Writing about today’s dance scene, I notice that I use certain phrases pretty often. Things like ‘questioning assumptions’ or ‘challenging expectations’. Sometimes these words are a response to innovative physical vocabulary; sometimes to a structural departure. A piece’s subject matter may strike, confront or even shock. A dance may use collaborative elements in an experimental way. Maybe the site is atypical. Or the relationship between performer and viewer is being investigated. Whatever the case, much of twenty-first century performance (at least what I’ve been seeing lately) is committed to being original, different and unconventional.
So how does this outside the box thinking apply to age and body type in dance performance? Do we see the same variety and diversity when it comes to a dancer’s age and size? Are these barriers slower to be broken down? And if so, why?
Choreographer and dancer Lucia August is tackling these questions head on, dispelling stereotypes around age and body type in performance. Over sixty years old and with a non-traditional dancer’s body, August has gone all in, living her dream of creating and performing in the contemporary dance field. To understand her vision, just look to the platform phrase she has chosen for her solo work – “Everybody Can Dance.”
August began formal dance training at a very young age and in it, found what she describes as “a sense of freedom and joy, as well as a deep connection to myself and my body.” Creative movement, ballet, modern, jazz and composition were all subjects of intense study throughout childhood and adolescence. But as she reached her late teens, messages (both subtle and pointed) started coming her way, communicating that a career in a professional company was not in the cards. “If anyone had asked me then what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said ‘a dancer,’ but my body type seemed to be an obstacle on that path” shares August, “it got to me and I stopped dancing for a while.” In the decades that followed, August’s relationship with dance would be informed by a strange dualism – pure love for movement alongside painful negativity. Not surprising, this led to a repetitive pattern. Periods of taking class and limited performing would be interspersed with extended time away from the studio.
Then in the early 2000’s, a number of events changed August’s trajectory. The first catalyst was when she attended a performance by a touring company made up entirely of large dancers. During the show, there was a moment of realization, “I should be up there, and I can be up there, why I am not?” Soon after, she found a thriving organization in the Bay Area dedicated to dance for all bodies, Marina Wolf Ahmad’s Big Moves. Through them, she met Eric Kupers, co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater, whose work was also grounded in the philosophy that all can dance – all ages, all sizes, all abilities. After witnessing that diverseness firsthand in Dandelion’s The Undressed Project, August returned to performance at the age of fifty, and danced with Dandelion from 2003 to 2010. This was a time of positive artistic collaborations, where differences in age and body type weren’t impediments, they were welcomed and celebrated.
During this rich period, August began sensing a new creative pull. A desire to delve into yet another aspect of dance and performance. “I became interested in the prospect of solo work that spoke from the body, my body,” she explains, “telling stories through movement; stories on a variety of themes, stories about freeing the self from ingrained notions and overcoming negative beliefs.” August leaned into this new chapter of composition, making it her primary focus, and it remains so to this day. Since 2010, she has presented nine world premieres, including several submissions in the long-running Works in the Works program and a solo show in the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
From fall 2015 through this spring, August also went through SAFEhouse Arts’ Resident Artist Workshop (RAW), a choreographic incubator designed to support emerging dancemakers. Under the guidance of SAFEhouse Executive Director Joe Landini, RAW provides its artists with rehearsal space, technical resources, publicity, mentoring, teaching gigs and a chance to show newly developed work. RAW began in 2007 at The Garage and has been a beacon in San Francisco’s contemporary dance community ever since. Just this year alone, approximately sixty groups took part in the RAW program.
For a number of RAW participants, the opportunities extend even beyond the residency itself. Some are selected each year to be part of SAFEhouse’s annual summer performance festival (SPF), a multi-day, multi-program showcase of contemporary performance. This year’s festival, in its ninth edition, runs from July 6th to the 10th at ODC Theater and features sixteen different contributors (soloists and groups). Lucia August/Everybody Can Dance is one of the RAW artists to be offered a spot for SPF9.
August brings standingOUTstanding to SPF9, a program of three distinct solo dances: They Never Really Leave, Parallel Lives and Consistent Paradox. All three have movement, all three have text and all three have a narrative component, though each piece is a unique journey.
Crafted during the RAW residency, They Never Really Leave is the newest dance on the standingOUTstanding program, having had its world premiere at SAFEhouse in January of this year. An autobiographical solo, They Never Really Leave is steeped in raw emotion. A passionate relationship burns between two young women. Suddenly and mysteriously, one of them is gone. Forty years later, relics from their time together are discovered. These are the penetrating events driving a work that August calls “an act of closure but also an opening.” In this intensely personal piece, August dances onstage with her imaginary, silent partner – absent but present, lost but found.
Joining They Never Really Leave on the program are two solos that August took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Parallel Lives and Consistent Paradox. Parallel Lives follows another true story – August’s own life journey. In this vulnerable, exposed solo, she reveals and tracks the various pathways that she has traversed during her lifetime. The dance shows how time and direction are linked; how routes can run in parallel or in opposition, and reveals the places where they may converge. Featuring music composed by Kupers, August’s mentor from Dandelion Dancetheater, Consistent Paradox ventures into a different narrative world – a fictional one. August introduces a man with a secret; someone hiding from reality, masking his true self and constructing a fac?ade. While not based on true events, these themes are real, relatable and can speak broadly. “It’s very exciting for me to revisit these dances, give them a second life and share them with a new audience,” relays August.
As SPF9 draws nearer, August is eager to see in what ways standingOUTstanding may resonate with viewers. How will they connect to the material? Will they notice their own story at play? Perhaps they will find joy and pleasure in the movement itself.
But on a deeper level, she hopes viewers will tap into the statement she is making about conscious and subconscious presumption; “a dancer can express her truth through movement with whatever size body she may be inhabiting at any given time.” Questioning assumptions; challenging expectations; opposing restrictions and celebrating inclusiveness. These are the principles at work in Lucia August/Everybody Can Dance, “my wish is for people to take away an appreciation for movement that is sourced from a non-traditional dancer’s body, re-evaluate what constitutes beautiful and compelling dance and step away from limited thinking about what is an appropriate aged and sized dancer.”
For more information about these performances and the entire SPF festival lineup, please visit safehousearts.org