Dana Lawton Dances Takes East Bay Dance to Thailand

By Michael Lupacchino

November 1, 2018, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

For 10 days in August, Dana Lawton Dances (DLD) embarked on a tour of Bangkok, Thailand. A multi-generational East Bay dance company with members ranging in age from 27 to 70, DLD is a company in residence at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Its founder, Dana Lawton, has been involved in the East Bay dance scene for over twenty years. A tenured professor at Saint Mary’s College of California, Lawton is also a faculty member at Shawl-Anderson and is the co-director of the Enchanted Ridge Dance Retreat. She established DLD in 2007 with a mission to celebrate social diversity and develop meaningful collaborations with other artists.

DLD’s trip to Thailand was the company’s third international tour in its eleven-year history. In 2014, the company performed at the Royère de Vassivière Festival in France and in 2015, DLD toured Belfast, Ireland to present their work Home (2015). The company’s trip to Thailand also marks the third time an international outing was inspired by one of its own company members. The 2015 tour in France resulted because of connections with the producers of the festival who are friends of Colin McDowell, a company member since 2012. When DLD took Home to Ireland, it was the first time McDowell’s mother had ever gotten to see him perform on stage.

Company member John McConville, who joined the company in 2013, had previously taught dance in Bangkok, Thailand for over ten years and established the dance program at the International School Bangkok (ISB). He facilitated communication between ISB and Lawton, and created the opportunity to bring DLD in as a company-in-residence for the first week of their new school year. Through McConville’s connections in Bangkok, Lawton was put in touch with Vararom “Tip” Pachimsawat, president and co-founder of the Friends of the Arts Foundation, which presents the International Dance Festival in Thailand every year.

Gearing up for any tour—let alone an international one—takes preparation, and this trip went through many iterations before the company even landed in Thailand. Lawton nicknamed the trip “The Fluid Tour” as their itinerary continually changed in the weeks leading up to their departure. “Three days before we’re all going to get on a plane to fly to Bangkok, we get an email letting us know the dance festival was cancelled. We were told that ‘we didn’t need to come,’” recalls Lawton. After learning of the performance’s cancellation, Lawton was faced with a reality that ten of her company members, who had requested time off from their jobs and paid for their own airfare to Bangkok, were about to board a plane at San Francisco International Airport in a mere 72 hours.

“What I’ve learned about Thai culture—and I’ve come to appreciate this—you never call anyone out for a perceived gaffe. Ever.” says Lawton. Looking to McConville for help, Lawton was coached on how to approach the situation by replying to their Thai contacts with, “We have ten people who are coming to Thailand. How should we solve this? They really want to perform.” Lawton, her production team, and Tip discussed featuring DLD outside of the International Dance Festival and rented a theatre in the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre for their performance. Tip, in turn, made a few calls to accommodate DLD. The company left San Francisco on August 1, and after twenty-four hours of travel, arrived in Bangkok after many conversations across international date lines. “Tip, who is a powerhouse, found us a theater in Bangkok to do a one-night show,” says Lawton.

On August 7, the company headed to the theater in downtown Bangkok for a tech, and then dress rehearsal. “The stage crew only spoke Thai, and John [McConville] was the only person we had who was fluent in the language,” says Lawton. “In trying to set up the lighting for the dances, I would speak directions into my phone, using my iTranslate app, and it would then ‘speak’ my directions, in Thai, back to the crew.” Some things got lost in translation, including lighting notes that DLD’s lighting designer had sent over a week earlier. Regardless, between the phone app and John, the company and crew were able to develop a lighting plot, sounds design, cues and technical needs to put the show together.

“In my pre-curtain speech, I greeted everyone in Thai ‘sawadee ka,’ and spoke about the importance of dance as a healing medium to bring diverse people together. I talked about how the multiplicity of human bodies dancing on stage can be transformative, and how the need to reach across borders to make new friend and connections is more important now than ever before,” says Lawton. After a nearly flawless performance Lawton was interviewed by True Visions TV, one of Thailand’s largest cable television providers. “Tip got us a crew. She developed publicity. She called all her friends to tell them come to the show, which included ambassadors, employees of the consulates in the area, and Thai officials. I actually got to meet the mayor of Bangkok,” says Lawton. “It was amazing.”

The following day, Tip arranged a master class, taught by Lawton, in a studio at a local racquet club. “We had about twenty-five people show up,” says Lawton. “Half of the people spoke English. About half of them were dancers. Some were people who had seen the show the night before and wanted to take class, having never taken a dance class before. We were all hugging by the end.” Even with the language barrier, Lawton had them participate in a technique she uses in her classes called ‘paired sharing,’ in which dancers pair up and watch each other, then give gentle and supportive feedback on technique and/or performance quality. “Not everyone spoke the same language, but they somehow figured out how to communicate with one another. Dance is its own language.

For the company’s residency, the International School of Bangkok chartered a bus to take the dancers from downtown Bangkok to the school, roughly an hour outside the city. The school, located in its own gated community fondly referred to as ‘the bubble,’ had its own grocery store, golf course, and even a man-made lake. “Most of the people we met at the school were expats from other countries,” recalls Lawton.

“I met with the ISB dance director, Jaleea Price (originally from Arizona, and has lived in Thailand for twenty years), who told me she had 13 dancers from grades fifth through twelfth who wanted to work with us,” says Lawton. The fifth graders, two boys who had never had a dance class before but were super enthusiastic. DLD company members taught class during the student’s regularly scheduled dance classes and then, as part of the after-school dance program, DLD worked on choreography for the performance at the end of the residency. “Never having seen them dance, I didn’t know if I wanted to create a piece just for them, or if I wanted to set a piece of rep.” says Lawton, “I had to meet them, see them dance and talk with them to figure that out.”

Lawton taught the ending of one of the company’s newest works, Holding Space (2017), a large group piece that culminates in unison. After watching the students Lawton decided that she would create interludes or preludes to the works that the company was going to perform in the show. Having the students perform in-between pieces worked out brilliantly. “My husband Jon [Lawton] was playing music live for the show, and he needed to re-tune between dances.” With the students performing interludes, Jon Lawton had time to set up for the next dance. “I thought of it like a big rug, a beautiful tapestry and there are multi-colored threads that are interwoven in-between, an accent color, but it’s integral to the larger piece,” says Lawton. “The ISB dancers were that beautiful accent.”

DLD and the ISB students performed for friends, ISB faculty and staff, and family. “As I was leaving the stage to head to a reception they were having for us, the Arts and Activities Director, Anthony Giles approached me, and he was in tears,” say Lawton. “He spoke haltingly ‘I didn’t know dance could do that—it was so amazing.’” Giles invited us back for the next year, with the possibility of having a four-week rotation between international schools in Manila, Singapore, and Taipei.

In looking back, Lawton says that she feels really lucky. “As busy as it was and as fluid as it was, I was never stressed out. Now there’s just more of us—in Thailand,” says Lawton.

What’s up next for DLD? Lawton is building a show of new work slated for a 2020 debut. The Farallons is a multi-disciplinary work which fuses dance, poetry, and live music inspired by San Francisco’s Farallon Islands and the lighthouse keepers and families who lived on the island in the late 19th century.

This article appeared in the November 2018 edition of In Dance.