Speak: Ode to Della

By Deborah Slater

April 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

EDITOR’S NOTE: Deborah Slater is the 2015 recipient of The Della Davidson Prize. This annual award has been set up to honor the life and work of choreographer and teacher Della Davidson by supporting innovative dance and dance/theater artists. Slater will receive a cash prize of $1,220 (in honor of Della’s birthday 12/20) for producing work in the spirit of Davidson.


‘Heart like a Wheel’ – I met Della in the early 1980’s when I was putting this piece on the SF Moving Company that Ellen Bromberg was directing, I was struggling with the balance of image/speech/movement…

Della and I were peers, sharing and lamenting the joys and difficulties of the kind of work we’d chosen to make. She offered me the pleasure of seeing someone else who told stories, used spoken word and made poetic images…like a language barely understood (at the time) but which spoke to us both, story consistently driving the choices even when that wasn’t popular or cool. When I wanted to present a Talk Dance Symposium which would be panels made up of artists from all over the country discussing what was happening in our particular corner of the field, Della was one of the first people I spoke to about what it might contain.

I am sitting with my visual collaborators (Allen Willner, Ian Winters, Tiffani Snow) in Ian’s studio at the Milkbar in Oakland after a long discussion about war, soldiers, family members, politics and changes in cultural perspective over time. Everybody is throwing out ideas about how to frame a big open space into a small intimate one using visuals that are true to the ideas/intent of the piece. We are creating a show called Private Life.

I remember the clarity of the images in Della’s pieces—a mattress on the floor…the place of assault, a bed of roses…literally, a bird’s nest of twigs…on a human scale…

Sean Riley, the set designer, is out of town for the first cycle of conversation and is handed a plateful of thoughts. Then there are Skype sessions and another get together, this time at my studio, with Ian doing show and tell with video and soon, we are swimming in ideas, finishing each others sentences, jumping in on top of each others speech:

What if we…

  1. …create a wall, or say, 3 walls, which don’t meet and which surround the space, with a forced perspective…
  2. …suspend the wall so it floats and cut and burn the bottom ends to reflect the damage done…
  3. …map the video images so that they don’t bleed anywhere else in the space…
  4. …make the back wall turn like those cheap motel curtains…one moment revealing, the next a projection surface…
  5. …create a waiting room where the people in it never get to leave…
  6. …put the waiting room in the back so they can be there all the time, no matter what is going on…
  7. …put sand in the waiting room…
  8. …use beans instead of sand…
  9. ….make all the images black and white, some almost bleached out, shadows of past history, thoughts, etc…
  10. …make color seep into the images, or seep out…
  11. …make the lights come through the walls, what if there are doorways and windows so we feel inside and outside…

‘What does that mean in the context of the piece?’ – is the mantra asked over and over…

Della’s collaborators were at the core of her work. Jack Carpenter, Sandra Woodall, Scrumbly Koldwyn, Ellen Bromberg to name a few…and always her dancers.

cropped portrait of Deborah Slater
Photo courtesy of Deborah Slater

My group of collaborators shared ideas, helped each other with their tech issues, shared equipment, folded their ideas and execution together so well it was almost impossible to say what came from where….’ Do you need some help?’ ‘I have a cool set of LED’s you could use on the walls.’ ‘I can share my helper with you…’ ‘Would you stand in that light?’ Thank you Sean, Allen and Ian at the core and, in addition, writer Deborah Crooks and composer Bruno Louchouarn. And the amazing, gifted, absolutely committed and fearless performers—Kerry Mehling, Derek Harris, Kelly Kemp and Andrew Merrell, actors Sarah Kliban and Paul Finocchiaro, and the waiting room duo Beth Harris and Rosemary Hannon. Anna Greenberg was in the waiting room till the very last minute, until she had to go sit in a real hospital waiting room for a family emergency. Life striking so close to art. Like Della’s performers, these people carried, worried and wore the piece from the beginning till the performance

What does this history mean 25 years later? There is deep sadness at the loss of Della, a wondering about what would have come next, how would she have tackled some hard subject. What would have drawn her in? How would she have put women in the foreground…as she always did? What would we be talking about?

I am grateful for two friends/collaborators we shared. Ellen Bromberg, who is a long time pal, and one of Della’s closest friends, and Kerry Mehling, whom I have had the honor of working with for the past 15 years and who was a core member of Della’s companies. I am sitting at the dining room table with my nieces—we are in a nitty gritty conversation about the state of women in the world, and I am wanting there to be more of these conversations, us grapples with life’s complications. Thank you Della.


Deborah Slater, director/choreographer/performer, has worked in dance and theater for over 30 years. She is the Artistic Director of Deborah Slater Dance Theater, a multi-media dance company, creating visually gorgeous, acrobatic, talking dance and dedicated to the creation of full-length works exploring social issues, science and art through original dance, text and music. Slater co-founded Studio 210, a performance/rehearsal space celebrating its 40th Anniversary in 2020. Selected commissions and residencies include SF MOMA, USF Dance & Social Justice, Iowa State University and the Exploratorium.

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