyond that, we don’t know what they’re going to do until they get there. And the audience is going to go where they go. When choreographers ask how big the space is, I say, “Well, it’s usually about 9×17, but that depends on what the audience does.” It’s a trip. The choreographers have to be able to hang with that—and they do.

CB: With the ticket price so low, what
is your financial commitment?
RP: We usually break even, but it’s always touch and go. We pay a little bit to the venue for some of the overhead.
RJ: We have to pay for the sound guy to come early. Usually his show would be at 10; our show starts at 8, and we meet him there at 4. We pay for printing the postcards and press materials, which is minimal.
RP: We used to split the door between the choreographers, and then I realized we couldn’t do that anymore. We don’t pay the choreographers anymore; we’re up front about that in the original email.

CB: Surely you apply some control in the planning stages?
RP: The way we do it would drive most organizational people nuts! About six months out, emails go back and forth between me and Rebecca about choreographers. We call the Uptown and try to get the date settled. I draw up a letter and start contacting people. We don’t do a contract; it’s all verbal.

CB: How do you choose the choreographers?
RP: We emphasize modern dance because that’s what we are and that’s what we most want to see, but we try to mix it up. I get emails a lot from people wanting to do it—a couple a month.
RJ: We’ve tried each time to bring in one or two different voices or styles, and that creates audience crossover, which is worth its weight in gold for everyone participating.

CB: This year you have an even wider mix than usual.
RP: We have MoToR, Amy Lewis, Stance Dance doing hiphop, Amy Seiwert, Anne-Rene Petrarca, Deborah Slater and Bandelion, who always close the show. And Fog Beast—they did a piece a few years ago that brought down the house; it was like a religious revival. They’re coming back to emcee as well.
RJ: Them emceeing…who knows what to expect? [laughter all around]

CB: Sounds like another can’t-miss show! But really, dance in a bar—why does it work?
RJ: I just think this kind of event has the capacity to flip that switch about modern-dance stereotypes. This thing we do is very beautiful and it’s very compelling, it can be very dark and very funny. Modern dance is like a poem; things smash up together that might not make logical sense. I want this event to give that opportunity to people who don’t normally see dance. Plus, it’s like a pre-decompression party before the holidays. One year I did the postcard with a picture of Marilyn Monroe with a turkey and a gun [laughter].

CB: Finally, what do the two of you get out of doing it?
RP: It’s always a little stressful, but the show is magical. At the end of the night it’s the best high of the year. This is one of our ways of giving back to the community and other choreographers
RJ: It’s a fun, celebratory experience. Something magical happens to the performers, and I swear it’s not the drinks [laughter]. It feels edgy, and that ends up feeling really good. There are not too many experiences like that.
RP: It’s a labor of love, and it’s a great party.

This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of In Dance.

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and