Dances Sung, Songs Moved: Fog Beast Serves it Up in The Big Reveal

By Sarah Chenoweth

Three women on smooth boulders in the desert. The two in the back are wearing red dresses gesturing with the arms. The one in the center is wearing a black dress with one hand by their head and the other arm out to the side.

I just want to infect you
Crawl into your brain
Sprout up out your head
Into the sunlight that I need so bad
It’s okay
I’ll find my way
Over your membrane, I’ll be gentle, you won’t even feel a thing
When I sink my teeth
Into the bloodlines that I need so bad

I just want to ingest you
Swallowing you down
Drink in every sound
Into the enzymes that control my mind

You crossed the ocean
Come all this way
And you can stay
All you can eat buffet
There’s so much on my plate
I’ve got to share, share with you
Can’t hide, this overwhelming state
We have to see this through

Adorned first in chic business attire and then jazzy black and gold formalwear, Melecio Estrella and Patricia West croon about the leechlike hunger of American capitalism and democratic enterprise in He’s One of Us, presented at YBCA in 2017. Written by Estrella, West, Ben Juodvalkis, and Andrew Ward, the tune contemplates the insatiability of corporate culture, its preying upon newcomers, and its contribution to the social demand to be ever more productive, even if it eats us alive.

This summer at the Asian Art Museum, Fog Beast will continue their inquiry into infectious capital and personal gain in The Big Reveal. An expansion of He’s One of Us, the work will establish a live conference scenario to flesh out the social agreements and social choreographies in how we “convene.” The objective is to create a half-day performance event mimicking a conference, with a reception area, break-out sessions, and a keynote address. These ideas will collide with a deep dive into Estrella’s family’s immigration story—how they came to arrive from the Philippines, work here, die here, and build a vibrant history in the Bay Area. Choreographic research for the show has included conversations with Estrella’s family over dinner and games of mahjong. Research has also included careful scrutiny of preachers, cheer groups, motivational speakers, and other public orators. Through this hybrid lens, The Big Reveal asks what it means to be or become a US citizen, and one within a fiercely corporate structure.

Fog Beast understands that presenting work within the context of the museum, which has its own richness and character, is no simple feat. Ward says he is “really curious about how people are looking at that art, who is going there to see it, where it came from, how it’s categorized. I’m also curious about looking at the [dancing] bodies as live Asian American Art, and how that relates to the still art.” Fog Beast always considers the specific cultural context, physical landscape, and moment in which a performance unfolds. So the museum’s structure and content will certainly inform the piece. Estrella adds that, “We are sitting with the ideas of a museum—collections, gallery spaces, the ‘guest experience’—and playing with that in terms of audience expectations around dance, performance, and convening.” For Fog Beast, the audience operates as a compositional agent for relationship and exchange. The company is inclined to begin with a “common understanding and then mess with it, so that we can bring them on a journey,” says Ward. It begins with appreciating who and where the audience is and creating real access to the piece by recognizing common ground. Estrella notes that then they like to take familiar social gatherings and “occupy them and queer them up, in the sense of bending and changing…break them apart, turn them upside down, really play with the unspoken agreements about social choreography and presentational style.”

This will be unmistakable in The Big Reveal, during which audiences can expect to be summoned and stirred up. But Fog Beast will also sooth your spirit. Fog Beast has an unparalleled ability to remain reverent towards humanity while calling out our collective destructiveness. For instance, for The Big Reveal, Estrella explains how they’ve “produced one song that comes from the story of my grandfather finding his wife, my grandmother, murdered by the Japanese in the war. So, that was heavy and feels really tender. And if intergenerational trauma in my body does exist, that is scratching right at it.” Moments of their shows plunge heavily like this, and others alleviate tension with gentleness or humor or poetry. Estrella describes a recent music rehearsal in which the company was “talking about load-management and how much we take on and personal capacity-building…some ideas about what a motivational speaker would say about these things, So Ben [Juodvalkis] said, ‘Ok, just talk about how you create load management and creative-capacity building, and I’ll take dictation. And then, stop. Now, I want you to do the same thing but only speak in metaphors.’ What came out was something about the cities that are built in my shoulders, or an all-night flower that needs sleep.”

An image of Melecio Estrella holding a pile of sticks in the desert sunset.
photo by Jessica Swanson

Song and storytelling are embedded in the heart of Fog Beast and its exceptionality. They are as much musicians and actors as they are dancers. And they are proud not to fit into the traditional definition of a modern dance company. Estrella joked, “With Fog Beast, its like, ‘Are you a dance company? A theater company? A band?!’” Ward and Estrella both come from very musical families, so they locate themselves in music. They also ardently contextualize their work within their lineage. Relaying wholehearted gratitude and respect for having danced together with Joe Goode Performance Group, Scott Wells, Bandaloop, and Kathleen Hermesdorf, Fog Beast praises this tutelage and its influence on their aesthetic and movement.

Yet Ward and Estrella offer their own rare methods and vocabulary, enamoring audiences with their wit and soulful social criticism. It all comes from their rituals and demeanor in the studio, the way they practice and create. Estrella emphasizes this point, acknowledging that, “coming into the room together and doing something…dancing, finding harmonies…is the thing for me. Fog Beast comes from a devotion to the practice.” In their process, lighthearted and unfiltered play searches for what is whimsical and what is sobering. That full spectrum is alive and available because whatever current experiences they and their collaborators bring into the room become the propellant for their explorations. While sometimes they do use conventional choreographic tasks, Estrella and Ward often come to rehearsal to immerse in the unknown. They begin anywhere, somewhere, and then feel, listen, taste, respond, edit. Then begin again.  “Today we kind of all created something that had a certain rhythm to it, and then…it started to look like a social dance, so we went with that and created a social dance. We just don’t know what we’re going to get all the time,” reveals Ward. Such intuitive, honest responses to what is satisfying (or not) about their own material must be what keep it so deeply relatable for Fog Beast enthusiasts. Ward continues, “if you really listen for what you respond to, you’ll probably touch other people too, in similar ways.”

Ultimately none of their works can be conceived without the rollicking and sensual practice to which they are dedicated. In fact, many of their non-choreographic decisions are also made in the space of the somatic. To commit time to The Big Reveal, Fog Beast held a winter retreat in the Southern California desert. Estrella explains the reasons why, sharing that, “the idea of going to the desert was just a seed that seemed right, we poured water on it, and it grew.  The harsh conditions of the desert and the kind of stark beauty and peace of the landscape is what drew us. Sharing a house with our company of performers, singing songs, cooking and eating together fed the connective tissue of our ensemble.”

Out of this adherence to communion and reflection, The Big Reveal materializes. It is Fog Beast’s first show of this magnitude, having received the Gerbode Dance Composition Award for the production. Dancers’ Group approached Fog Beast about applying for the grant together, and Estrella and Ward are incredibly honored: “After years of self-producing our shows, it feels like a real gift to have the strength and counsel of Dancers’ Group producing this work. There is also a sort of privilege that comes with being a grantee of the award. We are afforded time, space and an opportunity to construct a project a few times larger than we have ever done. But with larger aspirations, come larger obstacles… as directors we get to feel and appreciate the responsibility of being decision makers on this scale.”

It is on this visionary scale that The Big Reveal invites you to the corporate American feast—to convene, to observe, to participate.  What ancestors will escort you there? How will you come to the table?

This article appeared in the May 2019 issue of In Dance.

Sarah Chenoweth is a dancer, teacher and writer based in Oakland, CA. She teaches at Shawl Anderson Dance Center and writes for Dance Teacher Magazine and DIYdancer.